Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Goalkeeper distribution trends limited in their ability to predict successful tactics in MLS

At the end of May, Peter Brownell wrote a blog post for Opta Sports that looked at data on the percentages MLS goalkeepers played the ball long versus short in the 2011 MLS season. The table above is from Brownell's original posting and shows goalkeeper distribution trends from that season for each MLS team. While his data set is interesting, Brownell uses it to arrive at some suspect suggestions about what are the most successful tactics for MLS teams to employ.

He starts off the article noting that American soccer is known for the speed and athleticism of its players over their technical merits on the ball. I'd agree with this point. He uses this bit of information to hypothesize that goalkeepers in MLS will more often than not select to hit long fifty-fifty balls rather than going short and forcing a team to advance the ball with patient buildup from the back.

Indeed, his data backs that hypothesis. MLS goalkeepers elected to play the ball long 58% of the time. Only three teams played the ball short more than long- Chivas USA, Toronto FC, and the New York Red Bulls. He points out that these three teams all had relatively disappointing seasons. Chivas USA and Toronto FC finished in 8th place out of 9 teams in their respective divisions and the New York Red Bulls squeaked into the playoffs in 5th place and were disposed of quickly by the LA Galaxy. Brownell unconvincingly uses these three teams' lack of success to suggest that the best tactics for MLS teams may be to forgo the defense altogether and launch long balls from the goalkeeper. He says,
This suggests, perhaps, that playing out of the back in MLS 2011 might not have been the most fruitful strategy.  One theory to explain this is the idea that MLS players are not technical enough to competently build long, calculated passing sequences.  This is not a slight at the technique of MLS players, but rather trumpets the physically superior MLS rosters.  MLS players are athletes who are fast and fit, bring intense pressure, and close down backs quickly.  As a result, teams like Toronto FC and Red Bull New York turn the ball over in their defensive thirds and give up cheap goals (watch Tim Ream's gaffes against the Philadelphia Union and Real Salt Lake for proof).
By implementing a 4-3-3 and trying to play the beautiful game beautifully, Aaron Winter (Toronto FC's manager) is fighting a losing battle.  The numbers say so at least.  It is easier, safer, and more reliable to forget the backline, smash the ball forward and attempt to win the territorial battle.  Getting big-bodied strikers and midfielders into the box and battling for set-pieces is regarded as ugly soccer, but it can bear results.
Brownell fails however to mention the relative lack of success in the league of teams at the other end of his table, those that elected to play long from the keeper the highest percentage of times. Of the five teams that played the ball long from the keeper the most, only Columbus made the playoffs and they were beaten in the opening round. His suggestion that patient buildup from the back may not be the most fruitful strategy for MLS teams would be much better supported by possession data. While the percentage of balls played long from the keeper may be indicative of the importance a team places on keeping possession, I don't think that stat in and of itself is very telling in explaining a team's success. After all, how many goals begin with moves that start from the goalkeeper? I'd guess that the vast majority of the time goals come from intercepting the ball from the opposition, not from a team's own keeper.

I do think Brownell's data could be put to good use since I believe how often a team plays long from the goalkeeper is a good indicator of how much importance they place on winning the possession battle. It would be interesting to see how Brownell's data correlated to average possession data in MLS and then how average possession data correlated to league success. This information would be more telling of whether direct or possession-style tactics created more successful teams.

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