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June 24, 2013

Why Good Teams Should Be Terrified of Players With Bad Passing Stats

By Ted Knutson

giroud_double_denimThose of you that follow me on Twitter may have seen me mention my general confusion at Arsene’s Wenger’s “big man” policy. For years, Wenger has purchased (or in Bendtner’s case, pushed the development of) tall forwards, while being generally happy to buy midgets for placement in the rest of the team.

This is odd for a lot of reasons.

The first reason is that building a speedy, zoomy, variable attack and then plonking a tall, slow guy in the center of it is strange. Granted, they are probably not that slow for tall guys, but compared to Walcott and Gervinho, Chamakh, Bendt, and Giroud are noticeably not fast.  It takes attacking build-up play that can be really difficult to mark, and suddenly simplifies it dramatically for the defense. Why? Van Persie moves like a cat, but he’s only six feet tall. Adebayor was the one tall forward that worked for Arsenal, but he has a fairly unique skill set in that he’s tall, fast, has a good first touch, and is totally unplayable when he cares. Which is about 10% of the time. If Wenger was going for the Adebayor ideal, none of these other guys come close to matching up.

The second thing that bugs me are the percentages.  People always say “you want your forwards involved in build-up play.” This is a general truism, but it makes sense. You want all of your attacking players involved in build-up play because it moves the defense around, and makes your attack less predictable.

But what if your forward isn’t very good at passing the ball?

On good teams, forwards make a minimum of 20 passes a game, and most are closer to 25 passes per game, almost all of which are in the opponent’s final third.  Nearly every single errant pass kills an attack dead.

This is what the chart looks like for errant passes at the different passing success percentages.

25PPG

65%

8.75

70%

7.5

75%

6.25

80%

5

85%

3.75

90%

2.5

A 65% passer kills five more attacks per game with a bad pass than an 85% passer. That’s a significant number, especially if you want this player to regularly be involved. Obviously there are plenty of other ways to look at loss of possession stats, but passing percentage is pretty important. This is especially true if most of your outfielders complete 85% or more like at Arsenal.

Olivier Giroud only completed 64% of his passes last season for Arsenal.  With that low of a percentage, he can’t be that involved in the build-up play, because assuming they don’t find a way to simply give him better passing options, he bleeds possession away at a massive delta with every pass compared to the rest of the team. For reference, Van Persie was 79% last season with Arsenal, and someone like Adem Ljajic was 88% with Fiorentina (which is insane for a forward).

Now take it one step further. Assume your team plays an intricate passing system that needs every attacker intimately involved like Barcelona. How many passes per game does Messi make?

55!

In the league, despite the fact that teams likely try and mark him more closely than any other player in the world, Messi completed 85.2% of his passes, averaging 55 a game. Barcelona can’t even think about having a player like Giroud in their team, because they could never involve him.

At one point, Arsenal were considered Barcelona North. They had enormous possession, great passing stats, and a gorgeous attacking style that was the envy of most teams outside of Spain. Then the talent bleed began, something changed in Wenger’s plans, and guys like Adebayor became Chamakh, and Van Persie became Giroud. On the surface, this seems okay, but looking at the percentages, it’s just plain strange. Maybe Arsene sees something big forwards can exploit more than someone smaller, but man, the cost is enormous.

General Arsenal confusion aside, the point is this: All good teams should fear putting bad passers in their lineup, because all good teams are inevitably playing the percentages, whether they realize it or not. Or to put it another way…

If you’re a good team who wants to buy a big forward, he needs to come equipped with silk boots.

@mixedknuts

Post Script –I don’t mean to pick on Giroud here, he just happens to be the most obvious example. I actually think big guys like him serve an excellent purpose overall as later game subs.  Their height, muscles, and general athleticism seems to come in really handy against defenders who are already tired, especially if they have been chasing speedy forwards around for 60-75 minutes already.

Article by Ted Knutson