Thursday, April 16, 2015

On Crosses and Throughballs

This article originally appeared on MLSSoccer.com

Your team has possession in the final third; what is the most effective strategy?  Pumping in hopeful crosses or waiting to play that killer throughball?  And what can the relationship between these two variables (crosses and throughballs) tell us about each MLS team’s attacking strategy?

Soccer analyst/writer Michael Caley had an interesting article last summer that examined the relationship between shots created by crosses and shots created by throughballs.  Perhaps intuitive, he found that shots created by throughballs are converted at a much higher rate than those created by crosses.  Looking at 2014 MLS data provided by Opta, we can see that shots created by throughballs are converted at a rate almost double of those from crosses.

2014 MLS
Shots
Goals
Conversion Rate
Crosses
1,526
201
13%
Throughballs
362
81
22%


This does not mean that good teams should completely ignore wide play.  The most effective attacking teams usually find a balance between the two.  The best measure of this is a team’s ratio of chances created by crosses to those created by throughballs.  The higher the number, the more reliant a team is on crosses to create chances (relative to throughballs).  This is last year’s MLS data (provided by Opta):

Team
Cross:Throughball Ratio
10.2
7.7
7.5
7.1
5.9
5.4
4.9
4.4
4.1
4.1
4.1
4.0
4.0
3.8
3.3
3.2
3.1
2.8
1.8

Looking at the list, the tendency might be to view a high ratio as a bad thing with many of those team’s struggling to score goals.  However, the woeful Montreal Impact had the lowest ratio, so we cannot draw any definitive conclusions.  Nevertheless, looking at other leagues around the world, the more “attractive” teams tend to have low cross:throughball ratios.  See below for the high/low ratio teams from three major European leagues.  Remember, the higher the number the more reliant that team is on crosses.
 





Other Leagues Cross:Throughball (High/Low)
EPL
Stoke, 39.0
Arsenal, 2.4
Bundesliga
Stuttgart, 20.0
Dortmund, 3.2
La Liga
Levante, 40.5
Barcelona, 2.2

There are a couple possible reasons for this: throughballs may be preferable to crosses when you are facing a bunkering opponent and/or better teams may have the creative playmakers capable of pulling off such cutting passes.  Of course, the opposite may hold for “inferior” teams.  Incidentally, there is much more parity in MLS, so we do not see such wide spreads between the highest and lowest ratio teams.

Looking at current year MLS data, there are some interesting early results.  However, huge caveats here as the sample size on chances created by throughballs (and crosses) is very small and teams have played an inconsistent number of games. Teams are sorted by highest to lowest ratio.

Team
Cross
Throughball
Ratio
32
0
N/A
11
0
N/A
22
1
22.0
16
1
16.0
18
2
9.0
20
3
6.7
26
4
6.5
19
3
6.3
12
2
6.0
24
4
6.0
11
2
5.5
11
2
5.5
13
3
4.3
12
3
4.0
4
1
4.0
12
4
3.0
17
8
2.1
8
4
2.0
9
5
1.8
7
5
1.4


The Vancouver Whitecaps have done an excellent job at creating chances both from wide play and with throughballs, so it is unsurprising to see good early results for them.  In his first year at the helm of NYCFC, Jason Kreis’ team has almost completely eschewed crosses.  On the other end of the spectrum, the Columbus Crew are taking full advantage of new aerial toy Kei Kamara.  As for the CCL finalist Montreal Impact, perhaps the less said the better.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Is Luis Gil Going to Happen?



Nearly five years ago an ESPN article ran on a precocious US U-17 midfielder, Luis Gil: "Gil could be the next big thing." Over the years different variations of this article have been published, as Gil spurned overtures from European clubs and settled at Real Salt Lake.  Even for a talented player such as Gil, finding playing time on a stacked RSL squad has proven difficult.  Struggling to find a consistent role, Gil has moved around the 4-1-2-1-2 diamond (and 4-3-3 more recently) playing as a right midfielder, attacking midfielder, and central midfielder.  Recently, he has been playing most often as a central midfielder.


 Despite his shifting roles and relative lack of impact for RSL, Jurgen Klinsmann had apparently seen enough to give him a cap in the US' 2-0 February win over Panama.  Despite these signals of approval (and the fact that Gil is still only 21), there is a growing sense of skepticism that he may ever develop into an impactful international player.  During a recent Matthew Doyle AMA I posed a version of this question:


I think Matt's questions are good ones.  While we cannot answer the "ceiling" question for a couple more years, we may be able to assess his best position.

As shown above, Gil is increasingly being used as a central midfielder by RSL (this year in the 4-3-3 but in prior years in a 4-1-2-1-2).  The problem for Gil is that he has really struggled to make much of an impact in that role.  The presence of Javi Morales and Kyle Beckerman, two of the better mids in MLS history, certainly has had an effect.  Nevertheless, Gil must find a way to assert himself; if not with his passing, then at least with his defensive contribution.  No matter the reason, his stats do not compare favorably to other young central MLS players (2014 stats).


The most effective period for Gil thus far in his career was a brief stretch last year where he was forced into an attacking role (Javi Morales was out).  During those 356 minutes (or roughly 9% of his entire career) he recorded three goals/assists.  The other 3,779 minutes have seen only four goals/assists.  Counter-intuitively, despite being higher up the pitch, Gil actually recorded much better pass usage numbers than as a deeper-lying player.  In short, he was a key component of RSL's attack.


Granted, this is a small sample and things might change for Gil as a central player, but the evidence to this point suggests that if Gil ends up making an impact at the international level, it will probably have to come higher up the pitch.


Thursday, February 19, 2015

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Route One Football Rankings (MLS + EPL)

Higher % = more direct.  Definitely some stylistic differences between MLS/EPL.


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Goalkeeper Stats Are (Mostly) Stupid


DC United's Bill Hamid had a great year in 2014, helping to lead a resurgent season for Ben Olsen's club.  Hamid led MLS in Save % and deservedly won the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Award.  The other goalies receiving consideration also were near the top of the league in Save % (poor Jon Busch).

Tracing back through the recent history of the award this same trend can be seen: the "best" goalies have the highest Save %.  This seems reasonable; most of a goalie's worth to his team is measured by how good they are at stopping shots on target from reaching the back of the net (measured as Save %).  Therefore, it is intuitive that the "better" the goalie the higher their Save %.  If this is the case we would expect the best goalies to consistently outperform their counterparts year over year.  So we tested the persistence of Save % based on a sample of MLS goalies (2011-2014 seasons) who played a minimum of 2,000 minutes.  It turns out Save % is a horrible predictor, with absolutely zero relationship between Year 1 Save % and Year 2 Save %.  Breaking the stat into its components (Inside the Box Shots, Outside the Box Shots) did not help, either.

What does this mean?  For one, it confirms what most of the analytic community has known for some time: evaluating goalies statistically is really difficult.  It also, at least to me, confirms that luck/variance trumps skill when we evaluate goals scored (for strikers) or goals allowed (for goalies).


Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Measuring Referee Bias in BPL



Ask any fan their opinion of BPL referees and the responses will range from "mediocre" on the positive side of the spectrum to "#$%&..." on the more negative side.  These fans make their feelings known every match day, often vociferously.  It is possible that certain referees may hold biases against certain clubs, players or managers, but- in particular- the home/away bias has been noted in a multitude of prior studies.

Perhaps the most subjective decisions, and therefore most susceptible to bias, a referee makes is determining when a card should be shown to an offending player.  These decisions can often appear maddeningly inconsistent.  Indeed, we looked at the number of fouls committed per card for each BPL team (home and away) and found a pretty significant difference.  On average it takes a home team 6.6 fouls before they receive a card while for away sides it only takes 5.6 fouls.  Perhaps, just as a player might be said to "see red" in a fit of madness, a "yellow mist" might besiege a referee in front of thousands of baying fans.

See below for a team by team breakdown.  Chelsea is subject to the largest disparity in home/away fouls per card.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

On Southampton's Stingy Defense

This article originally appeared in BSports



Southampton are enjoying a tremendous start to the season.  They are currently in second place on the table after 11 played, four points clear of Manchester City and have allowed only five goals, less than half a goal a game.  The Saints have been great defensively, though their astonishing goals allowed rate may be due to regress.  A major factor in the team’s defensive success has been their ability to limit opposition possession in their defensive 3rd.

Final 3rd Passes Allowed PG
Arsenal
101.2
Southampton
107.8
Manchester City
113.2
Manchester United
113.7
Newcastle United
121.3
Everton
122.2
Chelsea
124.5
West Ham
124.6
Stoke City
124.8
Tottenham Hotspur
126.5
West Bromwich Albion
126.6
Liverpool
130.4
Burnley
141.4
Queens Park Rangers
143.5
Swansea City
150.7
Leicester City
153.0
Hull City
157.0
Sunderland
159.1
Aston Villa
165.5
Crystal Palace
167.1

But the team’s defensive success starts further up the pitch.  Southampton leads the BPL in number of possessions won in the middle 3rd of the pitch, and the team has three of the top 10 individuals in the metric.  In particular, midfielders Victor Wanyama and Morgan Schneiderlin have done a great job of snuffing out opposition possession before it becomes dangerous.  Even striker Shane Long is getting into the act.

# Poss Won  Middle 3rd / 90
Victor Wanyama
Southampton
7.4
Charlie Adam
Stoke City
6.3
Fernandinho
Manchester City
6.0
Scott Arfield
Burnley
5.2
Tom Huddlestone
Hull City
5.0
Nemanja Matic
Chelsea
5.0
Alexandre Song
West Ham
5.0
Carlos Sánchez
Aston Villa
5.0
Shane Long
Southampton
4.8
Morgan Schneiderlin
Southampton
4.7