Last week, I had the privilege of watching Germany v Austria in the Euro 2022 quarter-final at Brentford. It was an entertaining game, as many have been at this tournament. However, there was a mistake leading to the second German goal.
Playing Out from the Back
For those who were unaware, here is the mistake from Manuela Zinsberger in the 90th minute of the Euro 2022 quarter-final. Germany were winning 1-0, and Austria were on the brink of elimination. Chasing the equalising goal to remain in the tournament, Austria had a goal kick, and this is what happened.
To apply context to the game, here are some stats. XG was 2.39-0.78 in favour of Germany.
As is typical at football matches, I always tend to sit within earshot of an expert coach and referee, who is often doing their best John Motson impression. The man sat directly behind me had brought his girlfriend along, who was clearly new to football, which was demonstrated when she admitted this was her first game in a stadium. This was compounded further when he explained to her the difference between a goal kick and a corner.
Naturally when mistakes happen from playing out from the back, the English mindset of "should have booted it" rears its ugly head. The expert analyst one row back from me was apoplectic. What was the keeper doing? Why didn't she just get rid of it? How could someone be so stupid? And my personal favourite; "I have never seen that tactic from a goal kick before. Did they just decide to do that themselves? I'd be shocked if the coach told them to do that."
That would suggest this footballing guru hasn't watched a football match in the last three years since the goal kick rule change. What he was referring to was the splitting of central defenders either side of the six yard box. Apparently that was new to him. Or he was showing off to his girlfriend by pretending to be upset over these silly footballers and their silly mistake.
So, coaches of the world, does this look alien to you? I like the idea of a defender passing it to the keeper. Then you have a central player in possession, who is therefore less predictable. The keeper can bring it forward, pass it back, or play it long. More options means less predictability. Less predictability makes it harder for the opposition to steal possession.
Let's just briefly examine that first claim of never seeing a team use this goal kick tactic.
Here's Man City doing it. Apparently they're quite good at football.
This appears to be Inter Milan. I've heard of them! And it's against Juventus. Another team I've heard of!
Here's Arsenal. They also do football!
I think we can safely assume that either my new analyst friend is telling porkies, or he's a doofus. Plenty of teams use this kind of setup at goal kicks. It's a very valid and useful form of building attacks. Keep in mind some of these concepts and ideas:
When in possession, make the pitch as big as possible (width and depth).
Spreading out stretches the opposition and creates more gaps between and within their lines.
Playing short reduces the risk of a turnover.
Possession is the best form of defence.
Pass the ball to move the opposition.
The ball attracts pressure, which creates space in other areas.
Football formations are like a cheap blanket. You can't cover everything. So you have to choose between a cold head or cold feet.
I'd also like to mention what I feel is a strawman argument many make against teams that play out from the back. Like if a team doesn't play vertical 4-4-2 football then they're just trying to win points for style. They only do it because it looks cool, or the coach is just pretending to be Guardiola. As soon as I hear someone say "tippy tappy football" I disregard their opinion immediately. Invasion games are about the creation and exploitation of space. How you choose to create and exploit those spaces is down to you, and you'll consider all sorts of things like your team's strengths and weaknesses relative to the strengths and weaknesses of your opponent.
Have a gander at this clip of Villarreal playing pinball around Valencia. This to me is how I think football should be played. Creative, intelligent, and almost a little hypnotic.
I've shown this clip to parents, players, and coaches hundreds of times. Watch how those yellow shirts move the ball to attract the white shirts, before switching the ball out to the guy on the right, who is in acres of space. It's not a complex concept.
Let's pretend for a moment that this Villarreal player here loses the ball. Will the pundits be suggesting he should have just booted it?
Well, they did for Manuela Zinsberger, yet she's under the same amount of pressure as the Villarreal player. So what's the difference? It's as if the principles of play are different when the ball is in the defensive third. We can do all that namby pamby fancy stuff when we get the ball up there. Don't mess around with it back here! The attitude is that passing and moving, playing in tight spaces, and receiving under pressure is a method of showing off, rather than a means to an end of keeping possession and creating chances.
In Brighton for the 8-0 win over Norway, a mum behind me in the crowd kept getting nervous whenever England passed the ball back to Mary Earps in goal. "Mum, it's okay" one of her kids said. "I just don't like it when they do that. It makes me nervous." Why are you projecting your nerves onto highly trained professional athletes? They want to win the game more than anyone. Why would they take an unnecessary risk? Why would you even think they would do that? What players do is to gain a strategic advantage, it's not to show off (apart from maybe Alain St. Maximim doing no look passes to his unmarked teammate when under no pressure).
If a player loses the ball in the midfield or attacking third, how the mistake is remedied provokes a very different discussion compared to when it is lost in the defensive third. We'll talk about runs, support angles, passing lanes, first touch, movement to receive, body shape to receive, disguising the pass, creating overloads, keeping hold of the ball until a teammate is open. Keep this in mind next time you're watching Sky Sports or Match of the Day and this happens. All the ex pros who peaked in the 90s will offer "should have got rid of it" as the Captain Hindsight solution. If we want to be effective coaches, we have to look a little deeper than that.
Before we talk about dealing with mistakes, let's look a little into where it went wrong for Austria in this clip. I've seen lots of different suggestions about what they should have done. Similar to discussing why England's men haven't won a second World Cup, there are plenty of valid reasons.
Looking up the field, you'll see that there is no obvious long option for Austria. Any ball played either by the Austrian keeper or defender will be a 50:50. Austria are seconds away from elimination. They want better odds than that. This excellent brief article from Total Football Analysis suggests underdogs playing out from the back against stronger opposition keep the ball 93% of the time, yet have a ball retention rate of 28% of the time if sending it long. Amazing really how teams are always encouraged to be more direct when chasing the game, when if you really think about it, being patient and working a high probability scoring opportunity is the best choice. Sending it long is a gamble. It creates chaos, but it rarely pays off. However, it's the strategy a lot of fans and pundits suggest when a team is losing.
You keep the ball more if you play out from the back. But the danger comes from where on the pitch you lose the ball. Obviously losing the ball closer to your goal presents a higher likelihood of that transition leading to conceding a goal;
"However, if the ball was lost, the chances of conceding a goal were a huge 4.9% for passing out the back, against 1.8% for both the long ball and fast transitions. Again, this is
intuitive. Losing the ball while passing out the back logically results in an opposition possession that begins in a dangerous area with your defenders unprepared for an attack."
"So passing out the back is the riskiest way of using possession in defensive areas. Is it worth the rewards? Well, in absolute terms, 0.6% of passing sequences that begun by passing out the back resulted in goals, compared to 0.2% for long balls and 0.1% for fast transitions. These
probabilities really emphasise the unique risk profile of passing out the back. The chances of keeping the ball are high, but losing the ball exposes you to a ton of avoidable danger. Noticeably – and, given that we are considering underdogs, uniquely – passing out the back
results in a higher chance of you scoring than conceding. But this is mostly driven by the high probability of keeping the ball; once the ball is actually kept, passing out the back isn’t an especially efficient way of scoring a goal."
"So, is passing out the back worth it? It depends how you think. Passing out the back fits the profile of the eponymously named Taleb distribution, in which the outcome of events are usually positive, but occasionally go wrong – and when they do, go wrong spectacularly."
Humans are deeply flawed. There are a few psychological concepts that come into play big time regarding playing out from the back.
When we watch the video back, we can all come to conclusions of what Zinsberger or her teammates should have done. In the moment, these solutions aren't always easy to see. It often becomes obvious upon reflection, which is why video analysis is such a powerful tool. For that, we suggest you see our good friends at Tactic.
"If the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail." Where too many within English football cannot conceptualise much beyond booting the ball into row Z, this ends up becoming the solution to most problems. These people cannot view football in other terms.
(This was my view on game day, by the way, as I was only a couple rows from the back, and just a few seats over from the camera which caught this footage). You can now see as Zinsberger receives the ball, her distinct lack of options. Everyone away from the ball has remained static. Nobody has dropped into the space just beyond the D to receive the ball, splitting the two German strikers. And the arced pressure run of Popp eliminates a pass to the left Austrian centre back via her cover shadow. It doesn't help that Zinsberger has not received this ball with an open body shape, keeping her hips fairly square to the angle of the original pass. She would need a heavy adjustment to play the ball left.
Zinsberger then realises she's in trouble, and elects to go long. She tries to hit the ball to the left for a long diagonal, and her pass is blocked by Popp. We mustn't neglect the large amount of luck involved from the perspective of the ball hitting Popp's leg and going directly into the goal.
Rather unhelpfully, the Austrian defender who took the goal kick has then moved towards the other German player, and effectively marked herself out of the game. Zinsberger has no short pass on the top of the box because no midfielder dropped into the hole, can't play back to her teammate because she's run away, and can't pass left because Popp has that option in her cover shadow. She's been stitched up here. Now, of course, Zinsberger could have done a couple things better. How she received the ball, playing left, and even starting the goal kick when not completely satisfied with the options.
But this shouldn't be an attack on her, nor should it be an attack on playing out from the back.
Something similar happened in the Germany v Spain game. Sandra Paños attempted a pass, which was cut out by Sara Däbritz, who managed to score from close range.
What would be your coaching advice to Paños here? Boot it? Go long? Send it? Or just not to play the ball to the opponent's arse?
Here's a clip from Club América v Monterrey which was shared and analysed by our good friends at MBP. It's a great way of taking goal kicks. Play a short pass and let someone carry it. Once the ball has been touched, it's in play. And you can now go short or long. You play the picture that you see. Dead ball situations limit you because the ball is stationary. Limits make you predictable. Playing long is a risk due to the low retention rate. Tapping the ball to your teammate and letting them carry it before starting the move combines the best elements of both, and I'm surprised we don't see it more.
If you want to look deeper into playing out from the back since the goal kick rule change in 2019, this article from Total Football Analysis is sublime.
The cruel irony of football being that the German keeper almost got caught out too, yet Austria hit the bar. That will be quickly forgotten, because it didn't lead to a goal. Such is football.
She should have booted it.
When it comes to mistakes, it's always very important to live in the present. Focus on what's next. Remember that bad players live in the past. As a coach or teammate of someone who makes a mistake, especially one so critical, it can be tempting to release an emotional outburst where you go on a tirade. The person who made the mistake is often vulnerable and will provide little resistance to the verbal onslaught, making it a free shot if you wish to take it. But does this help? Does it change the fact the ball is in the back of the net and your team is now 2-0 down? Does it undo the mistake? Does it make the player feel any better?
Humans make mistakes. It's part of who we are. Good leaders know that people will make mistakes, so they forgive them in advance. It's part of life. Coaches have to mitigate against it. How can we reduce the likelihood of mistakes, and how can we support our players to recover when they do? If you're the player who's made the mistake, especially with tens of thousands watching, you may want the world to swallow you whole. But there's still a game to play. You've got to get up and get on with it! Far easier said than done.
Something that rings true in football is that you're never as good as you thought you were, and you're never as bad as you thought either. That one mistake in that one game shouldn't define who you are. For a goalkeeper, the simpleton will only measure your game in saves. "Your job is to keep the ball out of the net. End of." For the last twenty years or so, a goalkeeper has been much more than just a shot stopper. A goalkeeper's job is to organise the team, provide support and encouragement, effectively communicate with others, start attacks, be in a position to receive backpasses, distribute effectively, claim crosses, position yourself to intercept through balls while not being lobbed etc. Shot stopping is a small part of it. It's possible for a keeper to let in a howler and still have had a good game.
Humans don't tend to think like that, and our biases are corrupted by emotion. The disappointment, the shock, the anger, the frustration can all be focussed onto one single incident, which is magnified and consumes all attention. In the moment that Zinsberger kicked the ball at Popp's leg, do you think telling her that her pass completion ratio that night was above average? It may not have been. I don't know those stats. Pretending it was, would it have helped to tell her? I think it wouldn't. Instead, she needs reassurance, her teammates to show they still care, and then to be refocussed on the task at hand. There's nothing better at getting people to move on than giving them a new task.
The key in all of this is empathy. As a coach, you actually have to care about your players beyond their playing ability. You have to care about them as people. They have to know that your care for them is not affected by their output on the pitch. You can't tell your players that your team is your family and then punish them for a mistake or freeze them out for under performing. Would you make your mum run ten laps of the garden if she messed up dinner? Would you make your son drop and give you twenty if he spilled a drink on the sofa? If you truly care about your players, it is unconditional. There are all sorts of leadership strategies and tips on communication to deal with these situations, yet a slick coach who knows all the right moves is no match for a coach that has genuine care and respect for their players.
Despite having evaluated the Austria goal kick above, it may seem ironic for me to write that the worst time to go over a mistake such as this is immediately after. Especially as Austria had just been eliminated from the tournament. With young players learning the game, there is some merit to immediate feedback from mistakes. With adults, they often need reassurance and support. You're still a valuable part of this team.
Some players are prone to spirals. They feel embarrassed. They feel as if they let the team down. They think everyone is laughing at them or blaming them. Zinsberger has played for Bayern Munich, and is currently the first choice keeper at Arsenal. She was Austrian player of the year in 2020. And out of all the keepers in Austria, she was chosen as first choice to represent her country at Euro 2022. If players are feeling useless, look for ways you can remind them of their use. Try to keep them grounded to prevent the spiral.
Something that always keeps me grounded is to look at the long term vision. Football fans and casual gamblers need to introduce themselves to the concept of regression to the mean.
Blackburn Rovers winning 3-2 at Old Trafford in December 2011 did not signal the sudden rise of Rovers through the table, and it didn't mean that United were about to sink into a relegation battle. Flukes occur all the time in sport. And in football, due to the low scoring nature of the game, any kind of mistake can have a huge impact on the outcome of the game. One mistake doesn't define a player, and they'll make many along the way.
To summarise, for players who made mistakes;
Accept your mistakes - you're human, it will happen.
Find the lesson in it - maybe not immediately, but take the take to reflect.
Be kind to yourself - feeling bad is natural, but don't let it spiral, and don't beat yourself up.
You're thinking about it more than others - it's easy to be consumed.
What's next? - if in the game, keep your eye on the ball, and get the next thing right.
Let it go - did you learn? You'll be better next time. This hasn't defined you.
As a coach, the takeaway message is that your players need you in these moments. They are vulnerable. Each personality is different, and how players respond to mistakes varies depending on so many variables. Support, encourage, reassure, trust, and care for them no matter what.