One of the best attributes of looking at passing data is the samples pile up quickly a few games into the season. While teams still have just a handful of total shots, you can break down passes almost anyway you like and still wind up with hundreds in each bucket. One thing I’ve been doing with this data is looking at how teams progress the ball up the pitch. It’s been illuminating to me and I’d like to share some first impressions with you today. Build up across any league varies wildly, we all know this especially when we get to see Sander’s maps illustrating the variation every game. I thought it would be interesting to peek behind the curtain on the differences in how teams build up their attacks via pass. Hopefully it’s interesting to see the nuts and bolts, it’s something I can easily imagine drilling down into when preparing for an opponent or when trying to self-scout your strengths and weaknesses. It’s also something that doesn’t often get discussed when we talk about numbers or analytics in soccer and is probably under-covered statistically.
This is a bit of a journey across the league to show different ways this data can help, so there is no one theme here it’s more of a buffet of analysis. Yes, this section droning on about Mainz might look unattractive like the lukewarm green beans to you but stick around, beautiful fried okra might be coming up next with a killer nugget about Benjamin Henrichs.
To sort out my thinking, I divided the pitch into zones. Attacking from left to right, so Zone 7 is furthest from goal to zone 1 being right in front of goal. You can quibble with these and I’m open to change, but it’s what we are using today so keep that in mind.
We start nearly at the back in Zone 6. These numbers are for passes originating in zone 6. Zone 4+ means passes to zone 4 or anything closer to goal than that (3, 2, or 1).
So to clarify: on average the ball is advanced at least 1 zone ~54% of the time (2nd chart shows this with the first two columns combined) and trying to jump 2 zones is well below a 50-50 proposition (first chart shows this at 38.7%). This makes RB Leipzig’s numbers fascinating. Only Darmstadt jumps 2 zones more often that Leipzig’s 31% and Leipzig combines that with a league-leading 47% completion rate on these long balls. Bayern at 46.8% are right behind them. How are they combining both hitting it long constantly with being the most efficient? Really it’s goalie Péter Gulásci being very successful at finding Yussuf Poulsen with long balls.
Look at the long balls from Gulásci to Poulsen in the Gladbach game alone:
I’m not exactly sure how to parcel out the credit between Gulásci, Poulsen or some sort of scheme to get your forward more open than normal on long balls but it’s clear Leipzig have an edge so far this season at using the long ball, they know it and are using it a lot.
Mainz struggle massively in this zone. The distribution of their passes go is close to the league average (they pass backwards a bit more and long forwards a bit less) but their completion rates when trying to move forward 1 zone or within the zone are easily worst in the league.
When we drill down further we find a scapegoat of sorts in left-back Gaëtan Bussman who has gone just 24/43 passing for an atrocious 56% from this zone without being a long-ball specialist. Opponents should see this and be ready to pounce.
What is the platonic ideal of a perfectly positioned team? Probably Bayern. 47% of the time they are advancing from Zone 6 to Zone 5, well ahead of the team in 2nd. They also try the long ball the least of any team, though when they do try it they near Leipzig in completion%. They are also progressing the ball in the exact order you’d expect, with midfielders Thiago/Xabi Alonso/Vidal/Sanches making up the majority of those on the receiving end of these passes. This can be compared with a team like Gladbach, who have both defenders like Christensen and forward players like Stindl receiving passes in zone 5 a lot.
Two teams who “build up at the back” but don’t “play out of the back” are Hoffenheim and Gladbach. They have 2 of the top 5 completion %’s in this area overall, but play the lowest share of passes forward out of zone 6. So while their defenders completion %’s might look nice, the ball isn’t getting anywhere often.
Jumping To Zone 4
Check back up top to re-orient yourself where we are on the pitch now. These are passes played from the zone 4 area.
The first thing that jumps off the stat sheet looking at this area of the pitch is there are 3 teams who look extremely similar with elite completion percentages. Wolfsburg are hard to separate from Bayern and Dortmund just looking at the rates:
They even have a much better rate on the long balls into dangerous areas (though have only played 49 total), so what’s going on here? One obvious point is Wolfsburg gets to zone 4 much less than the other 2 (~70% as often) but another is they aren’t as well positioned when they get here. So even though they are completing passes at equivalent rates, they are having to use Julian Draxler a lot to pass, while Dortmund’s 3 most common passers from Zone 4 are Weigl, Schmelzer, and Sokratis and Bayern’s are Thiago, Lahm, and Alonso. When Draxler gets involved, it’s a sign you don’t have much left in front when you need them to actually create the chance. Sure enough, Wolfsburg’s passing rates fall well back to the pack when you move into zone 3.
This is also a distinctive area on the pitch for Roger Schmidt’s Leverkusen. While they often pass backwards from Zone 6 (only Hertha do it more in fact), once they move into zones 5 and 4 it’s full steam ahead. No team passes back less often than Leverkusen in these areas of the pitch. An interesting comparison is them with Dortmund, the team with almost identical deep completion numbers and wildly differing strategies of what to do with the ball in zone 4. Just look at the list of the two teams combined, sorted by how often a player moves the ball forward out of zone 4.
6 of the top 7 are Leverkusen players, only Raphael Guerreiro is among the red storm. The Kampl/Aranguiz rates compared to Weigl/Rode/Castro are enormous.
And then check out the differences in two of the fullbacks passing from nearly identical positions:
Obviously this is an extreme case, but drives the point home: these teams are going different places when the ball reaches this area on the pitch.
Dortmund and Bayern are the most patient teams in this area of the pitch as they are all across the pitch, playing intra-zone passes 52 and 53% of the time when the average is just 45%. They play the fewest multi-zone advancement passes of any teams as well, well under half of the league average rate of 6.3%.
Let’s take a look at the most common way each team progresses from zone 4 to zone 3:
A few takeaways
-One, Pascal Groß’s volume (and Tobias Levels volume in passing to him) continues to simply astound. I’ve written about it before but the amount of time he handles the ball is just mind-numbing. This year Ingolstadt are actually well clear of the rest of the league in 5th as far as territory dominance. They seem to have good fundamentals, but man nothing is going right luck-wise: they’ve already allowed 6 goals from outside the box on their way to 1 measly point.
-Wolfsburg having to use Gomez to pass to Draxler to get the ball something like 40 yards from goal explains a lot about what’s wrong with their attack.
-Verhaegh has long been one of the Bundesliga’s nice lesser known players with how well he’s played at fullback for Augsburg. His legs might be slipping a bit, but he’s still a key part of their attack.
Again check back at the top if you are losing where we are on the pitch. This is close to the edge of the box, near the danger zone, where most crosses come from and not yet in shooting areas.
Here the two counter-attacking, red-shirt wearing, mid-to-upper-table teams really stand out. Köln and Mainz throw the ball forward into the danger zones 1 and 2 from Zone 3 a league leading 46 and 44% of the time. When you counter and get this close, their plan is clearly not to circle back around letting the defense get set. The difference is really clear when you look at a more conservative team like Dortmund. Mainz play almost 5x as many passes into forward zones from here than they do backwards, Dortmund just 1.3x as many forward as backwards. Mainz are completing at a basically league-average rate, Köln are way below. Risse’s crossing is beautiful when it works, but there are a ton of lost possessions that come along with it.
Dortmund and Bayern are again the least likely to play forward, but Bayern’s success rates when they do are what separates them from the rest.
One interesting difference between Bayern and Dortmund is how often Bayern finds their main goal-threats on these types of passes (Lewandowski 31 and Müller 30 times) while Dortmund spread the wealth much more (Aubameyang 11 leads the team, but 11 different players have received between 6 and 11 passes).
On the self-scouting side for Bayern, it might be time to have a word with David Alaba. He is crossing the ball and trying to complete it in deep areas too often for how ineffective he is. He has the worst completion % on forward passes from zone 3 by nearly 20 points and also tries them more than anyone short of Robben, who has just 43 total passes in his minimal time on the pitch. Better pass selection please David.
Adding in carry and dribble data would be nice and add a bit more context around the edges but there is plenty here to work with. There are plenty of helpful nuggets here when preparing for a match. Opponents should know Mainz try to be basically a normal team building up from the back, but are just awful at it, specifically their left-back Bussmann. Bayern coaches should get to Alaba to help him out with his final third decision making. Leipzig opponents should know the goalie is good at finding Poulsen, etc. There are all kinds of insights to be gleaned from drilling down into numbers like these, I hope you enjoyed me scratching the surface.
Charts ‘n Totals