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Analytical Musings: Being creative with the football

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FBL-EURO-2016-MATCH42-HUN-BEL REMY GABALDA/AFP/Getty Images

We hear all about dribbling all the time, and about how great Eden is at it, and it’s been one of those things rattling around in my head for a while now. Why does that matter?

I started looking at it from different approaches, actually looking at other players that are good dribblers, and trying to see what the players have in common. I was hoping that this might spark a reason or two on why I should care about how good a dribbler someone is. Initially what I noticed was that very few people are REALLY good dribblers. So of course my first thought was, “See, if it was more important, more would be successful at it”. This was a naïve perspective, and I knew it even before I thought it, just because I was being a bit bull-headed about it all. You see, I didn’t play this sport, at least beyond the playground, and I didn’t come to really love it until I was already an adult, so some things that are “obvious” at times to others aren’t always obvious to me. Like the importance of dribbling.

So instead of sticking with my claim that it’s not important because no one is doing it well, I flipped it on its head. If only a few people can do it successfully, well then, it MUST be important. Now, obviously I know the base skill of dribbling is important, but I’m speaking with respect to using the dribbles metric in terms of valuating or rating a player. And this isn’t an article about the history of dribbling, or the fundamentals, or even how to effectively use it or something. It’s simply an introduction on why I’m looking at it. I’ve been critical of it in the past, and wanted to clear that air.

Also, because I was still using Eden Hazard as my target mark for my thought process, I thought I would consider players like him. Other attacking players, but not forwards. Tends to muck things up. I needed some criteria, which of course I arbitrarily chose, because I can. I decided I’d limit it to players with a combination of at least 11 goals and assists in league play so far this year, as I’m looking at league play metrics (thanks, whoscored.com, as always). And so I grabbed a list of a little over forty players, and then grabbed a bunch of metrics, and started just “looking at things”. I like to do that. I like to look for oddities. Something that sticks out. I really wanted to find something to put into a scatter plot opposite the dribbling. Like, for example, how for some reason no one ever fouls Mo Salah. 19 times he’s been fouled in the PL this year. What’s wrong with everyone? Eden gets hacked constantly. But fouling seems too consistent with dribbling. It might tell me why some players are better dribblers than others, but it feels limited.

I wanted to know more about creativity. How does dribbling get involved there. I mean, I chose goals and assists as my gateway for who got included, which means I wanted to see results. Output. People that are getting things done. I had shots, but that felt like the opposite of what I was looking for. I started looking at passing, creativity involves passing, right? And I ended up going with Key Passes. It’s an often maligned metric. Like all of the data I have available to me, it’s susceptible to error. It’s also lacking in context. I mean, is it a good key pass? A bad one? An okay one? I don’t have a good way of telling, without an actual data feed. But that’s okay, I’ll power through it anyway.

So I’ve got below a chart showing these players, charting Minutes per Dribble on the Y Axis and Minutes per Key Pass on the X. I like to use this form of metric, “Minutes Per ABC” because it tends to smooth things out. I know there’s the option of Per90, but for whatever reason I like to think of things in terms of how frequently they do something, not just how many times in a theoretical match will they do it. For example, 30 minutes per dribble tells me that every 30 minutes, on average, that player successfully dribbles the ball. Now, that’s not different than a P90 value of 3, but for me, it seems clearer. Feel free to debate the merits and or flaws in its usage, I’m always interested in other perspectives.

Also, please ignore all of the leader lines. I hadn’t realized this many people would clutter it up so much. I even removed four players (Callejon, Wass, Gregoritsch, and Meuller, because they dribble so infrequently it’s junk data, too much anomaly). I also chopped the bottom off of the X axis, to conserve some space, so please note that it starts at 24. The vertical does start at 0.

One thing I noticed when putting this together, was how many players fit the initial G+A>=11 criteria from the PL versus the other leagues (again, after removing the above 4).

  • PL = 11
  • Serie A = 8
  • La Liga = 5
  • Buli = 2
  • Ligue 1 = 8

I have a feeling this is due to center forwards having the bulk of the scoring activity in those other leagues. That’s a Musing for another time.

Other things I noticed:

  • Neymar, Eden, and Messi. Talk about a small, elite group. All under 20 Min-per-Dribble, and all under 34 Min-per-Key-Pass, too. Lynchpins. This is partly why playing Eden as a false-9 doesn’t work. He’s too far removed from play.
  • Eriksen and Bourigeaud - A dribble about every other match. That’s just disappointing.
  • Look at the Black Hole Bunch - Griezmann, Mahrez, Son, Ronaldo, Lingard, Ramsey, Sisto. Sure, they have assists, but wow. It feels like all or nothing here.
  • Interesting to see Alli, Thorgan Hazard, Di Maria and Perisic all kind of clustered together.
  • Also interesting to see Mbappe, Thauvin, Malcom, Bailey and Alberto together. Similarly Fekir, Sane, Dybala, and Pogba & Salah. Odd couple!
  • Eden and Dybala are the only people on the list with fewer than 4 assists. Which is odd considering the number of key passes they make. Could be an argument for poorly executed key passes (that still count), or a statement on their teammates and their ability to score goals.

Now, I don’t exactly what the statement being made by this chart is, beyond being an intriguing and curious look into how the scorers and distributors in Europe are doing their thing with the ball in the front half, but I sometimes like to create things that make me think, and ask more questions, not just provide answers.

What do all of you think? Wasted effort? What’s the point? Or interesting things to look at, and now you wanna dig a bit deeper? Let me know in the comments section!

For those that want to see the numbers, here’s the data for each group by league: