Showing posts with label FC Barcelona. Show all posts
Showing posts with label FC Barcelona. Show all posts

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Fortress Bernabeu? Real Madrid Can Win the League By Playing Better Defense (Or By Barcelona Playing Worse Defense)

Not imposing enough?
The other day, Jose Mourinho made news by claiming that last season was his best ever as a coach. Truth is, he did do very well. Real came in second in La Liga, won the cup, and reached the semi-finals of the Champions League. Now, whether that's really better than any of the seasons with Porto, Chelsea, or Inter is another question. But there was one statement that got us thinking. Speaking about the La Liga campaign, Mourinho was quoted as follows: "It was the championship in which I won more points, won more games and scored more goals. It was a very, very, very good championship."

Looked at in this way, it's hard to disagree. It was a very, very, very good championship for Real - offensively speaking. While Barça is usually praised for their excellent attacking play, last season Real Madrid found the back of the net even more frequently (and lest we forget, Ronaldo won the Pichichi Trophy).


The numbers tell the story. For example, Real Madrid was superior in terms of shot production. On average, they produced 19 shots per match, compared to Barça's 15.5. Of course, the overall shot count is not entirely conclusive. It's also about the ability to fire a shot on target (and to score, obviously). For Real Madrid, shooting on target seems to be somewhat harder than for Barça. Although they take more shots, Mourinho's team managed to place about 42% of their shots between the woodwork. In contrast, Barça did slightly better, with a target/shot percentage of 46%. At the end of the day, Real scored 2.68 times per match, while Barça managed 2.5 goals. Given that Real Madrid needed seven shots on target to score once and Barça only six, the Catalans were slightly more efficient and Real compensated by shooting more frequently.

What Mourinho doesn't mention is that Barça had the superior defense: Iker Casillas let twice as many goals slip trough as Victor Valdés.

So here's our unsolicited advice, based on a few numbers: If Real wants to win the championship this year, they have to find a way to defend more effectively. We know: it might sound a bit odd to say that Real Madrid - much criticized for Mourinho's catenaccio style of play - needs to defend better. So let's take a look at the numbers to see what they tell us.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Tall = Good? Taller = Better? Height and Football

It wasn't all that long ago when playing midfield seemed to require more height than ever to crowd the center of the pitch. As a matter of fact, the average height of professional footballers has been increasing for a number of years now. The latest Professional Football Players Observatory report of the demographics of footballers in Europe reveals that players in the Czech Republic, Germany, and Denmark on average are around 1.83m tall - that's slightly over 6ft - while even players in "shorter" countries like Spain and France average slightly less than 5'11", as the following graph from the report shows. Mind you, each of these averages is significantly taller than the average male in these countries.

(c) 2011 Professional Football Players Observatory

In stark contrast, FC Barcelona seems to defy these general trends in professional football. While Iniesta, Xavi, and Messi are footballing giants, much has been made of the fact that Barcelona's midfield is one of the shortest around. What is more, they can probably look most guys in the Barca dressing room in the eyes. In the same report I cited above, Barcelona take the honors for shortest club in all of Europe (in terms of average height) at 177.38m - that's less than 5'10". So now, the latest fad seems to be what Germans like to call "Stehaufmaennchen" - or roly poly doll - a player whose center of gravity is low to the ground. 

So what's better? Tall or short?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Best Teams in Europe: Barcelona Is Literally Off The Charts, But Can They Stay There?

A quick follow up on how good Barcelona are this year; in a few days, I'll do a more involved post on where the leagues stand at this point in the season, but I thought I'd share this little tidbit for the Barca aficionados out there - and those of you who love to hate on Barca. Whether you're a fan or a hater, you have to be impressed with how good they have been this year. To me, the only team that comes close is Dortmund who are playing some really exciting football.

So here is a graph of offensive and defensive goal to shot (Reep) ratios for all teams in the Big 4 leagues. A higher offensive ratio means that the team is more efficient on offense - the team scored more goals on fewer shots - while a higher defensive ratio means that the team is less efficient on defense - it allowed more goals on fewer shots against. When plotted together, the best teams should be located in the lower right hand quadrant: here, we will find teams that are offensively and defensively efficient (they score more on fewer tries and their opponents have to take more shots to score against them).

Here's where the teams stand on these two dimensions two thirds through the season.


As you can see, Barcelona is off the charts. Its offensive goal to shot ratio is so much better than anyone else's, they have put considerable distance between themselves and the rest of Europe. Mind you, in the lower right hand corner we do see some really good teams like Real Madrid or Dortmund, but Barca are in a league by themselves. The only team that also kind of stands out (in a positive way) is Dortmund, which has the best defensive goal to shot ratio in Europe - that is, they make it very difficult for opponents to score - but their offense can't rival Barcelona's (perhaps because they're playing in a more balanced league?).

So here's the question of the week: can Barcelona stay off the charts? I think there are two good reasons that speak against. First, defense. Barcelona is the best offensive team in Europe, but on defense several top teams seem to be just as good or better. So to continue winning, they have to make sure opponents stay away from their goal, and they won't be able to do that each and every time. Second, there's regression to the mean. Barcelona's schedule is relentless; assuming they have been slightly over-performing (with only one league loss this year), they're due for a disappointment or two and on the offensive metrics they're likely to move a little closer to the pack (that is, to the left on the graph above). It's good news for Barca opponents, and for fans it would guarantee a thrilling remainder of the La Liga and Champions League seasons.

PS: It's notable that a good number of the Italian teams do not perform well on these metrics. Another indicator that Serie A is lagging behind?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Beating Barcelona: The Limits of Soccermetrics

Lots of talk in the aftermath of Arsenal's defeat at Camp Nou has centered on the Gunners' inability to generate any meaningful chances. Perhaps Arsena's 0 shots inside Barcelona's 18 are unusual, but guess what? Arsenal aren't alone. Barcelona's performance this year and last has been astonishing, and you don't need to know numbers to understand this; all you need to do is watch Messi & Co in action. It's beautiful and suffocating at the same time.

It's hard to think about how one could use publicly available information to put a number on what it takes to beat Barca. Soccermetrics based on box scores are great for generating insights about events that occur often (when the sample size is relatively large) and about things that everyone can see (like goals, match outcomes, shots, and fouls, for instance). But Barca defeats are such rare events, and the kind of information we have is so limited, that it may just be better to just watch and enjoy rather than to apply soccermetrics based on things like box scores.

But I can't help myself, so here is my Saturday morning back of the envelope analysis of Barca defeats.

Let's start with the basics. How rare are Barca defeats? By the end of February, Barca had lost exactly one match in La Liga - or 4.17% of the matches they've played. During the 2008/09 and 2009/10 seasons combined, they lost a total of 6 league matches, or 7.89% of the time. Face it, Barca losing a match is just not something that happens with enough frequency for us to get a solid handle on. In the one match they lost this season, their opponents were able to get 9 shots off. In the two matches they have tied this year, Barca's opponents managed 7 and 11 shots, exactly 1 and 2 of which, respectively, were actually on target. And in the matches they have won (the vast  majority of times), opponents were able to shoot in the direction of Valdés' goal only an average of 6.5 times, with an accurate shot number of 2.76. Those are astonishing numbers.

You won't be surprised to hear that these numbers are, soccermetrically speaking, literally off the charts. So what makes the difference between the matches they have won and the ones they have lost? Because Barcelona losing is such a rare event, it's important to increase the sample size. So I went back to the prior two seasons to see if there are any patterns in Barcelona wins, draws, and defeats. First I thought that, perhaps, you have to be super aggressive to intimidate them physically. So maybe fouls against Barcelona (or Barcelona exacting retribution with fouls) would be correlated with Barca wins and losses. Take a look.


Clearly, that's not what it is. Barca's opponents typically foul more than Barca do (or are called more for fouls), but there is no difference between matches the team lost, drew, or won.

The one other indicator I thought would be interesting to look at is shots because we can think of them as an indicator of midfield and offensive production - you need to move the ball up the field into position in order to get a shot off. So we can think of it as a rough and ready proxy for a team's ability to create something in the opponent's half. So here's the equivalent graph for shots for and against in Barca matches in the past two seasons.


Now we're getting somewhere. Barca's offense is clearly very consistent across types of match outcomes when it comes to generating shots; generally speaking, they manage around 15+ shots on their opponents' goal. But while their offense has performed as well in the matches they have lost as they have when the team won, they have allowed their opponents to take twice as many shots in the matches they lost. So Messi, Iniesta, Villa, & Co have consistently produced the same offensive display match after match; but they have been more inconsistent with the back to their own goal.

So how would we know whether this really matters, once we control for other factors that go into match outcomes? So here's one final piece of evidence: I estimated a logistic regression where the outcome to be explained was a Barcelona loss. I controlled for fouls, home field advantage, and whether Barca is ahead at the half (it matters a lot, by the way), but also included the number of shots for and against. The only two variables that achieved statistical significance were Barca being ahead at halftime - when they're behind they're much more likely to lose - and shots by their opponents. But this doesn't mean you're highly likely to win if you take 15 shots rather than 5. To get a sense of how hard it is to beat them, the regressions tell us that, based on shots alone (and this is a big condition of course), you'd have to take an otherwordly 45 shots to generate predicted odds of a Barca loss of 50%. If you played at home and were tied at halftime, you'd still have to take 35 shots. And if you played at home and were ahead by one goal at the half, you'd still have to take 26 shots to get to 51% odds of a Barca loss.

Of course, these are just fictitious examples based on very rough and incomplete data, but they should give you a sense that beating Barcelona is a herculean task. If there is one lesson from this little soccermetric exercise, it's that you can't sit back to beat them (unless perhaps you're ahead at the half). Instead, you have to find a way to get the ball into Barcelona's half. I suspect the best way to do that is not to try and pass it there; instead, you may want to give Sam Allardyce a call to see how you could best emulate his old Bolton strategy of playing long ball.

But to really figure it out, you need to watch lots of tape and have the kind of detailed data managers and clubs have access to (the kind provided by Prozone, Opta, and the like), so that you can dissect Barca's weaknesses based on lots of observations of smaller events (passes, runs, dead ball situations, etc.). What soccermetricians can do based on the information available to all is similar to observing lots of patients and telling you what ails the average patient; but for rare events like Barca defeats, it takes a really experienced doctor who's willing to spend lots of time with individual patients to diagnose that rare illness.

In the meantime, forget the numbers and just watch the beautiful Barca game unfold. The one thing I do know is that it's an amazing outlier.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Raking It In: Football Wealth in 2010

As you probably know, I'm a big fan of communicating complex and statistical information graphically. So you won't be surprised to hear that I'm also a big fan of The Economist, the masters of the interesting and thought-provoking chart. Here's a graph from the magazine showing a ranking of "football wealth" based on the just released "Football Money League" report by consultancy Deloitte.

(c) The Economist
It shows the "league table" of Top 12 clubs, based on revenues generated during the 2009-10 season. As in previous years, Real Madrid comes out on top, and the top six clubs were unchanged from the year before. Though 2 La Liga clubs (Real Madrid and Barcelona) sit atop the table, they are the only ones on the list. 50% of the clubs in the Top 12 are from the Premiership, 3 or 25% from Serie A, and only one club from the Bundesliga - the league that, overall, seems to be healthiest (Bayern Munich). Top mover: Manchester City, from 20 to 11.

There are some other noteworthy differences across clubs and leagues that are worth talking about another time - but for today, I'll mention only the significant differences in terms of revenue generated from commercial activities: Bayern leads the pack in terms of revenue generated from this source at over  €170 million - and it's the largest percentage of the club's overall revenue (over 50%). One final note: it's interesting to see what's not on the graph: there are no French or Dutch clubs in the Top 12 (though Lyon and Marseille do make the Top 20 at 14 and 15, respectively).

Stay tuned for more detailed analyses before too long.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Biggest Draws in 2010-11: Matchday Attendance in European Leagues

Which are the best soccer teams or leagues in the world? Of course we can see which teams win more matches, and for leagues, UEFA's league coefficient allows us to answer that question with a fair amount of precision. Less systematic but popular ways of determining league or team quality involves looking at international head-to-head competition, or evaluating which leagues attract the best players and managers. All are tried and true ways of answering the perennial question of who is best.

Here's another, and slightly different, way of comparing leagues and teams: how much excitement do they generate among supporters? If "better" football - however we define quality - is more enjoyable and therefore valuable to supporters, we can measure the excitement of supporters by quantifying how willing they are to part with their hard-earned cash to see a club play. (As an aside, this approach should also have intuitive appeal to those who think soccer is a business.)

So here are some interesting numbers on matchday attendance I came across a few days ago, from a source called Stadionwelt. They show average attendance for home matches for the Top 30 draws in Europe so far this season (on average, teams played between 8 and 10 games at home). I took these numbers and turned them into a bar chart for easy reading and comparison (the x-axis shows attendance in thousands).


So what do the numbers tell us?

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

2009-10 Offensive Production in the Big 4: Comparing Teams' and Leagues' Accuracy and Conversion Ratios

Now that the big leagues of football are finally underway, I thought it'd be fun to take a quick comparative look at last year's goal and shot ratios across teams and leagues. Recall, for starters, that the total yield (goals per shots taken) is typically very similar across the four leagues. It is usually right around around .111, as good old Charles Reep would have predicted. So in the 2009-10 season, for example, the average yields of goals per shot were as follows:

Bundesliga: .113
Premier League: .117
Serie A: .106
La Liga: .108

This spells 1 goal in roughly 9 shots taken. Clearly, the major leagues are very comparable on this dimension, with 2009-10 producing yield rankings that put the EPL and the Bundesliga ahead of La Liga and Serie A (in that order).

But these averages for the leagues as a whole hide a lot of very interesting variation. Across the leagues, yields vary from slightly greater than .05 (that's 1 (one!) pitiful goal in 20 shots) to Barcelona's astonishing yield of .168 (roughly 1 goal in 6 shots!). But interestingly, the variation is on a similar scale, with the less efficient teams across the leagues (Hertha BSC, Nuernberg, Portsmouth, Wigan, Lazio, Livorno, Espanol, and Valladoli, to mention a few) managing a goal ratio of only slightly greater than .05, and the successful teams (Bayern, Schalke, Man City, Chelsea, Sevilla, or Inter) producing yields around or better than .15.


As always, aside from yields, an interesting question is how well teams do at managing to hit the goal (accuracy, measured by the SOT/shots ratio) and actually scoring when hitting the goal (conversion, measured by the goals/SOT ratio). So let's take a look.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Show Me The Money: The Richest Clubs in the World

Don't know if you've seen this, but here's a nifty graph of the richest clubs, defined in terms of revenue (not bottom line, mind you). It's pretty! But it also contains some useful information. While there are no real surprises - most of this information is available elsewhere - there are a couple of noteworthy things:

Revenues
It's interesting to see that Chelsea is among the losers in the revenue game, essentially holding steady over the previous year while other teams have prospered. And Liverpool and Juventus both moved up, despite less than stellar seasons. Other interesting facts of note:

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Ajax v. Barca: The Youth Academy Final of the 2010 World Cup

Here’s a PS to my earlier post about youth academies, in response to a couple of emails I received from my friends S and T (you know who you are). In the post, I wondered out loud whether it makes sense to scout 6 year olds, both in terms of developing superior soccer talent and as a matter of moral principle. A related question is whether the same individual talents we see in teams’ lineups would have achieved soccer stardom absent a youth academy to steer their development.