Analysing Attacks – More than just Goals and Assists

The excellent Ted Knutson raises some interesting issues on his Statsbomb website regarding important metrics which are frequently overlooked; but which provide so much valuable information into the performance of individual players and their teams.

The particular metrics he mentions are ‘Throughball Runs’ and ‘Second Assists.” At Sportsmatrix we call them ‘Off the Ball Attacking Runs’ and ‘Chance Creation.’

Ted quite rightly points out that a good through ball only has definitive value to the team if a teammate makes an intelligent run to receive it.

Likewise, does the assist table really tell us which player unlocked the opposition defence? Sometimes yes, but just as frequently no, because if the opportunity to convert a quality pass is squandered, then no real credit is given to the player who made the pass. On the other hand a player who delivers a simple pass when a goal is scored is credited with the assist, when in reality the killer pass to unlock the defence came from a different player.

At Sportsmatrix we measure things differently. With a qualitative analysis of the actions on the pitch without taking them out of the context of the particular attack, we build databases that offer a fuller picture.

By carrying out the process we are able to statistically highlight the strengths and weaknesses of teams and players.

Throughball Runs and Off the Ball Movement

Players are rarely static during the game, at least you would hope that they aren’t.

Much off the ball movement is insignificant and can be ignored. However we do examine the effect that the off the ball movement had on an attack and whether it improved or worsened the situation the team was in.

An off the ball attacking run may take place anywhere on the field and may just as likely include a good overlapping run by a defender as a run by an attacker through the centre.

In last season’s English Premier League, the team that featured most prominently for their off the ball runs was Everton, with three players in the top 10 including their two attacking full backs (Leighton Baines ranked 2nd,Seamus Coleman ranked 8th) and Belgian international Kevin Mirallas ranked 4th.

Despite making more significant off the ball runs than any other player, Arsenal’s Theo Walcott was ranked only 3rd, because an appreciable number of his runs failed to improve the attack and in some cases resulted in needless offsides as a result of poor decision making by the player.

Top of the rankings and the player who made the most significant good off the ball attacking runs was the impressive Eden Hazard. Throughout the season the Chelsea player made 111 significant off the ball runs, with only one run diminishing the attacking move, with 93 improving the attack.

Second Assists and Chance Creation

Attempts to create a chance should be recognized for their quality, independent of the final outcome of the attack. After all if an attack breaks down because of good defensive work by the opposition or by poor play by another member of the attacking team, it should not detract from the quality of the attempt to create a chance.

A sublime pass that unlocks a packed defence may not end up as a goal or even as a goal scoring chance; but at Sportsmatrix the pass by that player is still given the due credit.

Data from last season’s English Premier League again proves good reading for Everton, with two players (Mirallas & Baines) in the top 10 for chances created per game. However whilst both created a high number of chances, they created a relatively low percentage of excellent chances.

Of the four Manchester City players in the top 10, Carlos Tevez created the highest number of excellent chances (25%), with Samir Nasri (22.6%) not far behind.

Juan Mata created a high number of chances and also a relatively high number of excellent chances, which helps explain why he was Chelsea’s player of the year in the 2012-13 season.

Perhaps surprisingly, no Manchester United player featured in the top 10 for chances created, despite their runaway success in winning the league; however when it came to the highest percentage of excellent chances, Wayne Rooney headed this category. His strike partner Robin van Persie was not only lethal in front of goal; but also created a high percentage of excellent chances.

* Assists taken from website.

So as great as it might be to see which player topped the assists table and there’s no doubt that providing an assist does have real value; the reality is that it does not really provide the truest picture as to which player is best when it comes to unlocking a defence.

Compare the contributions of Everton’s Kevin Mirallas with Arsenal’s Lukas Podolski to better understand why looking at assists only tells part of the story of attacking creativity.

Podolski may have contributed 10 assists during the season, compared to only three by Mirallas; but there was no player in the Premier League who created more chances week in week out than Mirallas.

Whilst Mirallas ranked first for the number of chances that he created per game, Podolski was down in 74th place, alongside Southampton’s Steve Davis, West Ham’s Mohamed Diamé and Chelsea’s César Azpilicueta all of whom created 0.6 chances per game.

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