How to define attacking style!?

Football analytics at the moment is a bit like a toddler. We think we can do quite a decent job, we’ve started talking quite loud with more variety in our vocabulary, and every now and then we start to make some sense too. Oh, and hey, we make people laugh at us at surprising occasions! Yet, most of the time, in hindsight our actions don’t make the most sense. And what we could do a year from now makes our current level of performance laughable at best.



Most of my earlier analytics work has been aimed at performance analysis. Which team is better? And later on, which player does better? However attractive this edge of using stats is, in an environment as highly driven by random occurrences as football, this type of analysis approaches its limits quite soon. In plain English: football is quite hard to predict.


Just a level below predicting, is describing. And a recent promising development on the describing front has been introduced by fellow blogger and analyst Michael Caley. It may well be the describing part where football analytics could win over more souls to support our belief that numbers can add to a better understanding of the game.

Could you to tell me in a few words how your favorite team prefers to attack? Chances are that you’d use words like ‘direct’, ‘patient’, ‘flank play’, ‘through balls’ and ‘crosses’. Now, what Michael has come up with is a simple and easy to use stat to express two key elements of attacking play: pace and style.



Pace is expressed as the number of completed passes per shot taken. Just use raw numbers per team, no complicated formula’s. Here’s what we come up with for the most patient teams in Europe’s top-5 leagues plus the Eredivisie.

Passes per shot - top 10 - Multiple Leagues 05 juni 2014Some of the usual suspects, like Swansea, PSG, Arsenal, Bayern and Barcelona, make this top 10, but the most patient team in Europe are Borussia Mönchengladbach with some 37 passes per shot taken. I haven’t seen them play myself this season, but perhaps some Bundesliga fans are willing to comment here.

The other end of the spectrum will reveal teams playing lightning quick football, preferring to shoot rather than pass around.

Passes per shot - bottom 10 - Multiple Leagues 05 juni 2014That’s interesting! The top four teams are all Eredivisie teams, a league known for high scoring and high shot numbers. At some distance from the rest, relegated side N.E.C. are identified as the most direct team in Europe.

Pace is a descriptive thing, not a performance marker though. Other teams from this top 10 (Levante, Augsburg, Heerenveen) have had decent to good seasons with a very direct style of play.



The second aspect I take from Michael is style of attack. Using two contrasting key elements of constructing offensive schemes, crosses and through balls, we can compute a simple ratio that proves to spread out nicely across different teams. Also, it fits well with the style of play we’ve familiarized ourselves with for certain teams. Here’s the top 10 in terms of the ‘crosses to through balls ratio’.

Crosses per through ball - top 10 - Multiple Leagues 05 juni 2014Four French teams in the top 6, but the EPL is also nicely represented. Manchester United’s Moyesball indeed makes the top 10 for crossing heavy offensive schemes, but to my surprise Mourinho’s Chelsea is not far off!

One thing: I’ve stripped out NAC, as they simply won’t play any through balls and their ratio is so off the chart that the other teams are dwarfed by it. In time a case study to NAC and manager Gudelj should follow.

In the bottom 10 we find the teams that prefer through balls over crosses. It seems a ratio of around 3 is as low as it gets, and with around 4 you’re still very much a through ball oriented team.

Crosses per through ball - bottom 10 - Multiple Leagues 05 juni 2014

Barcelona are the masters of avoiding crosses and poking central passes into the box. But would you have guessed Newcastle are so through ball heavy? And look at Heerenveen, showing up as a very direct teams just above, and avoiding crosses at the same time!


Pace and Style

Things get even more interesting when we combine both of these metrics in one chart. Teams should broadly fall into one of four categories.

–          Patient and central

o   Barcelona, Mönchengladbach, Roma, PSG, Swansea, Arsenal, Bayern, Toulouse and Ajax


–          Patient and wide

o   Nice, Rennes, Manchester United and Bordeaux


–          Direct and wide

o   Bologna, Sochaux, Lazio and Saint Etienne


–          Direct and central

o   Heerenveen, Newcastle, Real Madrid, Sevilla and Dortmund


In the end

There’s no single preferred mode of attack, and patient is not necessarily better or worse than direct. Also, central doesn’t beat wide. There are multiple ways to construct good offense and the players at hand, the philosophy of the club and the level of execution of the style if perhaps much more important.

But these concepts hand us a tool to describe pace and style, to follow trends within clubs and managerial careers. All of that with a simple tool, brought to you by the bright mind of Michael Caley.

To close off this post, here is a mega chart picturing all teams from the top 5 leagues plus the Eredivisie. Do click on it for the full, downloadable version, and you’ll see that the names above are all taken from the four corners of this chart.

Directness and Team Style - Offense version - multiple leagues

3 thoughts on “How to define attacking style!?

  1. Hal

    Very interesting post. Just one minor thing though: the top 5 European leagues include Portugal, not France.


  2. Klemens

    I really like this way of looking at style (and the meta point of “description first, understanding later”). I would also love to see the numbers normalized by the league (or overall) average (e.g. team X has 30% more crosses than league average). I think that makes it easier to interpret and compare. As you said, trends over time would also be really interesting.


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