Midfield Connectivity And Ball Progression

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If you were to take a trip to the suburbs of Munich, to Bayern's Sabener Strasse training ground, you would find a full-scale pitch with distinctive white markings. The bowling-green surface, quite ordinary in many other ways, is divided with thick dashed lines into vertical and horizontal zones, used to describe player roles and responsibilities.

The grid system is used by many managers (most notably Guardiola) to give players specific roles and responsibilities within the outlined zones. The options are determined by ball position, with certain zones occupied by players depending on whether the ball is on the left, right or in the middle. The zones have been calculated to give the team as many passing options as possible for the player on the ball, to improve possession.

But there are critics of this framework, with some suggesting it is too dogmatic and rigid. Manchester United fans were perhaps the most vocal critics. Louis Van Gaal is a proponent of this grid and last year his United side was accused of being too rigid and inflexible, where the players never had the freedom to break from their prescribed zone. It can be restricting and it can be seen to favour possession for possession's sake. But this misses the point: the structured zones are a means to an end, a tool where possession is not the end in itself.

The goal of the grid is to help facilitate the controlled progression of the ball from back to front. Triangles should be formed in order to create passing options and combinations, with ball-carriers having several passing options. The ideal would see a balanced passing approach, with connections between all players. Preferring one long pass into a lone striker is the worst use of a passing game -- if it can be called a passing game at all! Warburton does not utilise this grid in training, but the principle behind it (controlled progression of the ball from back to front) is almost certainly in his mind going by our possession game.

Rangers' first game of the season against Hamilton was less than ideal and failed to live up to the hype of the build-up. Overlooking the defensive aspect -- where the problems are clear for all to see -- the passing was slow and ponderous, leading to a passing game that seemed to have no end product; it was passing for the sake of passing. The second game against Dundee was much better. I wondered what a passing plot would look like for our game, and perhaps how it changed in the game against Dundee? I wondered how we were playing the ball forward?

A passing plot is simply a way of visualising the passing connections between the players in the team, to illustrate which players are linking up and which are not. @11tegen11 creates wonderful pass plots, primarily for the Dutch Eredivisie but also for various other European games. Common sense dictates that the more connections the better. But, they must also be evenly balanced throughout the side: having lots of possession is pointless if it's between two CBs.

(Thickness of the line indicates the amount of passes. Only 4+ passes were counted.)

The above is a pass plot for our game against Hamilton. Most of the connections are between the CBs, but also the RB. Tavernier is a major hub of distribution, linking with or finding 5 teammates. Naturally the majority of his passing will go to the RCB (Kiernan) but most pleasing his is distribution into midfield. This facilitates a controlled progression of the ball from back to middle. Not surprisingly, Wallace and McKay are a key combination in this game, and have been our best combination for the last two seasons. As DM, Barton is also a major hub, connecting with no fewer than 8 teammates.

The image clearly shows a lack of connections into forward players, indicated by the thin lines. Miller is isolated -- whether through his own fault or not, is unclear -- and although Waghorn and McKay are found, albeit little, they are generally not linking with our No.8's (Kranjcar and Halliday); most passes are simply up the line from FBs and back again. The wingers also failed to link with Miller.

The average positions of the players show that the team is relatively deep. Hill in particular was very deep in contrast to his defensive partner Kiernan. As a knock-on effect, this caused Kranjcar and Barton to drop deeper to receive the ball which in turn causes them to make longer, ineffective passes. Miller is usually quite deep, roaming around in a false-nine role. Common sense would suggest he'd link-up more from this deeper role, but the Pass Plot shows that that's not true. Waghorn too, despite holding a wide position, had to come quite deep to get the ball, nullifying his potency up front.

The Dundee Pass Plot in contrast looks to be better. Again, the connections between CBs and Tavernier are thickest -- and the connections in general are a lot thicker compared to the previous game indicating that we had more passes overall. Crucially, there are more connections into the midfield trio. The No.8's (Barton and Halliday) look to be getting involved a lot more, with no fewer than 6 connections to other players -- but, surprisingly no connections between the two No.8s themselves? -- which would suggest we had better forward play. The wingers in particular are more involved with more connections, both into them and from them. Disappointingly, Miller is even more isolated; again, not linking up or not being found (he passed to a few players -- mostly backwards -- but not enough to be counted in this chart). He grabbed a goal, but the general consensus was that his contribution was lacking. Rossiter was a major hub, passing to no fewer than 6 players, with 3 of the targets in advanced positions.

Clearly we are a lot higher up the pitch, with Wallace in particular a lot higher and wider, providing good width. Tavernier seems to stay a little deeper and narrower -- perhaps to cover? His defensive performances have been better thus far, so it may be because of this deeper and narrower position. Rossiter creates a good defensive and offensive structure, picking up a position between the two CBs and not drifting too much. Barton also looks to be better positioned to cover defensively and open passing lanes to more players (Halliday, Wallace and McKay). Again, McKay has picked up an inside-forward position and Miller is very deep. It is also no surprise to see Forrester as our most advanced player. His central position is a little misleading as McKay and he switched flanks repeatedly, causing their average position to narrow. Both tended to start wide and then drift inside throughout the game, though.

The above Pass Plots don't take into account opposition set-up. Hamilton in particular were relatively good at disrupting our game, but it's the responsibility of our players to find space and find connections; they failed to do this. However, I think the Pass Plots do highlight how we have progressed the ball, and the key passing hubs in our side. The first (Hamilton) illustrates how we struggled to find the forward line, and the lack of connections through our No.8's. The second (Dundee) shows how we improved in this regard, being able to move through Barton and Halliday (and the Full-Back's) into the wingers more effectively. The Pass Plots do reflect the improvement in performance: we were much better against Dundee.

They also show how lacking Miller's contribution has been thus far, and that perhaps a more target man-type forward could be beneficial to our overall game and build-up -- not to mention finishing! Is Garner the way forward?

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