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Man City v Aston Villa: Zone Exits

Ever wondered by which method a football team gets the ball out of it's own half and into the oppositions half? No, me neither. But here at Bitter and Blue we are trying to find new ways to look at football games and zone exits (own half exits) is just one of the 'new' ways in which we a re using to try and evaluate a football game.

Michael Regan
Zone Exits/Own Half Exits is a pretty simple idea. The question I wanted to answer was: how does team A get the ball into team B's half? Is the most common method via the long ball, or is it a short pass or, maybe, a defender carrying the ball into the oppositions half.
The first key point to answer is:
Method of exiting your own zone (Own Half)
The second key point is:
How Succesful is each type of Zone Exit
The methods of exits are as follows:
Long Ball. Pass, Carry and Header
Throw ins are counted as passes, there just aren't enough throw-ins that cross the half way line for it to be afforded the honour of it's own category.
Remember we are looking at the number of Own Half Exits, the method of exit and then we shall assign each exit with a yes (succesfully holding on to possession) or no (losing possession).
We are looking to see if one exit method is used more frequently, and which method has the higher completion %.

Zone Exits


Villa Man City

Total 85 87
1st Half 40 41
2nd Half 45 46

Totals are pretty similar, but this was to be expected from a game that finished as tight as it did possession wise (47%-53%). Both teams had slightly more exits in the second half, I would assume this to be due to the increasingly direct nature of a fixture as the clock ticks down.

Method of Exit

Long Ball Pass Carry Header

Aston Villa 42 26 10 7

Man City 30 37 13 7

Let's glance quickly at Carry and Headers, where we see pretty similar number for both teams. headers are usually of a result of long ball by the opposition, and carry's are player and tactic reliant. If a team has mobile and able midfielders, or in some cases,defenders, then the number of carries into the opponents half may be more frequent. Of course this is just theory at this point.

Long Balls and Passes are the most interesting of the exit methods for the numerical difference between the two categories may give us a slight hint of how a team sets up stylistically. Is a team A a long ball team, does it have the freedom to play out from the back and thus a controlled possession game? Maybe I am reading too much into it, but the above numbers hint at something:

Villa exited their own zone using 42 long Balls to Man City's 30. Using a pass to exit the zone saw City tally 37 to Villa's 26.

Man City, an experienced side and comfortable with tight opposition pressing, play out from the back. Villa, everything City aren't in terms of experience and possession football, tended to play it long in this game.

Naturally the quality of opposition plays a part in dictating tactics and it may be unfair to draw too concrete a conclusion from just one game. And don't forget how score effects alter the proceedings, but more on that later.

Succes % of Exit Method

Long Ball Pass Carry Header

Aston Villa 30.90% 80.70% 100.00% 85.70%

Man City 30.00% 86.40% 100.00% 42.80%

We have established that Villa favoured the long ball and City favoured the pass in order to exit their own half and now, as seen above, we shall look at the success rates of each exit method.

Headers are a very small sample and will likely fluctuate wildly game to game.

Carries are the least high risk of any exit method. The ball is kept at the players feet and no hazards, bar miscontrol or tackling, can break what would be continued high success %.

Long Balls were Villa's most frequent exit tactic, and it's also the tactic most likely to fail in terms of keeping possession. The idea is simple: get the ball as close to the oppositions box as possible, but a long 60 yard ball is, at best, a 50-50, but probably worse considering attackers-potential recipients of a long ball-are usually outnumbered. Teams will persist with it, and yes, this is only a one game sample but I wouldn't expect the success % for long balls to move too far from the numbers seen above.

Passes are, quite comfortably, the best way in which to exit your own half. Yes, most of the passess I recorded tonight tonight were short, but that short, completed pass then led to another short, completed pass and then we can start talking about entering the opponents final 1/3rd (this is the topic of the next article!).

In short, pass the ball out, don't hoof it unless one of your attckers is in a very good offensive possession or you find yourself in desperate trouble under the weight of an opposition press. You May always use the outball Mr Clark.

Score Effects And Zone Exits

Aston Villa


Yellow is first half, red is second half.

Now, as I stated before playing the ball long in order to get over the half way line is an incredibly poor decision. A long pass is far more likely to be a turnover than a pass is. Naturally, there are things like opponent pressure and a paucity of available passing options that force a player to play a long ball. That's fine. But if your team is losing by a goal and you find out that the team is playing more long balls I think it may be fair to ask why?

Luckily for Villa, the differential between 1st half and second half is too small for me to hammer them, but if, hypothetically, a team was playing more long balls at -1 than were doing so when the game is tied we must start to think of panic, a Peter Crouch type or a lack of experience and patience. is that fair?

Man City


As above, and I need to add that the 1st half vs 2nd half is almost a score effect proxy as Man City scored right at the death of the first half.

Interesting things aplenty with City's chart:

The 2nd half saw an increase in headers being used to clear their own half--probably a function of Villa playing more long balls and City sitting deeper as the game wore on and conceded territory for defensive solidity. Carries increased slightly in the 2nd half and Nasri, despite limited playing time was responsible for four 2nd half carries.

Passes and long balls are the most interesting area, yet again. Passes in order to exit the zone were way down in the 2nd half and long balls increased from 11 to 19. For the third time I shall say that long balls are, to be very general, a pretty bad idea with only around 30% of such types of zone exit resulting in the team holding onto possession.

So why did Man City play more long balls when leading in the 2nd half? Being a goal ahead changes the way teams play, for a start. But to be specific I would say that as the game wore on and as Man City sat deeper (I assume) the long ball becomes an easy out and an easy way to relieve pressure on the defense. Having Dzeko up top, and Tevez withdrawn for half of the 2nd half would only add to the direct nature of the zone exit methods.

Maybe managers think 'why try and play the ball out from the back and take risks when the team can use a specific tactic and play the long out ball to Dzeko'. Maybe Man City, using a designed tactic when leading, play a far more direct counter attacking style and prefer to keep more players back in their own half which then leads to the long ball. Either way, and whatever the answer may be, playing long balls out in order to clear the zone is a bad idea in general, a 70% turnover rate in this specific game will tell you that.

Final thoughts are: pass the ball out of your own half and enjoy an 80%ish success rate vs playing the long ball out of the zone with a 30%ish success rate?

Score effects, time left to play, individual players and teams tactics are just a few of the things which alter the method which is used to exit the zone/own half and these influences must be taken seriously, but we need more investigation to prove, or disprove, those influences.

For now, it's simple: pass the ball out, dont hit the long ball!

Thanks for finishing.