Analysing Europe's Top 4 Leagues - Passing
“There's something very entertaining about the speed of the Premier League, but it doesn't compare with the technical brilliance of La Liga [...] La Liga's pass and move football's better than the Premier League's blood and thunder approach. It's more cultured, clever and creative; it's the way football was always meant to be played.”
- Top Rated Answer to the question 'Which is the better way to play football: La Liga style or EPL style?' on Yahoo Answer, March 2012
These articles attempts to examine the extent to which the four top European Leagues (the English Premier League, Spain's La Liga, the Italian Serie A and the German Bundesliga) differ, using statistics from the most recent league season (the 2011/2012 Season). Analysis will focus predominantly on the Premier League and La Liga.
The question (and answer) quoted above about 'which is the better way to play football' defines the styles of the EPL and La Liga as distinct from one another, and is an example of the general assumption that each league has its own way of playing, its own footballing identity unique to that country's league.
Stereotypes and Expectations
A quick google search of 'style of play' preceded by each of the four countries, reveals the styles that are most commonly attributed to each league. For La Liga, the first result is a wikipedia article on Tiki-Taka, for England a wiki article on Long Ball, for Italy a wiki article on Catenaccio. There is no single playing style stereotypically associated with German football, but the word 'efficient' seems to be frequently used on discussion forums and question and answer websites, and of the three it is probably most associated with the perceived direct and fast-paced style of English football. These tags more or less sum up the type of football usually deemed typical of each nation's league by fans and even by TV pundits:
Premier League: very fast-paced, open, direct passing, 'blood and thunder' approach, with more emphasis on the physical than the technical or tactical.
La Liga: creativity, short passes, technical brilliance, more 'cultured', a strong emphasis on the technical over the physical.
Serie A: defensive, cautious, slow-paced, tight, counter-attacks, an emphasis on the tactical.
Bundesliga: fast-paced, high-scoring games, similar to the Premier League but perhaps less extreme (in other words slightly less physical and more technical).
If the stereotypes are to believed, the four leagues are quite different and distinct in their styles, and one would expect these differences to be reflected in the statistics from each league. In particular a notable difference between the English and Spanish leagues would be expected, with the supposed 'blood and thunder' directness of the Premier League contrasting with the 'cultured' passing of La Liga. In this article I will use the statistics from the 2011/2012 season to attempt to answer the following questions:
- Are there major statistical differences between the four leagues? If so, what are they and what do they tell us about the overall playing style in each league?
- To what extent are the stereotypes associated with each league's playing style true?
We'll start by examining the statistical variable which I believe to be most indicative of playing style – Passing Stats.
Tiki-Taka and Hoof-Ball: Barcelona and Stoke as Opposing Models of Passing Style
When we talk about differences in playing style, usually the first thing that comes to mind is the way in which a team passes the ball. This is logical – the most noticable difference between the way teams play is in the way they use the ball when in possession. When we hear terms like 'tiki-taka', 'possession football' or 'cultured' to describe La Liga, or 'Long-Ball', 'Direct' or even (to some extent) 'physical' to describe the Premier League, it is the passing style that is being referred to. Anyone who follows these leagues knows that Barcelona (Tiki-Taka) and Stoke City (Long Ball, or what is commonly derogatorily referred to as 'Hoof-Ball') epitomise these two approaches; Barcelona play a lot of short passes to retain possession and dominate the ball, while Stoke tend to 'hoof' the ball long and play a lot of crosses, hoping to use their physical superiority and aerial power to full effect.
We don't need statistics to tell us that Barcelona and Stoke are worlds apart in terms of style. However, by analysing the passing of the two teams we can statistically verify that these differences are reflected in the way each team passes the ball, and also discover what proportions of certain types of passes make up the typical composition of tiki-taka and long-ball approaches. In other words, these two extreme examples of each style can serve as blueprints of each style, which we can later use to compare the average passing statistics of each league.
The stats register all attempted passes, thus both completed and uncompleted passes are registered. The passes are broken down into four categories:
- Short Passes, Long Passes, Crosses, and Through Balls.
Below are pie-chart representations of both teams' passing stats, with percentages.
We can see that even a long-ball team will still play more short passes than long – this makes practical sense and should come as no surprise. However it is clear from looking at the pie-chart representation that the obvious difference in playing styles is significantly reflected in the teams passing stats; as expected Barcelona play more short passes and through balls than Stoke and Stoke play more long balls and crosses. Stoke play roughly 3 times more long balls and crosses, while Barcelona play an incredibly high 13 through-balls per game on average, compared to Stoke's 1 per game. The difference in the quantity of short passes between the two teams is not fully visible in this proportional representation, but on average Barca play 436 more short passes a game than Stoke – close to 3 times as many.
These passing stats, then, can be seen to be representative of the contrasting styles of each team. However perhaps they don't fully represent the extent of the differences, as many of Barca's long passes might be raking lateral passes designed to switch the play, which don't really constitute a 'long ball' game. Likewise Stoke might clear a lot of balls long instead of taking the ball in to pass – this won't be registered as a long pass but still constitutes part of their 'no-nonsense' defensive play. There is another stat which may further reflect the differences in playing style between Tiki-Taka and Long Ball – Aerial Duels Contested.
It stands to reason that a team playing a lot of long balls up the field (whether they be picked-out passes or just hoofed clearances) will contest a lot of aeriel duels. Here we can perhaps further distinguish between the two sides, as we would expect Stoke to contest a far higher amount of aerial duels in their matches. Here we can see that Stoke contest more than double the amount of aerial duels than Barcelona.
Thus the amount of Aerial Duels contested in a league over the course of a season can serve as an indication of that league's playing style, and we should be expecting to see the most amount of aerial duels in the Premier League.
One might reasonably argue that these differences in passing stats is more reflective of quality rather than style, considering that Stoke are typically a low-to-mid-table club with a modest budget while Barcelona are arguably the best team in Europe with a squad littered with top quality players. To counter this claim I will add the passing style of a team comparable in quality and stature to Stoke, a team which finished with just 2 points more than Stoke last year, but who attempted to adopt the 'tiki-taka' style usually associated with Spanish football – Swansea City.
Swansea's manager last season, Brendan Rodgers, has openly stated his admiration for the Spanish 'tiki-taka' style and attempted to implement a version of the possession-based football at the Welsh club. Looking at the pie-chart for passing, we can see that their passing statistics are much more similar to Barcelona's than Stoke's. If Swansea were indeed trying to emmulate Barcelona's passing style, the statistics would show they did a pretty decent job. The main difference would be their relatively high proportion of long balls (11.1%) compared to the 'ideal' Barcelona model (just 7.3%), as well as a relatively low percentage of through balls compared to the Catalan pass-masters. These differences can be explained by the gulf in class between the two teams, as it is generally accepted that playing an exceptionally large proportion of short passes is more difficult and requires a higher degree of composure and technical ability than playing it long, and that playing a high quantity of through balls requires the type of excellent vision and execution (as well as intelligent movement off the ball) that only top class midfielders and forwards possess. Barcelona played by far the most amount of through balls last season throughout Europe (averaging out 13 per game), while other teams which played a high quantity of through balls were Arsenal, Manchester City, Juventus (all 8 per game), Real Madrid, Napoli and AC Milan (7 per game), confirming the hypothesis that attempting a lot of through balls generally requires a very high level of passing quality and movement usually only possessed by top clubs.
Despite these shortfalls, overall Swansea's passing stats, when compared to a team of similar quality (Stoke) and similar style (Barcelona), suggest that while a team's passing statistics can be influenced by the teams quality, they are much more indicative of playing style. Looking at Swansea's Aerial Duels per Game figure reinforces this contention – their 14.9 contested aerials per game is far closer to Barca's low number (11.6) than Stoke's high number (26.1).
In other words, as we might have expected, a team's passing statistics and aerial duels contested are representative of that team's playing style.
Of course, it has to be noted that the above examples are extreme examples, and thus we should not expect to see such extreme differences between each league as we do between Stoke and Barcelona; there are teams that play a mix of styles that can not be as rigidly defined as Stoke, Barcelona and Swansea can, and the differing styles of different teams within the same league should level out the statistical representation somewhat.
However, if the stereotypes are to be believed and there is indeed a prevailing influence of certain styles in each league, then we would expect to note at least a modest difference between the passing stats, and in particular more long passes in the Premier League, and more short passes in La Liga.
At a glance, looking at the pie-charts, we can see that the passing styles amongst the four leagues are very similar, with all leagues playing in and around 80% of their passes short and about 14% long. Crosses make up between 4 and 5% of total passes, while throughballs are around 1% or less.
As we can see from looking at all four charts together, the passing styles are not as distinct as the stereotypes would have us believe and there is little significant difference between each league.
In particular, one might have expected the blue Short Passes piece of the La Liga pie to be larger than the corresponding blue sections of the other pies. Likewise, if we are to believe that 'hoofball' and direct passing still predominate in the Premier League, we might have expected the Long Pass section of its pie to stand out from its European counterparts.
However, a quick glance is perhaps not enough, and we should look closer at the actual figures before drawing any definitive conclusions.
Short Passes: It is perhaps surprisingly the English Premier League which plays the highest proportion of Short Passes (82.4%). An average of 23 more short passes a game are played in England compared to the continental leagues. These statistics show that, despite a few teams still adhering to the long-ball style, the league as a whole more closely resembles Swansea's short passing model rather than Stoke's long-ball style.
Long Passes: With 15.3% of their passes going long the German Bundesliga play the most long-passes, meaning it can perhaps be classified as the most direct league. However, the differences across the leagues are not very substantial. It's interesting to note that again the general perception of the difference between La Liga and the Premier League is reversed, with more long passes being played in Spain (13.5%) than in England (12.4%).
Crosses: The highest proportion of crosses take place in Italy's Serie A, but again the differences across the leagues are minimal.
Through Balls: This category takes up such a minimal slice of the pie in each league that one might be forgiven for dismissing its statistical importance. It is here, however that we perhaps see the biggest difference between each league's passing stats. As mentioned earlier, playing a through ball (defined as a 'defence-splitting pass') is a difficult skill to accomplish, so will not be attempted frequently, and will usually only be attempted at the end of some build up play consisting of other types of passes, hence it's small proportional reflection here. Even the through-ball masters Barcelona play less than 2% of their passes as through balls. As they make up such a small percentage, the differences between the leagues are difficult to guage proportionally and would be best looked at by the average per-game amount of through balls played in each league last season.
Serie A sees the most amount of through balls, with Bundesliga playing the least. If attempting a defence-splitting pass is an indication of a high level of passing ability, intelligent movement and creativity, then it is perhaps here that finally we see some indication of La Liga's supposed superior passing 'culture' compared to the Premier League – roughly 3 more through balls are played a match. However, despite containing the team with by far the highest quantity of through balls, La Liga still falls short of Serie A's 10.1 through balls per game, suggesting that the most creative passing takes place in Italy, although there are of course other factors at play here - the amount of time on the ball generally permitted to players, or the depth of defensive lines could effect this statistic.
When we looked at the difference between the stats represented by a typical long-ball team and a tiki-taka team, we noted that, as logic would dictate, long-ball teams contest far more aerial duels than teams that play short passes. So it is worth looking at this stat to further illustrate the passing style of the four big leagues.
Again we see that the stereotypes don't hold up – in fact they are reversed. La Liga contest the most amount of aerial duels with an average of 25 per game (suggesting the ball spends a lot of time in the air) while the Premier League has nearly 4 less, meaning it is the league in which the ball perhaps spends most time on the ground. An even more startling representation of aerial duels which shows just how wrong the stereotypes are, and the folly of basing them on just one or two teams, is when we look at Stoke City in comparison to 9 (!) Spanish clubs which contested more aerial duels last season.
As we can see from statistics, almost half of the supposedly 'cultured' La Liga teams contest more aerial duels than the oft referred to 'cavemen' of Stoke. I have added in the low tallies of Real Madrid and Barcelona as an indication of a possible source for the misguided beliefs about the passing style in La Liga – as much of our viewing of La Liga is restricted to these two teams, our opinion of the league as a whole is formed by them and them alone.
There are some small differences in the passing style of the four major leagues, but they do not contrast as strongly as stereotypes often suggest. The variance in the quality and style of each team within each league levels out the passing statistics so that overall it is not possible to ascribe a certain passing style with a particular league – the idea of a league having a particular passing style is a myth.
If we take passing stats as a strong indicator of overall playing style, then we can perhaps suggest that it is also false that there are significant differences between each league's overall playing approach and philosophy. Teams vary (often due to the variance in quality) – leagues as a whole don't (at least not to any great extent).
If we do look at the small differences the stereotypes are negated even further. The idea that the English style is predominantly long-ball is redundant and ill-informed. If we assume that a high proportion of short passes and a low amount of aerial duels is representative of a short passing style then it is the Premier League which plays the 'purest' football. Likewise the belief that there is an overriding tiki-taka approach taken in Spain and that La Liga sees 'purer' or more 'cultured' football is a myth – Barcelona are the exception not the rule.
There could be several reasons for the perpetuation of these false beliefs. Like any false stereotype, laziness is a big factor. Fans and pundits alike repeat what they have heard and don't bother to challenge it by looking at the facts. It's easier to accept these general truths, especially when 'experts' regurgitate these same ideas, giving them further credence.
People like to compartmentalise, so it's natural that tags such as 'cultured' and 'blood and thunder' will stick to certain leagues, as it becomes easier for the fan or pundit to understand a whole league without resorting to watching 15 hours of football every week – and this takes me to my next more concrete explanation.
If you were to truly understand the style of each of the entire 4 leagues (and not just a few select teams in it) you would have to watch 57 hours of domestic football every week. Clearly nobody has the time to do this. In fact most would find it difficult to fit more than 3 or 4 games into their weekly schedule, and many more would watch even less. How can one expect to describe a style of a league of which they are only seeing 30% or less of the matches? Highlight shows will help to a small extent but it is impossible to draw many detailed conclusions from highlights alone.
How many people watch Osasuna take on Mallorca in La Liga? If they did they would likely see a huge amount of long balls being played and many aerial battles. Yet these teams are ignored when we label the league as predominantly a short passing league and only Barcelona and Real Madrid (and perhaps to a lesser extent other Champions League regulars such as Valencia) are considered.
Another possible reason is a knock-on effect from national teams. The Spanish national team have been the pioneers of tiki-taka alongside Barcelona and they tend to dominate the ball in every game – in Euro 2012 they averaged a very high 65.2% possession and played 88.4% of their passes short. England, on the other hand, have often conformed to their 'long-ball' stereotype. Their failures in recent tournaments have often been attributed to a lack of a ball-playing midfielder who can dominate possession. At the moment their manager is Roy Hodgson, an advocate of a direct playing style – in Euro 2012 they had one of the lowest possession stats with an average of just 39.8% possession. Italy's national team have historically based their success on a solid defence and have produced arguably the greatest defenders in the world over the last few generations. Their last international success at the 2006 World Cup was predominantly based on a very solid backline. This is a possible source for the idea that Serie A is a defensive and tactical league (but we will come to this in a later article).
So while the national teams might conform somewhat to the expectations, the domestic leagues (at least in terms of passing style) don't. This is no surprise given the high quantity of foreign players (and in the case of the Premier League, foreign managers) in each league.
Of course when we talk about differences in each league, there is more than just passing to discuss. In the next article I will look at other stats across the four leagues to further determine the extent of their differences and what these differences consist of.
However, I believe passing statistics are probably the strongest indicators of differences in style, and the results from the 2011/12 season show that many of the typical beliefs about these differences are false.
All statistics are taken (or have been calculated) from www.whoscored.com (which uses Opta stats) and have been rounded to one decimal point.
Follow me on Twitter: @ErwinMorzadec
Follow me on Twitter: @ErwinMorzadec