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February 26, 2014

Two Useful Metrics I Wish We Had

By Ted Knutson

I have been thinking a lot recently about additional information I’d like to have beyond what’s available at WhoScored and Squawka to help with player scouting. What’s there is good, but there are always additional wrinkles you can add, or directions you can take analysis that could prove fruitful, especially if you have access to the base data.

Here are two stats that I wish we had access to, because I feel like they would open up new levels of player understanding.

1)      Throughball Runs.
It takes two to tango. It’s true for dancing, and it’s also true for completing the game’s most valuable pass. (Check Michael Caley’s work here for more detailed info on this.) It’s not enough to have a midfielder who can pick out the pass and weight it perfectly, you also need a forward who sees and makes the run for the sequence to work.

The way I view this is a bit like how the NFL uses target stats for receivers. It’s great that you had 5 catches, but if the ball was thrown in your direction 20 times in a game, something strange is going on. This particular stat opens up the concept that some players will be better at making runs that aid throughball completion than others. And if guys never make the runs, that tells you a lot as well.

It also allows us to follow the possession chain from there. Was the ball completed? Did it result in a shot? Was that shot on target? Converted?

Maybe we’ll find nothing, but given the value of this interaction in terms of creating goals (most of which comes from the fact that it beats defensive positioning – another lack of data we currently deal with when analysing the game), I really wish we had the ability to look at the other half of the stat. Obviously, throughballs themselves are highly influenced by tactics, but honestly, everything on the football pitch is.

2)      Second Assists

While we’re on the topic of possession chains, this one really frustrates me. Many, many goals are actually created not by the last pass before the shot, but by the pass before that. Check this out.


That ridiculous pass from Iniesta and run from Fabregas is what I would term the “unlock,” which is what actually gets Barcelona in behind the defense. From that point, the actually probability of scoring a goal becomes somewhere between 30-40%. However, the actual assist comes from Fabregas squaring the ball for the finish. This type of thing happens pretty regularly.

That Iniesta pass is clearly enormously valuable, but it won’t appear in any of the basic stats we have access to. There’s also a theory that Iniesta has been doing this his entire career, and if you incorporated this extra stat into the larger picture, you’d have a better estimate of his value to the team (which you can see with your eyes, and vaguely extrapolate with stats, but not at a level anyone is happy with).

Obviously ice hockey already does this and has done it for ages. I don’t know exactly how difficult it would be to pull this out of the database, but it’s something I think would add better context and value to current player analysis, especially when it comes to wide players and midfielders.

So yeah, Opta people, or other data companies who want to move out into the light, can we have new, useful toys to play with? Please?

Article by Ted Knutson