Scottish Cup Preview: Defensive Third Exits

Allan Campbell courtesy of Ian McFadyen

Allan Campbell courtesy of Ian McFadyen

written by:  @TheGersReport   

Defensive Third Exits are a stat I played around with tracking this past summer & figured the Scottish Cup final would be a good chance to bring them back into focus.  The stat is inspired by the work of Dimitri Filipovic in his coverage of the National Hockey League & may be an area that I spend some more time with moving forward.

Why defensive third exits?  Because so often a controlled exit can lead to transition into the attacking half. As  Filipovic explained, “It can be easy to lose sight of the fact a [defender] generally acts as the first line of attack for his team.”  Obviously, the playing surface is more compact in hockey, but in football a defender who cleanly plays the ball out of his third can trigger the attack by getting the ball to a midfielder who then can get the ball into the attacking half.  Whereas, a defender who clears the ball up the pitch with a long ball will often see the play come right back at him as his team fails to gain possession in the attacking half.

For the Scottish Cup Final, I plan on focusing on two key defensive players from each team.  Cedric Kipre & Allan Campbell from Motherwell, along with Kristoffer Ajer & Scott Brown from Celtic.  To get a sense of what to expect, I tracked each player's Defensive Third Exits from their semi-final match-ups.  I figured it would give a little context & in actuality, it may have highlighted an area that one of the two teams can look to exploit.

Before we continue, let's define what the hell this weird stat is.  A Defensive Third Exit is any time the player is clearly trying to get the ball out of the defensive third via a controlled pass, by dribbling out, or with a clearance.  I only include plays in which the player had the ball at his feet, meaning I do not include headed clearances.  

Kristoffer Ajer courtesy of Keith Campbell (The Sun, Glasgow)

Kristoffer Ajer courtesy of Keith Campbell (The Sun, Glasgow)

Here are the results from each semi-final match.  You’ll find the exits categorized as being a dribbled out exit, a passing exit, or a clearance.  For each, the times the ball successfully exits the defensive third is included along with how many times the team was able to transition the ball into the attacking third (in the past I tracked when possession continued into the attacking half & I likely will revert back to that next time).

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Let's talk about Cedric Kipre.  The 21-year old has gotten a lot of positive attention this season & deservedly so.  He's been among the better defensive center backs in the league.  He has the fourth best successful tackle percentage among center backs (behind Scott McKenna, Jack Henry, & teammate Tom Aldred) & is 7th in ball recoveries per 90.  He is slightly below average in winning aerial challenges (he wins 69% of them - for context Ajer wins 81%).  But given Celtic have the fewest headed shots in the league, this is less of a concern for this particular match.

While these defensive third exits are from a single match, there is a red flag here.  He had 11 attempted exits & failed to get the ball out of the defensive third 55% of the time.  Only 33% of his clearance attempts got out of the defensive third!?!?!  If you couple this with the fact that his Loss of Possession rate is 16%, this means Kipre may be a player Celtic look to exploit.  When he is on the ball in the defensive third, Celtic should be very deliberate about targeting Kipre on the press.  That 16% Loss of Possession rate isn't terrible (it's actually the same as league average for center backs), but it does highlight an aspect of Kipre's game that could be exploited.  As a comparison, Ajer has a Loss of Possession rate of 8%.

Like Kipre, Kristoffer Ajer was very involved in getting the ball out of the defensive third & for the most part was more reliable in his semi-final v Rangers.  He had nine attempted Defensive Third Exits & was able to successfully get the ball out on six of those attempts.  Like Kipre, he tended to go with the "safe" play in the form of a clearance.  Ironically, if you combine the two center back's clearance attempts, only 47% of them successfully led to a successful exit from the defensive third.  Neither defender was able to get the ball out on a controlled exit.

Remember, controlled exits occur when the exit attempt comes via a pass or is dribbled out.  Kipre had two controlled exits & they both led to successful exits, while Ajer attempted one & it helped trigger a transition into the attacking third for Celtic.

Now, is it fair to expect a center back to be able to make this kind of controlled exit?  Well, yes it is.  When I tracked Defensive Third Exits from this summer's Scotland v England match, Gary Cahill had ten attempted Defensive Third Exits -- 100% of them were controlled & each of them led to a successful exit.  I noted in the write-up that this efficiency was largely influenced by Scotland's refusal to pressure the ball, so it would be interesting to collect more data to see if there are center backs who have the ability to consistently get the ball out of the defensive third on controlled plays.  

Neither of the other players I tracked in the semi-finals were overly involved in exiting the ball out of the defensive third.  Brown had three exit attempts & each of them were successful, while Allan Campbell also had three exits (two were successful).

Overall, this kind of isolated stat tracking can really bring to the forefront something to look out for in this weekend's Scottish Cup Final.  Of the four players I tracked in the semi-finals, Cedric Kipre clearly will the player to keep your eyes on when he gets the ball in his own third.  

Some notes:

  • Loss of Possession stats were generated using data from InStat Football

  • There were times when these players got possession in the defensive third & looked to a short pass to a teammate to see if they could get the ball out of trouble. Brown & Kipre had three of these plays, Ajer had two & Campbell had one. On each occasion Brown, Kipre, & Ajer made this pass - it led to a successful exit out of the defensive third. These kinds of composed plays can also help relieve the pressure & should be factored in when using these kind of stats to evaluate defensive play.

  • Celtic like to cycle the ball back into the defensive third as they retain possession. I did not count these plays in the Defensive Third Exit numbers.

  • For the end results of exits, I tracked how often the ball transitioned into the attacking third. In the past, I kept track of how often it ends with possession in the attacking half. Still debating which one to move forward with...