Football Data Analysis: Two Types of Pressing – RB Leipzig, Tottenham & Liverpool
Pressing is the footballing buzzword of 2016. Never mind disgruntled calls from Richard Keys or the like that footballers already closed down players way back in the 1970s, the focus in the popular consciousness (and application towards perfection on the pitch) is way up.
Back in 2014, Colin Trainor wrote about a statistical way of measuring pressing, with his PPDA – Passes allowed Per Defensive Action. His was more specifically looking at a high press, but you can get basic ideas about a side’s pressing through the basic numbers for passing and defensive actions (here tackles and interceptions) all over the pitch.
It’s been commented in various places that Crystal Palace have an interestingly low PPDA value (meaning a more intense press). In the Premier League this term, the average PPDA value is about 10.7 passes allowed per defensive action – Crystal Palace’s value is 7.68.
A brief side-note: Whether this means that Palace are pressing well is another thing entirely, as Ted Knutson noted on the most recent Statsbomb podcast (‘November 2016, Part One’) – and it’s true that at the weekend against Burnley their pressing attempts sometimes looked a little uncoordinated. While simply running towards and putting pressure on the man on the ball can have positive results, if the opposition keeps their head then they can bypass an uncoordinated press relatively easily and attack through the space that has been left.
However, across the North Sea in the Bundesliga, there’s a club making big waves partially through their use of pressing (although Bundesliga is pressing central, so that’s no surprise). RB Leipzig, as a newly promoted side, are one of several surprise clubs near the top of the league, but unlike some of the others (eg Koln and Hertha Berlin), they have underlying numbers to support their position.
And yet, for a club doing well which has a reputation for being built on successful pressing, their PPDA numbers have been largely hovering between 8 and 10 all season, which isn’t that pressing-intense (although the average has dipped below 8 this weekend for the first time this season).
The Premier League’s PPDA average is just under 11, but it’s not necessarily a hugely intensely pressing league and teams like Burnley and West Brom drag that average down. In the Bundesliga so far this season, the PPDA average is just a little over 9; signifying both that it’s a more intensely pressing league than in England, but also making RB Leipzig’s 8-10 PPDA numbers a little more surprising. Their pressing levels have only been at a league average level?
Also surprising, and keeping the German link, is the fact that Klopp’s Liverpool currently have a PPDA value of 9.13, which again suggests a less intense press than one would expect.
These twin surprises set off a brief search for another measure of pressing, to see whether anything closer to expectations would emerge – or perhaps it would emerge that these clubs were pressing less than expected, they were just doing it very well.
Measuring the pass completion percentage of a team’s opponents makes sense as another low-budget way to look at pressing intensity. Hoffenheim manager Julian Nagelsmann said in a recent interview that “Each tackle adds randomness. Therefore I prefer intercepts by blocking passing options”. While some forms of pressing might look to directly tackle opponents, or actively intercept passes (potentially bad ones which they’ve forced), others may more strongly emphasise forcing the opponent into bad choices or bad execution. Therefore, in some presses, the effects may not be evident in the defensive action numbers.
So while Liverpool’s 9.13 PPDA number is only the 7th most intense pressing number, the 73.13% passing completion of their opponents is the 3rd lowest in the league. Tottenham have a similar story, a PPDA of 8.97 – 5th most intense number in the league – but have held their opponents to the lowest pass completion percentage in the EPL, at 71.48%.
As for Leipzig? Their current PPDA number of 7.94 would seem pretty intense in England and is the 4th most intense pressing number in the Bundesliga at the moment, and their opposition pass completion percentage is the 4th lowest in the league too, at 73.19%. They have, seemingly by the numbers, become more intense in their pressing in recent weeks, but before that? Maybe they were just doing it well. And evaluating that is, like coaching a coordinated press, another matter entirely.
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