Each sport has it’s truisms about where the core of winning teams come from. In baseball it’s “up the middle”, the notion that if you get your defensive players in the middle of the field right, it’s easier to fill the rest. In football, games are won and lost “in the trenches” where the unappreciated lineman clear holes for skill players to score touchdowns. In soccer, it’s the midfield or in one of the more delightful sporting cliches: the engine room. Great forwards will not score goals without a solid midfield to move the ball up and give them plenty of touches. A top class back four can’t hold out for 90 minutes repeatedly if they have to constantly defend against passes coming toward their goal. These are widely accepted truisms but it is pretty hard to look at stats to determine which engine rooms are running at top speed and which are bogged down. Hopefully this is a step toward determining that.

First, we need to define where the midfield is. This is how I defined it, between 38 and 79 yards away from the goal in my advanced soccer graphics representation program. This was just my decision based on what looked right and there are probably other ways of defining it that might be more correct.
Next we want to determine what stats to use to determine whether a team is dominating the midfield. Number of completions for and against shows possession but we need more, completion percentage is nice but rewards simple, short passes back and forth just inside the area equally with incisive balls through the middle. In the end, I came up with 4 factors to measure a team’s midfield control.

The first three are simple. One: completions per game. Two: the share of passes that are going backwards, mainly for context. Three: how far the average pass travels.

 

The fourth is a little more complicated. It is basically adjusted completion % on forward passes. To measure which teams were actually best as moving the ball through the midfield, I created a rough model for how an average team passes. It takes into account how far from goal the origin of the pass is and how much closer to goal the ball goes. I did this separately for La Liga, the Bundesliga, and the EPL. For example, in the EPL a pass that originates 63 yards from goal and is targeted at a player 4 yards closer to goal (59 yards from goal)*, is expected to be completed 86% of the time. If a passer is 40 yards from goal and tries to play a ball 26 yards closer to goal (in the box 14 yards from goal) it is expected to be completed 20% of the time. Obviously there are big changes depending on pressure and number of options available: a striker playing a ball forward will have a lower % than a midfielder or a defender simply due to how the team is laid out. This is ok, especially at the team level, as we are simply using this to measure which teams are actually passing well and which teams might be inflating their completion percentage through short passes far from goal. We add up each passes expected completion percentage then compare how many passes were actually completed to see if a team is above or below what you would expect.

 

*from goal is measured directly from goal. So a pass completed to the corner would be measured as 30+ yards from goal, not 0 even though it might be completed on the end line.

To visualize all of these factors, we go to Tableau and look at the 3 biggest leagues graphed:


Clickable link for interaction

Far on the left side of the grap we see Crystal Palace, Burnley and Eibar. These are the three teams who completed a lot fewer passes than you’d expect an average team in their leagues to complete. They were only about 89% as likely to complete any given pass as the normal team was. Moving from left to right we see teams like Newcastle, Atletico Madrid, and Mainz around the average line when it comes to pass completion quality. Far on the right, we see the expected big boys in Bayern, Barcelona, and Real Madrid. Gladbach, Everton, and both Manchester teams sit significantly behind those 3 in the second tier of this pass rating.

Looking at the bottom of the graph we see Man City and Arsenal in a group of their own when it comes to playing short passes. Up top we see 3 German teams play the longest passes, with varying rates of success. Paderborn, Mainz and Wolfsburg average midfield pass is over 5 yards longer than Man City.

Looking at the size of the bubbles, we see unsurpisingly that the best teams at completing passes are generally the ones who complete the most. One place we can see a contrast is between Tottenham and Atletico Madrid, who play similar short passes at similar success rates but the difference comes when we see Spurs play complete almost 40 more passes per game in the midfield.

The share of passes that go backwards is the color of the bubble. We see that Swansea and Manchester United are teams in the right half who play backwards passes more than anyone else, in fact Manchester United play the highest share of midfield backwards passes of any team on this chart. This is rare for a top team as you can see, and indicates a lack of forward options, a lack of aggression, or a tactic obsessed with keeping the ball.

 

 

Here is the defensive chart with a clickable link for more interaction:

Clickable, interactive link

We see two massive outliers immediately. One is Leverkusen, who were just enormously harder to get through the midfield against than anyone else. The other is the infintesimal dot representing Bayern. Teams complete 40 more passes per game in the midfield against Man City than they do vs Bayern. Two interesting teams to contrast are Manchester United and Rayo Vallecano. They see the same amount of passes, are both very good at stopping passes and allow a little above average pass distance. The main difference is teams play forward a ton vs Rayo (because they press extremely high) while opponents play backwards a high amount against United.

Still the single most interesting part of this graph is Real Madrid. Teams play extremely short passes while completing more than you would expect. This was not something I picked up on while watching and something that is hard to explain away as a tactical decision in a league where they are simply so much better than many of their opponents. Something was wrong with Real’s defensive midfield last season, and that looks to be a pretty big hole going forward for a team with UCL and La Liga ambitions.

Chelsea are somewhat close to Madrid, down by Swansea. This is more easily explained as a tactical decision as we know from my previous piece on converting shots to passes that Chelsea are one of the best at keeping teams at arms length or on the edge of the attacking area, and one of the best at keeping passes from being converted into shots.

The longest passes allowed are generally all German teams (see below for more on league differences) and then some bad Spanish teams and then Tottenham, who are right besides Augsburg. Only Man United and strangely QPR are better at stopping passes through the midfield than Tottenham, the main problem with their defense was the passes that get through are long and dangerous, and are converted into shots at a higher rate than any other EPL team. This would suggest at first glance that the backline is more of a problem than the midfield. United had similar problems, though they were tougher to pass against and not near as susceptible to passes being converted to shots.

 

 

Combining shot conversion and midfield control

We saw how Chelsea’s unimpressive defensive midfield numbers were overcome by the sterling job they do stopping deep passes from being turned into shots, let’s see if there are other interesting separations.

There are obvious tactical reasons for some of these (Gladbach’s shelling, Celta/Rayo’s high presses) but there are some general conclusions we can make. If my team was in the second group, I would look first to upgrade my back-line if I wanted to improve my defense.

 

 

Combining offense and defense for total control of the midfield
To see which teams really control the midfield as the title mentioned we will combine the offensive and defensive metrics. The ratio of completions/completions allowed and the amount pass ratings on offense and defense are combined for one ranking.

Top 10
1. Bayern Munich
2. Barcelona
3. Dortmund
4. Manchester United
5. Real Madrid
6. Manchester City
7. Celta Vigo
8. Arsenal
9. Liverpool
10. Tottenham

Real Madrid’s poor defensive showing is outweighed by its dominant offense. The rankings give some weight to the idea that a good midfield will build you a good team. One interesting team not in the top 10 is Chelsea, who were 15th overall but still won the league without a dominant midfield.

 

 

 

Looking at individual teams

When you see a team rank high or low, the next question becomes why are they so high? What players are dominating the midfield for them? While this is still a very hard question that I am in no way certain of answering, looking deeper at this kind of passing data can help tell us a little bit.

We will look quickly at Man City and Liverpool, two teams who were both easily above average in number of passes and pass rating (completed passes compared to “expected” completions). We won’t look at defenders (though I will mention Mamadou Sakho was nearly off the charts in how well he advanced the ball aggressively) or forwards (where the differences between Eden Dzeko, Stevan Jovetic and Aguero are very noticeable) but will focus only on midfielders for now.

The midfield pass rate is basically how well the player is doing at completing passes that move their team toward goal in the midfield. A rating of 1 means they do exactly as well as an average EPL player, as you can see everyone here has a rating above 1, except for Milner who is 6 points below the average EPL player when it comes to completing these passes. His role was obviously much different at City than it will be at Liverpool, but the number remains a big worry for Liverpool fans. He is now being featured in an area where he really struggled to move the ball last season. When you factor in every pass over the whole field (overall pass rate), we can see Milner rises above average indicating he was at his best in the final third. His volume of work will drop there and rise in the center of the pitch in the upcoming season. Of course, more than half of the game is missing here but defensive work will come in another time, another article.

Other interesting player notes: Jordan Ibe’s high rating in limited minutes bodes well for his future and it’s another reminder of how silly good Yaya Toure and David Silva are. Liverpool as a whole saw their pass ratings drop the further upfield they got, no surprise to Liverpool fans who watched as they played an extremely conservative style for most of 2015, committing very few players forward. The limited attacking options made it very hard to pass, which will make it interesting to check in on Sterling at Man City and Coutinho with more options to see if they raise their ratings.

 

This is a broad overview of midfields, there are probably 20 articles to be written simply on Liverpool alone and there are tons of ways of looking deeper (who is forcing teams to play through the edges, hint: Villarreal, looking at game-by-game throughout the season and wondering why Liverpool had such poor midfield numbers vs Tottenham and great vs Chelsea while awful at home vs City and great away, etc) but hopefully you enjoyed this start. Any questions, comments, criticisms, etc feel free to reach me on twitter @Saturdayoncouch or post in the relatively new comment box below and I will be glad to discuss. Spammers, if you have read this far I am all set on sunglasses so please do not post.

 

 

Postscript comparing leagues

I promised a breakdown between leagues, but ran out of time. Here is a quick graph comparing completion percentages for different length passes. The Bundesliga is noticeably harder to complete passes. La Liga tends to see more short passes and Bundesliga: more long passes. Another time, maybe we can expand but there’s never enough time, right?

optalogo

  • Bulent Kalafat

    Hey this is excellent stuff. Only the url for the defensive chart seems to be linked to an image instead of the chart.

    • Dustin Ward

      thanks! link should be fixed now

  • Frank West

    Very interesting article. The thing that struck me the most is that Chelsea are so low down in your midfiel rankings. I’ve always figured their midfield wasn’t as strong as arsenal’s and city’s but I didn’t think they’d be ranked below Tottenham or Liverpool. If this is the case, how did they get away with it?

    Was it a case of their strong defence giving them a strong platform or was it them simply bypassing the midfield (Fabregas releasing early balls to costa seemed a reoccurring theme) or were they just lucky not to be found out in more games ?

    Sorry for throwing so many questions at you, especially when you said you ran out of time to answer some questions of your own, it’s just something that looks off, of
    Perhaps I’m not understanding it correctly

    • Dustin Ward

      those are very good questions that I can’t give definitive answers to, but can hopefully answer a little. Chelsea allow a higher ratio of passes inside the attacking third but just outside the really dangerous area (within 15 yards of goal) than any other team and are really strong at keeping teams from getting shots off inside that dangerous area. Mourinho doesn’t seem to play the kind of high risk game that say United and Tottenham play, where they look to stop midfield passes but then are exposed when a ball does come through. instead Chelsea have more defenders closer to their own goal and fewer pushing into midfield. my previous article about converting passes into shots, hopefully sheds some more light on this. the fact that these are all really good defenders makes this a more tenable strategy I think.

      I would think that offensively you are probably onto something with a few quick passes getting the ball to Hazard or Costa being the big driver, but haven’t looked into it enough to say anything with much conviction.

      • kidmugsy

        “Chelsea have more defenders closer to their own goal and fewer pushing into midfield.” That is, they “park the bus”.

    • Rob

      I think you are on to something when mentioning bypassing the midfield. Fabregas releases balls early while Hazard and Willian like to run at people. Chelsea seems to control from the back four with fast strikes coming though quick, incisive but tricky through balls.

  • Gerard Comerford

    Good article. I think that you’d have to incorporate turnovers (tackles, dispossession, possession won from goal kicks) in to any metric discussing the midfield.

    • Dustin Ward

      certainly adding in tackles would be nice, incomplete passes are still generally the source of the majority of turnovers

  • Da’il Nasir

    The reason is cause, I like to divide the midfield into 2 (Deep-Mid, mid-midfield). Teams usually control mid-midfield and protect deep-mid where the no.6 play or they get their opponents out wide. Chelsea protect mid-midfield and usually just drop to a very low block defensively. Teams like Liverpool never get any tackles in in deep-mid nor do any of their players control the game from such an area hence why they lose against chelsea and arsenal

  • Gern Blandsten

    When you’re calculating your adjusted completion percentage, you’re only looking at the change in the x-value to the goal, correct?

    I’m using that x-value as that’s how you have the pitch laid out in your first graphic above.

    In other words, a pass might start on the left side of the pitch and, in an attempt to change the point of play, travel all the way over to the right side. But in terms of x-distance it maybe only traveled 1 yard closer to goal. So even though the pass covered 50 yards (which would decrease the probability it gets completed), it goes into your calculations as a 1-yard pass, correct?

    If you’re just averaging out those completions, that decreased probability will appear in that average. But it seems that’s a fundamentally different one-yard pass than what I’d call the ‘Denilson’—square pass, to someone you can almost touch, nearly impossible not to complete.

    Anyway, excellent piece, but was just curious about attempts to distinguish qualitatively passes that, from a change in x, are quantitatively equivalent.

    • Dustin Ward

      correct. there are certainly more detailed ways of calculating the expected % of a pass (mainly the total distance as you described and also who is making it as a proxy for how many options there are in front) but I wanted 2 variables.

      on the team level I don’t think there will be a big difference as if you complete a lot of long cross field passes, then presumably the next few passes will be completed at a higher rate than if you had just played a one-yard pass to guy beside you. the player who plays the long cross-field pass will not get rightfully credited if the ensuing passes move quickly toward the goal. the people who get too much credit will be those making the passes against the softer defense.

      and x-value is total yards from goal (so includes x and y distance from goal), which I think you understand but just wanted to be clear as it can be confusing with all the terms being thrown around.

    • Dustin Ward

      Something a bit wonky is going on with comments, I thought I’d replied a while ago.

      you are correct in I am only looking at how much closer to goal the pass is going (not just x-value, but I think you understand what I am saying).

      if a player consistently plays those long, field-switching passes you are talking about here I do think he would come out worse in this system. the team on the whole would not, as presumably the benefit of completing those long, field-switching passes is that the next few passes are much easier to complete.

  • Albert Edwards

    love this article! a) how do you get the data and how did you make the model b) can you explain what the columns are in combining shot conversion vs midfield control? thanks

    • Dustin Ward

      the model takes how far away from goal the pass originates and how much closer to goal the pass goes to generate an expected completion %.

      the two columns could have been explained better, you are right. the first column shows how difficult it was to pass through that teams midfield, so Real Madrid at #20 had the easiest midfield to cut through in La Liga. the second column is how difficult it is to convert deep passes into shots against that team. so Real Madrid were the 13th-toughest, or 8th-easiest team to turn passes into shots against. Sunderland for example, easiest EPL team to move through midfield but 3rd-toughest to actually turn passes into shots against