Why do Posh play out from the back from goal kicks? This was a question asked by a listener of the Yellow Block podcast and is a fascinating and often misunderstood topic. It was also a question at the forefront of many Posh fans following the second goal Posh conceded in the 2-1 loss to Fleetwood Town.

In this article we will look at whether Posh actually do play out from the back that often, why they do it, how they do and what they do well/not so well.

Do Posh Actually Play Short From Goal Kicks?

In short sometimes, but not all that often. Let’s look at Pym’s per game passing stats this season:

From the table we can see that Pym plays on average 27.4 passes per match, just 8.4 (31%) of those passes are played short, with 19 (69%) going long. Now it’s worth noting that these stats include both goal kicks and passes in open play, however it shows that in general Posh have been happy to mix it up from the back.

This has been a feature of a far more pragmatic Fergie who’s side, towards the end of his second reign, were much maligned for their slow, sideways/backwards build up. It has also reflected the strengths of this Posh team which has been their front three. Posh have not been overly successful trying to play through midfield, especially when in a diamond, so playing into Toney and trying to build off him in the opposition half is often a sensible approach.

Against Fleetwood however Pym played a noticeably higher proportion of his passes short. Of his 27 total passes, 14 went long while 13 were played short, a near 50/50 split. Moreover, when he did go long just three of his 14 attempted passes found their target, whereas all 13 of his short passes were accurate.

So why did Posh play short from Pym more regularly against Fleetwood. Obviously with no Toney to aim for there was no obvious target in attack, while the conditions made hitting accurate long passes particularly difficult. It therefore made sense to play from defence against Fleetwood, so why did Posh struggle to create chances and why was their build up play less successful than it has been in recent games? We will answer all these questions. But first let’s consider the advantages, and pitfalls, of playing short from goal kicks.

Why Do Teams Play out from the Back?

Teams who play out from the back generally do so with two objectives in mind:

  1. To control the build-up phase of an attack. Hitting a long pass forward introduces a large degree of randomness and luck as to who wins the header/gains possession. Through playing a series of short, accurate passes a side should have more control over their build-up play.
  2. To create space to play forward. This can be done by either drawing out the opposition press, thus creating space to exploit in behind or between the lines. Or by manoeuvring the opposition block/press from side to side, therefore looking to create chances to play through or around the opposition.

Playing out from the back is a generally more attacking, but risky approach. Sides typically progress the ball 10-15m further up field per move by playing out from the back as opposed to playing long. Moreover, sides are 3x more likely to generate a shot from playing short, with 3% of moves which start with a short goal kick leading to shots on goal, as opposed to just 1% of moves starting from a long goal kick. The downside, sides are typically 3x more likely to concede a shot at goal when playing short than long from goal kicks.

This introduces an interesting risk-reward dynamic. Statistically speaking, while building out from the back you are more likely to create a shooting opportunity but equally as likely to concede one. Moreover, the opportunities given up when losing the ball deep in your own half are typically high value chances, given the lack of defensive cover available.

It’s important to remember that this risk-reward will change based on both the side in possession and their opponent. Man City building up from the back against Burnley would be more likely to be successful than if it were the other way round. Moreover, it may also call into question some of the apparently common sense tactics in football, e.g. the goalkeeper booting the ball long when his side are a goal down with only a few minutes remaining in the game.

Posh’s Three Most Successful Patterns When Playing out from the Back in Controlled Possession/Early Build-Up Phase

It’s rare that two sides build up play from defence will look the same. Teams will often have principles or pre-determined patterns of play which help dictate their movements or passes on the pitch.

However, when we talk about playing out from the back it conjures images of sides dominating possession, controlling play while playing through midfield in a succession of short, crisp passes. This, at League One level, is particularly difficult to do. As mentioned above, the risk-reward dynamic drifts further and further out of your favour as your players become less skilled (opposition quality/style will also affect this). Even some of the sides who are best at controlling games in and playing through midfield at League One level, such as Oxford, can struggle badly when they come up against a coordinated high press, as Posh and other sides (e.g. Rotherham) have proved in their recent matches with Oxford.

Posh are not as good as Oxford at maintaining possession in midfield. Therefore, when they do play from the back the goal is still to transfer the ball into the final third quickly, usually following a switch of play to create space to do so. Depending on the opposition tactics, shape and player locations, we have seen Posh most regularly rely on one of three patterns.

Switch of Play and Into Toney

The first relies on finding Toney with accurate clipped passes, primarily from either the right or left sided centre back. Take this example from December’s game against Bristol Rovers.

Pym plays the ball out to Kent in LCB, who plays into Reed in a deep lying midfield role.

Reed, who has drawn the attention of three players, plays back to Kent. Posh, through a succession of quick, two touch passes accurately aimed at the receivers back foot, then switch play to Mason who is in space on the left hand side of the pitch.

When Mason receives the ball he has time and space to pick a pass before the Rovers press can track across to him. He takes one touch, looks up, and clips a perfectly weighted ball into Toney’s feet.

Above is a prime example of Posh working the ball in their own half in order to then play into Toney, utilising his strength and link up play. The advantages of working the ball through/across the defence before playing into Toney? Posh are able to play passes from more advanced positions, into deeper positions and over shorter distances/with more accuracy, often aimed at Toney’s feet/chest as opposed to his head for a 50/50. Thus, such passes give Toney the greatest chance of successfully linking play.

The Rovers game for me was the best example of Posh successfully building attacks from deep and moving the ball quickly and accurately to create opportunities for forward passes. The key that day? Posh had probably their best passers from LCB (Kent) CB (Bennett) and RCB (Mason) on the pitch together in those positions for the first, and only, time this season. One of the next examples also comes from the same game.

Playing Into the ‘Red Zone’ (often after switch of play)

The red zone is a phrase I am borrowing from Southampton manager Ralph Hasenhuttl. It describes the central and half-space areas of the pitch in front of the opposition back three or four, an area which is particularly hard for sides to defend and particularly dangerous for attacking sides if they can get control of the ball in such areas. In Fergie’s dialect, he calls a very similar philosophy ‘playing between the lines’. In an attacking sense this means playing into players located between the opposition midfield and defence.

Although the terminology and philosophies are slightly different, essentially both managers are looking to work the ball into the space shaded red below. In Posh’s case, this typically means picking out their number 10 or a forward dropping deep into this zone.

This is something we’ve seen Posh do on many occasions this season. Below are two examples. First, we see Posh working the ball from right to left to create space to play into Maddison, again this is taken from the Bristol Rovers game.

Before moving onto the pass into the red zone it is worth touching on how Posh switched play in the above example. In the first clip we saw Posh switch play across the back three before playing long into Toney. Now we see an example of Posh switching play across the midfield line. With Mason first playing into Woodyard, who plays the ball into Ward in a central area between Rovers’ attacking and midfield line. Mason then switches the ball left to Kent.

It’s also worth noting at this point that recently we have seen examples of the wing back to wing back switch across the midfield line utilising Brown and Taylor’s speed and accuracy of pass.

Kent then plays forwards into Maddison between the Rovers midfield and defensive line. Maddison drives at goal before shooting just wide from 18 yards. Potentially the pass would have been even more dangerous had Maddison made a run to take up a central position for a split pass between the midfielders, shown by a hypothetical red line and position marker. This is the position which Szmodics takes up below for a pass from Bennett.

Both Maddison, and now Szmodics, are very adept at taking spaces between the lines to collect the ball. Moreover, with the wide centre backs operating in half space areas this should, and has in the past, created angles and overloads which makes it easier to play this pass than it typically would from a back four.

Now let’s consider one final pattern.

Switch of Play and in Behind

The final pattern is only really an effective option against sides who play with high defensive line/press. It was therefore perhaps most prominent in Posh’s 2-1 home win against Rotherham United, let’s look at how Posh executed this below.

Against Rotherham, Posh used width to stretch the pitch and extend the distances Rotherham had to cover. This gave Posh’s wide centre backs and wing backs more time and space to pick a pass over the press. In the first game away to Rotherham Posh played to Toney as a last resort, with the pass often rushed as a result. On Saturday, Posh played direct much earlier, and their plan revolved around creating opportunities to do so.

Posh would draw the press into one side of the pitch, before working the switch of play to the player in space on the opposite side. That player then had time and space to pick a pass over the press, thus bypassing Rotherham’s first and second defensive lines.

One of the drawbacks of the high press it that it forces the back four to play on a higher defensive line, leaving space in behind for quick forwards to run into. This was something that Posh looked to exploit. They did so by playing passes across the back line, drawing Rotherham high up the pitch before using their pace in attack to turn Rotherham and exploit the space in behind.

Above, as Thompson receives a throw-in from Ward, note how deep the Rotherham back line is (using half way line as reference point). With no space to play forward into Thompson turns back to play to Beevers, and Posh work the ball along the back line to Butler. This passage of play triggers the Rotherham press and brings the defensive line higher up the pitch.

Now as Butler receives the ball the two forwards, right back and midfield four are all pressed high up the pitch. We can’t quite see it but Toney and Dembele are left 3v2 in the attacking third. Note also how high the defensive line has come, leaving plenty of space for Butler to play in behind. Although the Rotherham player wins the foot race with Dembele, he is forced to head straight out of play giving Posh an attacking throw in about 15 yards from the corner flag.

Approach vs Fleetwood

Against Fleetwood we know that Posh were without Toney so they were unable to play directly into and build off him. We also know that Fleetwood played a deeper, more compact block than Rotherham, limiting opportunities to play over the top. Therefore, Posh looked to play into and exploit the space in front of the back three/five. But where they successful in getting the ball there?

To answer this we can look at the number of touches/passes made by Dembele, Eisa and Szmodics in this area, the three players Posh most regularly looked to find in this zone.

Szmodics had a similar number of touches in both games (49 vs Fleetwood, 44 vs Ipswich). However, in the top touch map against Fleetwood we can see how regularly Szmodics was dropping deep and wide to collect the ball. Against Ipswich, a much higher proportion of his touches came in the opposition half, with him registering a high number of touches both in the red zone, left wing and in the box.

Posh also looked for their strikers to drop in to link play. Dembele is probably Posh’s best player at doing so. He has the close control, agility, speed and trickery to create space in tight areas. Again though Posh struggled to find him regularly, in recent matches against Oxford and Ipswich he registered 39 and 38 touches respectively, with 18 and 17 coming in red zone areas. Against Fleetwood he managed just 27 touches, with 9 coming in red zone areas. This represents a huge drop off.

Then there is Eisa, who Posh have often looked to drop into these zones, although he has never looked comfortable linking play or playing with his back to goal. His close control under pressure, passing and awareness of what’s around him simply aren’t good enough to perform such a role. 

Eisa received just four passes in this zone, with the three black shapes indicating Eisa getting his pass away, and the red shape showing a loss of possession due to a poor first touch. Eisa’s inactivity in Posh’s build-up play definitely played a part in Posh failing to regularly work the ball into threatening positions.

I therefore think we can safely conclude that Posh failed to regularly play into this area of the pitch.

Why weren’t Posh able to regularly work the ball into the ‘Red Zone’ on Saturday?

It should have been a key feature of their play but sadly they weren’t able to execute playing through midfield or from defence into the red zone. But why?

First let’s look at three selection choices which limited Posh’s ability to build forwards from the back.

First, although dominant in the air, Mark Beevers has clear limitations on the ball. Despite having real reservations about Rhys Bennett going into the start of this season, I have seen enough to convince me that he should be given a chance to claim the role in the centre of defence as his own.

Bennett is yet to let Posh down when called upon this season, a far cry from the error prone defender we saw playing towards the end of last season. He has also demonstrated a comfort on the ball and passing accuracy/range far in advance of what Beevers offers. It is no coincidence that Posh were able to calmly build up play and control possession in Bennett’s only start in the heart of a three man defence against Bristol Rovers, although their profligacy in the final third ensured they were unable to capitalise on their improved deep build up play that day. Moreover, on his most recent performance against Southend, Bennett once again demonstrated his ability to accurately progress the ball from defence to the final third, this time from the right side of defence.

In contrast to this, Fleetwood however Beevers was again ponderous in possession. At times he struggled to get the ball under control quickly, slowing Posh’s build up play down when accurate, quick passing was necessary to manoeuvre Fleetwood’s deep and organised block. When he did pass it was often lacking the necessary pace or accuracy, often sending players back towards goal to collect the ball and not helped by his insistence to hit passes with the outside of his left foot. At other times he failed to pass the ball along the ground, hitting passes that bounced and bobbled towards opponents and forcing them to take extra touches to bring it under control. To be able to play round or through Fleetwood everyone in the defence needed to operate on two touches and pass cleanly, with Beevers there this was not possible.

Beevers’ uncertainty in possession came to a head for the winning Fleetwood goal.

In the clip above Beevers has just received the ball back off Mason. His first touch really should be with his right foot and open up his body. He would then have three good passing options by being able to play a split pass into Taylor, across goal to Pym who can then switch play to Thompson or straight to Thompson himself (shown by red lines).

However, he takes a loose first touch back towards goal with the outside of his left foot, he then has to take a second touch by which time he is facing away from both Pym and Taylor, his only option is the to play to Mason. This allows Fleetwood to commit to and overload that side of the pitch as they know where the ball is going (see image below). From there they are able to force the direction of play as Morris (11) presses from the side preventing Mason from being able to play back towards goal, he is therefore forced to go down the line towards Fleetwood’s numerical advantage. Mason is put in a difficult position, although he is perhaps not completely blameless. He appears to hit a blind pass down the line, when perhaps a clip down the line in behind the fullback was his best and safest option.

Next let’s consider the decision to drop Brown for Knight. Knight is a better tackler than Brown, he also brings more energy and work rate both on and off the ball, but one thing he is not is a better passer. Brown is Posh’s best passer. His understanding of when to advance and when to rotate/shift the ball is excellent. His passing is both accurate and creative, with him able to pick a forward pass from deep which few other League One players would see.

Against Fleetwood Posh badly missed Brown’s passing range. His ability to pick passes in tight areas may have been the key to unpicking Fleetwood’s massed ranks. Then there was Eisa’s role in the side. Posh asked him to drop deep however, as I’ve written many times, he is poor with his back to goal and lacks an understanding of this role.

Posh’s lack of ball progression must have frustrated Szmodics. Who dropped deeper more and more frequently in search of the ball. At times this meant that Posh were left with no options to play into the zone between Fleetwood’s midfield and defence.

At other times when Szmodics dropped deep we did see Knight fill the space between the lines. Although an improvement on having no one there, Knight is clearly not as adept in this role as Szmodics, and he was too static in this role as he struggled to receive passes between the lines.

It would however be remiss not to mention that Fleetwood did a good job of controlling and limiting this space between the midfield and defence. Not only were their distances between the lines compact but they always left their deepest midfield player (Whelan) in this zone. They also typically kept Whelan in this space even when in possession to limit Posh’s ability to transition.

Next let’s consider the decision to drop Brown for Knight. Knight is a better tackler than Brown, he also brings more energy and work rate both on and off the ball, but one thing he is not is a better passer. Brown is Posh’s best passer. His understanding of when to advance and when to rotate/shift the ball is excellent. His passing is both accurate and creative, with him able to pick a forward pass from deep which few other League One players would see.

Against Fleetwood Posh badly missed Brown’s passing range. His ability to pick passes in tight areas may have been the key to unpicking Fleetwood’s massed ranks. Then there was Eisa’s role in the side. Posh asked him to drop deep however, as I’ve written many times, he is poor with his back to goal and lacks an understanding of this role.

Posh’s lack of ball progression must have frustrated Szmodics. Who dropped deeper more and more frequently in search of the ball. At times this meant that Posh were left with no options to play into the zone between Fleetwood’s midfield and defence.

At other times when Szmodics dropped deep we did see Knight fill the space between the lines. Although an improvement on having no one there, Knight is clearly not as adept in this role as Szmodics, and he was too static in this role as he struggled to receive passes between the lines.

It would however be remiss not to mention that Fleetwood did a good job of controlling and limiting this space between the midfield and defence. Not only were their distances between the lines compact but they always left their deepest midfield player (Whelan) in this zone. They also typically kept Whelan in this space even when in possession to limit Posh’s ability to transition.

With Whelan almost permanently controlling this zone Posh really needed more, not fewer bodies in this area. One can imagine a scenario where with Szmodics moving into the right half space, and Dembele the left half space, behind Eisa as a central number 9, being effective in giving Posh extra options and control of the red zone. Sadly, I cannot one time this happened.

Conclusion

I have tried to answer and develop the question ‘why do Posh play out the back from goal kicks?’. We have first looked at whether Posh actually do play out from the back/goal kicks regularly, and looking at Pym’s pass types we can see he goes direct a lot more than he goes short.

We then looked at the advantages of playing out from goal kicks (on average progress ball further and 3x more likely to have a shot) compared to the disadvantages (on average 3x more likely to concede a shot).

We then finished by looking at Posh’s most common patterns when playing out from the back, two of which actually result in a direct pass into the forward zone, before asking why they were unsuccessful in doing so against Fleetwood.

As a follow up piece I will put together a short (I promise) article looking at alternative goal kick routines Posh might employ. Playing into Beevers on the left of the six yard box as they did against Fleetwood makes it to obvious where Posh plan to play next. It makes it easier for teams to force the direction of play, press, overload and disrupt their build up play.

I have two or three ‘funky’ goal kick routines which would make it much harder to predict where Posh will play or force the direction of play. I feel that in general, sides, Posh included, have not properly taken advantage of the new goal kick law changes.