Passing accuracy and “vision” are critical skills demanded by the world’s top coaches and showcased by the world’s best players.
This is evidenced by the names and teams on a top-10 list of the most accurate, high-volume passers from Europe’s top-five leagues since the start of the 2017/18, with a minimum 70 matches played and 3,000 passes attempted (midfielders and forwards only).
The key question that comes to my mind is: what skill or skills underlie this elite passing accuracy and efficiency?
According to numerous top coaches and players, the foundation of elite passing starts far before actually touching the ball. It begins when scanning the pitch for information — defensive positioning, teammates potential runs, etc — prior to receiving the ball.
For example, Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola refers to this skill as “seeing the game before you receive the ball”.
“Before I receive a ball, all I can see is what is directly ahead of me. My vision is very narrow – I cannot see absolutely anything that is going on behind me, where the team needs to attack,” Guardiola explained as a youngster in a video which can be found here. “Now I’ll show you the correct position to adopt to be able to play as quickly as possible by using my body and both legs.
“As I said before, my body position here is not correct because my field of vision is reduced and I can’t see where I have to move. So before I receive the ball, I’ll turn my body slightly – simply to gain a wider view of the pitch.
“Now I can see every part of the pitch to elect where to play the ball next. Whether my pass is successful or not, at least I have a wider view so that I can move the ball forwards, towards goal which is my main objective.”
Barcelona’s once-vaunted youth academy — La Masia — was highly recognized for emphasizing and developing spatial and positional awareness in its players, a key underpinning of its “golden generation” in the late 2000s.
Intuitively, it makes sense that having more information prior to making a decision results in a better decision and, thus, outcome. However, as is common when it comes to beliefs, opinions, or intuitions — the reality may or may not align. The great news is that we have research — presented at the MIT sports analytics conference in 2013 — that examined this intuition.
The researchers’ methods
The researchers obtained close-up video images of individual players from the English Premier League (EPL) using Sky Sports’ split-screen broadcasts — these feature both a field view and a close-up cam on individual players — of 64 games from the same season, totalling 1,279 game situations and including 118 players (all midfielders or forwards).
The researchers examined the 10 seconds prior to a player receiving a forward pass (so no back passes), looking for actions that fit the following scanning criteria:
“A body and/or head movement in which the player’s face is actively and temporarily directed away from the ball, seemingly with the intention of looking for teammates, opponents, or other environmental objects or events, relevant to perform a subsequent action with the ball.”
Multiple researchers viewed the clips to increase the reliability of the results.
What did they find?
The researchers found a positive relationship between how many times a player scanned the field in the 10 seconds prior to receiving the ball and subsequent pass completion rate — for overall passes regardless of direction and perhaps most importantly for forward progressive passes.
Further, these results held true whether the player received the ball in the opposition half of the pitch or in their own half of the pitch. Players who scanned the pitch more frequently and received the ball in the opponent’s half were +12.2% in subsequent pass completion rate and the same group but receiving the ball in their own half were +23% in pass completion rate — these results carried over to both midfielders and forwards.
Lastly — and perhaps most interestingly — the players who had at one point in their career received a prestigious award, such as the FIFA World Player of the Year, scanned the field on average more frequently than other EPL players.
To that point, the two players with the highest average frequency of exploring and scanning the field visually in this sample were two of the highest decorated EPL midfielders of all-time: Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard.
Intuition proves true
The intuition of “seeing the game” proved true — scanning the field prior to receiving the pass and obtaining more information and awareness of the surrounding players and spacing leads to a higher completion rate of passes for essentially every situation. Its importance as one of the key traits that separate the best players from the rest is reinforced by objective evidence.
A very interesting follow-up question becomes how teachable or “coachable” this ability is and whether it carries over to increased performance. One anecdotal example is Arsenal midfielder Dani Ceballos — on loan from Real Madrid — who recently commented that part of his greatly improved play since the Premier League restart (for in-depth analysis on his improved play, I wrote about it here) is due to manager Mikel Arteta drilling him to constantly scan the field and be aware of his surrounding prior to receiving the ball.
It is likely no coincidence that Ceballos learned this from Arteta, given his links to Guardiola and time spent as a player under previous Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, who also stressed the importance of ‘scanning’ at SiS Paris in 2019.
“As a player, whenever I get the ball I have to analyse, then decide and finally execute,” said Wenger. “Perception plays a huge role in this. I worked with a University in Norway to identify how I could improve perception.
“Basically, I came to the conclusion that it is about getting as much information as possible before I get the ball. I call that scanning. I try to see what happens to a player in the 10 seconds before he gets the ball, how many times he takes information and the quality of information he takes. It depends on the position.
“What is interesting is that very good players scan six to eight times in the 10 seconds before getting the ball and normal ones three to four times. That is a major step for improvement.”
The Champions League: A showcase for scanning
With Champions League football now in full swing and many of the world’s top passers still in the mix, it will be a showcase for players who effectively scan the pitch and display elite spatial awareness and anticipation.
Try and notice which players are constantly scanning the pitch for information and how that relates to their subsequent actions — whether it be a pass, touch, or simply their movement. If you really want to show off, you can demonstratively point out when players are doing it and add in some of the numbers from this paper too.