Statistics are dominating the world of sports at the moment. In every type of sport, despite the pundit’s attempts to explain the occurrences on the pitch, it’s the numbers who eventually do the talking.
Since the introduction of Moneyball, stats have changed the way we look at the game, but it also had an effect on managerial decisions and mainly player recruiting.
In football, most of the statistics focus on actions that involve the use of the ball. Passes, shots, headers, clearances, interceptions, tackles and the list can go on and on. There are off the ball statistics as well such as distance covered and sprints but those include actions with the ball too.
The main issue with off the ball actions is that they seem difficult to measure, but are they really? Here’s an example to get you going. Let’s assume that the ball is currently played down the middle of the pitch. The players off the ball will try to make runs in behind defenders and find space. If the player holding the ball manages to get the pass through to his teammate then it’s a successful pass, but what about the player who made the run? Is it possible to measure successful runs in behind? Of course. The main action is the successful pass but what made it successful is the other player getting in behind and finding space to receive the pass.
This can also be measured from the defender’s point of view. Let’s assume the defending player didn’t manage to intercept the ball but was able to block the attacking player from receiving it, now the defender has a succeeded in blocking the run. Those blocked runs happen all the time with players moving off to the ball. Usually, those actions are looked at from a point of view of the attacking player not able to find space. Well, that’s the reason why.
Here’s another Example, when Liverpool played Leicester City earlier this season, the first goal was a joy to behold, and not because the finish was spectacular. Even Jurgen Klopp himself described that as the best goal his side scored this season so far. That goal was made mainly by the movement off the ball by Daniel Sturridge. Sturridge drifted from the middle to the left side of the pitch and opened space for Roberto Firmino to sneak in. Sturridge didn’t just open the Space for Firmino, he also occupied the attention of two Leicester defenders. So here are another 2 stats to measure: how many times did a player open space for his teammate to come into and how many players does the opening space player manages to attract. If a teammate drops into the space created, then it’s a successful space opened.
What about defenders overlapping? A lot of teams today use their full backs and send them up wide to open the play and try to overlap the opposing full back. Why no start counting the numbers a full back managed to overlap and receive the ball. Surely, the ball getting to the overlapping player makes it a successful pass, but that’s only due to the full back succeeding with his overlap. This can be measured the other way around. How many times was a defending full back been overlapped by his opponent? Those figures will be able to show a pattern and suggest a style of play. When you have stats for action areas and from where did the move leading to the goal started, those can be true indicators for understanding a player’s performance.
Today, we see many teams use their wide players to track back an opponent. A number of successful trackbacks can be measured if the defending player was able to track back and halt the attacking player’s run.
Let’s have look at switching the play. When one side of the game is too tight and narrow, usually , the other side is wide open. If a full back, for example, doesn’t go up too much and stays in line with his teammate with the ball , then he’s available to receive a pass which switches the play. This can be measured by how many times a player stayed available to allow that switch of play.
Clearly, some of the examples mentioned here are reliant on actions being made by the player with the ball. However, the actions off it have a different dimension to the game.