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How Spurs and Liverpool's Presses Differ Plus Other Buildup Bits

By Dustin Ward | October 21, 2016 | Main

Last week I looked at how different Bundesliga teams built up their attacks. There were lots of interesting takeaways and it feels to me like a rich area to mine for takeaways for fans, analysts, and coaching staffs. This week I'm going to keep looking around these stats and expand a bit to look at if we can see if certain types of build up are better, check out a few stark differences in play between the big 3 leagues and point out a few interesting bits and examples involving teams and players including some differences in how the 3 teams pushing the pressing narrative in the PL have played. Now remember it's only been 6 or 7 games so opponent strength probably plays some role here, but sample size should not be as big an issue like it is with shot stats for the most part. There are hundreds of passes from each of these zones. Let's dive in.


The Zones

These are self-selected zones, you can quibble with how I chose these but it's what we are using in these pieces. Might want to keep this open in another tab to refer back to, because all of these stats involve these zones.




Differences Between the Leagues

The first big difference comes from zone 7, basically where goalies start play from. In the Bundesliga, teams build up going one zone at a time a lot more than in the PL. BuLi teams pass to zone 6 22% more often than PL teams, while PL teams hit long balls more often.


The Bundesliga is not afraid of long balls though, they are the most aggressive league in forward areas. BuLi teams play 34% more long balls from Zone 4 than teams in La Liga. Another big difference comes in zone 3 where BuLi teams hit it into the danger zone 22% more often than PL teams, who play it within zone 3 a lot more than BuLi teams.


The difference shows up as Bundesliga teams as a whole pass it into zone 1 from zone 3 more often, while English teams rarely ever do. Anyone with ideas about why there is such a stark difference between all 3 leagues when it comes to zone 3 passing, let me know in comments or on twitter because it's hard to think of something simple that can explain such a wild difference in play.


Spanish and German teams play a much higher proportion of their passes from zone 3 to zone 1, while English teams dominate the bottom of that same list:


Spanish teams play on the sides of the pitch massively more than either German or English teams. This list of teams who allow the lowest % of passes to zone 3 ending in the center is absolutely dominated by Spanish sides.



I love that there are these differences to find as the sport has developed differently from league to league, but it's still hard to figure, why? Anyone with a lead, please chime in.


Which is the best way to build?

It's a hard question and one I don't have the chops to come close to answering answer now, but can at least I can attempt to light a match to get a glance at this yawning darkness of a question. I simply looked at how many passes after a certain pass it took for a team to complete a key pass. There are big problems in a lot of places with this: ignoring unassisted shots, dribbles, stretching over multiple possessions, etc, etc, but it still reveals a few trends.


  1. Entering higher up zones from really long balls seems to be worse overall than doing so via short passes: it takes on average 62 passes to get a key pass after a long completion from zone 6 or 7 into zone 3 compared to 52, 55, and 56 respectively for passes from zones 3, 4, and 5.
  2. Completions ending in zones 5, 6, and 7 are not too different when it comes to how many passes it then takes you to get a key pass off. You start seeing significant drops in zone 4 (8% drop from zone 5 and 5 fewer passes than zone 5), zone 3 a 12% drop from zone 4, zone 2 a 17% drop from zone 3, and zone 1 a 57% drop from zone 2.
  3. And this is probably common sense but the closer to goal, the more valuable the center of the pitch is. Passes into the center of zone 2 turn result in a key pass 30% quicker than passes into the wide areas of zone 2 (generally where short crosses are played from). In Zone 3 it's about a 10% difference and just 7% in zone 4 before the difference completely is erased by zone 6.




Different Types of Pressing: Tottenham, Manchester City, and Liverpool

These three are probably the three teams who have earned the right for "pressing" to be a part of their narratives pretty much each and every game. There even was an entire podcast completely about Liverpool's pressing last year. There are some subtle differences in how they've pressed this season.

Tottenham push up higher than the other two to take away options and force opponents into long balls. When opponents are in zones 7, 6, and 5 Tottenham are among the teams who force the highest proportion of long balls. Liverpool don't force more long balls than average, City more than average but Spurs are among the European leaders, with teams like Barcelona, Dortmund, Sevilla, Bayern and...Crystal Palace? The only team forcing more long balls from deep in opponents half than Tottenham in the PL are Crystal Palace.


While City do try to take away options high, they aren't selling out to do so. In the early days of the Pep Revolution, where they are building their wall is right around midfield as teams move into their territory. Because without a wall on the border of your territory, are you really a team at all, folks? City's wall is luxurious, nearly impenetrable and getting 10 feet higher every week: no team across the top 3 leagues has forced opponents into a lower completion % moving from zone 5 to 4 than City at 63%.


Nothing about where opponents pass the ball really jumps off the page for Liverpool so far, but how one category of how successful opponents are really leaps out at you. When opponents are trying long balls from the middle of the field against Liverpool (216 such passes so far), they are getting absolutely nowhere.


The difference between Liverpool and #2 Athletic Bilbao in this category is equivalent to the difference between #2 and #11. Tottenham are close to the top here, but not quite at the extremes Liverpool are at. Why are they so good at stopping these types of passes? I'm not quite sure, but a strong center of the defense looks a decent candidate. Only 1 team (Las Palmas) has allowed fewer centrally completed long balls where center backs generally roam and no one has allowed a lower completion%. The anti-Swansea, who have horrifying volume and percentages against on these type of long passes, and particularly on those up the gut.


So there you go. In the early going, while these teams all press, the types of passing that opponents result to in the face of this pressing has had some interesting differences.


Standout Teams One Way Or the Other

Las Palmas

Their focus on short passing and spacing is beautiful to watch and results in being a statistical standout. They refuse to make long passes toward goal at all and wind up around some big names (and Middlesborough) when you look at teams that rarely try long balls toward goal.



Essentially any look into almost any stat will immediately show Hull is in wildly over their heads and essentially are not a Premier League quality team. Their opponents are able to methodically move the ball zone by zone until they reach zone 3 where they can pass the ball around uncontested as they look for a way forward into the danger zone. In every single case, not only do Hull opponents go a zone at a time, they also have the highest completion%. In most cases, the gap is even larger for the completion %.



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We can see Hull don't even have the ability to do any sort of Pulis-ball, look at the Zone 4 to Zone 3 chart. West Brom allow the lowest share of passes moving from 4 to 3, this is because they "stick" opponents in Zone 4 the most. No team in any of the top 3 leagues sees opponents pass within Zone 4 more often than West Brom's 55.1%. Hull can't even slow opponents there, not putting up resistance at any point until basically it's too late.


Sticking with the 3rd category above, one team who really stands out as great at forcing opponents wide is Leipzig.


Tom Payne's analysis about the Leipzig-Wolfsburg match inspired this chart and emphasizes how well Hasenhüttl's plan has been carried out this season. I thought he was coach of the year, Europe-wide last year at Ingolstadt last year and his early work at Leipzig shows it doesn't look like a one year wonder.

Standout Players

I looked at players who have the most pass entires to zones 2, 3, and 4.

snip20161020_6  snip20161020_5


Santi Cazorla shows up twice, which isn't too surprising if you saw my most common passing combo map a few weeks ago. He plays central passes in advanced areas and a ton of them. The Levels-Groß connection should have odes written about it for their sheer persistence in making it work over and over and over. You can really see the difference between the leagues in the leaders passing into zone 2. Groß is up there but as we saw earlier, the Bundesliga as a whole doesn't pass into this zone often and the individual leaders bear that out: only 3 players are among the top 50 (Groß, Kampl, Levels). Liverpool's territorial dominance is evident here with 3 players entering zone 2 and Henderson (despite his low %'s) right behind Cazorla in zone 3.

Further Questions

1. How do these passing numbers change depending on game state? I suspect this type of piece would be one of the most revealing and informative pieces in recent years.

2. When we add in carries and dribbles how much does all this change?

Article by Dustin Ward