A Deep Dive into Passing Sequences and Scoring Strategies

Football players in a strategic formation during a match.

When it comes to association football or, as many of us know it, soccer, tactics play an undeniably crucial role. Every coach has their approach to the game, with some preferring quick counter-attacks while others emphasize retaining possession. Among the myriad of strategies employed, understanding the efficacy of different passing sequences can be a game-changer. This takes us to a seminal study by Hughes & Franks in 2005, which provides a comprehensive analysis of passing sequences, shots, and goals in soccer.

Read more: A Deep Dive into Passing Sequences and Scoring Strategies

The Origin of Direct Play

One of the key influences on British football tactics dates back to the research of Reep and Benjamin. This early research deeply impacted the strategies of most coaches. It gave birth to what we commonly refer to as the “long-ball game” or “direct play.” Simplified, this tactic involves quick, direct movements towards the goal, often bypassing the midfield with long passes.

Over the years, various studies have reconfirmed the data from these late 1960s studies. A common observation from different FIFA World Cup tournaments is the prominence of the direct play tactic.

But is Direct Play Always the Best Approach?

To dig deeper into this, Hughes & Franks (2005) analyzed the number of passes leading to goals in two FIFA World Cup finals. Their findings were in line with previous studies, but with a twist.

When data were normalized considering the frequency of different lengths of passing sequences, they found something interesting. Goals were more frequently scored from longer passing sequences than from shorter ones. So, while the direct play has its merits, longer sequences of passes, or what is termed “possession play,” seemed to produce more goals.

Furthermore, during these longer passing sequences, teams produced significantly more shots per possession. However, here’s a catch – the strike ratio of goals from shots was better for “direct play” than for “possession play.” This suggests that while possession play may produce more opportunities, direct play might ensure better quality shots.

Successful vs. Unsuccessful Teams: The Tactical Difference

The study also delved into the shooting data for teams based on their success in the 1990 FIFA World Cup finals. The results? For the triumphant teams, longer passing sequences were more fruitful, leading to more goals per possession. In contrast, for the teams that didn’t fare as well, neither long-ball nor possession play provided a distinct advantage.

Conclusion: Beyond the Long-ball Game

While the original work of Reep and Benjamin was groundbreaking in football analysis, Hughes & Franks (2005) suggest it only provided a partial understanding. Football, like many other sports, is evolving. As beginners stepping into the tactical world of football, understanding the nuances of both direct and possession plays can be crucial.

To sum it up, while the allure of the direct play is undeniable, it’s essential to appreciate the potential of possession play. As with many things in football, balance is key. Depending on the team’s strengths and the opposition’s weaknesses, tactically oscillating between direct and possession play can be the secret to success on the football pitch.

For those aspiring to dive deep into football tactics, understanding such studies can provide a firm foundation. The world of football tactics is vast, intricate, and ever-evolving.


Hughes, M., & Franks, I. (2005). Analysis of passing sequences, shots and goals in soccer. Journal of Sports Sciences, 23(5), 509-514

Photo by Izuddin Helmi Adnan on Unsplash

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