Defensive Third Exits from Rangers win over NK Osijek

 courtesy of RFC/PA

courtesy of RFC/PA

written by @TheGersReport

Defensive Third Exits are a stat 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.

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.  


I tracked Rangers 1-0 away victory against NK Osijek, a match which saw Rangers hold on to the win despite being outshot 17-3 (according to UEFA).  Part of this was a byproduct of game state, given that Rangers got the early lead & then played to keep that lead.  While there were some shaky moments at the back, as the match went on the Rangers backline looked more & more comfortable.  

I decided to track four players in this match - Rangers newest center back duo, along with Ryan Jack & Lassana Coulibaly - the two midfielders who would be called upon the most to support defensively.

Here are the results, organized by the different ways in which a defender can look to get the ball out of their defensive third.  The first two ways are classified as controlled exits:  dribbling the ball out & passing the ball out via a direct pass to a teammate.

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  • When it comes to dribbling the ball out, you can see the two supporting midfielders did come back & attempt to transition out of the defensive third this way & on two occasions Coulibaly was able to successfully trigger an attack that led to Rangers establishing possession in the attacking half.  This is what I'm looking forward in attempted exit...a controlled play that leads into a transition from defending to attacking.  
  • When looking at controlled passing out of the defensive third, Ryan Jack led the way.
  • Nikola Katic didn't have the ball at his feet all that much in this match but when he did, he never attempted a controlled exit from the defensive third, while you will see that Goldson relied almost exclusively on clearances to get the ball out of his zone.
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  • AK Osijek clearly targeted Rangers right side of defense (especially in the first half) & that explains why Connor Goldson saw so much more of the action.  When he did he went for the safe & easy play.  You can also see that when he went to clear the ball (again only looking at plays with the ball at his feet), it only led to the ball successfully leaving the defensive third 56% of the time.  This is one isolated match (an away game in Europe), so I'm not going to overreact.  However, it is something I'm going to look out for.  Because if that's the route he's going to choose, look for teams to continue attacking his side of the defensive area.  Also notice that of those nine clearances, possession stayed in Rangers half of the pitch 100% of the time with them failing each time to transition the ball into the attacking half.
  • This group of Rangers players looked to clear the ball 15 times & it only led to the establishing possession in the AK Osijek's half once (7%)
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  • The numbers highlight how effective Jack & Coulibaly were at supporting the defence as they were.  Ryan Jack was able to exit the defensive third with a controlled play 80% of the time & the two combined to exit with a controlled play 75% of the time
  • The center backs exited the defensive third on a controlled play 7% of the time, which meant that more often than not the ball stayed in Rangers half after they attempted to get the ball out of their third of the pitch.

Some notes...

  • This will be a stat that I want to track throughout the year.  
  • This was written under the inflence of Steely Dan.