Monday, May 2, 2016

Statistics of Style: The Tiki Taka Outlier

Your average soccer enthusiast will probably know enough to tell you about the dominant stretch of European and domestic Spanish soccer played by F.C. Barcelona. From 2008-2012 under the reign of Pep Guardiola, Barcelona played a style of soccer popularized as "tiki-taka football", an expression that is meant to reflect the slow build-up, pass-centric, and free flowing soccer exhibited. Along the way, Barcelona won an incredible two Champions Leagues (a European tournament comprised of Europe's top teams), 3 domestic titles, and a number of other domestic and friendly tournaments. A 2014 Economist piece used a recent study to attempt to statistically analyze the uniqueness of Barcelona's style of play in comparison to other European teams from the big 5 leagues (England, Spain, Germany, France, and Italy). A Qatari computing research group analyzed passing patterns amongst these teams and determined that for every three-pass sequence, there are 5 possible outcomes. When a player receives a pass, he can either return the pass to its origin or to a different player. That next player can then also either return the pass or play it to a different player. So for each three-pass sequence we are given this outcomes: ABAB, ABAC, ABCA, ABCB, and ABCD. Briefly, in ABAB, Player A passes to Player B who returns it to player A who returns again to player B. These five groups were then plotted as relative trajectories on an X-Y plot and the 98 top teams' passing movements analyzed to gauge the novelty of Barcelona's play:
The lone titled blue dot is that of FC Barcelona. From this graph, we can see that Barcelona have a strong propensity towards ABAC, ABCB so much so that they appear to be an egregious outlier compared to even the top English Teams. This analysis would suggest that Barcelona have a higher tendency to play quick give and go passes while circulating the ball through to a midfield player or hub of distribution hence the stark opposition to ABCD and ABCA styles. ABCD and ABCA passing schemes favor quick distribution where teams take fewer passes with less possession but do so while effectively counter-attacking. In these cases the ball does not come back to a previous passer in the 3-pass set and if it does return, it returns to the first passer suggesting a greater distance traveled back i.e. a pass-back or possibly a clearance. Using this sort of analysis, it becomes abundantly clear the distinct style of play that Barcelona utilized during this period. This unique approach defined their period of success as teams were often found out-possessed and out-passed in tiring fashion until Barcelona's pressure finally broke-through. Unfortunately for this Arsenal fan, the English can only hope to one-day develop their own style of play to end the recent periods of Spanish and more recently, German dominance. Perhaps it would be prudent to take note of Barcelona's style of play as the little pink dot on the ABAC line that is closest to Barcelona is none other than Arsenal.

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