Category Archives: Soccer Data Analytics

Ways to Measure the Passing and Dribbling Distances in Soccer

Soccer is currently going through a renaissance in the ability to keep meaningful statistics due to technology. But what should be tracked? I personally don’t feel it’s very important to keep track of how things happen — as in was the ball played with the head versus the left or right foot — but most important is the distance covered and the overall percentage of success over those distances only broken down by passing and dribbling.

Soccer is not played directly, however. Often the ball must be played backwards a number of times in order to successfully advance the ball down the field as a team. Advancing the ball down the field is a must to score but as I have tried to show in other posts here, it is also extremely important to continue to possess the ball without turning it over. Circulation and movement is important even if it’s in the negative direction, so to me, those are important stats to keep track of. Moving the ball forward down the field by dribbling and passing are obviously important because you have to do that in order to score.

Now, let’s consider the various areas of the field and their importance in a successful scoring attack. The field can be measured in a straight length and width configuration, but it can also be measured in raw distances from the goal to wherever on the field the ball is. The way soccer is played, I feel both are important measurements.

Measuring the field lengthwise, if a team is able to advance the ball within 2 yards of the end line, they are going to be in a dangerous position no matter where the ball is in relation to goal. When the ball is deep on the wing, the goalkeeper and defense can no longer keep everyone in their field of vision at the same time, making it easier for the offense to find an open player and make a pass for a shot on goal. Of course, if the ball is in front of goal 2 yards off the line it’s a threatening position. However, while the ball is still wide of the goal post, it would be much harder to score but once the ball crosses in front of the goal mouth, the angles become more advantageous for the shooter making it much easier to score.

Because of this “sweet spot” for the shooter on the offensive team in the goal mouth where the angles are so advantageous nearly ever shot will go into goal, I think the raw distance measurement should be taken from an even semicircle stretching from goal post to goal post. This area would resemble the “crease” in front of goal in hockey, and surely putting the ball in this area is the objective of everyone in soccer. Balls in this area are either going to be shots on goal, crosses that have come into the goal mouth, or someone who has almost dribbled straight into the goal. In many ways, if the ball gets into this area, from the offense’s standpoint, it should be a goal. Measuring how many times a team converts balls in this area into goals would be an important statistic as well, so I feel it is important to give this area some sort of special designation statistically.

With the GPS tracking technology available to modern soccer statisticians at the highest levels of the game now, it would be possible to measure all passing and dribbling actions against two measures: raw distance towards the end line and raw distance towards the semicircle from goal post to goal post. Another important measurement would be whether or not the passing or dribbling action was successful in terms of the team keeping possession of the ball. Measuring passing and dribbling width would also add a great deal more to a player’s statistics as well. This width could even be measured positively and negatively from the center line of the field, so a player’s tendencies of passing wide versus crossing balls in would be revealed.

To me, it is not relevant how a player plays the ball — only how far they can advance the ball down the field and how successfully the team can retain possession. This allows quantification of a wide range of different plays in soccer. When defenders clear the ball out of the box, they can choose to kick the ball straight out of bounds or in an area that might be picked up by a teammate. The best defenders have enough awareness of other players on the field, they can pick out a pass to a teammate downfield while making a clearance. Deciphering the intentions of the “shot/cross” no longer matters if shots are just considered a lost pass if they are stopped and a successful pass if they score. Back passes should be considered in terms of total yardages but also by subtracting negative yardage from the positive yardage a player generates.

Taking into consideration their percentages of success from these passing and dribbling actions is extremely important in my opinion. The distances passed or dribbled should always be added to the totals even when the actions are unsuccessful, however, since the ball is still advanced down the field even if it is turned over. Again, this standardizes many types of plays from shots and crosses to defensive clearances since they are only being judged on distance and success.

Being able to quantify total offense in soccer with distances passed and distances dribbled along with more traditional statistics such as shots, goals, assists, blocked shots, and tackles gives a much more complete picture of a soccer player in my opinion. Couple these stats with “unforced errors” and some degree of mental focus and toughness in a very fluid sport can be established.

Statistics Showing How Much a Player Adds to the Team Offensively

In previous posts, I have discussed how important it is to consistently create with every touch of the soccer ball high percentage plays for your team. To move the ball down the field to create scoring chances, the team using low percentage passes and dribbling attempts does so at their peril, because eventually the odds will catch up with you, your turnover rate will be too high, and your team will give up scoring chances from those turnovers that can lose games.

From that view, I think some of the most important new statistics that can be kept in soccer with the use of GPS tracking technology are the distances players move the ball by dribbling and passing, their rate of turnovers dribbling and passing, and also their team’s continued rate of possession and scoring chances created and converted five touches, ten touches, and fifteen touches after a player’s possession ends. By doing this, we will see which players create good chances for their team and which players put their teams in bad situations. Midfielders and defenders who are able to spot advantageous situations develop on the field and then put their team in the best positions to capitalize on those chances will be recognized in ways never before possible. Forwards will have their talent and creativity in ball control seen in a new way that can be quantified beyond the simple shots on goal and goals scored numbers.

Skilled and talented players on a soccer team must work for the team in order for the team to be successful. On offense, this means keeping possession of the ball and eventually shots on goal and goals scored. However, very little of a team’s offense is the actual act of taking a shot — far more time is spent in the buildup and possession to create a scoring chance for the team. Looking at the team’s qualities of possession after a player’s touches on the ball will show how much that player adds to the team’s offense across the entire field and the entire time the game is played.

What New Stats in Soccer Can Technology Give Us?

As technology such as GPS tracking of players on and off the ball become more prevalent, it becomes easier to analyze how much each player contributes to the buildup of the team moving the ball down the field in terms of passing, dribbling, and receiving passes. Geometrically, each pass and each dribble on the (X,Y) coordinates of the field has some deflection percentage towards or away from goal as well as the raw distance covered. Analytically, this movement could be seen in terms of direct distance to goal as well as positioning only based on the endlines and sidelines.

I believe soccer statisticians should consider some sort of averaged weighting between these two geometries of direct distance to goal versus pure (X,Y) positioning between the endlines and sidelines. Wide positioning near the endline is a threatening place for the team in possession to be because there is no way for the defense (particularly the goalkeeper) to keep the entire offense in view at the same time. With the ball out wide in advanced positions near the endline, the defense (particularly the goalkeeper) now have attacking players behind them and it is much harder to track the ball as well as the movements of all the attacking players. Crosses from these advanced and wide positions can be played to players in the blind spots of the defense, and it is easier to line up more than one attacker to play these crosses at the same time if the rest of the team has kept up with the play.

Playing the ball into wider positions (and even negatively) can be valuable for retaining possession and exhausting the defense. As previously mentioned on this blog, managing fatigue of your own team while making high-percentage plays to exhaust the defensive team can increase your chances of advancing the ball into scoring positions and ultimately scoring over the course of the game. For these reasons, I believe keeping track of the various aspects of raw distance, distance towards or away from goal, and distance towards endline and sideline could really lead to some nuanced player statistics. Especially if an overall percentage of success is attached to the distances.

For instance, from the center of the field, a 30 yard pass directly towards the opposing goal would have no deflection and the 30 yards of movement would be 30 yards towards goal as well as 30 yards towards the endline. A 30 yard pass directly towards the sideline from the center of the field would have no yardage movement towards the endline but 30 yards movement towards the sideline and actually would get further away from the opposing goal by about 7 yards. A 30 yard pass directly backwards towards a team’s own goal would be considered as purely a negative action on both scales of directly towards goal and directly towards endline. A 30 yard pass at any angle from the center of field would have varying amounts of positive and negative yardages towards the opposing goal and opposing endline (as well as positive and negative yardages associated with width) depending on the angle of the pass.

Dribbling I think should be treated in the same way as passing based on where the dribble starts and ends. Yardages for receiving of passes should also be kept with similar weighting between yardages directly at goal and yardages towards endline and sideline.

Lastly, and in some ways, most importantly, I think these yardages should be kept even when turnovers result, with the possible exception of pass receiving yardages. When the ball is passed down the field, even when the ball is turned over in the process, the ball is still advanced even though the team does not retain possession. Similarly with a dribble — even if the player turns the ball over at the end of the dribble, the ball has still been advanced (or maybe retreated). This allows the statistician to also apply the same statistics to all ball movement including shots and clearances as well since a player taking a shot does advance the ball (but it results in a turnover) and a player making a clearance knows that if they put the clearance in the right spot, their team will still be able to retain possession of the ball.

Since it is often possible to pick out the intended recipient of a pass even if it is not completed, some value could be found in keeping stats on incomplete pass reception yardages but it may be more hassle than it is worth with the amount of information to be found in the other available statistics under this analytical system. In particular, leaving out incomplete pass reception yardages eliminates the need to decipher the intention of a shot / cross, a clearance, or a badly missed pass.