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How Does the Context of the Game Impact the Style of Play in Football Teams?

17 May 2021   ·   

The style of play is a combination of identifiable strategies and tactical behaviours that are regularly repeated by a team over long phases of a match and that remain stable from game to game. The style of play is based on quantifiable elements that include aspects related to the speed, duration and number of actions proposed in the game as well as ball possession and the players’ movements.

Recent research has studied how playing at home or away and the strength of the opposition impact the style of play proposed by elite football teams. The study, published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine in 2020, was based on the analysis of all games played during the 2015-16 season in the English Premier League (n=380). From the examination of 96 game-related variables, the authors identified three distinct styles of play by means of a cluster analysis: Style 1 included the teams that were committed to established defence, Style 2 identified the teams that showed strength in the offensive and defensive transitions and Style 3 was characterised by positive performance in established attack and set pieces. 

The results of the study suggest four riveting conclusions: (i) Home teams tend to prefer established attack than play styles based on transitions and defence. On the contrary, when they play away, teams favour playing in a more defensive way, suggesting the existence of the playing at home effect. (ii) When the Premier League teams were divided into the top 10 and the worst 10 ones according to their final ranking in the competition, it was found that such teams showed a significant change in their style of play depending on the level of the opponent. The lowest ranked teams tended to go for a more defensive style of play when facing a strong opponent, while the highest ranked teams showed a style of play based on ball possession against weak opponents. (iii) When the variables such as playing at home or away and strength of the opposition were combined, the level of the opponent had a greater influence on the style of play adopted by teams rather than game venue. When teams play at home but against strong opponents—which generally increases the commitment to Style 3 versus Style 1 or Style 2—, there is a tendency to use a more defensive style of play (Style 1). (iv) Total match goals scored have a lot to do with the team’s style of play. More than 2 goals were scored in games where there was a combination of each team’s style of play, with the exception of the Style 1 vs Style 1 combination (established defence vs established defence).

Some more clues. Although the styles of play proposed by the teams depend on the level of the opponent and playing at home or away, a few more things are known: (i) the stronger the teams, the more stable they are in their proposed style of play. The best teams are able to impose their style of play in any game scenario. (ii) The score usually has a profound effect on the teams’ style of play. The weaker teams tend to bet on a more defensive style of play after scoring a goal. Besides, this effect is modulated depending on whether the teams play at home or away.

In summary, it seems that coaches are quite right when they say that every game is a story and that a game can contain many games. Playing at home or away, the level of the opponent, the score or the combination of these variables usually lead to very different game scenarios. The coaches’ job will consist in preparing the players so that they know how to face each type of game or moment of play. As Paco Seirul-lo suggests, the ability of players to identify what to do at any time and to self-organise in the most appropriate way in order to successfully overcome each situation is a key element to triumph in football.

Carlos Lago Peñas


1.  Hewitt, A., Greenham, G. y Norton, K. (2016) Game style in soccer: what is it and can we quantify it? International Journal of Performance Analysis in Sport 16, 355-372.

2. Gollan, S., Bellenger, C. y Norton, K. (2020). Contextual Factors Impact Styles of Play in the English Premier League. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 19, 78-83. 

3. Lago-Peñas, C. and Dellal, A. (2010) Ball possession strategies in elite soccer according to the evolution of the match-score: the influence of situational variables. Journal of Human Kinetics 25, 93-100.

4. Lago-Peñas, C., Lago-Ballesteros, J., Dellal, A. and Gomez, M. (2010) Game-related statistics that discriminated winning, drawing and losing teams from the Spanish soccer league. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine 9, 288-293.


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