Going Long is for losers – Sideway is the winning way

The merits of the long ball have been debated by football fans as the long as the game has been played, and  the Fink Tank report in the Times (21/9/12)* recently waded into the debate, arguing that long balls are more effective than their shorter counterparts.

However, analysis of Opta data from the MCFC Analytics project shows that the short ball game is the way to success.

The data

Opta classifies Passes in various categories.  For this analysis we have looked at what Opta specifies as Long balls as well as Long/Short Passes.  Opta also specifies Successful (ON Target) and Unsuccessful Passes/Long Balls.

Long balls

Long ball stats

Using this data immediately highlights some inconsistencies with Fink’s data.  Opta supports Finks analysis that Stoke “is the club who plays the largest number of long balls”, and moreover, has the highest ON target (success) rate.  Also Opta confirms (in general) Fink’s claim that “the less good clubs use a greater proportion of Long balls”.

However, while the basic Fink hypothesis stands up to scrutiny, the numbers themselves don’t.  Fink then goes on to state, for example, that Long Balls make up 2% of Stoke’s passes.  Wrong! 15% of the Potters passes are long balls – quite a difference!  Not really relevant, but note that Stoke made also the lowest number of passes (nearly half those of the top clubs).   Also according to Fink’s table (Hit and myth…) Arsenal played only 78 long balls last season (0.38% of their 20594 passes), that is about 2 every match.  These are 608 says Opta, of which 124 ON target – quite a difference!

* http://angryofislington.com/2012/09/10/long-balls-are-more-effective-than-short-passes-apparently/)

Winning strategies

In the next stage of his analysis Fink compares Long balls to Short passes, “to judge which one was the more successful techniques” i.e. to get the ball from the penalty area to the opposition one.

Opta provides data on Pass direction: Back, FWD, Left, Right, as well by Pitch location: dividing the pitch in three area (DEF third, MID third, FWD third).  A problem with using the Pass direction data is that includes Crosses and Corners.  But these Events are around 7% of the data – too few to skew the results of the analysis.

Below are the results of our statistical analysis of OPTA Pass direction data, with the relevant (to Fink’s claim) comments:

Tree 1.                                                                     Tree 2.

Passes by Positions - Team split

Tree 1. shows that there is a significant difference in Pass direction among teams.  The teams on the left (mainly the top ones) favour passes to the sides (Left/Right); those on the right (mainly the bottom one) favour FWD passes.  The percentage of Back passes is almost equal.

The difference is startling. The top teams make significantly fewer FWD passes (only 34%) compared to the teams in the bottom half (40%).

This difference is even more clearly shown in Tree 2. Here, we have ignored Back passes, and grouped Left/Right ones. It is now clearer that the successful teams prefer to move the ball sideways (61% vs. 53%).

We have further analyzed the Opta data to look at the FWD passesfrom players in different positions (ignoring forwards, who make very few Long passes), and comparing it to their eventual league position.  The results are shown in the tables below. (Note that FWD passes include Long Balls).

FWD passes by Position

FWD passes by Position

It is clear that the poor teams are those that rely more on FWD passes. The three relegated teams were actually pretty good at using them.

But the teams that were successful in the League were actually pretty poor at playing FWD. Champions Manchester City’s defenders (DEF), for example, found that only just over 41% of their FWD passes were successful, yet relegated Bolton’s defenders were 16% points more successful.

These tables confirm the details of what already shown by the two graphic trees: top teams make significantly fewer long, forward passes. Since their lack of success with the Long ball has already been established, they must have a higher success rate with Short passes to overcome the effects of their poor FWD pass technique.  Otherwise, how could they be top?

The top teams know that hoofing the ball forward isn’t the answer to winning games. They know it is less accurate, they have (buy?) fewer forwards suited to this type of game, and they have the better players who can pass the ball accurately.

The good teams also know that they can carry the ball to the edge of the opposition penalty area more often by moving it sideways. Hoofing is NOT essential to top teams who have the skill to move the ball up the field in a more controlled way – sideways is their winning way!


About soccerlogic

Data analyst/miner of 23 years experience. Pretty sure I was first (1998) to apply Statistical Analysis and Machine Learning to study performance in soccer. I probably invented Soccer Analytics or, as I called it then, Football Intelligence. Haven't stop learning since, and experimenting new analysis that can help teams improve performance.
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2 Responses to Going Long is for losers – Sideway is the winning way

  1. Really good blog & interesting read. Let me know if you’re on Twitter – there’s a growing online analytics community and it’d be good to have you involved.

    I think there are a few caveats to be made here with the data. Good teams tend to take the lead first in matches, and teams that are behind tend to chase the game and play a greater % of their passes forward. This is largely true across the board, even for teams like Spain. Equally, do teams pass sideways when they lead, and is it having any effect on the match result other than taking away time the opposition has to score?

    Ultimately it comes down to the whole correlation/causation debate. Are good teams good because of their style of play (i.e. is it an input) or is good passing an output of good teams, or something that managers of good teams tend to favour (crowd demands it, perceived as ‘better’ etc)? Anyway, keep it up!

    • soccerlogic says:

      Thanks for the comment. Apologies for late reply, but spent to much time trying to display on my blog without success, and then gave up in frustration. I am new to this game! Just a brief reply… Teams who pass sideway do not do so mainly when they lead, it’s a general pattern which applies to all their matches, with more or less emphasys.

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