Trend Analysis: Attacking with Cutbacks
This article is based on event data from the Swiss Super League, but the best practices and insights can easily be applied to other leagues.
"The closer you get to the goal, the further you are away from scoring the goal." Juanma Lillo
There are many strategies to score goals and win games. At the beginning of the possibilities is the dominant possession of the ball. With "juego de posicion," gaining space vertically as soon as the space presents itself. And on the other side is the compact defensive block and then relying on counterattacks and the good Lord.
More and more teams are no longer so easily divided into possession or counterattacking teams. More and more teams consciously change their strategy depending on the phase or the score. Or switch back and forth several times during a game. Carlo Ancelotti's Real Madrid is a prime example.
His team is filled with exceptional players in all positions (twice) and could easily impose their possession game on virtually all opponents and dominate the game. Nevertheless, the team often deliberately drops back to take advantage of the speed of Vinicius Jr, Rodrygo & Co. in counterattacking play as well.
A monotonous and dogmatic style of play is easier for opponents to adapt to than a style of play that changes within a game. In any case, good teams should be able to master several strategies and also their intermediate tones.
Meanwhile, what almost all teams have mastered is the deep defensive block. Even for technically skilled and dominant teams, it is difficult to play off the deep defensive block. The opponents close the spaces up to the penalty area, even up to the six-yard box, and it is very difficult to find play-off stations, space and time there. As a result, often follows the "shuttle football" from one side to the other.
One attacking concept that we have been advocating for many years in game analysis consulting and game development is the Cutback.
Cutback in action
Arsenal under Mikel Arteta is also particularly strong in this regard. Here is an example from the Premier League 22/23 season from the game Bournemouth 0-3 Arsenal from 20.08.2022.
Arsenal has combined on the right side with Ben White. The opposing center backs orient and move towards their goal to protect it. This opens up a back area (red) at their backs that is generous and difficult to defend.
Ben White probably knows the principle that the ball is only passed near the goal if he recognizes a teammate in a clear advantage position. Otherwise, the cutback pass, if necessary blind, is always played flat into the back. There, the teammates rush in and can shoot at the goal from a favorable position. The key is timing. The teammates know in advance when and where the pass will be hit. With this knowledge, the teammates can be in the right place at the right moment. That half-second of collective knowledge advantage is worth its weight in gold.
For an attacker today, reading and anticipating the timing of the cross or pass is more important than the effective quality of the cross or pass. The first one in the right place wins.
A second example is Scott McTominay's 1-0 in the EURO2024 qualifying match Scotland 2-0 Spain.(28 Mar 23)
Good to see how the Spanish defensive chain closes the space in front of the goal and everything behind it is much harder to defend.
We want to get from the least protected spaces (blue) behind the defensive chain into the assist zone (green) and from there we want to play a backward pass into the hard-to-protect back area (red) between the six-yard box and the penalty line.
With fast combinations this is also possible from the green assist zone. The game "over the third" or "underlap" is particularly suitable for this. Am still amazed at how few teams have mastered the "third-man" on offense.
Every defense is so busy prioritizing occupying and defending spaces near the goal that there are more dangers from far away as a result.
The center backs protect the goal after their line has broken through, opening up space in their backs. For the opposing defensive midfielders, the path becomes very very long to protect this open space. For our attackers, the back pass is a real sugar pass. They can anticipate it and take a controlled and placed instep shot with a high probability of scoring.
Overlap is out - underlap is in
To play through on the wings, running behind (overlap) has been out for many years, because the opponent gets too much time to organize himself. Overlaps still makes sense, especially in the penalty area, because the opponent has little time to get organized due to the short distances.
Overlaps? The closer to the opponent's goal, the better.
If you attack spaces directly with underlap, the opponent has much less time and you get into more dangerous spaces immediately with the pass. With the cutback passes you can first penetrate into the opponent's defensive system and then attack the system from the inside.
There is another wonderful quote about the cutback from the wonderful Juanma Lillo:
"The last player to enter the penalty area, is the first to shoot." Juanma Lillo
Analysis Event Data - Cutback Filter
We have analyzed all 125 matches up to round 25 in the current Super League season 22/23. And analyzed 4 million data points, 200'000 events and about 80'000 passes. We filtered these by successful and not arrived cutbacks. A successful cutback does not always mean a shot or a goal, but the attacker can either shoot directly or control the ball in a very dangerous zone and continue the action. Even without a shot, controlling the ball in the box poses a strong threat to the opposing defense.
A successful Cutback is a real threat to the opponent and a key event and predicate for the offense. A real wow moment for the fans in the stadium and in front of the TV. The very best teams achieve "only" two to three successful cutbacks per game. More and more goals are scored by cutbacks in all leagues of the world.
We deliberately do not use the number of goals, because that would be a different statement. We don't want to analyze the efficiency in front of the goal. We want to understand how often and how well teams can play out cutbacks and get them to the man.
Wherever you see disharmonies and other patterns, interesting insights can be gained.
We'll also find out at the end of this blog which players are the best cutbackers.
With the available data, we could also analyze according to which combination patterns the cutbacks occur. Because of the high effort, we do without it in this blog.
We hope that the compact graphics, which reflect over 2,000 minutes of play and 25 rounds of play, are not only fascinating for data nerds.
Now for the team graphics including brief comments, starting with the Super League team with the fewest successful cutbacks per game.
10. FC Sion
Third lowest volume of attempts (37) and second lowest success rate (32%). Balanced left/right ratio. Attacks probably predominantly in forward mode. Have trouble getting into the penalty area and behind the defensive chain despite almost 50% possession. Sion has the fewest touches per game in the penalty area (16) after GC, Zürich and Winterthur. In total only 0.49 successful cutbacks per game and the last place.
Team bests: Lavanchy (3), Bua, (2), Chouaref (2)
09. FC Zürich
Fewest attempts (26) with acceptable success rate (50%).Touched the fewest balls in the penalty area with Winterthur and GC. Attempts over right more successful. Left cutback attempts virtually all inside penalty area. In total and possession-adjusted ninth place with 0.52 successful cutbacks per game.
Team bests: Rohner (3), Tosin (2)
08. FC St. Gallen
Are in third place in terms of attempts with 45. But in the success rate with 47% only on sixth place. Spectacular, almost exclusively successful on the left and with very different angles between left and right. Very little success on the right. They often get into the box and are in second place in terms of ball touches with 22 touches. Up front, the Espen often prefer the quick direct pass into the deep in the attacking third. A smarter dosage of risk could make a difference here, as they have by far the most ball losses in the attacking third. Adjusted for possession, they are fourth overall with 0.8 successful cutbacks per game.
Team bests: Guindo (3), Witzig (2), Von Moos (2)
07. FC Basel
Average and 7th in quantity (37) and good in quality (57%). Balanced left/right volume and angle. They are ahead in the box with 21 touches, but struggle to get behind the defense and into the penalty area on the wings. As they place seventh with 0.76 successful cutbacks per game.
Team best: Ndoye (5), Amdouni (4), Millar (3), Burger (3)
We want to illustrate the difference in penetrating the penalty area between the top teams Basel and Young Boys with the following graph.
Basel often enters the penalty area but not much from the outside. We looked at the open play Goal Assists in this context. A Goal Assist is a pass that is followed by a shot into the goal directly from the receiver with or without ball control.
Basel (23) scores many goals after touches outside the penalty area with individual player skills from 20m goal distance. Often from central positions. While Young Boys (43) get into the penalty area with frequent passes and back passes, allowing them to score the "easier" goals in the box.
06. Grasshopper Club
Total 43 attempts (4th) with moderate success rate of 35% (8th). Have more successful cutbacks down the left. The Hoppers have trouble getting into the penalty area and show the fewest touches in the box with 14. Even less than Winterthur (14.4) )although they have 7% more possession. More volume and successes over the left. In total possession adjusted rank eighth with 0.63 successful cutbacks per game.
Team best: Morandi (5), Schmid (3), Momoh (2)
Quality top and quantity mediocre. Lugano is in the middle of the field in terms of attempts (42), but reaches the second highest rate after YB in terms of success rate with 61.9%. They have trouble getting into the box with consistency and reach only a mediocre value with 18 touches in the box per game. In total possession adjusted they are second with 1.00 successful cutbacks per game.
Team bests: Bottani (5), Haile-Selassie (5), Celar (4).
Total 35 attempts (9th) with a 46% success rate (7th). As a turnover team, they rely less on overcoming the defensive block and cutback. Have more succeassful cutbacks over the right. But if you adjust the successful cutbacks (16) with the low possession of 34%. Winterthur is fifth with 0.8 successful cutbacks per game. Seems to be a clear attacking strategy of Bruno Berner's team. More volume and success rate over right.
Team best: Di Giusto (3)
Much more quantity than quality. Servette shows the second most attempts (51) in the Super League, but has the worst success rate with 31%. A clear level of action. The high volume puts the Grenats in eighth place in total possession adjusted with 0.65 successful cutbacks per game. Alain Geiger's team is systematically looking for the cutbacks.
The success rate needs to be worked on.
If Servette manage to increase their success rate and reduce their dependence on Stevanović, much more scoring can be achieved. The key lies in the collective understanding of the play-off timing.
Team bests: Stevanovic (5), Kutesa (2)
03. Young Boys
The Bernese have the sixth-highest volume with 41 attempts. In terms of success rate, they lead the way with a wonderful 68%. They are also second in touches in the box with 22. YB does a lot of things very very well. Nice distribution and depth chart. From the left also cutbacks from outside the penalty area. The Bernese have a whole seven players who have had three successful cutbacks. Overall they reach third place with 1.0 successful cutbacks per game.
Team bests: Rieder (3), Fassnacht (3), Lefort (3), Nsame (3), Benito (3), Blum (3), Imer (3)
With a total of 52 attempts so far, the highest volume. And in fourth place in the success rate with 50%. Nice distribution and depth chart. Some teams weaken either in volume or quality. Not so the Lucerne, who are balanced in both dimensions. Overall, they are at the top of the Super League with 1.04 successful cutbacks.
Team bests: Dorn (4), Sorgic (4), Meyer (3)
We focused on the total number of passes because of the visualizations.
Of course, teams with more possession also have more time for offensive actions.
Fair compared on 50% possession results in the following Super League cutback table.
The trio FC Luzern (1.05), FC Lugano (1.0) and Young Boys (1.0) form the top of the Super League. FC Sion (0.49) and FC Zürich (0.52) are at the bottom of the rankings. This is too low a value, especially for Bo Henrikson's team. There is a clear need for action here for variability and creativity in the offense.
Super League Player Ranking
Player Team Successful Cutbacks Stevanovic Servette 7
Ndoye Basel 6
Morandi Grasshopper 5 Bottani Lugano 5
M. Haile-Selassie Lugano 5
Rieder Young Boys 4 Amdouni Basel 4
Okita Zürich 4
Schmid Grasshopper 4
Momoh Grasshopper 4
Celar Lugano 4
Dorn Luzern 4
Meyer Luzern 4
Abubakar Luzern 4
* not possession adjusted
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