Matthias Kempe & Daniel Memmert

The Big Idea

How about we introduce the big idea of this research study with a non-linear and entirely random historical observation?  How about we throw in an outrageous claim that the idea of this paper was in the winds long, long ago back in ancient Rome; back to the Emperor of Rome from 121 to 180; back to Marcus Aurelius; back to his Meditations; back to Book 12; back to the opening paragraph; and finally, back to this quote:

Everything you’re trying to reach—by taking the long way around—you could have right now, this moment.  If you’d only stop thwarting your own attempts.  If you’d only let go of the past, entrust the future to Providence, and guide the present toward reverence and justice.”

The big idea of this paper is the nature of creativity in soccer.  The quote above can be read as a definition of creativity, unique as it is.  In the world of elite soccer, the actions of goal scoring are perhaps the most visible examples of creative moments in the sport.

After all, aren’t creative efforts to score a goal thwarting past habits of play?  Don’t we strive for unpredictable shots on goal?  Do we not then entrust the future to Providence, which is by definition a timely preparation for future eventualities?  And don’t we bring to goal scoring deep respect and right action—the very definition of reverence and justice? 

The authors of this study focus on whether creativity can be learned.  Their results may surprise the reader, for creative actions in elite goal scoring will turn out to have relevance at all levels of soccer playing, as well as special relevance for pre-scoring creative actions.


  • The question these researchers ask is: Can creativity be learned?
  • In soccer at present, there is no conclusive evidence that creativity is a factor in success in elite play.
  • Creativity is defined as “divergent tactical thinking.”
  • Examples are no-look passes, uncommon dribbling, or novel route running.
  • The study was framed on evaluating the last eight actions leading to a goal in championship competitions, both European and World, using defined ratings by three UEFA A-License or UEFA Pro-License raters.
  • 153 games and 311 open play goals were analyzed for their level of creativity and importance of the goal.
  • The results show that in the last eight actions before a goal, creativity gradually increases.
  • It is the last three actions that show the most creativity of the eight.
  • Of the three actions—the “hockey’ assist, the assist, and the shot—it is the assist that shows the most creativity. (hockey assist is the pass that led to a pass that led to a goal)
  • The more successful teams were the most creative when scoring goals and scoring the most creative goals.
  • By way of this study, there is support for the benefits of tactical creativity in actual elite team competition.
  • There is further evidence that creativity is a predictor of individual success.
  • And, there is the expectation that emphasis early on with creativity learning opportunities will improve youth soccer skills.

The Research

This study is focused on creativity in the sport of soccer.  The aim is to uncover the nature and significance of creativity in goals scored in elite-level competition.  Given the collective level of excellence in elite soccer play even one creative move or series of moments can make the difference between a win or a loss.  The authors point out that three 2018 major international championships were decided by one goal. 

The stated reason for the study is to follow-up on the question of whether creativity can be learned.  Despite a few previous studies, there is no conclusive evidence that creativity is an actual factor for success in elite soccer.  The reason this question is important to ask and answer—besides the obvious potential impact on the play of elite soccer players—is its potential impact on possibly teaching and training youngsters more creative soccer skills and tactical development.  This study was published in the Journal of Sports Sciences, 2018.

How was this study conducted?

These researchers take creativity to mean play that is both novel and useful.  It is “divergent tactical thinking,” they say.  It is surprising, original, and flexible.  Examples include no-look passes, uncommon dribbling, or creative route running to create open spaces. 

Previous indirect research on this question is suggestive that creativity and success in soccer are correlated.  But there are no studies evaluating tactical creativity on the fly in elite soccer competition, including game performance and outcome.

The specific focus of the study was to evaluate the level of creativity in the set of actions that lead to goals during games from the European and World Cup championships.  They agree with most researchers and coaches/trainers that goal scoring is the most reliable key performance indicator in soccer.

Expert ratings in team sports is the usual means for evaluating game-test situations.  Typically, each player is rated on selected criteria by way of a judgment sheet. In this study the evaluation was limited to the last eight actions leading to a goal.  The assessments were gathered by reviewing these eight actions during the 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cup and the European Championship 2016.  The decision to use eight actions was based on previous research showing 84% of goals were scored after just four passes and over 95% of analyzed goals were scored within a maximum of eight passes.

The three championships resulted in 166 official games.  Thirteen games were excluded because no goals were scored.  So, 153 games were monitored and recorded for analysis.  Using the software tool MathBall, different standard game-related statistics for passing, shooting, ball control, and ball possession were isolated for creativity evaluations.  Of the 424 goals scored, 311 resulted from open play.  These 311 goals were evaluated for their level of creativity and their importance in the game.

The researchers explained that the tactical behaviors in on-and-off-the-ball movements, as well as motor actions like dribbling, crossing, passing, or ball transport were assessed by three raters using four different scales.  The raters were soccer experts, UEFA A-License or UEFA Pro-License.  They were also trained to work with the scale.  The scale used ratings of 1-10, where a rating of one is seen as marginally creative (way below average), and a rating of ten is highly creative (way above average).  The inter-judge reliability was .89, .90, and .92 respectively (where the crucial objectivity reliability minimum is .80).

Results and discussion

Let’s first list the variety of results from this study of Good-Better-Best creativity on goal scoring in elite soccer.

  • Creativity differs within the evolving actions leading to a goal.
  • Creativity differs between successful and less successful teams.
  • Within the last eight actions that lead to a goal, there is a continuing increase in creativity.
  • In the last three actions before a goal—the “hockey” assist, the assist, and the actual shot on goal—there is significantly more creativity than in the previous five actions.
  • Of all the actions before a goal, it was the assist that had the highest mean creativity score.
  • This result also means that truly creative actions are relatively rare even in elite soccer contests.
  • Only 172 of the 1,819 (9.5%) were rated as above average or highly creative, garnering an eight or higher on the creativity scale.
  • But it was also found that 46% of all scored goals in the three tournaments did include at least one highly creative action.
  • Regarding the team success groupings, the more successful teams were more creative when scoring a goal; they also scored more highly creative goals.
  • Previous research has indicated that at the youth level tactical team creativity can be learned over time.  This is especially so when small-sided games are the learning opportunity. 
  • And now by way of this study there is support for the benefits of tactical creativity in elite team competition.
  • Finally, there is continued evidence that creativity is a predictor of individual success as well.

So what?

All in all, the last three actions before scoring are important largely because they are the most creative moves.  And of the last three, it is the assist and the hockey-assist that are the most creative given that 52% of all the creative actions were either of them.

So, the big-idea-conclusion is that creativity in elite soccer is related to actual game performance.  Further, it is also the case that in three of the four major soccer events held (remember that in one event there was no score), the successful teams used more highly creative actions to score goals.

The relevance of this finding is that youth soccer player development can benefit from training of creative behavior, not to mention accelerated creative behavior training in elite soccer.  Suggestions for training youth players include:

  • Using differential learning where non-linear random movement patterns are introduced.
  • Using small-sided games, and diverse game situations giving players multiple possible situations and high frequency circumstances.
  • Coaches design practices for creative solutions where failures are expected, and surprises nurtured.

Heck, even Marcus Aurelius picked up on the need for good practice.  Elsewhere in his Meditations he praised creative development when he coached his readers on riding horses well.   

Practice even what seems impossible.  The left hand is useless at almost everything, for lack of practice.  But it guides the reins better than the right.  From practice.”

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