The Tale of Europe’s Big Five in Numbers: A Statistical Review of the 2015-16 Season
The domestic European Club football season is over!!! This time the wait for the next season will not be that much, thanks to the Copa Centenario and Euro 2016. But this is a perfect opportunity for us to look back at what happened last season across Europe’s big five leagues. So, Sumit Sarkar is here to compare Bundesliga, La Liga, Ligue One, English Premier League and Serie A on the basis of some technical (skill related) and tactical parameters.
The regular football season of 2015-16 ended with Real Madrid winning the UEFA Champions League. Earlier, the champions were determined in the domestic leagues. While PSG claimed the French title four weeks before the season ended, it went down to the last match-day of La Liga for Barcelona to win what they could have done at least three weeks earlier without complicating things. Juventus and Bayern comfortably won the titles in Italy and Germany, respectively. Premier League got a new champion of England in Leicester. Champions League and Europa league spots were determined, teams were relegated to the respective lower divisions and teams from the lower tiers were promoted. It was business as usual. The focus then shifted to Euro and Copa America Centenario. It is August now, a new domestic season is about to captivate the audience once again. Fans across the globe will again rock the pubs and cafes arguing why Premier League is the most competitive, why La Liga is the most technical or why Bundesliga is the league to watch. That too is business as usual in the global football village. Before the commencement of the 2016-17 season, let us look back and see the last season in numbers. That is again business as usual in the world of football analytics.
Goal scoring patterns
Whether winning is all that matters, or how you win is more important, fans watch football to see goals. Number of goals scored per match was highest in Bundesliga for 2015-16 season, at the rate of 2.73 goals per game. It was the least in Serie A at the rate of 2.4.
A more important point is how the goals were scored.
From where on the pitch were the goals scored?
First, let us see from which area of the pitch the goals were scored. Here we have included all kinds of goals except penalty kicks. More than 60% of the goals were scored from the penalty box (outside the goal box), and a little more than 20% of the goals were scored from inside the goal box, across all leagues. That was a no brainer as earlier research shows similar patterns of goal scoring. A famous research paper titled An analysis of goal scoring strategies in the World Championships in Mexico, written by Egil Olsen and published in Science and Football (London, 1988) showed that 90% of the goals were scored from inside the penalty box. In a separate paper on Euro 2004 (Portugal), published in the International Journal of Performance Analysis in Sport (2006), Yiannakos and Armatas showed similar results. Though it is not surprising that most of the goals were scored from inside the penalty box even in the 2015-16 season, there were variations from league to league. While 17.34 % goals were scored from outside the penalty box in Italy, the share of goals scored by long-range shots taken from outside the box is only 11.45% in Spain.
While the share of goals scored from outside the box was relatively more in Italy, England and France, the share of goals scored from within the penalty box and that from within the goal box were relatively more in Germany and Spain. In Germany and Spain more than 65.3% goals were scored from inside the penalty box (outside goal box), but in Italy the share was only 61.45%. These stats don’t include goals scored from the penalty spot. While more than 23% goals were scored from inside the goal box in Germany and Spain, it was just above 21% in Italy and 21.5% in England.
Analysis shows Bundesliga and La Liga teams tended to go further up on the pitch while keeping possession, vis-à-vis the other three leagues. But that is not necessarily true. We need to look at attempts at goal from different areas and shooting efficiency. Shots at goal, taken from out of box, were clearly higher in Serie A and Premier League, and were lowest in La Liga.
The figure below shows that Bundesliga teams were also more wasteful in their attempts to score from outside the box. Shots per goal scored from outside the box were highest in Bundesliga. English and French teams were more precise when it came to shots at goal from outside the box.
Shooting efficiency determines the area of the pitch from where teams tend to score. Number of shots taken per goal is the measure of shooting efficiency. Smaller the measure, better is the shooting efficiency. Overall shooting efficiency varied from 9 in La Liga to 10.45 in Serie A.
Though shooting efficiency from within the goal box is almost same across leagues, the number of shots taken per goal scored from within the penalty box (but outside the goal box) varied across leagues.
Shooting efficiency was best in La Liga while Bundesliga and Serie A were most wasteful. However, Serie A was relatively more efficient in scoring from out of the box.
How were the goals scored?
There are variations across leagues with regard to how the goals were scored. We classified goals as – (i) scored in open play, (ii) scored from set pieces and (iii) scored from penalty. Counter attack, a potent weapon in modern day football where breaking down an organized defence has become increasingly difficult, is defined as an attack that originated from ball recovery at the team’s defensive third (opposition’s attacking third), while the opposition was attacking. Goals scored in counter attack are included in the category “goals scored in open play”.
On an average about 70% of goals were scored in open play, but a closer look shows the variations. While 73.23% goals were scored in open play in La Liga, its share was 68.71% and 68.82% in Ligue One and Serie A respectively.
However, shots at goal from open play were not highest in Spain or Germany. While in La Liga and Bundesliga, respectively 16.6 and 16.18 shots were taken from open play, in Premier League and Serie A the numbers were 18.48 and 18.82 respectively. This also shows that La Liga and Bundesliga teams were more accurate in shooting.
Share of goals scored in counter was considerably higher in Bundesliga in comparison to the other four. 13.35% goals in Bundesliga were scored in the counter. In La Liga 6.92% goals were scored in the counter. In the other three leagues share of goals scored in counter attack were between 2.5% and 3.5%. This means that Bundesliga teams are more effective in counter attack, and possibly also means that they are far quicker in the counter.
Share of goals scored from set pieces was highest in Ligue One at 24.4%, in comparison to 19.04% in Bundesliga and 20.16% in La Liga. That does not necessarily mean that the German and Spanish teams shy away from scoring in set pieces. A look at the figure of set piece goals per game provides the complete picture.
Set piece goals scored per game in England and France were 0.6 and 0.59 respectively, as against 0.52 in Germany and 0.53 in Spain and Italy. Clearly the English and the French teams were more effective from set pieces.
How did Europe’s big five play the game?
Fans argue that in some leagues teams play more long balls, in some leagues teams depend on crosses and so on. Let’s figure out the truth.
Interestingly, the ratio of long passes to short passes were exactly 15 : 85 in Germany, England and Italy. In Spain it was 14 : 86 and in France 16 : 84. We have defined long passes as passes with length of more than 25 yards.
There were little variations in passing accuracy too – accuracy of short passes hovered around the 85% mark while the same for the longer variant was in the mid-40s. However, there were huge variations among clubs within leagues. For example, in Bundesliga, while Darmstadt had only 36.7% accuracy in long passes, Bayern had 60%. Similar variations were seen in other leagues too. Variation in La Liga was even more prominent.
Variation in accuracy of short passes is less even within leagues. In La Liga 15 clubs had short pass accuracy in the range of 79.45% and 83.65%. In Bundesliga nine clubs had short pass accuracy in the range 78.6% and 82.6%. We don’t intend to compare teams within leagues in this article, and hence won’t go deeper into inter clubs analysis. In a separate research paper we concluded that increased accuracy of long passes and reduced share of long passes in total number of passes increases the expected number of goals.
When it comes to crosses, Bundesliga had the best accuracy. However, the number of crosses attempted per game was least in Bundesliga. Though the German teams don’t go wide too often, they are very efficient from the flanks. In contrast, Premier league and Serie A had the largest number of crosses attempted, though the English and the Italians lacked precision in crossing.
Use of aerial ball was much more in Bundesliga compared to other leagues. In Bundesliga 93.95 aerial balls were played per game, while the second largest number was in Ligue One at 69.1 per game. Many German teams have tall forwards and hence they tend to play in the air a bit too often in comparison to others.
The attempt to dribble past was also more in Bundesliga, in comparison to other leagues. While only 32.64 such attempts were made in Serie A, per game, in Bundesliga it was 36.65. Many observers think that teams that tend to dribble more does not play in the air too often. But in the amazing world of Bundesliga, both dribbles per game and aerial balls per game were highest. We need a club level analysis to check whether the same teams that dribbled more also played in the air more often or not. However, success rates in dribbles were more in France, England and Italy in comparison to those in Germany and Spain. Defenders in Germany and Spain seem to be more efficient in dispossessing dribblers.
In modern football, goals normally result from assists. An assist is defined as a pass to a teammate that results in a goal scored by that teammate. Goals scored in direct free-kicks, penalties, and those involving solo runs are not included in assists. On an average more than three fourth of goals resulted from assists across leagues. The shares of assisted goals were a little more in La Liga and Bundesliga.
Assists primarily comes in four forms – crosses, from corners, through balls and from free-kicks. The rest, which comes from different forms of touches, throw-ins etc., are clubbed as others and comprises half of the assists. Share of crosses, through-balls and corners were highest in Premier League. In Bundesliga, 61.17% assists came under the “other” category.
How well did they defend?
Measuring defensive prowess through numbers may be a shoddy job. Tackles, cleanness of tackles, interceptions, blockings, saves and offside traps are a few measures.
Let us begin with an analysis of tackles. Though attempted tackles per game were highest in Premier League and Ligue One, the rate of success was higher in La Liga.
While attempted tackles per game in Premier League was 58.95, as against 56.37 in La Liga, success rate in the former was 65.88% vis-à-vis 69.79% the latter. This somewhat explains why football fans say that Premier League is more tactical while La liga is more technical.
Another question regarding tackles is the cleanness of the tackles, which is measured by the ratio of fouls to successful tackles. Obviously, a lower ratio is desirable. There was marked variation across leagues, which might be partly attributed to variations in refereeing norms across countries. The ratio was lowest in Premier League at 0.53 and highest in Serie A at 0.82. The defenders in Premier League are clearly much cleaner compared to others.
But fouls to successful tackles ratio varied across teams with leagues, which cannot be attributed to differences in refereeing. For example, in Premier League, while the champions Leicester had the smallest ratio at 0.41, it was as high as 0.69 for Swansea. The ratio was highest in Serie A . But even there we see variations. Champions didn’t have a low ratio in Serie A, unlike in England. The ratio was 0.98 for Serie A champions Juventus. On the contrary, relegated Carpi had the least ratio in Serie A, at 0.67. Empoli had a ratio higher than one, which means they committed more fouls than their successful tackles.
Interceptions, clearances, blockings and offside traps
Apart from tackling, the four major measures of defensive prowess are — interceptions, clearances, blockings and offside traps. While use of clearances was most in England, Premier League had the least number of interceptions per game. Serie A also had a similar trend. Serie A and Premier League also had the highest frequency of blockings. Use of blockings was the least in Germany. La Liga and Ligue One had a more balanced approach. We may conclude that there are differences in the way teams defended in different leagues. While in England and Italy clearances and blocking are more dominant, the German and the Spanish rely more on interception.
Use of offside trap was less in Premier League and Ligue One, in comparison to the other three. Bundesliga had 4.97 offsides per game, in comparison to 3.98 in Premier League.
Bundesliga also had the highest number of saves per game. While the numbers were between 5.56 and 5.78 in the other leagues, Bundesliga saw 6.6 saves per game. No wonder that Germany is producing some of the best goalkeepers in the world.
Though it is not a measure of defending, a look at the ratio of yellow cards to foul tells us the variance in refereeing norms. The highest ratio of 0.2 was seen in La Liga, proving that the referees in Spain were quite generous in flashing the cards. The ratio in Bundesliga was lowest at 0.13. Clearly referees are harsher in Spain than in the other four.
Which league was most competitive?
General perception about competitiveness of a league is derived from the perceived number of title contenders in that league. Ligue One and Bundesliga have become “one-horse” races. La Liga, which was known as the “two-plus eighteen liga” has improved to become a “three-horse race”. Premier League is perceived as the most competitive one, and the perception has gained huge grounds with Leicester winning the title this year.
We created a measure of competitiveness using a concept similar to Herfindahl-Hirschman index (HHI), which is used to measure competitiveness of industries. HHI uses market share as the building block. Here we used points-share as the fundamental. The measure that we used may be called “Football league concentration index” (FLCI).
Where, N is the number of teams in the league, i is a team’s position in the final league table and Pi is the point share (team’s point / total points in the league) of the team in position i in the table. The following table summarizes our calculations.
It is important to note that a league is more competitive if its concentration index (FLCI) is smaller. Also, the point share of teams and hence the FLCI will be smaller in leagues with a larger number of teams. All leagues had 20 teams except for Bundesliga. That is why the FLCI of Bundesliga was a lot larger than others. In order to factor that into account, we checked Bundesliga’s FLCI after adding two fictitious teams at the bottom of the table. We added two fictitious teams at the bottom assuming that the 18 teams that actually played in Bundesliga this season are the best 18 in Germany. The expected FLCI comes to around 5.6, which would have made Bundesliga the least competitive even if there were 20 teams.
It might be surprising that the FLCI is highest in France where PSG won it with four match-days left. In Ligue One there were 15 teams, from rank 2 to rank 16, within a band of 21 points. That made it the most competitive league. In Premier League, the equivalent ranked teams were within a band of 28 points.
La Liga might have become more competitive at the top with Atletico becoming a serious contender, but it remains the least competitive league except for Bundesliga. In La Liga 48.4% points were scored by the top 7 teams, which makes it one of the least competitive leagues. Serie A turned out to be more competitive than La Liga and Bundesliga, but less competitive than Ligue One and Premier League.
Broadly our analysis shows that technical precision is more in Bundesliga and La Liga, though these two turned out to be the least competitive among the five leagues. This finding underlines the theory that there exists a trade-off between competitive balance of the league and quality of football.
Data Source: https://www.whoscored.com/Statistics