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Anatomy of a Goal: Breaking Down Xhaka’s Nightmare versus Burnley


This past weekend, Arsenal were once again a victim of their own circumstances. Leading 1-0 and completely dominating play, player error once again led to a goal that saw the Gunners lose their edge and have to settle for 1-1 draw.

Of course, it was one of our usual pantomime villains, Granit Xhaka who was at the center of the errors that led to the goal but as we showed with our last installment, as easy as it is to blame one player for a mistake there are usually multiple breakdowns that lead to a goal.

Playing Out of the Back

Like last time, we intend to ground ourselves in an understanding of some of the coaching principles around playing out of the back. It’s a phrase we all know by now and it’s something we’re all quite familiar with the facets of how it works with Arsenal.

Before we dive into the coaching aspect of it, let’s first acknowledge something about Arsenal and often inflexibility of playing out of the back. I am of the personal belief that this desire to constantly play out of the back is more of a facet of forcing the team to get comfortable with it. To do it as a second nature.

I took the liberty of watching back some of Pep’s first season at City and Bayern – not all matches but just enough to see if there was a similar trend. And there was, in an effort to enforce his playing ideals on his new teams he had them stick with some basic tenants of how he wanted to play. Remember, the first season criticism Pep came under in England for sticking to it all the time. It is because he wanted the style of play to be second nature to his players.

Arsenal have shown a marked improvement on this play but there are still issues with it. Some of those issues were evident in the wacky goal that was scored.

The Principles of Playing Out of the Back

 At its core, playing out from the back is a core principle for teams that want to control the ball and possess the ball through the lines. When effective it allows teams to quickly move from back to front without risking losing the ball in the more traditional goal locks.


Infographic courtesy

It is however a little more than too. Playing out from the back is done so that a team may be able to make the pitch bigger, create space for players up the pitch. It is a tactic the incorporates every player on the pitch.


Effective playing out from the back expands the size of the pitch for the team wanting to retain possession of the ball.

It is obviously technically and mentally demanding as players have to possess quality of touch, pass and awareness of space (both on and off the ball.)

One of the key deficiencies I see, especially here in the United States as we teach this playing style is the role of the pivot (6 or 8 depending on how you number your team)

This player has to be one of the best technically on the ball. Santi Cazorla springs to mind as an effective pivot because the ball just stuck to whatever foot he wanted. Things to look out for is how they enter the gaps between pressing forwards – are they scanning the field, are they coming sideways, how are they are calling for the ball.

These traits along with the technical requirements are very demanding and without the right person performing the role could limit a team’s ability to effectively play out from the back.

With the full backs pushed up wide and high and center-backs taking position with the 18, it falls on to the 6 to drop in space and act as a release, especially if other passing options are cut off from pressing or man-to-man coverage.

We coach playing out of the back starting with the smallest Rondo and expanding it until all core positions. What we are looking for a proper positioning, effective support play through both verbal and non-verbal communication and appropriate angles and distances away from the ball AND good decisions, in and out of possession


Rondos of various sizes can be used to practice this trait. This 3v3+4 focuses on the movement across the lines of the CBs and FBs as well as the role of the midfield including the pivot) on playing from the back.

Through training the practice expands and whether they featured in the initial rondo or not, the goalkeeper is added. The goalkeeper is the start of all the action. Typically, for me I will start a segment on this topic by playing the ball into the keeper then seeing how play develops, looking for the key aspects I discussed above. Again, I hyper focus on them including the decisions the goalkeeper makes.

Why is the goalkeeper decision so important?

For me this is a question not asked enough. It is not about the playing with the feet it’s the decisions the goalkeeper makes that will make or break it. And just because a team wants to always play out of the back, doesn’t mean that the goalkeeper isn’t given the option of playing it long.

We talked about decision making (repeatedly), the goalkeeper has to read the cues they receive from the pressing team and decide whom they are going to play the ball too. I liken it to an NFL quarterback who is given “reads” when looking to pass to a receiver.

If a goalkeeper sees that forcing the pass to any of the players around him would put his team under too much pressure, they have to be given the authority to send it at a minimum to the wide forwards up high.  This is an effective tool in playing out as well and shouldn’t be shunned because we’re trying to play out of the back.

When done well, and received by an open player, the direct pass has the ability to negate the press and bypass multiple defenders all with one kick.  Again, it still possesses risk, in that a ball in the air has more likelihood of becoming a 50/50 situation than a ball kept on the ground.

Now that we’re grounded in an understanding of this idea of playing out from the back. Let’s look at Xhaka’s mistake that led to the goal.

Burnley 1 – 1 Arsenal

With an eye towards educating a removing vitriol assigned to one player because of on the pitch mistakes, we have to acknowledge that Xhaka should never attempted a curler around the defender. Given his entry in the 18-yard box, and the positioning of Woods, his only options should have been a half turn out and pass or a one-time pass back to the keeper and release. In the famous words of Commander Mike Metcalf (Jester of Top Gun fame) “you chose wrong.”


Starting point. Mari on the ball. Position of pressing players will dictate his decisions.

The start of the play really begins with Mari on the ball. His head is up and clearly can see the field of play. Burnley have three players in the area, two of which are actively looking to press. He could attempt a longer out ball to Chambers out as a RB, but Chambers looks to be looking up field rather than for the ball. That leaves his next best option Leno.


The ball is now with Leno who has 3 options for his distribution now that Odegaard has dropped deep.

Mari opts to make the pass to Leno. The two attackers press a little deeper with one pulling up to take away the pass back to Mari. Xhaka is continuing his run and at this moment captured, is actually a safe option because he’s out of the box and Woods is actually pushed deeper into the box. Leno could’ve also taken Mari’s pass across his body and made the pass Luiz which while Woods is pushed up is still a relatively better option given Leno’s strength with his feet. Finally, Odegaard has dropped and is also safe.


With Xhaka dropping deeper, Leno decides to pass to him. Xhaka has a decision to make.

Xhaka’s forward momentum carries him into the box and now he is within the 18 with three pressing attackers around him. He has become a difficult option here.  He is left with his own decisions to make as the ball comes in to his feet.


Xhaka receives the ball and only has one right decision to make here (highlighted in yellow)

Xhaka’s touch in the box isn’t a great one. Given its proximity to his body (too close) his only real option is a pass back to Leno who can then either go long or perhaps try for Odegaard but the problems here are a plenty. We are familiar with Xhaka’s technical problems. He isn’t great on the half turn and he is remarkably one footed.  Given the position of the Burnley attackers, his ultimate decision isn’t the right one.


The touch, the kick, and the end is neigh




In the end Xhaka decides to try a curved ball around Woods. I think because of the position of the ball at his feet he doesn’t get underneath it enough to get the whip he wants and it’s more flat than curved. As we are all aware it freakishly bounces off of Woods chest and into goal. The move would go on to deflate Arsenal who for up until that moment completely dominating and should’ve been out of sight if not for their own wastefulness in front of goal.


The idea for an Anatomy of a Goal was born out of what was being seen on social media as endless attacks were made on players for making mistakes on pitch. Now, yelling and screaming at a player is nothing new. It’s happened in the stands for ages. However, the anonymity of social media means that the fanbase has become so toxic that some players will likely fear for their lives as they are told “to kill themselves,” or “get out of my club.”

This series has then been designed to perhaps give a coaching perspective on how maybe a coach or manager will look at a conceded goal and what led to it. A match is many moments and pictures that develop and usually a goal happens because of multiple inflection points and isn’t just “this player made a mistake.”

We concede that Xhaka’s decision at the end was wrong. But so were the decisions of Leno and even perhaps Mari to start were also wrong. It led to a break down across the back and ultimately resulted in a goal.

Hopefully you understand the why’s behind the style of play (through our coaching background) and the break down of play. We also hope you’ll understand the continuing need for “education” like this. Ultimately whether a player is right Arsenal or not, no player deserves the hate they receive on social media.

Ed note: If you are a coach looking for sessions or session designing software, we can’t recommend The Coaching Manual enough. They are probably the most comprehensive site to help coaches be better at their job. Give them a visit.

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