Controlling the Game: Risers and Fallers in Dangerous Territory Dominance
Dominating territory around the goal is not the be-all, end-all of evaluating teams. Shooting skill, defensive pressure, set-piece strategy, countering skill, goal-keeping, quality of completion (to the strong foot? is it rolling nicely into the path of the shooter?), shot-blocking skill, and many more are factors I am essentially ignoring in this article. That's because A: it's very hard to tell what teams are good at that through 10 games and B: even if you had all those things if you don't dominate the danger zones you still would be a bad team. This article will look specifically at teams who have seen big changes in how they are controlling dangerous territory this season. First, a quick FAQ on how I am calculating control.
The basic formula involves completions from 0-15 yards and 16-30 yards from goal. This is a semicircle that looks something like this. Crosses are a separate category and another category for completions from 16-30 yards. Converting passing into shots is also factored in for the attack.
Why are 0-15 yard completions treated as 4x more valuable than 15-30 yard completions?
See my previous article. I would have done some things differently if I had to re-write that article today, but the general conclusion holds that a completion from 0-15 is generally about 4x more dangerous than one from 16-30.
Why a sharp cutoff at 15 yards?
Well for one, it's easier. More theoretically, I believe even an accurate gradient will over-value completions or shots at extremely close range to the goal. I am of the opinion that sharp spikes in models over short distances do not accurately reflect team skill but simply add more noise. I don't think there is a skill to consistently getting shots from inside 5 yards compared to 15 yards. Willing to be proven wrong as always.
Why are completed crosses valued less?
Michael Caley showed completed crosses are worth only about 50% as much as non-crosses in dangerous areas.
Why do you generally treat offensive stats as more reliable than defensive stats right now?
Offenses dictate the game to the defense, as I showed here. This means defensive stats in the early going are more dependent on the schedule, if you've played bad offensive teams it is easier to rack up superficially impressive numbers. Conversely, in that same article you can see that if you aren't spending much time in front of your opponents goal by now, it's unlikely you will the rest of the season (R2=.8 first 10 games vs rest of season deep completion rate).
Why is there a shot conversion factor for the offense but not the defense?
Both previous articles touch on this but the TL;DR is: the value of a pass attempt varies wildly depending on the team who makes it. Completions are turned into shots at consistent rates for attacking teams but there is much less consistency when it comes to preventing completions being turned into shots.
Is what you are about to show us correlated with winning and losing in any way?
It is reasonably successful in retrospective tests I have run, and am currently testing a version in the way every model should be tested: going forward against the bookies. It's been successful in the early days of the season, I think it's quick at identifying team quality due to the amount of information it churns through. Whether it will be as great all year long is TBD. But the best use for now is almost surely descriptive, and to use it with a handful of other metrics when looking at a team.
Alright the FAQ is out of the way, let's get to the teams who have seen big swings in how they dominate dangerous territory. Each team who has played in the big three leagues the 2 last seasons is plotted below.
Let's break these down into categories, and remember the baseline is last seasons territorial dominance.
Arsenal-Sometimes you don’t need to bring in a new player. Arsenal brought back the same team and have exploded offensively. Just look at this chart.
The gap between Arsenal and 3rd place City in completing passes within 15 yards of the opponents goal is larger than the gap between City and the Los Angeles Lakers (meaning zero). That's just absurd.
Bayern-Continue to push higher and higher. Sniffing goal has become even more of an accomplishment for their opponents this season. Opponents get just under 14 completions per game within 30 yards of the Bayern goal. Arsenal allow 29, Barcelona 24 for scale.
Celta-A simple look at their rank would cover up the fact that their attack has been nearly as good as Barca’s or Madrid’s in the early going. They are 3rd in dangerous territory control on offense but it's a very close 3rd compared to last years distant 3rd.
Still soft at the back, but this team is a legit Champions League contender. They outshot Barca/Madrid 35-32 in their two home games and smashed Barcelona for all three points.
Dortmund-Have actually passed Bayern in terms of completions in front of the opposition goal. The gap between them and Bayern is not as large as the 5-1 scoreline suggested.
Leverkusen-They were struggling to turn all their dangerous possession into goals until Schmidt rolled out the all-attacking lineup of Chicharito, Kießling, Mehmedi, Kampl, Calhanoglu, and Brandt last week with Wendell blasting forward as well. They are clearly the 3rd best team in the league.
Alarm Bells Ringing
Manchester United-Convert their deep completions into shots at the lowest rate in the league and have just the 6th most deep completions. In 6/10 games they have spent a below-league average amount of time in front of the opposition goal. Are they slowly moving the ball to find the best shot or is there still something significantly off with this conservative, stilted attack? Either way, this doesn’t look like a Champions League attack even if you are really generous and assume they are finding final balls that no one else can. Memphis has been completely silent, helpfully illustrated by Paul Riley's chance maps.
Stoke-All those big names brought in and they are only ahead of rooted-to-last Sunderland for most completions in the final 30 yards. Not far from being slung into a relegation battle.
Gladbach-Over the 5 post-Favre games (all wins after losing the first 5 games), Gladbach have closed the hole at the back with some players returning from injury but still there are major problems getting the ball in front of goal. They have scored a bunch of goals, maybe this has come from lightning counters or maybe they are just running hot. Overall, the attack still doesn’t seem to get the ball deep enough to score a lot of goals without last seasons off-the-charts passing ability.
Barcelona-I know Messi has been out for 4 games. Unsurprisingly their attack has dropped off without him (30% drop in deep completions in the last 4 games compared to the 4 games before that). But it’s still pretty worrying overall: look at this Eibar game:
That is just not enough box activity for a team this good at home vs a tiny, should-have-been-relegated-except-for-some-Spanish-financial-craziness Eibar.
That worrying attack slippage is coupled with the fact they have allowed 30+ deep completions to Celta, Rayo, and Sevilla already when they went all of last season doing that just once (to Real Madrid). This isn't nearly the same team that romped to the Triple last season. They are trying to survive until they can register Turan and Vidal.
Improvement, but wait and see how much
Swansea-It’s come on the defensive side. Last year Swansea’s opponents spent more time in front of goal (39 deep completions allowed per game) than everyone but Sunderland and West Ham, this season Swansea are above average in that category (30 per game). That shows definite improvement but they haven’t faced City or Arsenal yet which could see that number deflated a bit. And again, defensive improvements are always less reliable than those with the ball.
Manchester City-I assume this is Silva and Aguero injury related. Those two and Yaya were huge standouts on a team full of stars last year when it came to moving the ball forward into dangerous positions. Last season City completed 4.7 non-cross passes per game within 15 yards of goal, this year it’s down to just 2.7. A slight uptick in crosses doesn’t come near cancelling that out and from yards 16-30 there is a drop as well. Those guys will be back and I would guess the stats will pick back up, but it deserves a check in.
Wolfsburg-Last year they had an unsustainable amount of points from their underlying performance and this year they are drifting backwards basically to being an average team. The Super Cup win over Bayern was a false indicator and long forgotten.
Probably schedule related and unlikely to be a huge fall
Everton-Toughest schedule in the league but the drops on both sides of the ball made this a tough call between schedule-related and minor worry. For now, the fact they have played Arsenal, Chelsea, City, United, Liverpool, and Southampton wins out.
Augsburg-They over-performed their underlying stats last year into Europe but are under-performing now. They aren't one of the worst teams in the league this season. 11th-15th is their most likely performance level.
Probably Schedule related and unlikely to be actual large improvement
Real Sociedad-Have played 0 of the top 3 teams in territory dominance, only 3 of the top 10 but have played 3 of the bottom 4. Their increase comes entirely through the defensive side, so expect it to come down. Deportivo has had a similarly easy schedule. These two teams have had opponents spend the least amount of time in front of goal so far, that will change soon.