Clearance: an ugly play, a useless stat

By Paul Gardner

For some time now I have been wondering about the soccer term “clearance.” A term, admittedly, that I have been hearing, and using for decades without giving it much thought.

But what, exactly, does the term mean? My pondering reached the point at which I decided that it didn’t mean anything at all. Or at the least, that it was a sort of catch-all word that lumped together a bunch of soccer actions, not one of which deserved to be graced with such a healthy-sounding word.

My slapdash use of the word in the past was always to denote a defensive play, a hefty kick downfield, quite often a desperation kick, likely a high ball without any aim at all, going anywhere, maybe into touch, probably to an opponent.

A Hail Mary sort of play without the slightest touch of thought to it. The lowest level of soccer playing. Definitely not a contribution to the beautiful game.

That’s not quite right, though. There was a thought there -- simply to whack the ball as far away as possible, to “relieve the pressure.” But it seems to me that most of the time it doesn’t work anyway. So often the clearance is used when a team is defending desperately, with everyone pulled back. So logically, when the ball is thumped downfield there is no teammate there to corral it, so back it comes, pronto.

I stopped using the word because it seemed to me that it is inaccurate enough to be termed a lie. Lousy soccer should not be hidden behind salubrious words.

The word clearance, is obviously English. I wondered if other languages used a similar word. I am familiar with the Italian disimpegno, a “disengagement,” but it’s not a term I see much used in the Italian press. For the French there’s degagement, which is similar. The Spanish-speakers have despejar, which does mean clear.

I gave up on this after a while because it is obvious that the English got there first with their own special vocabulary, and most countries have simply followed their lead, often using the English word.

I have in my possession a number of dictionaries that give soccer terms in various languages. “Terms used in Association Football” was published by FIFA (in 1974), so that ought to be authoritative, I thought. (Actually, I wasn’t too hopeful, because this multi-lingual glossary contains the word “capering” as a word the English use -- apparently to describe dribbling). Whatever, “clearance” is not in the official FIFA book.

More helpful is the Praxisworterbuch Fussball, published in 2008, with the cooperation of UEFA. Clearance is there, with its German equivalent Befreiungsschlag. But what delighted me here was that the English word was given a synonym -- Syn: hoof (coll.)

Got it in one. That more or less confirmed my view of the word -- that it was a meaningless term describing an unworthy action.

But clearances were not to be banished from my thoughts. Some time during the 2016 MLS season I looked up some game stats on the MLS website. And found to my dismay or disgust or just disdain that “clearances” was in the official list for each game.

For instance, I discovered that in that pretty awful MLS Cup final, Toronto had 35 clearances, Seattle had 39. I really couldn’t see what, if anything, those stats were telling me about the game. Come to that, what is the MLS definition of a “clearance”? Is having more clearances considered a good thing? Or are you better off with fewer clearances?

I asked, and was informed by an MLS spokesperson that MLS used the definition used by Opta, a stat company that employs hordes of people to track, with considerable diligence, games all over the world.

Here’s Opta’s definition of clearance(s):

• Clearance (Won): A ball is cleared out of the danger area and finds a teammate or goes out of play (both by head and foot).

• Clearance (Lost): Same as Clearance (with regards to head and foot) but is lost if the ball goes to an opposition player.

And how am I not going to have a major objection to that? Because it does answer my question about the value of clearances, but it hides the answer. All we get in the stat column is “Clearances,” when the definition makes it clear there are good (Won) clearances and bad (Lost) ones. Of what value is the stat if we don’t know those subtotals?

There is already a similar absurdity with the “Possession” stat. Anyone who doesn’t know by now that more possession is an unreliable guide to who wins has not been paying attention. Possibly a simple breakdown of that stat, giving us a subdivision of “Possession in attacking third” might help.

But even knowing the totals of good and bad clearances may not help much. I could make a pretty convincing case that “Clearances (Lost)” should not be considered clearances at all -- why should they be when the ball comes straight back?

I think maybe Lost clearances should have their won category -- we could call them Hoofers. Good clearances -- those “won” -- surely also need refining. There is, after all, a big difference between a ball that is passed out of a defense under pressure and one that, hoofed out, luckily finds a teammate.

But is it within the skill of the game loggers to decide what was coolness under pressure and what was sheer luck?

Given all this uncertainty surrounding the stat scene -- an area that is supposed to dispense with opinions and assessments and subjective values and such like, and give us the purity of a mathematical figure, I was surprised to find a story that quoted one of Opta’s managers as claiming: “What we’ve had as a clearance has always been the same, and will not change.”

Opta is an English company. Its definitions will be influenced, possibly subliminally, by the English way of playing the sport, by English attitudes.

I would say that cataloguing “clearances” as a useful contribution to understanding the sport is an example of English attitudes. I doubt any other country would find them helpful. Scotland, maybe. The present category -- just plain “Clearances” -- strikes me as being quite worthless.

But ... if the clearance totals were subdivided into good and bad on the stat sheet, if we knew more about the exact definition of a clearance (for instance, does it include those abominable goalkeeper punts?), we could probably get some useful information. For example, how many bad clearances does Barcelona average per game? How many does the English national team rack up? Are bad clearances always associated with a losing team?

Tab Ramos, in a recent interview with Soccer America’s Mike Woitalla, added elegant clarity to the murky clearance question: “It is important that younger age groups believe that punting or clearing a ball is always just giving the ball away.”

17 comments about "Clearance: an ugly play, a useless stat ".
  1. Scott Johnson, January 13, 2017 at 11:04 a.m.

    Remember the 5 Ps: Pace, possession, position, pressure, and purpose. A "clearance", properly defined, is a play in which possession of the ball is purposefully ceded in exchange to escape a bad position or excessive pressure--to get out of danger and allow the team to organize, to slow the pace. (A quick pace favoring the offense). Whether a clearance is good or bad doesn't depend on whether the clearing team somehow maintains possession afterwards, but whether or not the team was in imminent danger of ceding a goal. I'll agree that teams with 10 back who boot it downfield to nobody, even though the guy with the ball isn't facing an imminent challenge, probably are playing bad soccer--if you've got everyone back on defense, you have increased margin of error against a turnover in your own end. (Conversely, I should note if a player clears the ball to break up a 3-on-2, chances are he has mates downfield to receive the ball. But in that situation, even booting it out of bounds--even for a cornerkick--may be the correct play; anything to deny the opponent a clear shot on goal). As far as parking the bus goes (and here I mean 9 or 10 back with no real attempt at a counterattack)--a team that does that, essentially, is often ceding possession AND position in exchange for the defensive advantage that comes with a packed backfield. And while it's ugly soccer, it frequently works. If you want to encourage beautiful, free-flowing soccer, worry about bus-parking, not about the occasional ball booted out of the penalty box.

  2. Kent James, January 13, 2017 at 11:07 a.m.

    A clearance is a defensive tactic that you'd never want to use, but is useful if the ball is loose in a dangerous area, and you don't have the option to pass it to a teammate (usually because of pressures of time and space). The other option is usually to concede a goal scoring opportunity. But I'm sure PG knows that.

    I think this column is simply part of PG's campaign against long balls (especially of the 'not to a teammate' variety). Fair enough. And I guess 'capering' made the article worth reading. As for the utility of the stat, as it's defined, it's useless (why is a ball out of bounds seen as a good clearance?). There is probably some utility in good clearances (that go to a teammate, though I'm not sure how that differs from what we call a "pass"), and bad clearances (that get out of danger, but go to the other team or out of bounds). I think you'd want to limit the latter, but a stat would indicate how much 'desperate defending' a team was doing, which would be useful.

  3. Fire Paul Gardner Now, January 13, 2017 at 12:28 p.m.

    I feel bad for Paul. The man clearly hates the game of soccer yet he's spent his entire life writing about it. Must be tough.

  4. Al Gebra, January 13, 2017 at 2:04 p.m.

    Fire: ... As Reagan once said to Carter, "There you go again."

    Your comments are empty ... Get away from soccer ... take up knitting

  5. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, January 13, 2017 at 2:13 p.m.

    Paul writes about how horrible soccer is pretty much every time he writes something. Seems like he's the one who needs a break.

  6. Scott Johnson replied, January 13, 2017 at 3:29 p.m.

    One can love something and still criticize it. Soccer is one of the more conservative sports when it comes to changing its rules--I mean Laws--which makes them easier for shrewd coaches to exploit. Basketball and American football (at least the NBA and NFL) are regularly tinkering with the rules, and the NBA has over the years seen some signficant rule changes (the introduction of the 3-point line and various changes in where it is placed; the banning of zone defense and then the rescinding of said ban, changes to what comprises a foul, etc). Right now the NBA product is pretty good; in the intermediate post-Jordan era it was downright unwatchable thugball (defensive tactics designed to slow Jordan proved even more effective against lesser players, but turned the game into wrestling match; the subsequent banning of some of those defensive holds has helped lead to the more free-flowing--but unlike the run-and-gun 70s and 80s, defensively excellent--game we have today. Gardner's argument--and he's not entirely wrong--is that aggressive fouling on creative players, and conservative tactics designed to avoid opponents ever getting numbers in the team's penalty box, has made the game less appealing. I'm not sure what golden age he would have us go back to--the pro soccer of his younger years was far more brutal than anything seen in first-class leagues today, with fouls that would draw a straight red nowadays being commonplace and ignored by referees. But as pretty as a Pele or a Maradona piercing the defense is, modern defenses are designed to prevent such things from happening. And since soccer is loathe to change its Laws, Paul seems to be exhorting referees to interpret them in a manner more to his liking, which is unlikely to happen, for many reasons.

  7. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, January 13, 2017 at 4:26 p.m.

    Yes that's fine except that every single column is a series of complaints about how the game isn't as good as it used to be. There's nothing more tiresome than "back in my day" garbage especially when, as you point out, it's totally wrongheaded because the game back in the old days was far more physical than it is today.

  8. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, January 13, 2017 at 4:27 p.m.

    Case in point - here's a clear red card today that was nothing more than a foul back in Paul's day:

  9. R2 Dad replied, January 14, 2017 at 12:27 a.m.

    that link is amusing--Best gets hacked and the referee plays advantage! There may be plenty of carping about officiating these days but surely is way much more dire back in the day.

  10. Jay Wall, January 13, 2017 at 5:27 p.m.

    The correct word is not "clearance" but "distribution" because when the player in possession of the ball (keeper or a teammate in a negative position) needs to distibute the ball they needs all of their teammates to move to be in the best possible position to help their team. This includes teammates drawing opponents to create space for teammates and also teammates instantly moving into the best possible position to help their team.

    In all invasion sports the player who should have the ball (or puck, etc.) is the player in the best position to help their team. When no temmates can move into a position better than their teammate with the ball, then their teammate with the ball should distribue the ball as far down either touchline so that when the ball goes out of touch, their team can set up to defend the throw in and win the ball back.

    The term clearance, according to the majority of English coaches I have know, has been to have their teams clear the ball as far away from their goal as possible, hope for winning the ball, and usually having to defend a near instant counter attack. The team distribution, according to the majority of coaches from Latin America and most of Europe that I have know has described teammates supporting their teammate in possession by creating space for themself or teammates so that the team always has players in a better position than the teammate with the ball.

    Players should always be evaluated by their instantly moving to create space for teammates and/or their instantly moving to be in a better position than their teammate with the ball. Players who move to make positive things happen belong on the field, players who let their teammate down belong on the bench or with a lower division club.

  11. beautiful game, January 14, 2017 at 1:07 a.m.

    "Clearance" is the least understood word for commentators...IMHO, it applies to whacking the ball when possession is unlikely and the danger is imminent; otherwise, it's totally, misinterpreted.

  12. frank schoon, January 14, 2017 at 10:18 a.m.

    “It is important that younger age groups believe that punting or clearing a ball is always just giving the ball away.” So true, in the majority of cases. It is good rule to follow. But what is important for the youth learn also when it is "necessary" to clear the ball which in most cases is a defensive maneuver. Here is one of the most overlooked defensive clearance which is not often talked about and that is defensive clearance while on offense. HOW is that possible? This happens when you're in the opponent's half, in ball possession on offense. During this spell it can happen that the backline positioned at midfield ,each defender is covering an opponent. This is a very dangerous situation for if there is ball loss and the opponent are quicker on the counter attack resulting in the backline being outnumbered. That is why you need a smart midfielder who can see this unwanted and dangerous situation and likelihood of this situation to come to fruition, to be able to kick hard and high over the opponent's endline thus giving his time to set back up. The fans in the stadium will probably look puzzled and not understand why the player who do this and perhaps think it was a bad attempt at shooting on goal. THIS IS WHY IT SO IMPORTANT WHEN GOING ON OFFENSE FOR SOMEONE TO BE RESPONSIBLE TO LOOK FOR THIS SITUATION AND BE PREPARED..
    A good example of this is when watching Barcelona ,their midfield and backline take care of this type of situation while on offense.....

  13. Max Weber, January 16, 2017 at 11:33 p.m.

    I agree, some people have this concept of "clearance" to mean to just boot the ball out of bounds or with no target. That is bad. As a defender who could set a ball 60+ yards down the field with backspin and even side spin to lay it up for an attacker and could hit a running player in the back from 40+ yards, I never knew of such a concept. There simple is no such thing as a "clearance" for a solid player. There are occasionally situations where no close player is open and you are under pressure in the box. In those you simply dribble to space to find a good pass or send and unexpected long pass to an idle attacker. Booting the ball out of bounds is unsporting and unskilled. If you have to resort to "clearance" then you are very outclassed both mentally and skillfully.

  14. Max Weber, January 16, 2017 at 11:37 p.m.

    Accurate about useless stats. Kicking the ball out of bounds should be Clearance (Lost). Worse thing I have seen is some kids kicking it out on the touch line. I mean, holy smokes. Nutter coaching.

  15. Bob Ashpole, January 17, 2017 at 7:38 a.m.

    Giving up the ball too easily is a tactical error. How the ball is turned over (i.e., punting and clearing) is not the problem. Keepers clear balls and coaches cheer. If people cannot imagine situations where clearing is the best tactical decision, they don't have a realistic view of the game. I don't see Mr. Gardner saying that players should never clear the ball. He is questioning, mocking even, its value as a statistic. Clearances, and I think this is Mr. Gardner's point, are an indication that a team's defense has broken down. While clearing the ball may be the correct tactical choice in a situation, the dangerous situation itself is the problem good teams should avoid. As a coach I am not going to "fix" the team's defense by instructing players not to clear the ball; I am going to focus on eliminating the errors that lead to the need to clear the ball.

  16. Scott Johnson replied, January 17, 2017 at 5:15 p.m.

    I can almost imagine someone yelling at a keeper for tipping a shot on frame over the crossbar with his fingertips. "What is he doing? He just gave up a cornerkick! Horrible, horrible, horrible!" :)

  17. Will G, January 17, 2017 at 10:11 a.m.

    Paul can do one.

    A clearance is not beautiful and at the youth level is done too often. But in the real world, it is a viable tactic that call allow a defense to reorganize.

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