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The Tracker: Ball watching in the A-League, Part 1

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Roar Rookie
5th May, 2020

As a New Zealand writer now publishing here, I wish to begin by acknowledging Australia’s First Peoples, he tangata paora – the people of the long genealogy.

Australia’s First Nations players, alongside tangata whenua of New Zealand and the descendants of waves of settlers to both countries, participate together in the A-League in the Anzac tradition. And let’s not to forget the players who come from all over the world to play Down Under.

The A-League is truly a microcosm of a world game played by millions. Around the globe players of all cultures, all ages and all shapes and sizes, women and men, strive their best at this game of football. What better place to see our common humanity than on the football pitch. A-League players have this humanity, shared by all of us. This includes striving through physical and mental effort on the pitch.

It is the mental aspect, the thinking part of the game that, The Tracker focuses on. In the 1990s I attended a course to obtain ‘The New Zealand Badge’. It was then the top coaching award in the country. I learnt a small fact there that changed forever the way I played or watched football.

One evening at that course there was a ‘chalk and talk’ session led by Allan Jones, former coach of the All Whites. The reasons why goals are scored were articulated and then debated. One of these reasons fascinated me: failure to track. The vital importance of this principle to the outcomes of matches was something that had not entered my consciousness until then.

In the intervening years I have formed the opinion that failure to track is still a fascinating phenomenon. It is much more common in football than most people realise. What people? Players at all levels and coaches at all levels as well as observers and lovers of the game. Significantly, what interests me most of all is that if players or their coaches do recognise that this failure has occurred, they are often at a loss to remediate the problem.


But what on earth is ‘failure to track’? To me it happens when a defender neglects to follow and mark an attacker running towards goal. This becomes most obvious when the attacker then connects with the ball while in open space and scores a goal unchallenged. Sometimes this is the goal that determines the outcome of the game.

Marco Rojas in action for Melbourne Victory

(Graham Denholm/Getty Images)

Two-time world football player of the year and Premier League, Eredivisie and MLS manager Ruud Gullit elaborated on failure to track in the book How to Watch Football, saying, “The best defenders are in constant contact with their opponent. There is always physical contact so you know where your forward is. While you can never completely eliminate a player’s threat, a defender’s job is to minimize the danger he poses. A ball-watcher is a striker’s golden opportunity”.

All 344 goals scored in the A-League from Round 1 to the last match before COVID-19 shutdown were analysed. It was determined which goals showed failure to track and which goals did not. It was operationalised to obtain consistency across this slippery and challenging topic. Ruud Gullit’s use of the term ‘ball watching’ was adopted as the convention.

The finding was that ball watching emerged as the reason for 144 goals (42 per cent of the total number of goals scored). Future reports will elaborate on these results. They will demonstrate how easily ball watching can happen to the best of players. There are scenarios and events in matches that predispose defenders to ball watching despite their best strenuous efforts of body and mind. Ball watching is indeed part of our shared human condition.

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Source Goals Percentage (approx.)
Ball watching 144 42 per cent
Inconclusive 9 3 per cent
Focused defence 140 41per cent
Penalties 33 9 per cent
Direct free kicks 6 2 per cent
Own goals 12 3 per cent