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.

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