League comparison #1: passing

January 24, 2010

It’s often argued that the major European leagues are becoming increasingly similar, and there are no longer significant variations in tactics.  What are the reasons for this? An increased number of foreign players and managers? More television coverage of foreign competitions? A greater number of European matches? Globalisation in general?

That debate is for another day – here, we investigate whether the major European leagues are as similar as is assumed. First, passing.

This graph shows the pass completion ratio from the major leagues:

This supports old stereotypes. Serie A boasts a methodical, considered passing game – the faster, more physical nature of English football means fewer passes find their target. Perhaps the most surprising league here is La Liga – it has reputation as being technically excellent, with most teams looking to play a sophisticated passing game, but in fact its pass completion rate is significantly lower than Italy or Germany.

A difference of 4% between Italy and England seems quite large – one more pass astray every 25.

Traditionally, England was home to the long ball game – the foreign leagues saw more sophisticated, shorter passing. Is this still the case?

This would demonstrate that things haven’t changed that much – English sides are more likely to launch the ball long (‘long passes’ are defined as passes that travel more than thirty yards). Many would be quick to blame the likes of Stoke and Bolton for distorting these statistics (although they both play better football than they get credit for), but the top sides aren’t blameless – the likes of Peter Crouch at Tottenham and John Carew at Aston Villa are targetmen that thrive on long balls.

So, if English football sees the highest proportion of long passes, and also the lowest passing accuracy statistics, are the two related? In other words, is it a simple case of ‘The more long passes, the lower passing accuracy percentage?’

It’s a decent – if not particularly strong – correlation; you wouldn’t feel entirely stupid putting a ‘line of best fit’ on that graph. One might question why France features such a poor passing accuracy percentage when they seldom knock the ball long – although perhaps it’s a simple case of Ligue 1 being the lowest-quality league from these five.

This table also reflects well on the passing ability of players throughout the Bundesliga – even though they pass the ball over long distances more frequently than in La Liga, they remain more accurate.

Figures taken from OPTA.

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