Zone 14, what is it?
The discovery of Zone 14, a small area located just in front of the opposition penalty box has changed the way that the game is played. Since John Moores University announced that statistics had led them to the ‘Golden Square’ of football and the subsequent success of the French national team in the World Cup of 1998 and Euro 2000, it became accepted that Zone 14 is the key to winning games.
We know that teams are 4x more likely to score when passing forward into or out of Zone 14 (Horn et al 2002). The issue with this being that the opposition knows this too. Oddly, given its lack of quality due to issues with team function and communication, international football is still seen as a statistical leader in what’s next within the game. Zone 14 was no different.
Following France’s success, domestic teams worked tirelessly to both find a playmaker who could utilize zone 14. They also looked for a formation that allowed an individual to block the opposition from hurting them through the use of zone 14. This brought us players like Zidane, Bergkamp, and Kaka who could use their qualitative superiority within zone 14. It also saw the re-birth of the midfield destroyer. Suddenly players such as Claude Makélélé were the key to success.
The inverted sweeper, the anchorman, or just a true defensive midfielder was now vital in any teams domestic and international success. This tactical innovation saw the switch from a more traditional flat 4-4-2 to defensive shapes such as 4-1-4-1 or the Juanma Lillo created 4-2-3-1.
The understanding that zone 14 was so pivotal to teams’ success. It also saw a rise in the number of teams willing to defend deep and block any passing lanes into or out of this area. The low block was upon us.
With the knowledge that it is easier to destroy than create, managers could now set up their teams to defend the central space. They then forced plays outside and relied on the crossing statistics to give them a foothold in any game. Sam Allardyce, well-known for his fascination with sports science and statistics, mastered this at his time with Bolton Wanderers. He relied on his physically superior team to crowd out the central channel and then deal with balls from the wing space.
Whilst this plan seems at best, basic, it is based on more than just the height of his players. In the game, today crosses find a teammate 23.5% of the time. Obviously, this also means that 76.5% of the time a turnover occurs, giving the ball back to the defending team. On top of this, only 1.6% of crosses lead to a goal. Put all of this together and suddenly you have a defensive strategy that not only provides you with the ball over two-thirds of the time but also very rarely costs you as a team.
Innovation based on statistics
For attack-minded coaches such as Guardiola, Klopp and Wenger, 1.6% is not good enough when it comes to chances of scoring against an opposition. So, as with any issue, humans are faced with, they looked for the next available option. The half-space. If you cannot penetrate teams centrally through zone 14 anymore, then how can we best move and disorganise the opposition to give us the chance to still play passes into the opposition’s penalty box?
It’s well-known that Pep uses a field with different areas highlighted than the one that led to the zone 14 discovery. This field encourages positioning and plays to be spread across the five vertical channels, in an effort to find a player with a positional advantage. The reason for this, again, is statistics. For every 25 passes that break the midfield line and find a forward facing player, 10 results in a shot on goal. This translates to an action that now provides an attempt on goal 40% of the time simply by looking to find a forward facing player between lines.
This change from looking for a specific zone to now looking for advantages based on the principle of finding a third-line pass to forward facing players can be seen across all of the top leagues in today’s game.
The top two for Premier League goals and assists, both Eden Hazard and Mohamed Salah both look to utilise the half-spaces over the usage of zone 14. By avoiding the crowded central channel of the field, they both increase their chances of influencing play by increasing their time and space on the ball.
Coupled with the rise in prominence of possession-based football (also based on statistics), teams are now looking to move the ball in order to move the opposition. They then look to manipulate their defensive structure with the aim of finding gaps that they can exploit.
You can see from both Manchester City’s and Barcelona’s pass maps that there is a huge weight put on the importance of the half-spaces and gap between the midfield and defences lines of the opposition over the use of zone 14.
From the half-spaces, you now have multiple angles and options to be able to hurt the opposition. By circumventing zone 14, you are avoiding the most heavily defended area of the field. Doing this whilst being able to play a controlled pass into advanced areas gives the best percentage chance of a one-touch finish. Still, statistically, the chance from which most goals are scored.
Whilst zone 14 still exists, an approach to the game overly focussed on its utilisation will lead to stagnation of the team. Manipulation of defences to create space in all areas of the attacking third from which numerical, positional or qualitative advantages can be found is quickly becoming more efficient.
What is exciting, however, is that as more teams lean towards the half-spaces and combinations outside of the central channel, will this lead to space being created in zone 14 again? Like most tactical ideas and innovations, our guess is that this will be cyclical and it is only a matter of time before a target man and a true number 10 come back to lead a team to international glory.
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