What we learn from passing/crossing statistics?

Date published: Friday 20th January 2017 5:58

This article will conclude our look at individual statistics. So far we’ve covered attacking and defending stats (in parts one and two), and here we’ll look at stats that are sometimes attacking, sometimes defending, sometimes neither: passing. We’ve already looked at key passes and assists, so here’s we’ll examine passes unrelated to scoring chances.

 

Passes/90
One of the more fascinating passing stats is total passes per 90 minutes. It goes without saying that players on short-passing teams are dominant here, but I was surprised to find Jordan Henderson first in this category by a huge margin. He clocks in at 87.2, with second-placed Granit Xhaka only at 80.2.

But looking at team totals, we find that Liverpool average significantly more passes per match than any team in the league. So if we go to percentages, we find that when he’s on the pitch, Henderson makes 14.5% of Liverpool’s passes. That’s well behind the leader, Danny Drinkwater at 18.0%. If we go a couple of years back, we find that Drinkwater also led with 16.2% in 2014/15, and was second behind Cesc Fabregas’17.0% last season. This tells you that having the top man on the list has little to do with where you finish: Leicester have been all over the map these last three years, and Chelsea finished well down the table last season.

Perhaps the most interesting use of passing totals is comparing players in the same position on the same team, because it raises intriguing tactical questions. Swansea have been a heavily right-sided team in recent years: this season Angel Rangel has made 61.0 passes/90, Kyle Naughton 48.3, but Neil Taylor only 35.2 and Steven Kingsley 35.7. Last year Rangel was at 63.1, Naughton 55.2, Taylor 39.2. Why? Has it been particularly effective?

Another example: if you watch Crystal Palace, you’ll notice Damien Delaney initiates the play from the back quite frequently. If we check, we find Delaney plays 10.1 more passes/90 than his partner Scott Dann, which is quite a few for CBs. Interestingly, it’s only this season he’s been ahead by anything close to that margin. Why the change? Incidentally, that’s not the largest gap among regular partners in a back four this year: Shkodran Mustafi plays a remarkable 13.2 more passes/90 than Laurent Koscielny. I never noticed that.

 

Passing Percentages
The passing stat you hear most frequently is completion percentage. It’s mentioned most often in the team context (‘Spurs held Chelsea to 79% completion, well below their average’), but has some interesting features when applied to individuals, since completion percentage depends heavily on both position and tactics.

The leaders in pass completion percentage are usually deeper-lying midfielders and ball-playing defenders, because most of their passes are short passes to midfielders or defenders, without direct attacking intent. But if we cheat and make 993 minutes instead of 1000 as our qualifier, the leader right now is Juan Mata on 90.7%. That’s quite remarkable for an attacking player. John Stones is second, and third is Adam Forshaw of Middlesbrough. Forshaw plays deeper than Mata, but it’s an excellent ranking for a player who tries to push the ball forward. Other players high on the list are Xhaka (pretty good, since he plays his share of longer passes) and Chelsea’s Gary Cahill and N’Golo Kanté.

As noted, ball-playing defenders regularly make the list, and the long pass numbers tell you why. Stones is the best at 90.6%, and only 7.5% of his passes are long. Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta follow with similar profiles. If we go to Michael Keane of long-ball Burnley, we find him all the way down at 74.7%, but 21.4% of his passes are long. To make a suitable comparison, we might compare his short passing percentage with that of Stones. There we find a clear lead for Stones, 93.6% to 82.6%. It might be worth watching to see whether Keane is more direct than Stones even with short passes.

Strikers usually have very low passing percentages, because most of their passes are in heavy traffic, and a number are with the head. Sergio Aguero is a clear leader here at 84.2%. Target men tend to be very low in this category because of all the aerial passes: Fernando Llorente is at 69.0%, Salomón Rondón at 66.2%, Romelu Lukaku a frighteningly low 62.9%.  If we check Lukaku’s stats for previous years, we find them consistently much higher, in the low 70s. No surprise, since Ronald Koeman has been playing much more direct than Roberto Martinez.

Lukaku’s example makes it clear that tactics play a key role in passing percentages. Remember from our first article that Ashley Williams has seen his passing percentage drop with the move from Swansea to Everton. Your numbers will depend heavily on what you’re asked to do.

As with defensive stats, single-game pass completion percentages can point to exceptional performances good and bad, although context is always necessary and pass maps should be consulted. When Hull travelled to West Brom a few weeks ago, Jake Livermore completed 93.6% of his passes, but Albion weren’t pressing and most of his passes were square. Hull lost 3-1. For an example of what a press can do, look to November when Steven Davis found himself caught in a Liverpool maelstrom, completing only 63.3%, more than 20 points below his average. And if you want all-around excellence, let’s take Mesut Özil’s 96.5% in this December’s rout of West Ham United at the London Stadium.

Usually we hear only about completion percentage as a whole, but a subset, long pass completion percentage, has its interest as well. Whoscored.com defines long passes as passes over 25 yards, which covers a wide variety of distributions. You can send diagonal balls to the wings, passes in the channels to feet, hoofs to a target man, etc. So when we look at these numbers, we have to remember that not all long passes are created equal.

Long pass percentage is a good stat for goalkeepers, for obvious reasons. One of my favorite football sights is a David de Gea long ball – he delivers so smoothly and cleanly. I’m not at all surprised he’s the most accurate long-ball keeper in the league, at 52.3%. In fact, he’s the only one above 50%, with Lee Grant in second at 49.2%. What’s interesting, though, is that it’s only this year that he leads the pack. I know he tends to send a lot of diagonal balls to the wings; Man United fans, is he doing something different this year? The lowest percentage belongs to Claudio Bravo at 33.2%, which makes sense: a Pep Guardiola keeper isn’t there for his long-ball ability.

For a Premier League defender, the magic number in long pass percentage is 50%: anything above that is very good. To reach that mark, however, most of your passes have to be to the wings. Toby Alderweireld is the first name I thought of; in fact, he’s a distant second to Virgil van Dijk, 58.4% to 61.4%. When Ashley Williams was at Swansea, he exceeded 50% every year, and in 2011/12 completed an astonishing 73.2%, the highest defender total I’ve found. Compare that to Miguel Britos, who’s mostly hoofing it to Troy Deeney this year, and completes only 33.5%. Life was much easier in Serie A, where for Napoli he was consistently over 50%, and one year hit 67.5%.

While we’re looking at defenders, let’s go back to Damien Delaney and Scott Dann. The two have played almost the exact same number of minutes this year. We’ve already seen that Delaney plays the ball more than Dann. In fact, Delaney’s carefully-chipped long ball is one of his specialties; you’ll see it several times a match. Yet although Delaney has played 201 long balls to Dann’s 118, Dann has a clear lead in long ball percentage, 44.9% to 39.3%. He had an even larger percentage lead last year. I’m guessing that although Delaney can play precise long balls, he also hoofs it more. Ed, any thoughts?

Finally, midfielders. Their long-ball percentages are as a rule the highest, because their long balls are shorter, and few are lumps to a central striker. But even that might not prepare you for N’Golo Kante’s brilliant 78.0% so far this year, up from 55.7% at Leicester last year. What makes it more remarkable is that he’s making nearly 50% more long passes at Chelsea – the different styles of counter-attack will repay close study.

 

Crosses
When is a pass not a pass? When it’s a cross. Opta and Whoscored.com count crosses as part of total passes, but not as part of pass completion percentage. That’s because crosses, particularly of the aerial variety, are tougher to complete.

Although you can look at total crosses – who delivers the most and the least – the most interesting cross stat is completion percentage. Corners that go into the area count as crosses, and since we have separate corner totals, we can measure corner completion percentage. Here if you get 50%, you’re doing very well. Of those players who have taken at least 30 corners, the best is Willian at 61.9%, which is excellent. Checking the pass maps, we find that he’s taken relatively few short corners, so he’s earned his ranking.

The least successful corner-taker is, of all people, Juan Mata at 19.4%, the same Juan Mata who leads the league in pass completion percentage. But he’s not the only one at United with a problem. Wayne Rooney is third-worst in the league at 25.0%. When someone other than Mata or Rooney takes for United, they’re significantly higher, at 37.7% – but even that would only rank the side 19th in the league. Surely you can do better, José?

Since some corners are short corners, it’s difficult to separate stats for open-play crosses from corner crosses, so you can only measure total cross completion percentage. At the top is Etienne Capoue at 40.3%, who like Willian has a strong corner percentage. We’d have to examine all the pass maps to get an exact count, but top crossers whose numbers don’t seem be unduly corner-weighted are Dimitri Payet, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Wilfried Zaha.

At the other end of the scale we find Raheem Sterling, who has completed a scandalous 7.5% of his crosses. This suggests Pep isn’t using him properly, or more likely he’s crossing too often for a side with smallish attackers. Ryan Bertrand is also quite low in this category. And Riyad Mahrez? Last year he was at a strong 28.1%, this year a poor 11.3%. Just another measure of the drop in form.

This finishes our treatment of basic individual stats – things can get pretty involved, but I hope you’ve found it worthwhile. As always, remember the context and explore, and you’ll uncover an amazing amount of stuff. Next time we’ll start on team stats, which are much simpler, although every bit as fascinating, and just maybe even more valuable.

 

Peter Goldstein

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