Why The Best Soccer Players Are Real Head Turners

In soccer, like many sports, the goal scorers get the headlines. Yet, they will secretly admit that the final pass played to them is very often their key to unlock the defense. Without the vision of a teammate to pick them out of a crowd, their finishing skill is almost useless.
As players progress through the ranks of high school, college and beyond, not only do their opponents get quicker with their feet but also with their eyes and brains.  Their time with the ball gets shorter forcing them to either make the correct pass or avoid the oncoming defender.  The luxury of time to survey the field for targets after they receive the ball is now gone.  The available options need to be gathered and assessed constantly so that when the ball arrives at their feet, the homework is already done.
So, what do top players do differently that makes their decisions consistently fast and correct?  Geir Jordet, a professor at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, specializes in perceptual expertise in soccer.  At last month’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, he presented new research on what he describes as “the hidden foundation of field vision.”
From previous studies, Jordet knew the importance of visual search strategies in soccer decision making.  However, the typical methods used to test a player’s perception seemed artificial.  Whether it be putting athletes in simulated field situations in a lab or merely relying on a computer joy stick movement, Jordet knew he needed to make the tests more realistic.
“These (lab-based) tasks do not simulate the functional links between perception and natural movements, which may be essential to capture, if the goal is to reveal knowledge about real-game visual perception,” he wrote.
So, he went back to just being a fan and admiring the sport’s best players.  Using SkySport’s Player Cam broadcasts (now discontinued) of English Premier League games, he and his research team could watch isolations of a single player in one screen, while seeing the entire game context on another screen (see image below).
“Such video footage makes it possible to examine how players engage in visual exploratory behaviors by moving their bodies and heads to better perceive events taking place behind their backs,” said Jordet.
From 64 different games, they watched the habits of 118 of the world’s best players to detect the clues they leave on the field during 1,279 actual game situations.  Jordet’s hypothesis was that those players who engaged in the most active search of their surroundings before they received the ball would produce the highest percentage of successful passes once they received possession. He defined an active search as the player turning their gaze and head away from the ball to prepare themselves by trying to pick-up as much information about the positions and movement of teammates and opponents.
Dividing the total exploratory events (turning the head) by the seconds of each scenario yields an average exploration frequency.  Not surprisingly, the two EPL players, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, with the highest frequency rates of .62 searches per second are two of the most successful midfielders currently playing in the league.
In this video clip, watch (and try to count) the number of times Lampard moves his head while waiting for the ball:

When the player received an incoming pass, it was noted if he was able to complete the next pass successfully, especially if it was a forward pass in the direction of his opponent’s goal. A better search should yield better information which should improve the completion percentage of the next pass.
Sure enough, Jordet found a direct correlation between higher exploration frequency and pass completion rates.  Players with exploration frequency below .2 only completed 54% of their passes while those with more than .41 explorations per second had pass completion rates of 73% or higher.
As the research team notes, counting head turns still doesn’t tell us anything about what the player actually saw during those quick glimpses.  It seems they are able to put pieces of the puzzle together with each glance, allowing their brain to assemble the big picture.
“The findings can have major implications for both what scouts look for in players and for how coaches work to improve players’ receiving and passing skills,” concluded Jordet.
In Gerrard's case, this search habit pays off in creating scoring chances, especially in the final attacking third of the field.  The always useful website, EPL Index, just updated their analysis of the top EPL players this season, in these two categories.  As expected, Gerrard appeared in the top five of each ranking (see charts).

As Xavi, Barcelona’s midfield maestro, explains, “Think quickly, look for spaces. That's what I do: look for spaces. All day. I'm always looking. All day, all day. Here? No. There? No. People who haven't played don't always realise how hard that is. Space, space, space. I think, the defender's here, play it there. I see the space and pass. That's what I do.”

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