Football is a strange sport. It is a game of hundreds of variables that are all involved in the scoring of a single goal. Yet, it is that goal which reflects the sport’s nature and its consequences: promotion; relegation; pay rises; transfers; hiring; sacking; and much more. Likewise, it is a sport filled with opinion. Which team is the greatest of all time? Which player is the greatest of all time? Which manager is the greatest of all time? Which player is the best in the world? Is this team better than that team? Conversation ensues, arguments usually follow and conclusions are often not met. This article will seek to explain some of the various aspects of football that influence our general understanding of the sport.

Initially, one should take a look at the infographic presented. The data was taken from just under 18,000 games that took place in seven seasons from 2012-2019. For the purpose of clarity I will explain a few of the terms used for the various metrics.

moving with ball: this refers to a player who carries the ball through space. So, a centre back may pick up the ball and run forward with it by 15-20 yards. Here, it would not be classified as a ‘dribble‘ but, rather, movement. For the purposes of this study, dribbling is defined as a player who moves with the ball whilst being challenged by an opponent and, thus, effectively took them on via a dribble.

cross: crossing is of three types – from open play, a corner and a free kick. These three are separate and have been calculated as so.

shot: shooting, like crossing, has been categorised into three types – from open play, a free kick and a penalty.

The rest of the metrics are straight forward.

This infographic details how frequent each action occurs on the pitch in a given game. As to be expected passing (short and long collectively) is performed to the greatest degree in the game. In many games a good team ends with around 400-450 attempted passes and around 320-370 completed passes. Yet, they may only attempt 15 dribbles and have around 8-10 shot attempts. In some cases, it is a little higher. Nevertheless, the ratio to how many passes are performed in any given game are demonstrably higher. Logically speaking, a football pitch (120 x 80) is too large for one to progress the ball up via movement or dribbling. This would become too arduous upon players. This is why the old football adage “the ball never gets tired” exists. It is a proverb which indicates the importance of passing. Despite this, not all passes are equal. There is a metric being developed known as “offensive-minded passes” (OMPs) and it is being developed to distinguish between passes that are performed to maintain possession and passes that are performed to attack the opponent directly. Some examples of passes that are seen as OMPs are through ballsline-breaking passes and tempo changing passes amongst others. Another article will be written up detailing OMPs, how they are defined specifically and which teams and players excel in them.

Open play shots make up 1.83% of all actions performed in a game. Though, it is arguably the game’s most important element. These days fans consistently ask “how many open play goals has he scored?” Yet, what is probably the better question to ask is “how many open play shots did he have?” This would allow for a more detailed conversation because it encompasses more elements of the team such as chance creation, movement, set patters of play (if they exist) and more. Nevertheless, it is incredible that such a small element of the game statistically impacts so much.

Furthermore, have a look at throw-ins which are ranked third after movement with the ball and interceptions – passes excluded. The quantity of throw-ins in any particular game is extremely high in comparison to other actions. However, due to them being carried out as if the ball merely needs to be put back into play they are frequently ignored as a worthy element within one’s offensive structure. However, Liverpool, arguably the best team in the world, have a throw-in coach, Thomas Gronnemark, who emphasises the many possibilities throw-ins can produce as long as they are studied and analytically dealt with. In a recent interview he said:

Ever since I started in 2004, people have been laughing at the idea of throw-in coaching. It is too weird for some people. It is a culture. Football started…what? 140 years ago. I am 44 and for as long as I can remember nobody has talked about throw-ins. You can watch a match on your TV and a team will lose a ball from a throw-in and that happens a lot for most teams and the commentators don’t say anything at all. Then, if the same player loses the ball seconds later when passing it with his feet they will say, “Oh, that was a bad pass.” When he does it twice they say he’s not having a good game. If he does it three times then they will say he doesn’t belong in the team. That’s just football culture. How can we keep possession when we are taking a throw-in under pressure? How can we create chances and score goals from those throw-in situations?”

Here, we can see Gronnemark clearly define some logical aspects pertaining to throw-ins and if we ponder over his statements he is quite correct. Why do we criticise a player for losing possession from a pass but we do not do so for a throw-in? Why do we say “he needs movement” in certain phases of on-ball play but do not say it in others especially with watching throw-ins? In reality, the question is: why do we apply certain principles to some aspects of the game but do not do so for other aspects of the game that are, in actuality, the same?

Gronnemark continues with his explanation on throw-ins which all football analysts should understand and take in:

“People have always been told to throw the ball down the line. It does not matter whether it is a professional club, an amateur club or when you were a kid at school. What I would just say is that it is the worst advice that anyone can give you for a throw-in.

This is an interesting quote because when players are young they are coached to throw it “down the line” often due to the fear of losing possession if it is thrown centrally. However, Gronnemark highlights that it is an error in his following statement:

Normally, we call them 50-50 situations because they are duel situations but they should be called 30-70 or 20-80 situations because there is a really big risk that if you are just throwing it down the line then you are going to lose the ball.

With that being said, he does consider the view that it is better to lose possession down the line than lose it centrally. Though, he changes the premise to the argument to one that is in line with his philosophy:

That’s right. But you have the ball. Why not try to keep it or create a chance from this situation?”

He continues and mentions that in 2017-18 Liverpool retained possession 45.4% from throw-ins under pressure however this increased to 68.4% in his first season. He proceeds to mention some of his wishes in terms of how football improves its understanding of throw-ins. On 23 January 2020 Liverpool scored a late winner against Wolves in a 2-1 away victory and that winner, from Roberto Firmino, came from a throw-in which was worked with intent.

Going back, throw-ins rank third from all actions when passes are removed and Liverpool, with their advanced analytics team, probably know this, too. In addition to this, some analysts have begun discussions on short free kicks and corners, detailing ways in which we can improve them from the generic illustrations we normally see. To this day fans tend to have two reactions to creative free kicks or corners:

  1. dislike due to its strangeness
  2. appreciation with the notion that it does not happen much

The question to be asked is: why is creativity from set pieces seen as interesting and new when set pieces are when the ball is still, allowing for more thinking time? Shouldn’t creativity, then, be the norm as one can practise these consistently? There was a time wherein a 3-man defence reigned supreme. At one time, it was a 5-man attack with little to no midfield. In another period a 5-man defence with part-time attackers (from midfield) was seen as superior than others. Around two decades ago the 4-4-2 was utilised in many European countries which included the majority of the best teams. In recent years there has been an emphasis on variations of the 4-3-3 formation whether that is a 4-1-2-3, a 4-2-1-3 or, in the rare case, the 4-2-3-1 which, whilst different, has similarities to a 4-3-3 set-up depending on personnel.

Slowly but surely…greater statistics in football – it remains an infant compared to other sports in this regard – is creating greater opportunity for analysts to notice trends, commenting on the causes for such trends existing. This is creating a new wave of coaches who seek to analyse football with numbers in tandem with the eye test as opposed to just the latter. This will only increase as more statistics become available to analysts and the public.

Football is a strange sport. It is about to become stranger.