Transition in the defensive third (FIFA Men's World Cup 2022)

Transition in the defensive third (FIFA Men's World Cup 2022)

As we explored in our previous blog teams at the Men’s World Cup 2022 had an average of 98 transitions per game, accounting for 68% of all possession starts.  Here we look at the areas of the pitch where transition occurred and break down some of the key considerations of how attacking transition can look when the ball is won in the defensive third of the pitch.

It will perhaps come as no surprise that transition happens all over the pitch.  Different systems and styles of play can impact this, but as the image below demonstrates teams at the FIFA Men’s World Cup 2022 transitioned on average 39% of the time in the defensive third, 41% in the mid third, and 20% in the attacking third.  Transitioning in each of these areas bring their own unique set of challenges and considerations for both coaches and players.  In this blog we focus on attacking transition in the defensive third.

Defensive Third Transition

When a team gains possession of the ball through a transition in their defensive third they often face an immediate high level of pressure from the opposition.  This makes sense because if the opposition can counter-press and win the ball back in attacking areas they are much more likely to get a shot on goal.  As a result, players must be prepared to deal with this level of pressure and identify opportunities to either play through the pressure with forward passes, or away from pressure with switches of play.

England Senior Men - Defensive third transition to play through pressure

When teams transitioned in the defensive third they spent an average of 10 seconds in possession of the ball.  However, interestingly a massive 52% of all possessions following a transition in the defensive third lasted less than 5 seconds before either another transition occurred, or the ball went out of play.  As possession has been won far from the opposition’s goal it is can often very difficult to counter-attack and therefore players must be comfortable receiving and playing under pressure to gain control and build an attack.

England Senior Women - Defensive third transition to retain and build attack

Generally, teams who transition more in the defensive third tend to be less successful, as is evidenced in this tournament with Costa Rica (56%) and Iran (48%) the two highest for defensive third transitions.  Both teams exited the tournament at the group stages.   However, if you have a group of exceptionally disciplined players without the ball it can become a powerful strategy to set up in a low block, as could be seen from tournament semi-finalists Morocco. 

 Throughout the tournament Morocco spent an average of 26% of their time without the ball set up in a low block resulting in just under half (46%) of their transitions occurring in the defensive third, an average of 58 per game.  This defensive discipline made them difficult to break down and in total they conceded just one goal in their journey to the semi-finals before losing 2-1 to France. 

France themselves are a great example of a team who showed the ability to spring a fast counter-attack from a deep defensive position, utilising the strength and pace of forward players like Kylian M’Bappe, combined with the intelligence of players who possess the ability to both think and play forward quickly from attacking transitions.  This form of counter-attacking is highly entertaining, however, in reality only 13% of all open play goals in the tournament occurred following a defensive third transition, and the vast majority of these involved sustained possession rather than a fast counter-attack.

Coaching considerations

What type of players do you have in your squad and how might this impact your out of possession strategy?

Can your players recognise when to play through or away from pressure on transition?

How can scanning help your players identify when a transition might occur and where there might be space to play?