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K League Coach: A Study of K League vs Premier League Part 3

K League Coach: A Study of K League vs Premier League

The K League Coach returns for the third and final instalment of his technical comparison of how goals are scored in both the English Premier League and the K League 1. The analysis of the goals will be broken down into three areas, the finish, the assist and the transitional moment in order to highlight similarities and differences in style of play between the divisions. This edition of the K League Coach's "What are we Watching?" series takes a look at the transitional moment.


In a comparison of K League and the English Premier League, particular focus will be applied to the actions involved in 'open play', goals and the actions leading up to them. Definitions of terminology will be put forward in each section as it becomes relevant.

The goals analysed will come from a similar time frame, the initial seven rounds of the K League 1 season between March 1st 2019 and April 14th 2019, and six rounds of the English Premier League (EPL) season from February 22nd to March 31st. The additional round of games for the K League was due to there only being six games per week, compared to 10 in most weeks in the EPL. It brought the number of games per league closer while still being in a similar time frame During this period there were 53 EPL games over six rounds of play, resulting in 150 goals, and 42 K League 1 games over seven rounds resulting in 95 goals

[ALSO READ: Part 1 (Goal Scoring Action) and Part 2 (Assist Actions)]

Part 3 - Open Play Transitional Actions

To take the analysis one step further back in the passage of open play, we can now look at where the ball was won back, creating the moment of transition. Where did the team win the ball, how did they win it, and what action did they take leading to the goal? Goals that originated from set pieces, throw-ins, goalkeepers saves or the team collecting free balls are not included.  These slow transitional moments distort the usual numbers and shape of a team and allow predetermined patterns of play. We will focus on open play decisions where the team have successfully won the ball back through a tackle, interception or aerial challenge. These will be referred to as “open play transitional moments” (OPTMs)

In the EPL 55 goals of the 150 originated from an “open play transitional moment” (36.67%). In the K League 40 of the 95 goals originated from an “open play transitional moment” (42.1%).

The increase in goals coming from OPTMs suggests that K League teams are not as effective and reacting once they give up possession of the ball, and/or are making more costly errors when in possession.

3.1 Open Play Transition Locations

The field was broken into 12 equal areas, with zones 1, 2 & 3 being near the teams own defensive goal, and 10, 11. & 12, being the teams attacking goal. The location of the open play transitional moment was recorded and assigned to one of these areas. The OPTM is where the team gained possession of the ball in the flow of the game, leading directly to a goal.

EPL OPTMs to goal location
   K League OPTMs to goal location

Zone 8 was a key area of the pitch in both the EPL and K League. Regaining possession in the area centrally just inside the opponents half offered the best chance of the team scoring a goal. In fact, zone 8 turnovers accounted for more than double the number of goals than any other area in the K League, and a similar pattern can be seen in the EPL, with only zone 5 getting over half the amount of zone 8.

Another key theme across both leagues in the disparity between the central channel and wide areas. No area in either of the wide channels across both leagues accounted for even 10%, zone 6 in the EPL being the best performing turnover location in a wide channel with 9.09%. Winning the ball back in the central channel, mainly in areas 5, 8 & 11 accounted for over 60% o the goals coming from OPTMs in the EPL and 57.5% in the K League.

Looking at the field from another angle, horizontally rather than vertically, shows another similarity between the two leagues. The horizontal area just inside the opponents half, consisting of areas 7, 8, & 9 was the area of the field that led to the most goals, 40% in the EPL and 45% in the K League.

It must also be acknowledged that the areas closer to goal (zones 10, 11 & 12) resulted in a relatively low number of goals from OPTMs, just 16.37% in the EPL and 22.5% in the K League.

3.2 Type of Open Play Transitional Moment

OPTMs were categorised as one of three actions. As previously explained, turnover of possession via throw-ins, goal kicks, goalkeeper saves, or the collection of free balls were not included as these slower moments of transition require a different set of behaviour from the teams. OPTM categories were a tackle, interception, or an aerial challenge.

Methods of regaining possession and creating a transitional moment in open play that led to goals were similar across both leagues. Aerial challenges as a means of winning the ball back were actually slightly more common in the K League. This may possibly suggest that a similar approach to playing the ball in the air is shared by coaches in each country. The area of difference between the EPL and the K League was the EPL's most common OPTM to score from was a tackle, as opposed to interception in the K League. This could be linked to a belief that the EPL is a more physical league, with players making more physical contact in an attempt to win the ball back, rather than sitting off and waiting for a chance to intercept play

3.3 Touches Taken by Transitional Player

Following the action that created the transitional moment, whether it be a tackle, interception or aerial challenge, we can compare the number of touches that the player creating the transitional moment took. This can help identify the best action to take if an OPTM is to lead to a goal. For example, if player A makes a tackle, takes another touch into space then completes a pass, that would be three touches. If player B makes an interception that is also a pass to a teammate, that transitional player has taken one touch

Across both leagues is was a single touch by the that began the attacking move that resulted in a goal. This could be an aerial challenge that is a gives the ball to a teammate, a tackle that delivers the ball to another player, or an interception that is also a first-time pass. As with the number of touches taken when scoring, the EPL has a significantly higher percentage of players taking four or more touches in the moment of transition that ends in a goal than in the K League, 16.36% compared to 5%.

3.4 Direction of Play by the Transitional Player

The final part of the OPTM analysis looks at what direction the ball is played in following the moment of transition. Once the ball has been regained, the direction of the final touch the transitional player takes in giving the ball to the next player. 5 categories were used to determine the direction the ball was played in, forward, backward, right, left and goal. The first four were assigned by using the following diagram:

The direction was based on moving towards the opposition goal, not the direction the player was facing. So if a player interested the ball facing the touchline and then passed straight ahead of himself, this would be either a left or a right pass. A backwards pass was a pass that went with the angles shown, in the direction of the teams own goal.

The fifth category, goal, was used for if the player who regained the ball then scored without giving the ball to any other player

The direction of initial play following OPMT that resulted in a goal - EPL (left) and K League (right)
Very similar patterns of play can be seen in both leagues. Following a team regaining possession the ability to find a forward pass resulted in the highest rate of goals. It was rare that the transitional player would g on to directly score. It is interesting to see that a pass back towards the teams own goal was just as likely, if not more, the action taken once they regained the ball leading up to a goal.


With over a third of total goals coming from OPTMs is it vital that teams are well prepared in their responses to winning the ball back. It seems from the data that it is best to win the ball back just inside the opposition's half, potentially due to the fact that this leaves space in behind the opponent to try and exploit. Though some teams play a much higher pressing system, during this time frame, turnovers that high up the field were not explaining the majority of the goals.

A second reason for winning the ball back deeper is the success of playing a forward pass following a transition. Having players ahead of the ball to play to and make runs offers a greater threat than perhaps the striker winning the ball back them self with little support and perhaps more predictable options.

Finally, the ability to turn tackles into passes offers the team transitioning to attack a great advantage. Rather than simply disrupting play and stopping the opposition, if a player can direct the ball to a teammate via a tackle, meaning they take only a single touch, they are able to spring a faster counter-attack. This also requires players around the ball to be positioning and preparing themselves to receive the ball even when the opponent has it.

K League Coach Considerations:

  • When setting up a team's defensive strategy, the coach must also consider how their team wishes to attack. It seems that during the selected period of games it was best for a team to win the ball back with space and teammates ahead of the player regaining the ball. However, if a team's desire is to disrupt the opposition, stifle their flow and break the game up, they may decide it better to try and press high. Though this does not directly result in as many goals as winning it further back, the team may win set pieces which they may score from. Understanding how your team may be better prepared to score, effects how your team sets up to defend
  • Are players ahead of the ball anticipating the moment of transition and ready to receive the ball following a tackle, to initiate a quick counter-attack?
  • To limit the threat to your team players must be switched on and ready to quickly counter press and turnover or loss of possession, denying a quick forward pass to the opposition, even without winning the ball, can seriously limit the opposition's goal scoring potential.
  • Daegu, Gyeongnam and Jeonbuk had the highest amount of goals from OPTMs during this period (7, 5 & 5 respectively) and sit in the top half of the table. Incheon had 0 and find themselves bottom of the table

Series Summary

Similar behaviour across both leagues led to open play goals. A first time finish directly in front of the goal within the penalty box was the most likely form of a goal. The assist is likely to have been a ground pass coming from the "golden zone", ie. the inner channels within 18 yards of the end line. The most likely source of regaining the ball was zone 8, the central areas just inside the opposition's half. Although it may have been a tackle of an interception, it would seem that it was played in a  forward direction with the players first touch.

The EPL has a higher goal per game ratio but has a higher percentage of set-piece goals. Taking out set piece goals, however, the EPL still has a higher goal per game ratio, suggesting that although behaviour leading to goals is similar across both leagues, the EPL has a higher level of player more capable of executing the required behaviour.

Coaches must consider how their training objectives and methods match up with the behaviour that results in goals. Can K League teams increase their performance in key areas and see a rise in the number of goals scored, whilst simultaneously denying opponents the chance to exploit the same behaviour to their own advantage?

Further Questions

  • What are the season-long averages for set-piece goals, open play goals, and open play goals with OPTM?
  • Would the same patterns of behaviour be seen when looking at shots on target as opposed to just goals?
  • Where are goals entering the net? Are EPL and  K League players any different at finishing or are the goalkeepers performing better in a certain league?
  • Is there a correlation between teams entering certain zones and goals scored?
  • Does trying to win the ball back deeper result in an increased number of chances conceded?
  • If the patterns of behaviour are similar, is the speed of play/behaviour different? Is there a difference across the leagues in the number of seconds between regaining the ball in open play before a goal is scored? Speed of play, time...
  • How does set piece behaviour compare across the two leagues?

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