So perpetrated and ingrained has been the cliché that the word Stoke has become a sort of synonym for long balls and negative football. Indeed, many see English football to be the Neanderthal of Europe’s top four leagues. But is this true?
This analysis will focus on that perception that England is the panacea for all things long ball. Lionel Messi is widely considered the best player of his generation and maybe of all time, but the question persists…can he do it on a cold, rainy night in Stoke?
First off, Stoke City themselves are no longer the long ball poster boys and fall somewhere in the middle in terms of long balls played. Beyond this, how do the leagues stack up against each other? Does Spain match expectations as the league to shun the long ball most and does England confirm the stereotype?
Punt it long
By raw numbers, Germany is the league in which the most long balls have been played by a narrow margin over England. Italy is the clear outlier, but only because the least long passes have been played so far this season. Adding strength to this is when context is applied. Long passes as a proportion of total passes reveals England to be the marginal leader ahead of Germany. However, it isn’t the runaway leader and in fact the difference between England, Germany and Spain is marginal and inconsequential.
Another number to consider is the average pass length. England again leads in pass length but Germany follows closely. Spain falls half a metre shorter than England. The most interesting takeaway from the long pass statistics is how much of an outlier Italy is. That points to a more tactical game when the total amount of passes is factored in. More passes of shorter length with less passes than can be considered long means that Italy is the antithesis of England and Germany whilst Spain falls somewhere in between.
If you’re good at it…
How about how good these respective teams are at long passing? Italy again trumps the rest with a near one in two conversion rate on long passes. The remaining three are separated by less than 0.2% which is statistically inconsequential. The domination of Italy in all things long pass is both interesting and somewhat surprising to many given that the other leagues are largely indistinguishable.
On a team level, the correlation between long passes and league position is palpably obvious. The distinctions of note are Everton and Swansea in England whereby 17.6% of Everton’s passes (56th lowest overall in the four leagues) are long and 14.7% of Swansea’s passes are long (32nd overall) with corresponding points per game (ppg) at the end of 2016 of 1.44 and 0.67, respectively.
Athletic Bilbao find themselves in a territory with league strugglers as the team with the 68th least long passes overall (19.8%) despite earning 1.75 points per game up to December 31st. Only 14.2% of Valencia’s passes were long despite a ppg of 0.8. The Bundesliga closely follows a low points-many long ball pattern excepting Borussia Mönchengladbach who, although strugglers with 1 ppg, play only 9.9% (7th lowest) of their passes long. The two outliers for Italy are Pescara (12.1% long passes and 0.5 ppg) and Empoli (11.7% long passes and 0.78 ppg).
Outside of this, weaker teams play more long passes. There is quite likely bi-directional causality accounting for this relationship. Weaker teams play more long passes because they are forced to and because they view this as a better or the only strategy against a superior team. Also, teams are weaker because they play more long passes and are inferior short passers. Longer passes are inherently less accurate ceteris paribus and therefore, the frequency of quality chances is less. These teams also play less passes, which make the quantity of short passes for these teams even less. Therefore, it may not solely be a case of unambitious tactics, it is a product of the teams’ own weaknesses in short passing and inability to escape bombardment.
Stoking the Fire
It would be egregious to isolate long passes and not at least give cursory analysis of short passing to ascertain overall passing skill and maybe get a more complete understanding of why short or long passes may be favoured.
The correlation between short passing accuracy and overall quality is somewhat more random, but a clear trend still emerges. The very best teams are mainly the best short passers. The top five in order are Real Madrid, Napoli, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, and Manchester United. The top 10 is completed by Man City, Fiorentina, Chelsea, (anomalously) Las Palmas and Juventus. This is the mechanism by which control is established aided by weaker teams taking the lower percentage option more frequently and surrendering possession more often from short passes.
English football has benefitted from the influx of non-English managers and the important consideration that 67.2% of its players are from foreign lands, the highest of Europe’s top leagues. Only four of the 20 teams are currently managed by Englishmen and a further three from the rest of the United Kingdom. The culture is less traditionally British and perspectives are being influenced by the top teams in the land, all of which are managed by high-profile foreigners.
Italian football is clearly the biggest chess match of the leagues and there appears to be a good mix of both styles in the other leagues. This is further enhanced by what is witnessed weekly. The perceptions can be put to rest. What Messi should really worry about in Stoke is the weather and not a barrage of negative play. Still, we’d really like to know if he can do it on a cold, rainy night at the Bet365 Stadium.