There was a time, not so long ago, when statistics in soccer meant goals and assists.
Corner kicks may have been counted, and maybe total fouls too. Maybe.
Mostly, though, it was all about who scored and who passed the goalscorer the ball.
Not so anymore, thanks to the brilliant minds at companies like Opta, who lead the way in the pursuit of advanced metrics in soccer.
The aforementioned barren wasteland of minimal data has been replaced by a world rich and fat with numbers. Soccer junkies and soccer geeks have more figures to work with than most could possibly even use after years of analysis.
Landon Donovan’s passing accuracy in the opposition’s half of the pitch during his first-ever World Cup in 2002 was 65.7 percent. It was almost as impressive in South Africa at just a tick worse, 64.4 percent. It should be noted, though, that Donovan attempted exactly 35 more passes in one fewer game in 2010.
In Clint Dempsey’s first World Cup, 2006 in Germany, the Texan completed 69.2 percent of his attempted passes in the attacking half of the pitch.
These types of comparisons could go on forever. All it takes is a quick visit to Opta’s website to find data on every player from every World Cup since 1966, easily accessible and digested. Any soccer fanatic, or even the more casual fan, could get lost in these numbers for hours and hours.
What is the point of all this data? What does it mean? Why is it important?
Is it worth knowing that Jurgen Klinsmann intercepted three passes during the 1994 World Cup, while Alexi Lalas intercepted 15?
The answer is, unequivocally, yes. Not only does the advanced metrics movement reveal the intricacies and subtle nature of the beautiful game, it also empirically brings to light the genius behind players that do not necessarily score lots of goals but are critical to the success of their club or country.
Opta sometimes collects over 2,000 events during a soccer match. That is a ton of information, and it can be a bit confusing to understand.
As such, this discussion examines some of the most important data being captured every day in the modern soccer analytics world and explains what makes this information valuable.
Measuring Strikers and Playmakers: Key Passes and Big Chances
Opta defines a key pass as “the final pass or pass-cum-shot leading to the recipient of the ball having an attempt at goal without scoring.”
In addition to assists, the key pass metric is a telling way of determining which players generate opportunities for teammates.
Coinciding with chance creation is the big chance metric. A big chance is "a situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score usually in a one-on-one scenario or from very close range."
In other words, a big chance is the sort of golden opportunity that players dream about and should rightly be trusted to finish.
Donovan’s goal against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup was a big chance.
The big chance metric is twofold in its value in that it notes who created the brilliant opportunity as well as the player on the receiving end of the latter chance. As such, any club or media outlet with access to Opta’s data can easily learn which players create the most appetizing and dangerous of chances. This helps to separate the average playmakers from the visionaries: the Pirlos and Valderramas of the world.
Take, for instance, this opportunity for Lionel Messi.
This is clearly a big chance that Messi somehow misses. The pass is pure art, one so beautiful that Dani Alves deserves credit for imagination. Without the key pass metric, or the big chance created metric, this ball might soon be forgotten. That would, of course, be a soccer tragedy considering the intrinsic beauty of this pass.
Not so in the world of advanced soccer analytics. Surely, Opta noted this attempt as a big chance. As such, Alves received a just reward for his brilliance.
On the opposite end, Messi is rightly punished for wasting this opportunity. For Messi, wasting a big chance is rare; for other, less impressive strikers, waste can be a chronic issue.
As a result, managers are now able to numerically determine if players score their goals based on the quality of the opportunity. Want to know what percentage of a striker’s goals comes from chances in which he must score? Interested to see which strikers are the most wasteful with their chances? Opta has all that information.
The conversation can go even further. Is it better to be a striker that gets more big chances, thus indicating that he puts himself in good spots, or does it say more about an individual’s ability when he scores on chances that are not so dangerous?
These metrics provide fodder for discussion, theory and argument—debate that likely happens between managers and fans alike just about everywhere in the soccer world.
Thorough examination into key passes and big chances truly is a fascinating way to determine the best No. 9's and No. 10s on the planet.
Measuring Midfielders and Backs: Interceptions and Ball Recoveries
In the fantastic book Soccernomics, authors Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski write about the transfer of Claude Makelele from Real Madrid to Chelsea in 2003.
They explain that study into the data behind Makelele suggested a unique player, one who did the majority of his high-intensity work when his team was not in possession. The numbers determined that Makelele did just about more than half of this type of work (high intensity with his team not in possession) than any of his teammates.
As a result, his role proved critical for the following seasons during some of Chelsea’s amazing campaigns.
Soccer, at its core, is a simple game. Try to gain possession of the ball and find a way to get it to over a line and into a net. Easy enough.
Getting hold of said ball is the rub here.
There are multiple ways to win the ball, and thanks to the new statistics, there is a clear path of how to do so.
Defenders and midfielders are judged on multiple metrics including clearances, blocks, interceptions and recoveries—none more crucial than the latter two.
To intercept a pass in soccer is to display a superior soccer intellect. It suggests two highly mental capabilities.
The first is anticipation. Anticipation is a key element of an intelligent player, particularly in terms of intercepting a pass. Players who anticipate well predict exactly where the opponent intends to spray a ball. He or she often waits until the perfect time to step into a passing lane and cut it out.
The second aspect critical in intercepting a pass is positioning, another skill requiring mental work. To be acutely positioned is to understand the game at a high level. Being able to constantly be in the right place at the right time is not something that happens by accident.
Superior defenders and midfielders can read the game well enough that they are always appropriately stationed to stifle an attack.
What makes an interception more important than a tackle is that it often results in clean possession, can lead to a team being caught in poor shape and nicely transitions to a counterattack. A tackle can win possession, yes, but it can also see the ball go right back to the team that already had it. Since it usually takes longer to start an attack following a tackle, teams are afforded an extra few seconds to properly regain their shape.
Every league has players adept at intercepting passes. In MLS, a name like Osvaldo Alonso comes to mind. It is no wonder he is always in the conversation of best midfielder in MLS.
Ball recoveries are akin to a rebound in basketball. A rebound ultimately leads a team regaining possession of the ball. Like in basketball, scoring in soccer is nearly impossible without possession. Thus, more recoveries mean more chances to score.
Rebounds and recoveries also share the unique quality of being based not only on desire but also on positioning and, once again, mental acumen. Some ball recoveries come easily; an opposing player misplaces a pass, and it goes right to a defender. However, most recoveries are not so simple in nature, especially in the busiest section of the pitch: the midfield third.
Like interceptions, being a stud ball-winner is to be keenly aware of where the ball is bound to end up. It requires studying opponents’ tendencies, the ability to read the flow of the game and the desire to throw limb and life into physically intimidating scenarios.
Thanks to the measuring of interceptions and ball recoveries, the soccer world has a palpable way of determining the Einsteins and Hawkings of the game. The best players are often intellectual minds first and athletes second.
Positioning on the Pitch
One of the luxuries of Opta’s coverage of Major League Soccer (among other leagues) is the Opta Chalkboards available for each game following the final whistle. The chalkboard expertly displays every single action recorded during a match as well as where the action took place on the field.
What this allows is the ability to separate the pitch into different sections to see how well a certain player does in a certain area.
Perhaps the best and most logical way of breaking up the field is in thirds: the defensive third, the midfield third and the attacking third. Passing accuracy percentage is a nice statistic, but it means more in the context of positioning. Whereas a defender might have a higher accuracy rate than a forward, the defender probably attempts more defensive-third passes, presumably under less pressure.
At the same time, though, it could be argued that passing accuracy in the defensive third of the field is actually more critical than attacking-third passing because to lose the ball in the defending third is to give an opponent a better chance to score.
The same goes for recoveries. Some soccer people often suggest that a match is won and lost in the midfield third. That theory can easily be put to a numerical test with the Opta Chalkboards.
For example, Mexico thoroughly out-recovered the United States in their recent World Cup qualifier in the midfield third of the pitch.
Of the 63 midfield-third recoveries, Mexico claimed the clear lion's share, 45 for the Mexicans and only 17 for the Americans. It is no wonder the latter side was outshot by 18 shots.
What about the most important statistic in soccer—goals?
To know where the majority of goals are scored from is to be an empowered soccer person. Opta knows the exact percentage of goals scored from inside the six, the 18 and outside of the 18. If a team has a tendency to score more goals from the right side of the pitch as opposed to the left, tactical adjustments can be made as a result.
All of that information comes from knowing exactly where events during a soccer game take place.
This discussion of some of the more important information that has come as a result of the advanced soccer analytics movement only scratches the surface of how to best study the game. Ask another educated person about three critical ways to utilize advanced metrics, and they might very well come up with three entirely different ideas.
The point, though, is that the pursuit of intelligent data in every facet of the game is being pursued, and intensely at that.
There is no way to predict what statisticians and analysts will think up next.
Perhaps one avenue to consider is the dummy. The dummy would be defined as follows:
“A movement in which a player purposely allows a ball he or she is about to control to continue on its path towards a teammate. Often includes a feint or timing the dummy so that the ball runs through the player’s leg. The dummy can be recorded for a player running or a player standing.”
Just one look at last season’s L.A. Galaxy win over the Seattle Sounders makes a case for tracking the dummy. Galaxy strikers Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan were so connected and used the dummy to perfection on numerous occasions. It was one of the better performances between two players in some time. The dummy was on full display.
Advanced analytics are here to stay. For the soccer junkies and casual fans alike, this is phenomenal news.