The three zones of football

David Sumpter
4 min readJul 24, 2023

The game of football is simple. If you have got the ball, keep it within your team. If you are near the ball, but one of your teammates has it, then support that player and make yourself available to receive it. If you are further away from the ball, think about your team’s shape and your position in the team’s formation.

In seeing football this way, I am following Professor Paco Seirul·lo’s view of players in team sports . Moving progressively away from the player with the ball itself (zone zero), Seirul·lo defines two zones: one is the mutual support zone or help space, two is the co-operation zone.

Let’s look at these three zones in a recent match. In the picture below, Adama Traoré has waited three seconds with the ball on the edge of the box, during which time the Atletico Madrid defence have moved toward him. Traoré is the player in Zone 0.

The key zone one player (mutual support) player here is Pedri, who is positioned to receive a pass. Dani Alves is also jogging up to potentially take a role behind Traoré on the right-wing, also in zone 1. Currently, the Atletico Madrid defence are not well-organized in zone one, with too many players concentrated on Traoré and not thinking about what might happen next.

Barcelona’s most important zone two players in this case are the three players (Ferran Torres, Gavi and de Jong) in the box. They aren’t directly supporting Traoré, but by occupying the central area and outnumbering the defenders they are ensuring that they are in good positions if Traoré does get the ball into the box…

Before we see what happens next (if you don’t already know!) let’s summarise.

  • Zone 0 is about individual skills. This is all about what Traoré does with the ball.
  • Zone 1 is about movement. In this case, Pedri has a direct supporting role centrally and Dani Alves is coming up to help out.
  • Zone 2 is tactical. The question here is how many players Barcelona wants to have in the box and which spaces they should occupy. This is relevant to all players and is based on the coach’s instructions.

Different players have different roles and different skills in different zones. In this example, the focus is on Traoré, who is very much a zone zero player. He likes to have the ball and does exciting things when he has it, with dribbling and beating players as his key skills. The question for football analytics is how we turn our understanding of what he does into numbers. Simply counting the number of dribbles he makes does not tell us the whole story.

What makes good dribbling?

To get more context, we use a statistical model to measure what makes a good dribble. Based on a combination of event data — which tells us what the player with the ball did — and tracking data — which gives the positions and velocities of all the players on the pitch, we found that there are three major components to a good dribble: where the dribble happens on the pitch, how far it progresses the ball and how fast the player runs when carrying it out.

This allows us to create a metric (a KPI) for dribbling. And here we find why Traoré excels. The table below gives league rankings for the Premier League this season, where 100 is best in league per 90 minutes played and 0 is worst, for high-speed dribbles, failed dribbles and cutbacks.

Traoré was top in the premier league amongst strikers when it came to high-speed dribbles and ranked highly in cutbacks, as well. He was not highly ranked in terms of failed dribbles, coming in the bottom 23 percent of players. We often see this pattern, the players who succeed a lot in dangerous situations are often also those who lose the ball more often.

So, when Traoré made his move against Atlético, suddenly accelerating down the edge of the box and placing a cross into the middle for Gavi to head in, he was doing precisely what that statistics said that he was good at.

Seirul·lo’s three-zone system is essential for analyzing both tactics and individual players. In the example here, we have used statistics to analyze the zone zero ball skills of Adama Traoré. In my previous article, I showed a way in which the concept of pitch control can be useful in organizing tactically in zone two. In the next article, we will look at how to scout player movement in zone one.

In the meantime, I can’t help noting that there is one particular player in the Premier League that shares some of Traoré’s statistical style. Aston Villa’s Emiliano Buendia is the most similar player in terms of going past the opposition and then creating opportunities for teammates through cutbacks. Like Traoré before him, Buendia has come in for some criticism for his lack of goals. But Buendia’s underlying stats show that there is more to the game than scoring. Aston Villa should keep faith in last season’s signing: we need to use the right numbers when assessing individual skills.

Originally published at https://barcainnovationhub.fcbarcelona.com in 2021.

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David Sumpter

Books: Four Ways of Thinking (2023); The Ten Equations (2020); Outnumbered (2018); Soccermatics (2016) and Collective Animal Behavior (2010).