Finding the Best Pass In the Bundesliga

What is the best pass in the Bundesliga? A question that interests a good 40% of us. A Hummels throughball, a Keita lock pick through traffic, a Stafylidis 40 yard cross? Two of them are good options but I wanted to be a little more rigorous to find out.  When you look at the best, you have to look at the worst and we will do that as well. I’ve been nosing around with different things to do with pass clustering the last few pieces and will continue to do more in the future, this is part of a loosely organized, ongoing series.


Every Bundesliga pass was clustered into one of 100 types based on start and end position. I then looked at the average completion % on each type of pass across the league and compared each players rates to the league average to see over or under-performance.

Here are the 100 types




The Best

First, let’s look at the “best” pass. How we define best here is most completions above expected. Expected is simply the league average completion % on that type of pass multiplied by the number of times that pass has been played. Our champion is Julian Weigl in the attacking third switching the ball from right to left in the center of the pitch.

Here is the type




and here are all of Weigl’s passes of that type.




As you can see, even 100 types of passes leaves lots of variation and that’s without any complicating variables like head vs foot, dominant foot or not, what happened on previous pass, pace of possession, etc.

League-wide this pass is completed at a 77% rate and Weigl has made 52 of these passes without having a single incompletion, so he is 12 completions above expected just on this pass alone. The Bayern pair of Thiago and Alonso are both around 90% and Castro and Aranguiz are in the mid-80s but Weigl stands alone here. Just on this type of pass alone, Dortmund have kept the ball 12 times more than expected on Weigl passes. Let’s take a look at a sampling of those passes from 3 games: Schalke, Hertha, and Freiburg:



What can we learn from this clip? Well you might have a headache from your slowly increasing squinting but I can promise those yellow blobs at the end were Dortmund players. We can also see that the credit can’t go solely to Julian Weigl, but to Dortmund’s Julian Weigl working within the team’s system. Several of the passes come after pullbacks from the wing have opened up a bit of space. Team context is always incredibly important looking at anything like this, which the video helps to show. Several of Weigl’s plays take out defenders and advance the ball, so this type of pass feels like a great fit of a player in a system that rewards his specific skills in this part of the pitch. He gets rhythm in a way that keeps the Dortmund attack moving.

Other passes that grade in the top 5 are unsurprisingly lots of Bayern players: David Alaba (moving the ball vertically down the left touchline toward in the final third) along with Hummels and Martinez (moving the ball vertically to midfield). The weird fifth member is Paul Verhaegh dinking the ball back towards the center in Augsburg’s own half, this comes from incredible volume to rack up more completions than expected: he has played 71 of those types of passes while no other player in the league has more than 43.




The Worst

This is more cruelly enjoyable. Lots of wide players are near the top of this category: Dong-Won Ji in the opposition half for Augsburg plus Stafylidis and Douglas Santos in their own half struggling to get it out. Alexander Schwolow, Freiburg’s keeper, is completing long balls to the right side at just a measly 28% clip. This compares poorly to his fellow high-volume long ballers in Hitz (49%) and Gulasci (52%). None take the top spot however, though Santos has a great glimpse of it if he just looks up. That top spot is reserved for Filip Kostic and that pass looks like a harmless move in from the left wing toward the box, right?




This pass is completed 65% of the time, all of the top 25 most common passers are at least 44% on this pass type, except for our man.




A glimpse at 2 games worth of these passes shows us the problem immediately:



He’s not trying to pass the ball to someone near the edge of the box but is isolated and trying to hit long crosses only to smash them directly into defenders standing 3 feet away. Hamburg are losing the ball twice a game on these types of passes from Kostic. It’s not like he’s amazing when the ball gets past the guy who is literally standing right there: he’s hitting about league-average rates on the crosses that actually get into the box. Several of the plays in the video he starts much closer to the middle and dribbles out as far toward the edge of the pitch as he can, making the pass as difficult as possible and seems to just ignore the first man. If Kostic never tried these passes or the moves to get him into position to make these passes, Hamburg would almost certainly be better off. I’d encourage him to dribble inside or pass before he gets to the edge of box extended line, not much good happens when he dribbles wide and deep.

Creating Chances

I will keep this section short as the sample sizes get incredibly small, but there are some interesting bits. Start with Bayern vs Dortmund inside the box on the right side.




Müller and Robben are Bayern’s men at work there while Dembélé and Pulisic run the show for Dortmund. There are yawning differences in results: Bayern’s duo are 21/50 with 9 chances created




while Dortmund’s are 5/43 with 1 chance created.




The average pass from this area creates a chance 1 in 5 times so Dortmund are either incredibly unlucky or have some limitation keeping them from taking advantage of getting into great position. If Dembélé just created chances at a league average rate from this passing position, he’d have 5 more. No other player’s has a type of pass with more of an “underperformance” if you excuse the sloppy language. Packed boxes might explain some of it, but generally Dortmund racks up elite completion %’s inside the opposition box. This is a weird one, maybe the exuberance of youth is at fault: neither Dembélé or Pulisic was alive when Bill Clinton was sworn into office. Pokemon the TV show aired before either was born, Tony Blair was elected as Ousmane was still inside his mother. Neither were alive to see Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov, and neither have been alive at a time when Hong Kong was under British control. Anyway, we can wait a couple years until they can grab a beer together in Hershey, PA and re-check this but for now we move on.

America’s First At Creating Chances Above Expectation?

Where Pulisic is on one side of the spectrum on this type of pass, Timmy Chandler is on the other. Chandler’s high key pass total is due to his “over performance” on these types of passes. Where Dembélé and Pulisic have created 1 chance in 43, Timmy is at 7 chances in 15 passes. Under the new Bruce Arena call-up system, that might overcome being born outside of the country, you never know.

All-In With Max  The standout at creating more chances than expected is quite a tasty result. Max Kruse hasn’t even played 700 minutes yet for Bremen but has been fantastic for their attack. With this type of pass in particular, he’s been nearly impossibly good:

even at 100 pass types, pass maps get misleading. This type of pass has serious horizontal variation, it’s basically anything from just outside the right side of box that goes a bit forward


On a pass that only about 1 in 8 turn into chances, Kruse has created 5 chances from 6 passes. Only Keita and Dembélé have created more chances on this type of pass and it took them 31 chances to get 6 and 7. Hakan Calhonoglu (RIP) hasn’t created a chance yet on 23 of these passes.

Team-wise there is some serious variation on plenty of types of passes. The type we talked Kruse on, Gladbach have created 6 more chances on 62 fewer passes than Leverkusen.

My favorite team-wide stat I’ve found so far is Ingolstadt have played 107 of these types of passes, 31 more than any other team.



There are lots of bits to investigate with this type of clustering process and lots of ways to improve it. One way that is doable for some but not quite yet for me that stood out watching the Weigl video was when in a specific possession a pass comes and/or what happened the pass before. If you are passing after a cutback from your right back, your forward passing % presumably will be much higher than if you are Yusuf Poulsen and just won an aerial duel on a Gulasci long ball. Lots of places to go, but hopefully you enjoyed this place we went.

Bayern Relaxes, Dortmund Look Backward And Other Week One Impressions

It’s one game. Never get too bold about season long team qualities on one game. But it’s the first game. The first actual games we’ve seen in months means there’s a lot to learn. We can at least start to sniff some stylistic choices from a few teams, see some potential problems for others, and can confirm that Andre Schürrle might lead Europe in both shots and key passes. Again this is week one so we are going with light impressions, no firm conclusions, but here are some things that caught my eye.  

Dortmund’s Backward Looking Midfield and A New Distributor? For Dortmund there was a lot of passing among the CB’s. The 2 most popular passing combos in the whole league were Sokratis and Bartra to each other. The starting midfield was completely ineffective at moving forward: both Rode and Castro’s average pass travelled about 2.5 yards on average away from goal, a number that is terrifying and well worse than any player across the league put up season-long last year.





Things got better when Weigl came on but this is certainly a worry, especially when you know that advancing the ball was not something Rode did at Bayern. Schürrle and Dembélé stayed on their flanks while Kagawa was significantly advanced compared to last year (~9 yards closer to goal) so there’s probably some blame to be given to the front 4 for not being fantastic options at all times but no matter how you apportion the blame, there are seeds of a problem here.

Ousmane Dembélé showed all kinds of 1-on-1 skills (and a willingness to seek out opportunities to use them) and an aggressive tendency to hoist the ball toward goal, somewhat reminiscent of Filip Kostic or Douglas Costa type player. Andre Schürrle surprisingly played the role of the eyes down distributor, with 6! key passes and a conservative passing style to go with his 7 shots. He had just 26 KP’s in his entire time at Wolfsburg, averaging under 1 per game. 3 of his key passes went to Aubameyang, the highest # of key passes for any connection in the league. I thought we’d take a look at them to see if we can learn anything further in a new segment where we try to blend a bit of stats and video.


As you’d expect, hard to learn too much from just 4 passes but I will say it’s maybe too soon to crown him Mkhitaryan. An excellent header mixed with 2 quality crosses toward a crowded box make for a great day but we’ll need more to believe his transition from shot-happy striker to creator is full.

Bayern’s More Relaxed Way To Thrash Bremen

Bayern steamrolled Bremen 6-0 and things were just carrying on exactly as before without Pep, right? Well, not really. The fact that Bremen managed a 76% completion rate (72% in first half) indicates a major shift in how Bayern will play. Bremen had a higher completion rate than 10 other teams on the opening weekend and had a huge increase from last years 63% (52% in first half) at the Allianz. Bayern allowed Dortmund to complete 87% of their passes in the Super Cup this year after 69% in the Cup final last year. Carlo seems to be drastically shifting the team away from Pep’s pressure to a team that could conceivably be below average in the Bundesliga at contesting passes. Doesn’t mean they will be knocked off the top or anything but is fascinating to see such a stark change.

For Bremen, yes they were without Pizarro, Junuzovic, Kruse, and Bargfrede, but it was a pathetic effort and I mean effort as in trying hard. Clemens Fritz basically admitted the team was terrified. Playing Sambou Yatabaré as an advanced right-sided midfielder might be the worst personnel move consistently made by any manager in the league. He offers nothing defensively, is a horrific passer and his output is very low (1 shot and 1 KP per 90 at Bremen and .08 G and .12 A/90 over 7000 minutes in his career). The “pressure” on the Ribéry for the 2nd goal sums up a lot of what went wrong not just with Yatabare, but the entire team.


Most Entertaining Game

Great signs from the fans, open space, and a furious tempo made Hoffenheim-RB Leipzig the most entertaining game of the week, just over Gladbach-Leverkusen.

RB Leipzig attacked at an absolutely lightning pace. They took 23 shots while completing 235 passes, a ratio of 10 per shot that would have comfortably led Europe last season. Leipzig had 38% of their completions in the attacking third (nearly twice the league average of 20%) and ~9% in the final 25 yards (comfortably over twice the average). Dominik Kaiser, a midfielder, scored a great goal and took 6 shots.

This is horrible news for Hoffenheim, who last year were horrendous at slowing down opponents and constantly got overrun. The heralded youngster Julian Nagelsmann improved the team overall but they still gave up 7 SOT per game during his time. This year started out with all of the offseason’s worries immediately turned up to the max and they look to be a team that will have some huge goals against numbers barring a quick correction.

The Loss Of Something Unique?

Darmstadt were disappointingly reasonable with their ball as they got routed by Köln. Last year they lapped the league twice with 68% of their midfield passes being played forward. This year just 53% did, behind a handful of teams. Their old manager Dirk Schuster didn’t take his forward bombing style to Augsburg either, at least not on opening day. Against Wolfsburg, Augsburg were the same patient, probing team as they always were under Marcus Weinzierl. They played 53 passes into the danger zone, only Bayern and Dortmund played more, while Wolfsburg played just 23 only Gladbach and Bremen played fewer. But…Augsburg completed just 11 of those 53 while Wolfsburg were 13/23 the respective worst and best rates in the league. Wolfsburg’s attacking efficiency was atrocious last year so any signs no matter how small have to cheer even Dieter Hecking.

Ok, maybe not.

Hamburg didn’t start Alen Halilovic, though viewers were treated to a long tracking shot of him on the bench before kickoff and then a 7-minute look at his halftime warmup. They might want to because their attack needs a right side (though I’d love to see him in the center). Nicolai Müller started on the right and completed a whopping 7! passes in 66 minutes as Hamburg completed 60 passes on the left (Kostic’s side) and 18 on the right. The attack struggled badly with American Bobby Wood getting their only shot on target and goal on a pass that came from the goalkeeper.


Gladbach Making It Count

Only Werder Bremen completed fewer passes in the danger zone than Gladbach’s 5 but no one who watched the game would conclude they were lucky to score 2 goals. They took 12 of their 14 shots in the box because the space they found behind Leverkusen’s press was gaping time after time. Strobl has started all 3 games over Dahoud and that means that where most teams have 2 players who start their passes 65+ yards from goal, Gladbach have 5 with Kramer/Strobl hanging very deep in front of a 3-man backline. It worked very well against Leverkusen, but it will be interesting to see how it looks against Freiburg who will have plenty of defenders back. The Stindl-Raffael axis is fantastic, no one loves Raffael more than me, but if you have Andre Hahn starting doing his only goals thing with 5 hanging deep there will be games that it’s really tough to supply those two in good position.

It was heartbreaking to see Aránguiz limp off as I thought he had torn his knee up again. It’s hard to come back from a devastating injury like he had last year, it takes a ton of work to do and mentally facing a serious re-injury so quickly after that can make your whole life look grey. Glad to hear reports it’s not so bad. His performance on the pitch didn’t scream out impact player however. He didn’t get the ball to Calhanoglu, Bellarabi, or Volland (5 completions combined with only 3 in any sort of advanced territory) and his overall passing map looked a bit Rode-ish in how he passed backwards a lot.


That’s very un-Leverkusen. A big reason I thought they had a real chance to push Dortmund or Bayern for at least a while was a very dynamic midfield with Kampl and Aránguiz involved. Kampl was electric, completing 20 passes to forward players in very good position, but Aránguiz has not shown that dynamism yet. But then again, it’s 78 measly minutes and a handful of preseason games, plenty of time to get things fixed starting with his knee.

Leverkusen’s Big Chance

This is Leverkusen’s chance for something special. A stunning 3 goal comeback to draw against Augsburg kick-started an incredible run to end the year saw them grab 24 points in their final 9 games to finish in 3rd place, 18 points behind Dortmund and 28 behind Bayern. There are reasons to believe that gap can shrink by a lot this season. Last year saw a serious funk from October through February, where the team often looked a bit ragged and happened to overlap a big chunk of time when Kevin Kampl was out along with other big midfield signing Charles Aranguiz (who missed almost the entire season). Both of those return healthy, adding much-needed power and dynamism to the midfield which could help Leverkusen crank up the press once more (it slipped a bit last season from it’s insane levels the year before) and provide a lot more support for their talented frontmen. They’ve returned all their key players (Christoph Kramer never really fit), added depth at several positions and big-money man Kevin Volland slides in up front. For anyone who has caught Leverkusen at their best, they can absolutely line up with Bayern or Barcelona and play with them. Last year they stepped forward a bit at generating a more productive, calmer attack. A bigger step in that direction and a bit of Bayern slippage without Pep and Dortmund slippage without Mkhitaryan, Hummels, and Gündogan and it’s very conceivable to see Leverkusen in this race well into 2017.




Offense Passing Map




Defense Passing Map



Key Passing Connections: Wendell-Calhanoglu






In: Kevin Volland 20m (Hoffenheim), Julian Baumgartlinger 4m (Mainz), Danny da Costa 0.5m (Ingolstadt)

Out: Christoph Kramer

Last year Leverkusen rebalanced a bit. By that I mean for a while their defense had raced out way ahead of their attack where the defense was elite but attack just above average. Last year the attack rose and the defense slacked a bit (hopefully because of the midfield injuries). The most important thing for this year is to keep the attack rising, I don’t think this will be a Leicester type season where both Dortmund and Bayern drop huge amounts of points so Leverkusen need a huge haul of goals to really challenge for top two. The #1 man who will be involved with that is Karim Bellarabi. He’s one of the most aggressive players with the ball in the league. Most players in his position move the ball forward 1-2 yards at a time but Bellarabi averages 6 at a time, only Volland and Kostic were higher. He’s eased off his insane dribbling pace from the year before (9.2 per 90 dropped to 5.6) but remained one of the best at making his key passes count (6th shortest KP on average in the league and racked up 11 assists on 44 KP’s).


Bellarabi's key passes were short and sweet, the 6th shortest in the league. The also ended 4 yards closer to goal than the average KP
Bellarabi’s key passes were short and sweet, the 6th shortest in the league. The also ended 4 yards closer to goal than the average KP


In his final 7 games he had 3 goals and 8 assists and Leverkusen won all of them. His partner in crime is Hakan Calhanoglu. Calhanoglu led the entire Bundesliga in shots + key passes/90 but certainly subscribed to quantity over quality. 71% of his 3.5 shots p90 came from outside the box (4th longest shot distance in the league) and 38% of his 3.2 KP/90 came on long crosses or corners. Passing wise he’s nearly as aggressive as Bellarabi, just a lot more involved (50 passes per game to Bellarabi’s 28) and coming from further back on the pitch. Both are relatively successful considering how high-risk they play, but should lose the ball less if Leverkusen are going to make the jump.

Stefan Kießling-Age has caught up with the long time Leverkusen striker. He’s 32 now and has been here since 2006. A new contract means he has 2 more years left but it’s hard to picture him being more than a sparingly used substitute and fan favorite if Leverkusen are to take steps forward. His shot volume is slipping, his passing fell off a cliff last season which leaves him as a hard worker but with little end product (though he still led the league by taking shots from just 9.6 yards away on average). This probably is known to the staff at Leverkusen as when he renewed their managing director mentioned he will stay with the club after his playing days and that “Stefan is a personality with whom we and our fans identify. He simply belongs with Bayer 04.” One thing he still has is shot quality, no one in the league took shots from closer on average than Kießling. He seems like a goal-chasing striker or possibly an option in rare games where they want to go over the top with Leno using long balls, which he did often when Kießling was on the pitch last year. Chicharito and his yearly consistent production across Europe will basically play as much as he can.

Kevin Kampl (MC): Found a home in the Schmidt midfield. Hyperactive playmaker whose skills were a much better fit here instead of on the wing in Dortmund. His hair is still looking for a place and time to fit in, 2004 Los Angeles remains his best bet. Leverkusen struggled badly without him as they never really found another player to be the slightly more advanced midfielder.

Charles Aranguiz (MC): He showed tentative signs of being comfortable at roaming forward a bit than either Kramer or Lars Bender in his cameos at the end of the year. A 3-man midfield with Bender deeper than Kampl and Aranguiz could be a tactical option if needed this season.

Aranguiz has a small sample size but bear with me here. Last year Christoph Kramer never really got comfortable in central midfield and didn’t get the ball to Bellarabi or Calhanoglu as far forward or as commonly as Aranguiz and Kampl should be able to this year. Bellarabi received the ball 7 yards closer to goal on average when Kampl passed it to him compared to Kramer.




Aranguiz played very little after coming back from injury, but in his minor time was clearly a more advanced player than Kramer, Calhanoglu received the ball 6 yards closer on his handful of receptions from Aranguiz than he did from Kramer. Easier access to goal for the attacking players and more support from players behind is a recipe for more shots and goals. Both Aranguiz and Kampl can definitely do the defensive work needed making this 2-man midfield an all-around better fit. With Calhanoglu, Chicharito, Bellarabi and Brandt (who GoalImpact thinks is better than Neymar was at 20) in front of these two, Leverkusen have all the tools for their first truly elite attack in the Schmidt era.

If Aranguiz looks a little off the pace as he has at times in friendlies, or you need a little more defensive beef, Leverkusen have the two players who had the most tackles/90 last season in Lars Bender and Julian Baumgartlinger, in from Mainz.

Omer Toprak/Papadopoulous (CB)-The 2 narrowest center backs in the league. They were the only CBs on the list of top 10 players who had highest proportion of their passes from center of pitch alongside mainly immobile strikers like Bas Dost and Sven Schipplock. Papadopoulos rated as one of the worst passing centerbacks in the league.




Average Pass Origin Location For Various CB’s

As for why this true, my only guess is that Schmidt does not want his team open to through balls right up the gut so keeps his men central.

Fullback Talk

Wendell is a great fit at left back but right back was a weak link last year and could be another this year. Let’s evaluate the candidates.

Roberto Hillbert and Tin Jedvaj are the returnees. Hillbert is getting old and was successful on just about half of his tackles and was rated as one of the poorest passers from his position in the league. In fact, Leverkusen fullbacks in total rate poorly outside of Wendell though this can be partially explained to the aggressive nature of their passing. Fullbacks on most of the other top-level teams advance the ball 4-6 yards on average while Leverkusen FB’s ranged from 8 (Wendell) to 12 yards (Boenisch) on average. Tin Jedvaj, a young prospect with a lot of hype, played at right back as well last year and was probably less convincing than Hillbert. Neither did well with the ball and the right side was Leverkusen’s significantly weaker side on defense. So unless Jedvaj makes a leap that I don’t smell coming, looking elsewhere might be the best plan. Danny da Costa is a new signing from Ingolstadt that seems to be a nice fit at right back. His tackling stats were incredible: 8th most tackles per 90 and the highest success rate of any player in the top 75. He only came for 500k but should slide in defensively moving from a similar system. He seems more like a backup, which leaves just one more name: Benjamin Henrichs. The 19-year old showed very little ability with the ball but led the team in INT and tackles per 90 playing limited minutes as a defender. If you are ok with not using the right back as a key part of your buildup, which Leverkusen probably will be, Henrichs should get the first chance because he shows signs of being a defensive monster.

Leverkusen might be ok without involving right backs in buildup because of their sideline trap they look to to create quick chances. No team is near as tough to buildup along the sides against than Leverkusen, Schmidt might be looking first for someone who can keep these areas no-go for opponents. If he is, Jedvaj falls to the back of the line while Henrichs should get first chance.



Good Season: 

The midfield clicks back into place, press revs up to top speed and attack has some support from non-front 4 players. A title challenge follows.

Bad Season: The offense still can’t generate quite enough to move close to the big 2, a Champions League scramble ensues.

Can Schalke Take Another Step Forward?

The team with the best shorts in the league took a step forward last season after a disastrous 2014-15 campaign where they were outshot by 119. Climbing back to basically par shots and territory wise last year was a stabilizing step good enough for Europa in a league where so much of the positive side of the ledger goes to the top 2. Now they’ve traded one young big-money prospect in Leroy Sané for another in Breel Embolo and have brought in a new coach to try and push their young team to make the next step.

In: Breel Embolo 22.5m (Basel), Coke 4m (Sevilla), Abdul Rahman Baba 1 year loan (Chelsea), Naldo Free (Wolfsburg)

Out: Leroy Sané, Joel Matip, Roman Neustädter, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg

Shot Map


Key Passing Combos




Long Distance

Johannes Geis might have been a truck driver in another life. Distance is no problem for him and heck a long-haul gives you more time to enjoy the view right? That’s how he plays all over the pitch. No one took shots from further out than Geis, who had over half of his shots come from set-pieces:


No non-CB or GK played further passes than Geis


and for good measure he adds being the league leader in share of passes played to the wings, alongside several other Schalke players:


I admit I was fooled a bit last year when I talked about the Geis transfer in glowing terms for Schalke. He’s a guy that at first glance has solid raw attacking numbers as a high-volume passer but the deeper you look the more holes you can find. His shots are basically completely useless and the length with which he sweeps balls to the sidelines is not the ideal way to build an attack.

His defense was apparently not elite either. Maybe the most worrying metric is the Schalke team defense map in the center of their half. The green represents the pass rating (basically a rough tool to adjust completion % to account for where a pass starts and ends) and the Excel heat maps are always greener in the Schalke midfield.


I can’t put that all on Geis, but clearly he’s not a defensive difference-maker on his own. Geis still is a useful player but would really benefit from a coach showing him these charts and trying to cut back on at least the long sweeping balls to the flanks. Don’t have to cut cold turkey, but you don’t want to head into your mid-20s as that guy, he’s 22 now and it’s time to start building better habits.

Max Meyer is another guy where the raw numbers might paint a bit too rosy of a picture. He had a fantastic passing percentage at 85.2% but was much further from goal to start with on average than most attackers and was one of only 9 players whose average pass was played backwards. His key passes also ended with their recipients further from goal than anyone else’s.


We saw Meyer on the chart above as a guy who loves to spray it to the edges and we also see Leon Goretzka on that list. The entire passing system of those three put together doesn’t progress toward goal in many significant directions especially when you consider Sané is gone.


This helps explain why Schalke don’t have any reliable attacking combos they could go to around opponents goal to create a shot. In the Gladbach preview we talked about the Stindl-Raffael combo being a reliable, high volume combo in the attacking third that helped the Foals set up shop. Schalke have no such connection, their most common attacking combo is only the leagues 37th most common (Kolasinac-Choupo-Moting). Part of this is explained by fullbacks splitting time. The only other combo in the top 100 was Sané-Meyer and the reverse. With Sané gone Schalke have a pretty big task ahead trying to build an attacking framework. Goretzka improved last year but will need to get the ball further forward this season if Choupo-Moting, Huntelaar and Embolo are going to be able to reliably get the ball in good attacking positions.

A strange thing is how rarely Goretzka and Geis played the ball to each other, each way only about 4 times per game. Both just quickly look wide instead of progressing the ball between themselves.

One Big Strength: The largest video-cube in Europe.



Great sign for the sport teams across Europe begin to catch up to lower-tier SEC football teams in size of video boards. My tip: stop paying transfer fees and player salaries and you can afford bigger video boards and join the big boys.

A real strength is they were pretty devastating when actually reaching the opponents danger zone. The 3rd-shortest danger pass distance went hand-in-hand with the league’s 3rd best danger zone completion%.


One Weinzierl Tic to Watch

Markus Weinzierl is Schalke’s new manager, hired from Augsburg this summer. He has long been praised by close Bundesliga watchers. Nothing in the stats ever stood out to me, but I concede it’s possible he was helping Augsburg (from the “nether regions of the Bundesliga” according to the announcer in Liverpool game) play above a really low talent level. It’s also probably more possible that even if he’s just an average manager he could be an improvement over Schalke’s last few years. The one distinctive tic Augsburg showed last year was how often his fullbacks stayed wide in their lane:


That’s something to watch this season. Coke and Abdul Rahman Baba were presumably the two starters this season but with Coke’s injury, the right side will need to be patched up for a while. Better right than left as Sascha Riether was Schalke’s best fullback last year, even at his ripe old age of 33. Junior Caicara started in the Cup, but I still think he’s well behind Trusty Old Sascha.

Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting, Man With a Plan

He’s one of the more prepared players in the league and the way he prepares can be a template for analysts thinking about what information to provide players. He studies a ton of tape on opposition fullbacks to determine which foot they go into tackles with, whether they lay off or approach high up the pitch, how far they will go outside their zones, and if they like to leave the ground to try and win balls or not. For an analyst working with Schalke, he seems like a dream player to work with as you should be able to give him tons of reports/clips that you already know he appreciates. Schalke really need to work out their midfield just to reward Choupo-Moting with more dangerous touches, last year the left side was even tougher to work from than Sané as Choupo-Moting had a couple extra yards to work through when he received the ball. He’s a guy to root for for all of us who spend way too much time analyzing this game.

Good Season: Shots, territory, shots on target are no longer flirting with par all season and push well above 0. Stay closer to 3rd than 5th/6th.

Bad Season: Play still stifled far out on the wings too often, they don’t develop attacking combos and the lack of speed from Meyer and Geis keep them from going the full-Leicester and becoming a great counter team. Another muddled, mediocre 6th-7th place finish.

Predicting Shots and the Effect of Directness

A deep dive into Liverpool is coming soon but today we are talking shots.

It started with Benik Afobe. I find that’s true of the majority of my ideas nowadays. In this case, I wanted to know how many shots Bournemouth were likely to take against Crystal Palace so I could determine if Afobe was a good pick for my fantasy team. I wound up making a gut call but then came back around later to check if there was a way to easily estimate. There won’t be anything groundbreaking here and it’s possible or probable that most of you already mentally do this basically correctly: but it was interesting to see the data for me, so I’ll share.


Afobe’s goal was enough to see Bournemouth through and me into the money


The Wrong Way

The first thing that came to my mind was just averaging shots for from the attacking team against shots for from the defending team. I did this for each set of games (home and away) between teams in Ligue 1 and La Liga from last season. I then sorted the teams into high shots (top 5) and low shots (bottom 5) offenses and defenses. I then simply compared how many shots were actually taken in buckets of games involving these teams to what we’d expect with the simple average. As you can see, this simple average is a badly mistaken assumption.




The graph shows how using this method consistently underestimated the amount of shots high shot teams took against high shot defenses (actually took ~15% more than rough average) and overestimated how many shots low shot teams would take against low shot defenses (actually took ~15% less than rough average).

So what was the problem? If you get a team that shoots more than average, going against a defense that allows more than average they feed off each other like loud-mouthed hecklers and Donald Trump. If you have an attack that shoots more than average (like Marseille’s 15.2 compared to Ligue 1 average of 11.5) and a defense that allows more than average (like Guingamp’s 12.6) you expect a total of [(3.7 + 1.1) + 11.5]*2. This is the difference from average for the attack and defense times 2 for the 2 games they play. So in this case you expect Marseille to take 33 shots total in the two games, they took 32. When you use this method, you get results that closely track with reality:




Each bucket has an n of ~100 games. You can predict shot totals as a group pretty close to exactly using this method. None of the groups are more than 5% off the reality.

Why Is This?

I wanted to know the mechanism that allowed this sort of coupling effect. The most obvious place to start was completions per shot, a measure of how direct a teams attack and defense are. You can learn a lot about how a team attacks and defends checking this metric. Atletico Madrid’s fearsome defense last year forced opponents to complete 38 passes for every shot they allowed while Marseille’s chaotic high press acted as a sieve at (many) times, allowing a shot every 20 completions. Teams had to string together twice as many completions to get a shot vs Atleti as they did vs Bielsa’s Marseille or Paco Jemez’s Rayo. So I figured that this metric was what I should check first to explain the shot conundrum. It turned out some interesting results. When very direct teams play defenses that allow very direct attacks, things get positively linear. We also see when we have two slow or “molasses” teams, we wind up seeing attacks at an even slower pace than you would expect.




“Predicted” means what you’d expect averaging the two. So when Espanyol’s direct attack (22.5 comps per shot) took on Rayo’s wide open defense (19.1) we expected 20.8 completions per shot. In reality Espanyol took 20 shots on only 335 completions (15.8 completions per shot). We do this for the top 5 most direct and least direct teams in each league to create the buckets. So sometimes teams can get more shots than you might expect from a certain amount of possession simply because the tendencies match up. They don’t have to work near as hard to get them.

Obviously, possession also plays a big part in how teams get shots and we aren’t dealing with that here at all. I’ve seen models that try to predict possession, and have dabbled in it a bit but never tested anything. If we can build an accurate model of who is going to have the ball and how they are going to work to get a shot off, that’s a good bit of the way toward modeling a game in a detailed way that I haven’t seen done too often. Of course, once someone scores you then have to re-adjust all those numbers based on the teams tendencies at different game states but that’s for another time.

What Does This Mean (for Leicester)?

It’s the time of year for special Leicester stats, and here’s my contribution.




They are the most direct team in the league, which isn’t surprising.  We see United and Swansea on the other end, also unsurprising. So when Leicester plays Newcastle, Stoke, and West Ham (the most “direct” defenses) they are set up pretty well to get their shots with less work, so if they can keep their possession levels at expected levels they will get more shots. When Swansea faces United (the least “direct” defense, they have to work that much harder to get each shot off.

Does this knowledge help a manager?

Knowing how your opponent passes to get shots should be a minimum for any pregame scouting. Knowing how your own defense amplifies those tendencies is another piece of knowledge to keep in mind. If you are van Gaal and know Swansea is coming to town, you can pretty much count on your team being able to slow their attack to a crawl. Maybe this gives you a reason to pick a smarter, better in the air, ball-playing center back instead of the one with more pace. Maybe this means you tell your fullbacks to get forward quicker knowing Swansea’s buildup will allow them more time to retreat if caught upfield. Of course you have to weigh this with a lot of other factors and I’d assume many top managers have a good intuition for things like this already, but the information can’t hurt.

If you are Crystal Palace (the team that allows the quickest shots per pass) facing Leicester, you should be aware that you are even more at-risk to their lineup of direct sprinters, they are poised to strike even quicker than normal to get a shot off. Maybe you change how you approach corners or tell your players to play a few less risky passes.

None of this is groundbreaking, but it wasn’t something I went into games aware of before. Now I have a better pregame framework for which teams will be taking a lot of shots and how they will move the ball to take those shots. This wouldn’t have changed my thinking too much on the agonizing Afobe-or-not-Afobe decision but it’s good to know for the future.

Home vs Away Coda

I didn’t factor in home and away for any of the above calculations because I was looking at both legs in total. But, if you want to know a bit about the home/away breakdown: Home teams generally take 55% of shots in any given game. Home teams are also more likely to put those shots on target (34.1% to 33.6%) and score more of their shots on target (G/SOT of 31% compared to 29.5% for away teams). Home teams take shots from closer in (19.3 yards compared to 19.9 yards) while the only edge away teams get is a lower % of shots that are headers (12.5% compared to 14.1% for home teams, though even those come from slightly further out 10.3 to 10 yards).



Data provided by OPTA


Atlético Madrid Without the Ball

The famous analyst Leo Tolstoy once eloquently stated “Every great attacking team is pretty much the same; every team that isn’t great at attacking is not-great in their own, unique way.” Powerful and flowing words. Why is this? Mainly because our statistical understanding of soccer is mainly shaped by the team with the ball.

We can measure most of what teams do with the ball and while 10 years from now we will look back on the rudimentary stats and conclusions we are reaching with amusement, we are least on a track that will lead us to a robust understanding of the game. When teams don’t have the ball we are still generally foraging in the dark. It’s not easy to get stats that correlate at even a .4 level while attacking stats correlate at .7 or more routinely. This makes not-great attacking teams often fuzzily look somewhat similar.

The one stat we know generally correlates well with preventing goals is possession. If you have the ball a lot, you can’t allow goals, think Manchester United here. This makes Atlético Madrid an even more fascinating case. Atlético are a, as Tolstoy would say, a “not-great” attacking team. They’ve scored fewer goals than Southampton, Eibar, Athletic, and Sampdoria. They don’t defend with possession at all: Las Palmas, Genoa, and Aston Villa are some of the teams who have had the ball more than Atleti’s 50/50 share.

Despite this, they are commonly floated as a UCL dark horse and led La Liga for a while purely on the back of their defense. They’ve allowed fewer goals than any team in Europe until this weekend, and even then hassled Barca at the Camp Nou with just 9 men. Arguably no team has a more unique defensive profile either, when I did a cluster analysis of every team’s defense in Europe last season the team hardest to find a group for was Atlético Madrid. We will take a look at the data here and see if we can find out more about how they play so well and so uniquely without the ball.

What do they do?
We will start with what they don’t do. We already noted they don’t keep you from scoring by holding the ball. When adjusting for amount of time the opposition has the ball: Atlético allowed fewer shots than anyone else in Europe last season. They allowed just over 10 shots per 400 completions (average was 15.4, with a SD of ~2). This year once again no team in Spain allows fewer shots per opposition pass than Atlético:


They also don’t press high. Leverkusen, maybe the team most similar the Atlético in a philosophical sense, rely on heavy and high pressure to stop opponents. Atlético are basically league average in Spain when it comes to the high press.

What they do is to make it progressively harder for teams to move upfield. Of course every team does this, but Atlético stand out relative to any other team you can choose. We can see when opponents enter areas 70 yards from the Atlético goal, they are basically league average at stopping the pass. We see the z score increasing as teams get closer to goal, until they are basically 1.5 standard deviations tougher than average to complete a pass against when teams are getting into shooting areas.


There is serious space between Atlético and 3 other top teams until about 30 yards from goal where Celta joins, then Barca and Celta eventually are harder to pass against from around 40 yards and out. Those are two of the highest pressing teams in Europe, so this should make intuitive sense. You can’t cover everywhere and Atlético are making the conscious decision to cover the most dangerous areas first.


We can see that right around goal, no one in the league is tougher to complete against, in total. Above it says 2nd, those are entry passes only.


Now plenty of teams decide to guard this most precious area of the pitch, but what often happens is the opposition simply has the ball too much in the area for the increased difficulty to make a big difference. If you are tougher to complete passes against, it doesn’t mean much if you are allowing other teams more opportunities. This is where Atleti differentiate themselves from other teams like Villarreal, Eibar, and Getafe who defend their area well is they don’t actually have to defend in front of goal that much. Last year Atleti opponents played a lower proportion of their passes in dangerous areas than any other team. This year the same thing is happening.



They don’t just sit back and guard the most dangerous areas, like Gladbach did under Favre. More than any other team in Europe Atleti make you work to even reach the area where you can start thinking about shooting. Once you get there your journey has just begun. Completing a pass is near impossible (toughest last two seasons), getting a quality shot is rough (2nd longest average shot allowed this year), and even trying to carry the ball is a slog. The average La Liga carry in the 25-yard danger radius is broken up after 10 yards.

This year Atleti break carries up after 6.2 yards. Last year, it was after 6.4 yards. These aren’t high-n samples but no La Liga team since 2012 has broken up carries quicker than either of their last two seasons. If you want to create a shot, you are unlikely to use a short, quick pass to get a quality chance. This is a map of all sub-20 yard passes that lead to chances created:


Unsurprisingly, they allow the fewest amount of these short assisted passes as well. When you’ve finally worked so hard to claw your way into the danger zone and actually carry or complete your way into a (likely poor) position to get a shot off, no team blocks more shots than Atleti do (29%). They just never relent. To recap:

  1. Toughest to progress the ball into the danger zone against
  2. Toughest to actually complete a pass in the danger zone
  3. Toughest to carry the ball into the danger zone
  4. Toughest to play a short pass to set up a chance against
  5. 2nd (booo!) toughest to get a close shot against
  6. Toughest to get a shot clean through on goal against

So we know the what. Now can we figure out the how?

Hardworking midfielders

To pull this off you need a team that doesn’t stop working. Atlético’s midfield never stops working defensively. Tiago, Saul, Gabi, and Koke are the 4 players who have >700 minutes mainly in the midfield. Saul, Gabi and Koke all are in the top 10 in La Liga in tackles/90 by midfielders. Tiago, Saul and Gabi are in the top 11 in INTs/90. Tiago, Saul, and Gabi are in the top 5 in shots blocked by midfielders. None of these counting stats equals “Good Defense” but to see 3 different players at the top of all 3 defensive stats shows the effort put forth to stop the ball.

It’s not just midfielders: the team as a whole tackles more than any other team tracked on WhoScored (12 leagues). What can we learn from this? If you want to stop teams, you need probably 2 or 3 midfielders who can combine to form a wall and ideally they all go by one name. Building a midfield only isn’t enough, but it figures to be one of the key factors needed.

Is it reproducible?
I think it’s harder to reproduce than almost any other style. After getting past the point that defense is always harder to produce than offense, you can’t have any weak links. Atlético don’t and they deserve credit for that.

But who gets the credit here? It’s an important and difficult to answer question. Obviously we have to first give credit to the actual players working so hard and making the plays. Simeone and the backroom staff should get credit for molding these individual qualities into a wall. This doesn’t happen immediately.  The aforementioned players have been at Atlético for a long time now (Saul is the only one without >1000 minutes for 4 straight seasons) and this long working relationship has probably paid off in ways hard to replicate if you want to buy 3 players and plug them in today.

When you have 3 or 4 years with the same coach and same players with the right mix of personalities, it’s believable that you can accrue benefits from knowing where your partner will be, what they are thinking, and what they will do next. It makes sense to me that these “experience points” would be worth more on the defensive side of the ball, where teamwork among players is generally more important and tactical movements harder to drill. When you have the ball, it’s not that hard to know where to go as you can design movements when the ball is at a certain part of the pitch. When defending, it’s harder to be certain of what will be going on on the ball so the tactical possibilities multiply. Defenders with an understanding of each other could be helpful here.

Is it repeatable?
Yes. Last season Atlético was by far the toughest in Spain to complete a dangerous pass on and allowed by far the lowest proportion of total passes to come in the 25 yard radius in front of their goal. This season those are the two key metrics fueling their defense. Juventus has in the past shown an ability to repeat defensive metrics to a similar extent. This is more rare than elite attacks but happens enough to suspect they aren’t candidates for strong regression.

There is a downside to being so defensively-reliant. No matter how good your defense is, the general trend is a high-powered offense can set the game tempo against a defense. The variation for a top defense is much higher than a top offense and depends a lot on the quality of the opposition. When Atleti goes up against truly elite attacks, the edge still probably shifts slightly to the attacking team being able to create a few chances. They’ve just pushed the bar extremely high for the quality the opposition needs to be at to impose their will on the game. However, that will happen in the Champions League more often than it does in La Liga and makes them a candidate to be upset along the way by a team who probably isn’t as good.

We see teams who attack at an elite level all the time, across many different leagues. Atlético’s outlying numbers without the ball make them a special case. No other team can top their league in so many different categories and top Europe in many as well. It’s not as simple as packing everyone in your box and hoping your guys are stronger, to breakup play at a steadily increasing level without leaving gaps at the back requires commitment and quality from a large group of players and no weak links. It’s hard to imagine this lasting for too much longer or being commonly produced elsewhere, so for now we should enjoy one of the best teams without the ball we will ever see.

As always, data courtesy of OPTA.

Top 10 Postscripts Top 10 Lowest Proportion of Passes Allowed in DZ, 2014-15

  1. Atlético
  2. Nantes
  3. Napoli
  4. St Etienne
  5. Juventus
  6. Monaco
  7. Rennes
  8. Villarreal
  9. Lille
  10. Real Madrid

Top 10 Lowest Completion % Allowed, Intrabox Passes, 2014-15

  1. Gladbach, 26.4%
  2. Leverkusen, 27.9%
  3. Barcelona, 28.8%
  4. Atlético, 29.2%
  5. Villarreal, 31.1%
  6. Inter, 31.6%
  7. Bayern, 31.7%
  8. Torino, 31.7%
  9. Elche, 32%
  10. Lille, 32.5%


How To Measure Defense?

Offense is always easiest to figure out. In Moneyball (the book, not the ever-vaguer Idea) the A’s essentially ignored defense to take advantage of an easy-to-measure offensive stat that was undervalued. Baseball didn’t really even have reliable defensive stats until the past few years and the public ones still come with much larger error bars than offensive ones. The NBA is probably moving the quickest toward defense being accounted for but it’s still an area where we don’t really know nearly as much as scoring the ball. The analytics community in soccer has made great progress looking at strikers and team shooting as a whole but the opposite side hasn’t seen similar progress. This is mainly because offenses dictate the game in a way defenses cannot and simple shot totals get you a lot of the way there on offense (.55 R2 comparing shots to goals) while on defense the gap remains large (.33 R2). A tweet from StatsBomb founder Ted Knutson about trying to find what good defensive teams actually do sparked this dive into trying to find that out.

SPOILER: I haven’t solved defense, but there is incremental progress and interactive stuff below so don’t leave, please. If you want to just see leaderboards and then check your team on the defensive dashboard, you can jump ahead to the end.

The Holy Grail of a Single Number Is In the Future

The main result of trying to find the single thing that explains defense is quickly you see there is no secret sauce to judge a teams defense on right now. I thought teams that force teams into a high ratio of shots per deep passes would allow a low goal/shot because it indicated opponents had few options but that didn’t really work out. I then thought the % of deep passes completed would be a clear indicator that teams couldn’t cope, but it’s messy as well. Shots from inside 10 yards? The ability to stifle a midfield? All explain bits and pieces but there are generally exceptions to everything and these categories are subject to wilder swings than offensive numbers. For now, a wider, more descriptive view of a teams defense is better than trying to find the single number to describe a team.

Takeaway #1: Team defense can take many forms, to get a feel for how a team is playing multiple metrics should be involved

They Can’t Score Without the Ball

Dividing the two sides of the ball is complicated and possibly counterproductive in a sport without clear-cut possession changes. In football, baseball, and basketball the other team can possess the ball much more cleanly and evenly and your defense generally has to do the same amount of work as your offense. In soccer this clearly isn’t the case which is why if you want to avoid conceding goals, your #1 priority should be possessing the ball. The more passes and completions your team makes the lower the chances of conceding which is a pretty obvious statement, but one that is almost impossible to get around statistically. If you want to make a good model for goals allowed using any kind of metric you want, passes for is going to be hard to displace as one of the most significant variables. Interestingly, passes for have a stronger relationship than passes allowed. I’d guess that the more passes you make, the more you push the opponent back out of position for the attack, and tire out their legs. It’s common to disregard possession nowadays as kind of a useless stat, which it may be, but it’s still one of the best ways to judge a teams defense. This will be the only offensive factor I look at in this article but I think the interaction between the two is a rich area for research. Something like Deep xG’s look at attacking width and length can easily be expanded to see where teams offensive possessions tend to end and how a defense can be constructed to play off that. A team like Ingolstadt is ending possessions further upfield than most Bundesliga teams, this isn’t “defense” per se but forcing the other team to cover extra yardage can only help.

Takeaway #2: The more you have the ball, the fewer goals you allow.

Splitting the game up?

I found one of the best ways to see how a team is working is to split up defense into two categories: open field and goalmouth. Things that happen out in the wide expanses of the midfield generally rack up huge sample sizes and stabilize quickly. It’s easier to see a teams philosophy when looking at open play stats like how intense their high press is, how much they have the ball, how strong their midfield D is, the length of passes they force their opponents to play, and what proportion of passes are played into the red zone (20 yard radius of goal).


Snip20151118_13 Snip20151118_12


As always enjoy Sampdoria’s amazing logo, best in Europe.

At the goalmouth we can look at more familiar metrics like shot distance, % of shots inside 10 yards, % of dangerous passes turned into chances, SV%, SOT%, BLK%, and a few like shots allowed per deep completion and total passes per shot that either stabilize very quickly or are very descriptive. I kind of view the open field category as what teams set out to do (stop their opponents before it gets too dangerous) and the goalmouth as how they deal with the dangerous situations.


Snip20151118_15 Snip20151118_14


Arsenal’s rate of chances allowed stands out as unsustainable. I expect a higher rate of chances conceded going forward if they face the same amount of passes.

Takeaway #3Looking at how teams defend in different segments of the field can be revealing

Technical notes: which of these things are controllable?

Let’s start with maybe the most interesting pair: shot distance and % of shots inside 10 yards. Shot distance correlates year on year with a R2 of .48, showing that teams generally exert a solid amount of control over shot quality. However, % of shots inside 10 yards correlates at an R2 of just .22. Why is this important? Shots inside 10 yards account for 40% of all goals despite being just 15% of all shots. The lower R2 could indicate that teams who allow more than their share of these shots are a little unlucky. Taking Leicester as an example: this year 28% of their shots allowed have come inside 10 yards which is more than 3 St Dev’s above the average of 14.6%. Their average shot allowed doesn’t come from super close in which makes me suspect they have been the recipient of some bad luck. A chunk of those chances that were something like .35 xG could have easily been .15 or so.

Shot distance is obviously related to % of shots inside 10 yards and it’s equally related to shots per deep completion. This is simply a measure of how many shots a team concedes for each pass completed inside the 20 yard radius of the goalmouth. It is a very consistent ratio from half to half of a season (.7 R2). Teams with higher shot/deep completion ratio (last years top 3 in the EPL: Chelsea, City, Arsenal) tend to allow lower quality shots. It’s a number that quickly tells you what kind of shots this team faces, a low number means there are lots of passes played around the box for each shot and a high number means teams are firing on sight.

Passes per shot is a way of showing how hard teams have to work to get a shot off. Man City opponents need an average of 56 passes to get off a shot while Champions League rivals Sevilla allow a shot per every 23 passes. This is another stat that can quickly conjure up an image of a defense. Sevilla are basically handing opponents a clear lane to the goal while City make you really earn each shot.


Snip20151118_11 Snip20151118_10


Takeaway #4: I might be wrong, heck I am probably wrong

I did something similar to this last summer and it was a very useful exercise. It identified Sarri while he was at Empoli as a coach to watch simply through their style of play and gave a much clearer picture as to what teams did things well. I said then that it wasn’t any sort of final classification and it wasn’t, the metrics used to evaluate a teams style are better now. I’ve tested them more, split them up, removed some, and added more. This is a more meaningful exercise than that was but there is plenty of room to improve further. Next week I’d probably do things a little differently than now, but I feel comfortable that this way of looking at a defense gives me more info at a glance than anything else.

Defensive dashboard info

Click here for the dashboard. See all your teams metrics and how they stack up with others around the Top 4 leagues.

You need to make a copy so you can edit without messing with others.

You can choose your team from the dropdown menu in the top left. That will bring up the z score for each team in a number of metrics described above. These are separated into goalmouth and open field. There will be a list of the 5 most similar defenses in each of the two categories. This similarity score is similar to what Baseball Prospectus does for their player projections and 538 does for their NBA player projections, just applied to teams. To get these this I used agglomerative clustering to find the Euclidean distance between each team. The distance with a legend is on the sheet as well. Green is generally “good” for a metric though there can be reasons why something is red and of course some metrics are more important than other. All the info is there though so you can get a fuller picture.

A few of my favorites.



Snip20151118_3 Snip20151118_1


Chelsea look fine in the open field, keeping pass attempts into the red zone well below average, pressing well and holding the ball. This is reflected in their similar teams of Roma, Liverpool, and Arsenal. In the goalmouth metrics we see a lot of red. Those pass attempts are turning into chances and those chances are going on target at crazy rates.



Snip20151118_4 Snip20151118_5


Augsburg, Sunderland, and Newcastle are not what a Champions League team should see in their similarity scores. Sevilla are not contesting anything in midfield, opponents are playing their dangerous passes from extremely close in and we can see from the goalmouth metrics that they are allowing an incredibly high amount of shots per pass. Their problems seem much harder to fix and more widespread than Chelsea’s.




Snip20151118_6 Snip20151118_7


Sometimes similarity scores don’t tell you much. If you can see the legend, you can see that Bayern has essentially no comparable teams. And if you see RZ Passes Length you can see they are a staggering 4.4 st devs above average.




You can imagine the benefit that comes from opponents passing from Bayern’s origin (highlighted line) vs the majority of the Bundesliga, which is significantly closer.

Who is the Sarri of this year?

By this years Sarri I mean a manager who is taking a small side and having them play like a team with a much larger budget. The best candidate in the early going in Eddie Howe at Bournemouth. James wrote about them some here, showing their outrageously low SV% through 12 games. That probably involves some bad luck, but Howe has his team playing like a top team out in the open field.




So how do we measure defense? Uh, a lot of different ways. Keeping the ball, making opponents work hard for shots and dangerous passes, forcing shots from further average distances and keeping opponents from making lots of passes for each shot are all pretty reliable ways to stop other teams. Blocking shots, saving shots, keeping shots off target, allowing few sub-10 yard shots, and allowing a low chance% on passes into the Red Zone are not as reliable but reliable enough that we need to look at them. So, that’s all cleared up right? Who’s up for rating individual center backs?

Chewing on the Champions League

The Champions League is the pinnacle of global soccer. It’s the only time we are sure to see teams from disparate leagues matching up at full strength with the same incentives. It’s also the only time we get to see teams from leagues off beaten path match up against the big boys and get their day in the wider public eye. So it’s kind of strange how it can sometimes be treated a bit like an afterthought in English writing and specifically among stats writers. I get why: it’s much harder to draw conclusions over a smaller sample and the wild differences in opponents make it hard to compare teams that the satisfyingly balanced league schedules absolve make easier.

With those limitations in mind, I still think there are lots of insights to be grabbed from looking deep into the Champions League stats. Right now is the perfect time, with 3 rounds down and the next kicking off today. We will look at the surprising blowouts in Group D, which of the little guys can hang, the battle for coefficient (not that one), Leverkusen’s softening press (?), and the fascinating subject of changing pass lengths and how that reflects on domestic leagues.

The Madness of Group D

After the draw, this was clearly the group to watch. 4 teams from Europe’s top 4 leagues in one group is reasonably rare. Last years Europa League winner in Sevilla, UCL runner up in Juventus and European-narrative-around-the-neck-having Man City joined a team I was fascinated to see make the jump to the big stage in Gladbach. I wondered in my Bundesliga preview whether their distinctive style of play would hold up on a bigger stage. That style is now in transition as Lucien Favre has been replaced by Andre Schubert but whatever Gladbach has done in the UCL, it has been torn apart.

In fact, this group which seemed the most evenly balanced has given us 4 of the most lopsided games so far. The combined deep completion maps for each of those games (separate colors representing the two different teams in a game) are below:

for Gladbach-City (81 deep completions by City are most by any team in a single game so far)


for Sevilla-Gladbach


for Juventus-Gladbach


and in a non-Gladbach game that will stand out as one of the more dominant and surprising results of the year, Juventus-Sevilla (24-1 in shots)



City-Sevilla and City-Juve have been the only really competitive games for 90 minutes so far in a group that promised much more.

The little guys

One of the best parts of the Champions League is seeing teams you’d never otherwise watch show up and make a name for themselves. Basel, Shakhtar, Porto, Galatasaray, Zenit, and Celtic have had great moments in the last few competitions that remind you just how many good players and teams there are out there outside the top leagues. We also generally have more data and see bigger teams a lot more so we need to conclude more on these sides in the small UCL sample.

Here we will use territorial data to see who among the small sides can hang and be competitive and who is just happy to be here. I use territorial data because it reflects team quality rather well and stabilizes extremely quickly  on the offensive side especially.

Can’t hang

BATE-the 2-0 win over Bayern a few years ago was not a sign of a Belarusian surge.

Malmo Maccabi Tel Aviv-provided maybe the scenes of the tournament so far with their celebration in front of a roaring crowd when they beat Basel in the playoff, but were lucky to advance after being thoroughly outplayed by the Swiss side and have been unsurprisingly battered in group play.

Astana-A fun story for the first Kazakh team ever in the Group Stage and a solid performance to get a home point against Galatasaray but still not close.

Dinamo Zagreb

Possibly can’t hang but extenuating circumstances mean we just don’t know

Olympiakos-Have had to play Bayern and Arsenal which is brutal for anyone but have created extremely little even against Zagreb.

Can hang to some degree

Dynamo Kiev-drew with Porto and Chelsea at home by completely constricting the game. Bland attack (though Everton fans might not agree) but holding teams like Porto and Chelsea to under 20 deep completions shows enough defensive solidity to rate a very conditional hang-with-rating. Creating offense over a 3-game span would be a much better indicator.

Shakhtar Donetsk-They have been outscored 8-0 which makes it weird to see them here, but their passing rating is 6th best in the Champions League. This factors in pass origin and destination with regard to how far from goal the ball is played from, 1 is set to be league average for an EPL team. So a completed 15 yard pass in your own half counts for much less than one in the opposition box. Shakhtar were put in a brutal group, they are good enough to advance normally.


Realizing too late the labeling mistake: 1st MUN is Bayern, mid-pack MUN is Manchester United. GLA=Gladbach.

Galatasaray– A disappointing performance in Kazakhstan where they deservedly drew against Astana has Gala behind the 8-ball in terms of advancing but they have essentially played evenly with Atletico at home and Benfica away. The Atletico performance was particularly impressive as they put up the 7th most deep completions any team has on Simeone’s side since the start of last season (out of 51 games). Only Real Madrid, Sevilla x2, Real Sociedad and Barca x2 topped the 36 Gala piled up.

KAA Gent-Had 55% possession away at Valencia and 58% away at Zenit in close losses that could have easily been draws. Were overwhelmed territory-wise at home vs Lyon but played with 10 men for over half the game in a draw. Really impressive for a Belgian side to have 54% possession with the schedule and circumstances they have had in their first 3 games. An extremely soft back line (57% completion allowed in final 30 yards, 3rd worst in Champions League) has led to some worryingly high close shot allowed totals, but overall this looks like a team punching above their weight, and maybe a manager to watch and learn how to spell in Hein Vanhaezebrouck.


The battle for the coefficient


No, not that coefficient. Enough virtual ink has been spilled over the England/Italy battle so lets focus in on the real important stuff: Russia vs. France vs. Portugal for a 3rd UCL spot. When I see I have written sentences like that, I step back and just get really glad we have sports. I hope you do the same. Now, onto the details.

These three nations are locked in a battle for a 3rd Champions League spot (which one league can win) and each have two teams in the league right now. Both Portuguese teams have been solidly average in the early going. Porto hammered Maccabi Tel Aviv and were very competitive in their games against Chelsea and Dynamo Kiev, gaining 4 points even if the performances were very slightly second-best. They are in great position to advance with home games vs Maccabi and Kiev remaining. Benfica have been similar to Porto so far, they top their group and are in a great position to qualify with a home game vs 3rd-favorite Gala. Their performance vs Galatasaray will be telling when it comes to determining if there is actually a big quality gap between the two sides.

Lyon have superficially disappointed. It’s easy to look at their single point and failure to beat a Belgian team playing with 10 men and say “look how awful France is”. That would be the wrong conclusion to make. There have been 13 instances of a team racking up 50+ deep completions so far this season in the Champions League and Lyon has 3 of them. Playing from behind helps some forcing the incentive but they’ve shown an ability to get the ball into dangerous positions that generally only good teams have.


PSG have gone through the motions and will advance, probably in 2nd place. Still clearly the best team of any from these 3 leagues.

The Russian sides have been kind of disappointing. I like watching games in Russia as the games have a distinct feel and it gives the tournament a broader scope to include such a huge and important nation but CSKA and Zenit are not playing on the level of the top Portuguese/French teams yet.


Shot distance is in yards.

So while personally I’d love to see more early games with players wearing gloves with visible breath played in front of Russian PA announcers bellowing at ear-splitting volumes, for the overall quality of the competition France and Portugal still bring more to the table.

Maybe a slightly different Leverkusen press?

To be fair, they have played Barcelona (82% pass completion rate allowed) but also had home games against Roma and BATE and have just managed to bring the total opposition completion rate down to 75% over the 270 minutes. In the Bundesliga, Leverkusen are holding opponents to 65% passing coming into the Wolfsburg game. Even BATE neared that at the BayArena. This isn’t a trend yet, but is more something to keep an eye on to see if Schmidt is taking a different defensive tactic into the Champions League or this is just an unsurprising result of facing better offenses.

They aren’t taking advantage of the sideline on the press like they do in the league either. In Bundesliga play, the circled areas are where teams go to die. Leverkusen destroys you when the ball goes there and they can use the sideline as an extra defender.


In the Champions League they are in Hoffenheim/Bremen range, while Barcelona dominate that area.


*Accurate only to 7 decimal points, I apologize for the sloppiness showing 9.

Changing Pass Length

Playing in the Champions League has a different effect on teams and their average pass lengths which seems to depend a lot on what league they come from:


EPL Average Change: +0.1

La Liga Change: -0.8

Bundesliga Change: -0.6

Serie A: +1.1

Ligue 1: +.9

German and Spanish teams, coming from high pressing leagues at home, see their average pass length drop by nearly a full yard. That is very significant when we are talking about well over 1000 passes per team so far. English teams stay the same while French and Italian teams start playing significantly longer passes. This is very fascinating to me, and seems like it tells us a lot about the background these teams come from and how they adjust. One of those things to look deeper into later on, once the Group Stage is over.

Any ideas or explanations on this let me know in the comments or on twitter @Saturdayoncouch. Hopefully there will be time later to examine this but now it’s time to finish reading this and ready ourselves for the feast of the Champions League over these next two days.

Games with most on the line, Round 4

  1. Roma-Leverkusen
  2. Chelsea-Dynamo Kiev
  3. Sevilla-Man City
  4. Benfica-Galatasaray


PSV-Wolfsburg, Man United-CSKA in Group B and Bayern-Arsenal, Olympiakos-Zagreb in Group F are linked together.

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.


LA Liga dominance

Bundesliga control

EPL Control

Let’s break these down into categories, and remember the baseline is last seasons territorial dominance.

Legitimate Improvement


LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 24: Laurent Koscielny of Arsenal celebrates scoring his team's second goal with during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Everton at Emirates Stadium on October 24, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

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.

EPL Deep Comp leaders

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.

Bremen Stuttgart

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. Hannover



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.

Minor Worries

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.

Atletico Madrid

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.

2015-16 Bundesliga Preview: Variety at the top, goals all the way through

The Bundesliga was my gateway drug into the high-flying, groupie-gathering, time-sucking, spreadsheet-staring, decimal-point debating, fantastic world of soccer analytics. I was your run-of-the-mill World Cup and EPL viewer before deciding one day I wanted to know more about the soccer world elsewhere and simply chose the Bundesliga to follow for a year. I put $200 in a betting account and began working to beat the bookies. I read Colin Trainor here on expected goals and built my own model. I manually input shots from all these different zones and adjusted for schedule.

After three weeks, I was ready to go and bet on Freiburg to draw with Bayern Munich. When Freiburg equalized right at the end of the game I knew I was onto something. The secret to soccer was in my spreadsheets! Of course, as the sample size got larger through each Konferenz I watched I realized that one: manually inputting shots into a spreadsheet for a few hours did not reveal underlying patterns no one had found before and two: it was really hard for me to tell Stuttgart and Frankfurt apart. Every few weeks I’d find something else: I wasn’t giving shots on target enough credit, blocks seemed to have some skill, what the hell were Gladbach doing? They are costing me money! That year might not have made me rich but it was a great entry level course into studying how analytics can be used in soccer.

I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for this league, which I feel has become the lone challenger to England in terms of entertainment. The Bundesliga features top atmospheres, league-wide countering speed that floored Pep Guardiola, the most goals per game, and a variety of styles among the best teams that you can’t get anywhere else. Bayern, Gladbach, Leverkusen, and Wolfsburg play very distinct styles and Dortmund and Schalke are big question marks under new managers. Mid-table teams like Augsburg and Hoffenheim have distinct, fun identities and the bottom of the table featured a team that was in 2nd place in total goals, between Real Madrid and Barcelona. This preview will briefly dive into some of that to prepare for Friday’s opening kick.

1. Bayern Munich

Bayern are a team that draws you in as a viewer. Pep’s work ethic and creativity means you might see something new tactically and the teams quality means there is a chance to see something jaw-dropping every game. Last season they held Werder Bremen without a shot the entire game. The year before Schalke didn’t get out of their own half for 20 minutes and we all remember those 3 minutes without Man City touching the ball in Manchester. Inverted fullbacks, diagonal chips, full-field man-to-man marking at the Camp Nou, you never know what will come next.

However, for all the quality in Munich,when Ribery and Robben were out Bayern were simply very good, not out of this world. You can see this in their shots per game:

but the point is really driven home when you see their deep completion maps. The first is away games against Augsburg, Mainz, Frankfurt and Hertha with both healthy:


the second are the home matches against the same teams when both were missing due to injury:

The size of the circle corresponds to the distance of the pass, with shorter passes getting a larger circle. Orange means goal, light blue a shot and darker blue a normal completion. Without those two it was harder for Bayern to move their passing game toward goal. The gap between Ribery and Robben and the rest is reflected here:


No one is even in their area code. Ribery completes almost twice as many as any non-Robben player and Robben essentially renders the percentiles on player cards useless.

(for explanation on player cards see below)

When those two guys click, Bayern are untouchable. Defensively, Bayern are outstanding. They completely stifle the opposition, limiting them to 200 completions per game. They don’t have the soft underbelly some pressing teams develop either, teams struggle even when they break through the high lines. This is a deep completion map of their 3 home games against Wolfsburg, Dortmund and Leverkusen.

You can get a few shots targeting Dante and Bernat on the left, but not enough to really call it a weakness. This is a great defense.

Robben looks healthy, but Ribery remains a major doubt for this season. Douglas Costa is a Ribery replacement and was terrifying in the Super Cup for stretches. Bayern will likely win the league even if he doesn’t turn out to be a similar force as Franck but Costa replacing Ribery is important for the long-term dominance of Bayern in the Bundesliga. With Thiago back fully, Vidal joining, and Hojberg returning from loan Bayern should dominate the midfield even more in the next few years but to keep rolling to titles the wide quality is crucial.


2. Borussia Dortmund

It was almost as hard to get the ball deep against Dortmund as it was against Bayern. In lots of pretty important metrics including xG, Dortmund looked second-best to Bayern. They were far from that in last years table. These three graphs help describe Dortmund’s season:


Adjusted deep completion means the closer to goal a completion is the more weight it has.

Dortmund dominated territory at elite levels but yet were right behind relegated teams Paderborn and Freiburg and when it came to converting deep touches to goals. On the other end, they were well behind wide defense-optional teams in Stuttgart and Frankfurt in allowing completions to be turned into goals. A terrible defensive backline might explain the defensive side, but that’s wasn’t the case. Passes were still very tough to complete basically everywhere.

Maybe that one green spot in the center of the pitch explains it all, but I think there was some historically bad luck here. A deep completion was 3.5x more likely to turn into a goal vs Dortmund than it was against Gladbach. Just normal conversion rates on both sides of the ball would have turned them into a +40 GD team instead of +7. Thomas Tuchel comes in for Klopp (read my thoughts on him here) and there might be some bedding in time even if I am optimistic long-term. He has two of the best attacking midfielders in the league in Reus and Mkhitaryan along with the best deep midfielder in Gundogan. Gonzalo Castro from Leverkusen gives Dortmund the chance to have a very dynamic midfield. Controlling the center of the pitch was the major constant with Tuchel at Mainz as he switched between systems, Reus/Mkhi/Castro/Gundogan will let Dortmund control it going forward. Tuchel seems to prefer the youngster Weigl to control it defensively, maybe until Sahin returns from injury.

3. Wolfsburg

Last year was great for the Wolves, finishing second with a +34 GD in 2nd place comfortably but I think that will be tough to reach again, even if De Bruyne stays. Let’s take another look at how teams turned deep passes into goals

Wolfsburg are nearly off the charts, 9 points ahead of 2nd place. Even if they finish at the level of the second place team they could lose 15+ goals this season. Bas Dost won’t keep up his impossible 38% shooting percentage (see map below with orange as goals)

But that’s ok as Wolfsburg have improved at the striker position, getting Max Kruse from Gladbach. Kruse is one of the best passers at the forward position, Dost one of the worst. The idea should be that while the efficiency will drop the improved involvement of the striker will create a higher volume of passes and allow them to shape a few more involved attacks instead of lightning strikes though the wings. I worry Dieter Hecking will chase Dost’s goal total and give him first crack at the striker role while Kruse plays off the bench.

Outside of Atletico Madrid, Wolfsburg were probably the best team to focus attacks to a large extent down the wings.  This can be seen in a sampling of where there creative players receive the ball.


De Bruyne is clearly the main playmaker but is generally receiving the ball out wide. He’s not a heavy usage guy so even with him returning Wolfsburg’s attack still feels a little formless, but if he leaves there would be serious worries about Champions League. I expect a significant slip from last season, mostly from scoring fewer goals.

4 and 5, opposites attract: Gladbach and Leverkusen

Gladbach and Leverkusen make a beautiful pair. Essentially everything one does, the other does the complete opposite. These two are the ones that make the Bundesliga the beautiful, unique league it has become.

First, with the ball. Here is a map of Leverkusen’s passes from just inside the opposition half. Color and shading shows how far forward the pass is going, red=backwards.

And Gladbach’s.

Leverkusen is rampaging forward while Gladbach is taking their sweet time. The 26-4 difference in passes through the endline really highlights that. Shooting, it’s the same story. Leverkusen are firing a shot every 17 completions, with Gladbach at twice that.

Without the ball

Here are ease of passing maps for the two teams defenses.


and then Gladbach

Gladbach are generally despised by shot-location or volume-based models and this make them one of the most important teams for stat-guys to watch. I’ve written extensively on them and how they beat models repeatedly and badly. They exposed my first manual xG model 2 years ago, and made light work of a more advanced model last year.

So go there if you want a full breakdown click the link, but even if you don’t go there watch Gladbach this season: they are an important case study in the soccer analytics world. I’ll show two quick charts here:


They are extremely patient on offense to pick out passes that have a high likelihood of being turned into shots and on defense stick close to goal, making everything easy elsewhere but tough inside the box. The Foals will move into the Champions League and lose one of their elite strike pair in Max Kruse, making this a fascinating season to join in and watch. Lars Stindl, in from Hannover, is an excellent offensive midfielder to pair with Xhaka giving Gladbach a base that can create as well as any outside of Bayern or Dortmund. Drmic is not the type of involved player Kruse was, which means the incredible offensive efficiency might take a different form, one that might see more Hazard and Traore. As long as they continue to shatter xG models through their unique style of play, Gladbach remain a must-watch team.

Leverkusen are a must-watch team for the sheer speed of the game. The pressure they apply without the ball is unmatched and unrelenting (see map above) and offensively no team remaining in the top flight of European football shoots as quickly. Stefan Kiessling plays up top but is the 4th option really when it comes to taking shots, the 3 attackers in Son, Bellarabi, and burgeoning superstar Hakan Calhanoglu all take more than the striker. The “90 minutes of Hell” strategy leads to lots of incomplete passes from both teams, making the loss of their one smooth-passing midfileder Gonzalo Castro a big one (until they signed Charles Aranguiz). They were good enough last season to comfortably grab the UCL playoff spot, defeating Lazio and then getting back to 4th in what should be a fierce race would be a successful season. The non-stop drive doesn’t always help, their midfield passing was very poor and you wonder if slowing down a bit on offense might help.

Leverkusen home shot map:

6. Schalke

Schalke are a bit of a head-scratcher. They are coming off a very poor season where they focused on limiting the opposition to poor chances and then forgot to create any of their own. Andre Breitenreiter replaces Di Matteo as the manager but he isn’t the most important addition, that is Johannes Geis. Schalke had a very stagnant midfield last season with Hoger, Neustadter and Kirchoff not adding much to the attack. (biggest size=goal, next biggest=shot, smallest=completion)



Geis brings a huge improvement in dynamic passing (see below map) and took more shots per game than the other 3 combined.


Last years midfield was also easy to cut through (12th in Bundesliga) but the backline was 2nd best in league in preventing shots on dangerous passes. I’d expect a much more proactive Schalke this season. Geis could very possibly be the signing of the season but Schalke still are the least likely of the big 6 to crack back into the Champions League.

Top 6 Predictions

Bayern, 80 points

Dortmund, 72 points

Gladbach, 60 points

Leverkusen, 58 points

Wolfsburg, 57 points

Schalke, 54 points

Extra Graphs

I’ve plotted deep pass to shot conversion on the Y-axis here, with midfield passer rating on the X. Both of these are from previous articles (here and here). The TL;DR of it is: the higher up the Y-axis you go the higher the rate that passes in the final 15 yards are turned into shots, the further right on the X-axis you go, the easier it is to move the ball closer to goal in the midfield. This is a general look at which teams contest or pass well in the midfield and convert or stop deep passes from being converted. It’s not necessarily a strong midfield, weak backline or vice versa, there are plenty of tactical reasons why the numbers could not reflect the talent level of a group.

First, the defenses:


Dortmund looks extremely strong here, the problem was just a huge amount of those shots turned into goals. Leverkusen and Gladbach, those mirror images, are at each end when it comes to toughness in the midfield.

The offenses:


Leverkusen’s frenetic attack did not reliably generate enough offense last year and that’s the main concern as they try for a 4th straight top 4 finish.


Eintracht Frankfurt and Hoffenheim


In between Barcelona and Real Madrid atop the goals/game charts we find Eintracht. Unlike those two, the goals come equally from both teams in Eintracht games. This comes from having the best average chance both for and against in the Bundesliga.

Hoffenheim are top 10 Europe-wide in both goals and shots per game and as you can see from the midfield map, play a high-risk defensive game that lends itself to great viewing.

Augsburg and Hamburg are two strong arguments against the deterministic theory that wage bill=league position.  Despite having a bottom 4 wage bill, Augsburg finished ahead of Schalke and Dortmund in 5th and will play in the Europa League this season. Augsburg feature a high press and a quick trigger to shoot when they have the ball. Hojbjerg returning to Bayern and poor attacking players make another top 6 finish unlikely. I’ve written about Hamburg before but they desperately need to awaken one of the worst offenses in all of Europe. One of the richest clubs in Germany, they have escaped two relegation playoffs the last two seasons. I wrote more about last years problems here.

Something to possibly cling onto for Hamburg fans is their horrendous goal/SOT rate. This generally has no correlation from year to year with the big caveat that relegated teams generally have the worst numbers each year but don’t show up again so don’t count in those correlations.

Players to Watch 

I will try to avoid repetition from those listed above. A fuller explanation of the player cards comes in my Ligue 1 preview but the short version is: Passer Rating is how well a player passes taking into account difficulty of pass, deep comps are within 25 yards of goal, involvement is basically how many completions a player gets and how central he is to his team. All are per 90 and compared to players in same position.

As usual, the caveat remains that these players are the ones who performed best in these metrics, choose different metrics and you get different players. Also performance does not always equal skill level or talent. There won’t be Bayern players in here as you can assume essentially everyone (except Weiser) comes out very strong in these types of measurements. The three to watch out for outside the very biggest names: Hojbjerg, Badstuber and Thiago.


Marco Reus, Dortmund

Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Dortmund

Hakan Calhaonuglu, Leverkusen

Daniel Didavi, Stuttgart

Big year returning from injury.

One youngster to watch

Kevin Volland, Hoffenheim No player had a higher % of their completions come within 25 yards of the opponents goal. Here’s his completion map with estimated pass difficulty represented by circle size.

With Firmino gone, you figure he will be able to get more involved in Hoffenheim’s play.


Raffael, Gladbach

No Bundesliga striker passed the ball better than Raffael. The patient attack of Gladbach surely helps their forwards rack up good passing numbers, as more options are available when the ball is moved slowly. It’s kind of strange for a Brazilian striker to play this well on a Champions League team and be so unknown, but hopefully he has some big games in the UCL to get his name out there this season.

Pierre-Emerick Aubemayang, Dortmund

Solomon Kalou, Hertha Berlin

Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Schalke

Eric Choupo-Moting, Schalke

Haris Seferovic, Frankfurt

Barely beats out last years league top goal scorer Alex Meier due to his edge in passing. Also only 23.


Ilkay Gundogan, Dortmund

Granit Xhaka, Gladbach

Zlatko Junuzovic, Werder Bremen

Junuzovic was the top non-Bayern player as far as deep completions go and was just behind di Santo when it came to top shots-taker on Bremen. The entire Bremen offense revolved around him.

Luiz Gustavo, Wolfsburg.

Milos Jojic, Koln


Ricardo Rodriguez, Wolfsburg

Paul Verhaegh, Augsburg

Augsburg lost a great young prospect in Baba to Chelsea, but kept their best fullback.

Wendell, Leverkusen

Bastian Oczipka, Frankfurt

Daniel Brosinksi, Mainz

Final Words

Hopefully this has you ready for this Friday’s opening kick. Tune in and enjoy the goals, the counter-attacks, the high pressing, the atmosphere and the high level of play. My final piece of advice is to learn from me: don’t repeatedly bet against Bayern and Gladbach because they are due for regression in your personal xG model. Best to sit back, enjoy, and investigate the different flavors of soccer they bring us.


Controlling the Midfield (and why James Milner might not be the answer for Liverpool)

Each sport has it’s truisms about where the core of winning teams come from. In baseball it’s “up the middle”, the notion that if you get your defensive players in the middle of the field right, it’s easier to fill the rest. In football, games are won and lost “in the trenches” where the unappreciated lineman clear holes for skill players to score touchdowns. In soccer, it’s the midfield or in one of the more delightful sporting cliches: the engine room. Great forwards will not score goals without a solid midfield to move the ball up and give them plenty of touches. A top class back four can’t hold out for 90 minutes repeatedly if they have to constantly defend against passes coming toward their goal. These are widely accepted truisms but it is pretty hard to look at stats to determine which engine rooms are running at top speed and which are bogged down. Hopefully this is a step toward determining that.

First, we need to define where the midfield is. This is how I defined it, between 38 and 79 yards away from the goal in my advanced soccer graphics representation program. This was just my decision based on what looked right and there are probably other ways of defining it that might be more correct.


Next we want to determine what stats to use to determine whether a team is dominating the midfield. Number of completions for and against shows possession but we need more, completion percentage is nice but rewards simple, short passes back and forth just inside the area equally with incisive balls through the middle. In the end, I came up with 4 factors to measure a team’s midfield control.

The first three are simple. One: completions per game. Two: the share of passes that are going backwards, mainly for context. Three: how far the average pass travels.

The fourth is a little more complicated. It is basically adjusted completion % on forward passes. To measure which teams were actually best as moving the ball through the midfield, I created a rough model for how an average team passes. It takes into account how far from goal the origin of the pass is and how much closer to goal the ball goes. I did this separately for La Liga, the Bundesliga, and the EPL. For example, in the EPL a pass that originates 63 yards from goal and is targeted at a player 4 yards closer to goal (59 yards from goal)*, is expected to be completed 86% of the time. If a passer is 40 yards from goal and tries to play a ball 26 yards closer to goal (in the box 14 yards from goal) it is expected to be completed 20% of the time. Obviously there are big changes depending on pressure and number of options available: a striker playing a ball forward will have a lower % than a midfielder or a defender simply due to how the team is laid out. This is ok, especially at the team level, as we are simply using this to measure which teams are actually passing well and which teams might be inflating their completion percentage through short passes far from goal. We add up each passes expected completion percentage then compare how many passes were actually completed to see if a team is above or below what you would expect.

*from goal is measured directly from goal. So a pass completed to the corner would be measured as 30+ yards from goal, not 0 even though it might be completed on the end line.

To visualize all of these factors, we go to Tableau and look at the 3 biggest leagues graphed:

Clickable link for interaction

Far on the left side of the grap we see Crystal Palace, Burnley and Eibar. These are the three teams who completed a lot fewer passes than you’d expect an average team in their leagues to complete. They were only about 89% as likely to complete any given pass as the normal team was. Moving from left to right we see teams like Newcastle, Atletico Madrid, and Mainz around the average line when it comes to pass completion quality. Far on the right, we see the expected big boys in Bayern, Barcelona, and Real Madrid. Gladbach, Everton, and both Manchester teams sit significantly behind those 3 in the second tier of this pass rating.

Looking at the bottom of the graph we see Man City and Arsenal in a group of their own when it comes to playing short passes. Up top we see 3 German teams play the longest passes, with varying rates of success. Paderborn, Mainz and Wolfsburg average midfield pass is over 5 yards longer than Man City.

Looking at the size of the bubbles, we see unsurprisingly that the best teams at completing passes are generally the ones who complete the most. One place we can see a contrast is between Tottenham and Atletico Madrid, who play similar short passes at similar success rates but the difference comes when we see Spurs play complete almost 40 more passes per game in the midfield.

The share of passes that go backwards is the color of the bubble. We see that Swansea and Manchester United are teams in the right half who play backwards passes more than anyone else, in fact Manchester United play the highest share of midfield backwards passes of any team on this chart. This is rare for a top team as you can see, and indicates a lack of forward options, a lack of aggression, or a tactic obsessed with keeping the ball.     Here is the defensive chart with a clickable link for more interaction:


Clickable, interactive link

We see two massive outliers immediately. One is Leverkusen, who were just enormously harder to get through the midfield against than anyone else. The other is the infintesimal dot representing Bayern. Teams complete 40 more passes per game in the midfield against Man City than they do vs Bayern. Two interesting teams to contrast are Manchester United and Rayo Vallecano. They see the same amount of passes, are both very good at stopping passes and allow a little above average pass distance. The main difference is teams play forward a ton vs Rayo (because they press extremely high) while opponents play backwards a high amount against United.

Still the single most interesting part of this graph is Real Madrid. Teams play extremely short passes while completing more than you would expect. This was not something I picked up on while watching and something that is hard to explain away as a tactical decision in a league where they are simply so much better than many of their opponents. Something was wrong with Real’s defensive midfield last season, and that looks to be a pretty big hole going forward for a team with UCL and La Liga ambitions.

Chelsea are somewhat close to Madrid, down by Swansea. This is more easily explained as a tactical decision as we know from my previous piece on converting shots to passes that Chelsea are one of the best at keeping teams at arms length or on the edge of the attacking area, and one of the best at keeping passes from being converted into shots.

The longest passes allowed are generally all German teams (see below for more on league differences) and then some bad Spanish teams and then Tottenham, who are right besides Augsburg. Only Man United and strangely QPR are better at stopping passes through the midfield than Tottenham, the main problem with their defense was the passes that get through are long and dangerous, and are converted into shots at a higher rate than any other EPL team. This would suggest at first glance that the backline is more of a problem than the midfield. United had similar problems, though they were tougher to pass against and not near as susceptible to passes being converted to shots.

Combining shot conversion and midfield control

We saw how Chelsea’s unimpressive defensive midfield numbers were overcome by the sterling job they do stopping deep passes from being turned into shots, let’s see if there are other interesting separations.

There are obvious tactical reasons for some of these (Gladbach’s shelling, Celta/Rayo’s high presses) but there are some general conclusions we can make. If my team was in the second group, I would look first to upgrade my back-line if I wanted to improve my defense.

Combining offense and defense for total control of the midfield

To see which teams really control the midfield as the title mentioned we will combine the offensive and defensive metrics. The ratio of completions/completions allowed and the amount pass ratings on offense and defense are combined for one ranking.

Top 10

1. Bayern Munich

2. Barcelona

3. Dortmund

4. Manchester United

5. Real Madrid

6. Manchester City

7. Celta Vigo

8. Arsenal

9. Liverpool

10. Tottenham

Real Madrid’s poor defensive showing is outweighed by its dominant offense. The rankings give some weight to the idea that a good midfield will build you a good team. One interesting team not in the top 10 is Chelsea, who were 15th overall but still won the league without a dominant midfield.

Looking at individual teams

When you see a team rank high or low, the next question becomes why are they so high? What players are dominating the midfield for them? While this is still a very hard question that I am in no way certain of answering, looking deeper at this kind of passing data can help tell us a little bit. We will look quickly at Man City and Liverpool, two teams who were both easily above average in number of passes and pass rating (completed passes compared to “expected” completions).

We won’t look at defenders (though I will mention Mamadou Sakho was nearly off the charts in how well he advanced the ball aggressively) or forwards (where the differences between Eden Dzeko, Stevan Jovetic and Aguero are very noticeable) but will focus only on midfielders for now.

The midfield pass rate is basically how well the player is doing at completing passes that move their team toward goal in the midfield. A rating of 1 means they do exactly as well as an average EPL player, as you can see everyone here has a rating above 1, except for Milner who is 6 points below the average EPL player when it comes to completing these passes. His role was obviously much different at City than it will be at Liverpool, but the number remains a big worry for Liverpool fans. He is now being featured in an area where he really struggled to move the ball last season. When you factor in every pass over the whole field (overall pass rate), we can see Milner rises above average indicating he was at his best in the final third. His volume of work will drop there and rise in the center of the pitch in the upcoming season. Of course, more than half of the game is missing here but defensive work will come in another time, another article.

Other interesting player notes: Jordan Ibe’s high rating in limited minutes bodes well for his future and it’s another reminder of how silly good Yaya Toure and David Silva are. Liverpool as a whole saw their pass ratings drop the further upfield they got, no surprise to Liverpool fans who watched as they played an extremely conservative style for most of 2015, committing very few players forward. The limited attacking options made it very hard to pass, which will make it interesting to check in on Sterling at Man City and Coutinho with more options to see if they raise their ratings.   This is a broad overview of midfields, there are probably 20 articles to be written simply on Liverpool alone and there are tons of ways of looking deeper (who is forcing teams to play through the edges, hint: Villarreal, looking at game-by-game throughout the season and wondering why Liverpool had such poor midfield numbers vs Tottenham and great vs Chelsea while awful at home vs City and great away, etc) but hopefully you enjoyed this start. Any questions, comments, criticisms, etc feel free to reach me on twitter @Saturdayoncouch or post in the relatively new comment box below and I will be glad to discuss. Spammers, if you have read this far I am all set on sunglasses so please do not post.

Postscript comparing leagues

I promised a breakdown between leagues, but ran out of time. Here is a quick graph comparing completion percentages for different length passes. The Bundesliga is noticeably harder to complete passes. La Liga tends to see more short passes and Bundesliga: more long passes. Another time, maybe we can expand but there’s never enough time, right?