Ted Knutson has been on a roll over the last few weeks on his blog Mixed Knuts, and as I wrote in my analytics column on Tuesday, some of his latest posts have followed the lead of a few other analytics bloggers in wondering out loud whether certain clubs like Manchester United and Barcelona may be doing something tactically different in order to create better, higher quality chances in fewer numbers.
His latest post though is equally thought provoking, but on a different topic: whether or not there is still such a thing as “league style”, tactical character traits that carry over an entire domestic table. Essentially Knutson looks at the numbers and notes that while defensive midfielders tend to lead in interceptions within leagues like the EPL and the Bundesliga, in Serie A that job is mostly left to central defenders. Knutson’s initial thoughts:
I picked Michael Cox’s brain (Zonal_Marking) a bit about Italian defending recently, and he confirmed a hunch I had that almost no teams in Serie A press heavily. Is that enough to produce a statistical skew like this? I have no idea, but it certainly has my curiosity piqued.
This reminds me of the time I once went looking through pan-European statistics on whoscored and noticed that Spanish players dominated Europe in interceptions, whilst Premier League-based players dominated Europe in average tackles. From here, you can reverse engineer any tactical explanation you want.
For example, when I first noticed this trend, Barca-style tiki-taka was in vogue and many tactical writers were going to great lengths to demonstrate that a lot of tackles didn’t necessarily reflect good defending, but a lack of positional sense. It therefore made sense that Spain led the way in interceptions; they played a high-pressing, possession based game. Tackling is a form of last ditch defending in some parts of the world, but not apparently in the Premier League.
I think we need to be very careful in how we interpret these kinds of numbers. For one, we should never presume that data-collection is static across all leagues. Still, they’re definitely fun food for thought.
For example, Michael Cox’s theory on why defenders dominate interceptions in Serie A quoted above is interesting; I wonder too if the preference in Serie A for a diamond midfield or a 3-5-2 with wing-backs might also provide an explanation?
To that end, I also looked at the league-leading tacklers and another discrepancy applies using the whoscored stats. While defensive mids dominate the tackles-per-game list in the Premier League and the Bundesliga, the list in Serie A features mostly central midfielders, ie guys higher up the pitch. This would lend credence to the idea that may Italian midfields may be tackling to win possession in the centre of the pitch, as opposed to charging forward while the double pivot in a 4-2-3-1 do all the dirty work.
You can see the places you can go with this kind of approach.
Knutson also looked at MLS numbers and discovered some other wacky outliers. I’m little more reluctant to jump on board this angle because of how little we know about how data is collected, and whether or not MLS suffers from “park bias,” where embedded, in-stadium statisticians record match events, which possibly skews the numbers.
Still, it does seem to point to a few trends we’ve known about for a while. For one, the idea that dominating possession isn’t always a prerequisite for winning at the soccer in America. I’ve accrued a bit of anecdotal evidence on this over the years as well, and it’s always struck me how cavalier a lot of MLS sides are about maintaining possession.
This may be why on first glance as Knutson notes the pass interception rate in MLS is so high. Most MLS matches I’ve watched rarely break the 80% pass completion mark. In fact, the league leaders in possession are Real Salt Lake, at 80% on the button.
Again, you can fill in your own conclusions here. Maybe it’s a general lack of technical ability, or a deliberate tactic on the part of coaches—a regional quirk. The high number of interceptions and subsequent break up of play could explain smaller league numbers-per-game than Europe in other areas across the board—in crosses, shots per game, through balls per game, short passes per game etc. There is simply less stuff going on on a per-game basis in the final third, and it seems pretty likely this would correspond to the high number of interceptions and the generally low pass-completion rates in comparison with Europe.
You’ll note that most of this is just reverse-engineering possible and in some cases probable causes. That doesn’t make it less valuable, necessarily. But these are only faint leads in need of more investigation. Seeing as we’re in an off-season and I have a subscription to MLS Live, I’m going to focus in more on what exactly is going on in this league.
Finally, this is an area where the numbers seem to contradict the notion that leagues in Europe and increasingly around the world are becoming a homogeneous blob of tactical sameness. It seems geography may still matter.