Defensive Third Exits: The Ryan Jack Show v. Aberdeen

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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.  


My plan was to track two players from each side of the 1-1 draw between Aberdeen & Rangers.  Scott McKenna has been a hot topic of transfer talk in recent weeks, so I was intrigued to watch his game closely...but an injury kept his time on the pitch to half an hour.  The other Aberdeen player I chose to track was Lewis Ferguson.  I had written about him in the summer & was interested to see what kind of role he played in Aberdeen's midfield.  

For Rangers, the plan was to track the two players who piqued my interest the most the last time I tried this (from their away win against NK Osijek).  Most will agree that Connor Goldson has been a real upgrade to Rangers backline.  However, his reliance on clearances against NK Osijek meant that whenever he attempted to exit from the defensive third - it never led to a transition into the attacking half.  It was one match, in which Rangers were protecting a lead - but this kind of data flags potential trends.  It may be a one-off, or it may end up being something other teams can exploit.  I also wanted to track the play of Ryan Jack because his support in the defensive third could be a huge factor to Rangers success this season.  His ability to exit the defensive third on controlled plays will be something I will look to track regularly this season.

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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Ryan Jack really had a strong outing against his old side on Sunday & the numbers support that.  He had five Controlled Exits & each of them led to the ball successfully getting out of the defensive third.  The thinking is that if a player can exit via a controlled play, there is a higher likelihood that will lead to possession transitioning into the attacking half.  You can see that that occurred on 60% of Jack's controlled exits.  What makes that rate even more impressive is the fact that Rangers spent most of the match playing with ten men.

One of my goals with this work is to show what these plays look like to get a sense of what works (& what doesn't) when players attempt to get the ball out of the defensive third.  The first example really highlights how 'locked in' Ryan Jack was on Sunday. 

 Ryan Jack is about to intercept the ball from an Aberdeen cross & will immediately be pressured by the Aberdeen player.  Normally, this would lead to a rushed clearance.

Ryan Jack is about to intercept the ball from an Aberdeen cross & will immediately be pressured by the Aberdeen player.  Normally, this would lead to a rushed clearance.

 The image might not do this justice, but as he was about to intercept the ball - Jack had already identified a passing outlet - who he looks to connect with on a first time pass.

The image might not do this justice, but as he was about to intercept the ball - Jack had already identified a passing outlet - who he looks to connect with on a first time pass.

 Jack has completed the pass, the ball has exited the defensive third & the Rangers player should be in a good position to turn & transition the ball up the pitch.

Jack has completed the pass, the ball has exited the defensive third & the Rangers player should be in a good position to turn & transition the ball up the pitch.

The video footage would have been better to showcase here because in it you see Jack's ability to look & spot that outlet pass while simultaneously lining up to intercept the ball into the box.  In most cases that kind of ball into the box, under pressure, leads to a blind clearance up the pitch.  A play that does relieve pressure but rarely leads to a successful transition & depending on the opponent, may just lead to another wave of attack.

Another example of a Controlled Exit comes from dribbling the ball out of the defensive third.  You can see that Jack attempted this three times & each time led to a successful exit.  The one that we'll spotlight is particularly impressive given how little space he had to work with.

 Jack gains possession, has two players about to close him down & he has his back to the rest of the pitch.  This is not ideal...

Jack gains possession, has two players about to close him down & he has his back to the rest of the pitch.  This is not ideal...

 Instead of looking for a safe clearance, he turns into the pressure - forcing one defender to run past him as Jack beats the second on the dribble.

Instead of looking for a safe clearance, he turns into the pressure - forcing one defender to run past him as Jack beats the second on the dribble.

Now for a look at the times players couldn't get the ball out of the defensive third on a controlled play & looked for a clearance instead.  These do not include headed clearance attempts.

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Against AK Osijek, 90% of Goldson's exits came via clearances & against Aberdeen the rate was 89%.  In the two matches I've tracked, 17 of his 19 exit attempts have been clearances that have led to successful exits 52% of the time & possession transitioning into the attacking half 5% of the time.  

I think you can see how these kinds of results could lead to entry points for future opponents to exploit.  

Now you may be thinking, he's a center back - one of his primary jobs is to relieve pressure & get the ball out of a dangerous area.  Can we really expect him to make a controlled play?  I'm not really sure to what extent the talent pool of Scottish Premiership center backs have the skill-set to live off of Controlled Exits.  But, there are center backs out there who do.  One of the matches I tracked last summer was the Scotland v England match.  In it Gary Cahill was 10 for 10, he had ten attempted exits from the defensive third & all ten of them came via a Controlled Exit (mostly from a pass out of the area).  He was successful 100% of the time & it led to possession in the attacking half 80% of the time.  

My goal this season is to find the center backs in Scotland who can do THAT.  There's a pretty big difference between transitioning into attack 80% of the time vs. 5%.

Let's look at a couple of Goldson's clearances.

 Again, you see our protagonist - Ryan Jack in support.  This time he will get the ball out to Goldson, who is already looking up the pitch looking for a place to send the ball.  Notice Scott Arfield is also in space as a potential outlet for Goldson.

Again, you see our protagonist - Ryan Jack in support.  This time he will get the ball out to Goldson, who is already looking up the pitch looking for a place to send the ball.  Notice Scott Arfield is also in space as a potential outlet for Goldson.

 My issue with Goldson's decision to clear the ball is that he has Arfield making a run which could have led to Rangers transitioning into attack if Goldson had made that short pass. Instead, he clears the ball up the pitch - which relieves pressure but also gives the ball right back to Aberdeen.

My issue with Goldson's decision to clear the ball is that he has Arfield making a run which could have led to Rangers transitioning into attack if Goldson had made that short pass. Instead, he clears the ball up the pitch - which relieves pressure but also gives the ball right back to Aberdeen.

In the next example, we'll see that Goldson is focused on getting the ball out with a clearance & again how other options may have led to a controlled exit.

 Golson has broken onto a loose ball & has very little time so his instinct will be to clear it.  But when you look at this image, the only Aberdeen player who may be a threat to get to the ball is Graeme Shinnie - who would have to beat Tavernier to the spot.

Golson has broken onto a loose ball & has very little time so his instinct will be to clear it.  But when you look at this image, the only Aberdeen player who may be a threat to get to the ball is Graeme Shinnie - who would have to beat Tavernier to the spot.

 Does Goldson have the opportunity to gain control of the ball & begin to dribble up the pitch?  If he gets pressed, you can see that three Ranger players are there as an outlet & given the fact there are also three Aberdeen players here - a Rangers player would automatically be open.

Does Goldson have the opportunity to gain control of the ball & begin to dribble up the pitch?  If he gets pressed, you can see that three Ranger players are there as an outlet & given the fact there are also three Aberdeen players here - a Rangers player would automatically be open.

The goal here is to not pick on Goldson.  He's been an obvious upgrade to Rangers defence.  Ultimately, this is (another) example of how you can use data to guide a performance analyst's work with the team.  Studying the actual video footage of this could lead to drills in practice that potentially lead to better opportunities to exit the defensive third on a controlled play - which, in turn, should improve that team's transition game.

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My experiment to learn more about Scott McKenna's skill-set clearly failed & even though Ferguson started the match in a role that was looking to support McKenna - that changed once McKenna was subbed out as Ferguson played in a more advanced role for the rest of the match.

Some notes...

  • I plan on doing this pretty regularly to see what trends appear & to see if I can find those center backs that can actually "act as the first line of attack for his team.”
  • Want more?  Here is when I tracked exits in the 2017 Champions League final.
  • Got requests?  This can't just be the Connor Goldson show.  Which defenders should I track next? 
  • This also seems like a good time to point out that Aberdeen's debutante goal scorer, Bruce Anderson, made the top ten list of best young forward prospects in Scotland.   
  • This was written under the influence of Phil Collins & Jonathan Fire*Eater (R.I.P. Stewart - who was a real poet & true artist & I'm still struggling with the loss).