Defensive Third and High Defensive Block
Imagine that you are tasked with writing the storylines of the opening day of the new Premier League season. We are assuming, of course, that much like wrestling and beloved Australian soaps the sport is now a scripted enjoyable nonsense which some viewers begin to get too invested in and start to treat as real. So the only difference is that it officially has scripts. And you must write them.
You brainstorm some ideas and bring them to the producers of Premier League Productions. Bundles of exciting goals and topsy-turviness in the opening games. Huddersfield, in their first game back in the big time and pre-season favorites for relegation, wins convincingly. Wayne Rooney, Premier League, and England legend returning to his boyhood club and scoring on his second debut.
No, your producer says. These are too obvious, too simple. Simple doesn’t work. Things must be complex! A coat of many threads!
But sometimes simple can be good. Simple can be pure.
So, with your views on the nature of drama so diametrically opposed to your employer, you quit your job at Premier League Productions and engage upon the trade of your forefathers and foremothers, that of amateur statistician.
But for your analytics, simplicity is the key, because simplicity is your mantra, and because you are simple. Judging how high a team tends to defend is a useful, and interesting, thing to know in football, and so you work on that.
However – and this is an important part – you are aware that teams defend in different ways in different phases of the game. The simplest thing to do would be to work out some kind of average, the average height of the pitch of their defensive actions or something like that, but would that be the right thing to do?
So instead, you turn to something else. Teams who play in a low block tend to allow a larger amount of passes to be completed in their defensive third than teams that don’t play on a low block. It would seem to follow that teams that teams who play with a higher defensive line will allow few passes in their own defensive third, but that a larger proportion of their opponent’s passes will be in their opponent’s defensive third, as the team’s high block will have pushed them back that far.
These are simple stats. All you need to do is take the number of passes that a teams’ opponents complete over the course of the season, and divide them into the defensive, middle, and (from the opponent teams’ perspective) final thirds of the pitch. From there, you compare the percentages of how many opponent passes are made in each third to the respective figures for other teams in the league, or around Europe.
For ease of comparison – as most passes will be made in the middle third – one can give each column a figure out of 100, with the resulting table looking a little like this:
The above table is the top 10 teams in Spain, Italy, and England from 2016/17 for the percentage of their opponent’s completed passes which were completed in the opponent’s defensive third. This would logically suggest a high defensive block being utilized, at least for part of the time, although Empoli and Tottenham Hotspur appear to drop into a deep defensive block when they are not high up.
Of interest to your former paymasters at Premier League Productions is Chelsea, whose numbers (in the /100 figures, as these are the easiest to get one’s head around) are 34-93-21. A solidly mid-blocky team. (Boring, perhaps PLP need to spice their storylines up, perhaps with some transfer drama and an opening day loss).
Burnley, to take another English example, don’t quite match Tottenham’s figures, but they come close, reading 93-5-52. Much deep-block-ing, but also it would seem more time up the pitch than one would imagine.
Maybe you should ring up Premier League Productions and inform them of this discovery; they would appreciate the finding that things are not as simple as they seem.
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