The rise of football analytics has led to one important — okay many — change in the world of soccer. It is now rare to see players take long-range shots in games. Around 20 years ago, it was common to hear Premier League fans claim that ‘Arsenal just want to walk the ball into the back of the net.’ Now, two decades later, it seems that most top-level teams want to get the ball as close as possible before shooting.
Yes, long-range shooting has declined with goals scored out of the 18-yard box now more exceptional than ever before. Analytic-drive football has led teams to believe that moving the ball as close as possible to the goal — or into the penalty area — provides a higher return on scoring goals.
To shoot or not to shoot?: That is the question
Yet, research may not actually mean this is true. As with all analytics in sports, there is a hole in the thinking. Maaike Van Roy, a Ph.D. student at the Belgian university KU Leuven, authored a paper arguing that shooting from distance isn’t as poor of a decision as it is made out to be. In fact, shooting from distance should be done more often. Why?
Watch any Champions League knockout stage game and you will see teams working the ball to get into “good” scoring positions. Yet, many times moves toward goal break down with the other team gaining possession of the ball. Players pass up clear shooting chances from long-range only to attempt passes to open up defences or get closer to goal. Unfortunately, possession is lost and no shot attempt is made. A long-range shot may have a low percentage of success, yet continually working the ball only to lose it and be counter-attacked has its own drawbacks. Longe-range efforts offer the chance of scoring rebounds when goalkeepers parry the ball or provide deflected goals.
Is working the ball closer to the goal a bad thing and will we see it end? Not likely as football becomes even more data-driven. However, we may begin seeing teams use data to weigh up shooting from distance. Who knows? In 10 years, shooting from outside the penalty area could become en vouge thanks to some forward-thinking, data-driven teams.