Does "scanning" the pitch before receiving the ball actually make a difference?
Research reviewed: The hidden foundation of field vision in English Premier League (EPL) soccer players (Jordet et al; MIT Sloan Sports analytics conference)
If you’re an athlete, coach, or parent of an athlete, you may have often heard the term “awareness” or having “your head on a swivel” to be aware of your surroundings to improve your play. In football (soccer), this is often termed “scanning” the pitch.
Intuitively, it makes sense that having more information prior to receiving the ball will tend result in better decisions afterwards. Today’s paper examined that intuition.
The researchers obtained close up video images of individual players from from the English Premier League (EPL) using Sky Sport’s split screen broadcasts - these have a close up cam on individual players - of 64 games from the same season, totaling 1279 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 reliability of the results.
The results 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 on the opposition half of the pitch or on 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 player 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.
The key takeaways
The takeaway here is pretty clear: 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. It’s seemingly one of the key traits that separates the best players from the rest.
One example of how impactful scanning can be is Arsenal midfielder Dani Ceballos who recently commented that part of his greatly improved play since the EPL restart with excellent progressive passing stats is due to manager Mikel Arteta drilling him to constantly scan the field and be aware of his surrounding prior to receiving the ball.