Barcelona’s setting of the gold standard in ball retention has helped spawn a series of fascinating statistics that have quantified their art. OptaJoe on Twitter delivered a telling statistic on Barca’s puppeteer:
20% – Just one in five of Xavi’s passes in La Liga went forward. Crab.
It’s initially surprising given the influence he exerts, but less so when you consider the value Barcelona place on possession.
On a broader, team scale, Manchester United are the most reluctant team in the Premier League to play forward balls, based on numbers from last season.
There’s an apparent correlation between percentage of forward passes and aesthetics, but also a significant, non-zero correlation between forward passes and points. These trends continue with backwards and sideways passes.
Teams that passed less backwards and more sideways also tended to collect more points over the course of the season.
Curiously, the top five sides in the league also appear to be in a sideways passing league of their own, with United topping the bunch.
Ball retention to accumulate victories is hardly a revolutionary concept, but fans who voice their dissatisfaction at players who prefer to play square passes would do well to note their value.
Passing takes on particular significance with Manchester United this summer; the retirement of Paul Scholes coupled with the abandoned pursuits of Wesley Sneijder and Samir Nasri places extra burden on Michael Carrick. Nearly 40% of Carrick’s passes went sideways last season, and a further 10% went backwards.
Will added responsibility force Carrick to look for more daring, forward passes, or will he stick to his strengths? The man himself claims he will not change his game, and it will be Sir Alex Ferguson’s job to find that winning balance once again. Forward balls tend to be about quality rather than quantity, and it’ll be particularly interesting if Carrick can be the creative influence in central midfield for United.
Feel free to point out other notable trends in the data!