The Evolution of Michael Carrick

August 4, 2011 12 comments

I. In Which We Are Introduced To Our Hero

Michael Carrick divides opinions. His detractors label him weak; someone who crumbles under pressure, who can’t handle a physical midfield battle and who does nothing but pass the ball sideways and backwards when he should be imposing himself on matches the way truly great midfielders do. His supporters highlight his assured passing and defensive discipline and see him as a metronome that doesn’t shine itself but sets the tempo for the rest of the team. Caught in the middle of the debate is a third group of people who can appreciate his contribution but long for a more adventurous and seemingly more confident Carrick they remember from seasons past.

In this article I will take a look at his performances in the five seasons he has been at Manchester United. I will look at each season in detail, highlight his strengths and weaknesses and pay special attention to how his game has changed over the years. To start I will focus on his performances in the Premier League. In a later section I will look at his performances in the Champions League to see whether there are any differences in the way he plays in Europe compared to England.

I should warn you: this is going to be long.

II. First Rays of the New Rising Sun

Carrick joined United from Tottenham in the summer of 2006 in a deal worth £18.6 million and quickly established himself as a regular starter in Sir Alex’s team, making 52 appearances in all competitions. In his 33 Premier League appearances he played 2511 minutes and attempted 1825 passes, which translates to 65.4 passes per 90 minutes. Adjusted for playing time he contributed 12.13% of United’s passes. 49.1% of his passes were played in his own half and the average starting y-coordinate of his passes (excluding corner kicks) was right next to the halfway line, half a metre into his own half. Below is a heat map of his passes:

In this and all other heat maps the pitch has been divided into twenty 5.25 metre segments in the y-axis and ten 6.8 metre segments in the x-axis, and the number in each square indicates how many passes were attempted in that section of the pitch.

As you can see there are two high frequency passing zones, one in the opposition half in an attacking midfield position, slightly to the right of centre, and the other in his own half in a defensive midfield position, again slightly to the right of centre. This right-sided bias was a feature in all five seasons, with 64.00%, 59.94%, 54.94%, 53.05% and 56.51% of his passes played in the right half of the pitch. The right-sided bias was also clear when comparing his passes on the wings. In 2006/2007 passes on the left wing made up 4.16% of his total passes while passes on the right wing made up 10.74%. For the other four seasons the corresponding figures were 4.88%/11.73%, 4.88%/7.54%, 8.32%/7.17% and 5.71%/11.83%, with 2009/2010 the only season to break the pattern.

Unsurprisingly the majority of his passes, 80.16% to be exact, were played in the central area of the pitch marked AM1 through DM2. Passes in CM (CM1+CM2) made up the largest part of that with 33.20% of his total passes originating from there. DM (DM1+DM2) was second with 25.70% of total passes and the remaining 21.26% were played in AM (AM1+AM2).

Above is a graph illustrating the frequency with which he attempted passes of different lengths. His average pass length was 19.49 metres, his median pass length was 16.76 metres and his longest attempted pass was a 74 metre ball from his own half to the left corner flag. His three most frequent pass lengths were 13, 10 and 16 metres which made up 5.32%, 5.15% and 5.04% of his total passes. Passes 20 metres or shorter made up 62.36% of his total passes while passes over 40 metres made up 6.08%. His short to long pass ratio was 10.25.

His passing accuracy for short passes was 86.99% (990 completed/1138 attempted). 23.46% of his short passes were forward passes, 49.30% were sideways passes and 27.24% were backwards passes. His passing accuracy for medium length passes (21-40 metres) was 79.34% (457/576) and his forward, sideways and backwards pass percentages were 51.22%/23.78%/25.00%. His passing accuracy for long passes was 48.65% (54/111) with forward, sideways and backwards ratios of 74.77%/9.01%/16.22%.

Finally let’s look at his passes into the penalty area and his key passes. In total he made 40 key passes, 1.43 per 90 minutes, and attempted 117 passes into the opposition penalty area. Of those passes, 15 were open play crosses and 40 were corner or free kicks. Overall crosses made up 47.01% of his passes into the penalty area. His cross success rate was 36.36% while his open play pass success rate (excluding crosses) was 25.81%.

III. The Relatively Uninteresting Second Season from Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed

The summer of 2007 saw Anderson and Owen Hargreaves join United’s midfield but despite the increased competition for places Carrick maintained his status as a regular starter. He made 49 appearances in all competitions and played 2200 minutes in the Premier League despite missing about a month of the season due to injury. Per 90 minutes he attempted 66.3 passes, a small increase on his first season and adjusted for playing time he contributed a career high 12.71% of United’s passes. The average starting y-coordinate of his passes stayed constant at half a metre from the halfway line in his own half, but United as a whole (Carrick excluded) moved just under two metres higher up the pitch, so relative to the rest of his teammates he actually took up a slightly deeper average position than in his first season.

His passing was more evenly spread out, though the highest frequency area was again found in a defensive midfield position slightly to the right of centre. Overall his passing location percentages were similar to 2006/2007; the only notable changes were his CM1 percentage dropping from 16.38% to 15.12% and his AM2 percentage increasing from 16.44% to 17.72%.

His passes were slightly longer than they were in 2006/2007. His average pass length increased to 20.28 metres while his median pass length increased to 16.96 metres. His percentage of short passes dropped from 62.36% to 60.19% while his percentage of long passes increased from 6.08% to 8.02%, and his ratio of short to long passes fell to a career low 7.5.

With fewer short passes and more long passes you might expect his passing accuracy to fall but actually his accuracy improved across the board. He completed 859/975 short passes, 88.10%, 410/515 medium length passes, 79.61%, and 66/130 long passes, 50.77%. The only range where his passing accuracy fell was in the 31-40 metre range, dropping to 68.31% (97/142) from 72.22% (117/162) the previous season.

His lower accuracy in the 31-40 metre range is explained by the large increase in forward passes in that range. In 2007/2008 70.42% of his 31-40 metre passes were forward passes compared to only 54.32% in 2006/2007. In fact in all pass length ranges there is a trend of a larger portion of the passes being forward passes, and a corresponding decrease in the portion of sideways passes. For his short, medium and long passes the percentage of forward passes increased from 23.46%/51.22%/74.77% to 24.31%/51.65%/86.92% while his sideways passes fell from 49.30%/23.78%/9.01% to 47.59%/22.91%/5.38%. These numbers suggest that the improvement in his passing accuracy could be due to actual improvement in his passing ability, and not simply due to him being more conservative with his pass selection.

He played far fewer passes into the penalty area, 89 compared to 117 the previous season, but the difference is explained by the large decrease in the number of corner kicks he took, and if we exclude them the number of passes into the penalty area he attempted was 75 compared to 77. The success rate of his passes improved from 30.77% to 37.08% and when looking only at open play passes his success rate increased from 25.81% to 41.54%.

Even though he played fewer passes into the penalty area and took fewer corner kicks he maintained his key passes at the same level, 1.39 per 90 minutes.

IV. Such Great Heights

For Carrick 2008/2009 was the culmination of three years of steady progress. He played in the most advanced role he has played in, with the average starting y-coordinate of his passes about a metre from the halfway line in the opposition half. He attempted more passes per 90 minutes, 71.3, than ever before, and a higher percentage of those passes, 52.66%, were played in the opposition half than in any other season. He also attempted considerably more shots per 90 minutes, 1.81 compared to 1.25 in 2006/2007 and 0.94 in 2007/2008, than before.

The changes in AM, CM and DM percentages highlight his more advanced role. His AM and CM percentages, 24.47% and 37.58%, were career highs while his DM percentage, 21.88%, was a career low.

Playing in a more advanced role his passes into the penalty area increased to 4.63 per 90 minutes when his second best season (2006/2007) was 4.19, though the 2006/2007 figure is inflated by the large number of corner kicks he took, and if we exclude them the difference is even larger: 3.66 per 90 minutes in 2008/2009 compared to 3.07 in 2007/2008 and 2.76 in 2006/2007. His key passes increased to 1.54 per 90 minutes which combined with his four Premier League goals and seven assists made 2008/2009 his most productive season at the club.

There were small changes in the length and accuracy of his passes but for the most part his passing was similar to the previous two seasons, with some allowances for the more advanced role he played. The average length of his passes fell to 19.80 metres while the median length rose to 17.21 metres. Short passes made up 61.12% of his total passes while long passes made up 6.86%, a short-to-long ratio of 8.91.

His short pass accuracy fell slightly to 87.56% (866/989) while his long pass accuracy rose to 62.16% (69/111). The large increase in his long pass accuracy is explained by his passes in the 41-50 metre range where he completed 68.92% (51/74) of his passes compared to 53.85% (42/78) the previous season.

After the more adventurous forward passing in all pass length ranges of 2007/2008 his passing became slightly more conservative in terms of forward, sideways and backwards pass percentages in 2008/2009. His forward pass percentages for short, medium and long passes fell to 23.15%/44.40%/81.98% while his sideways and backwards pass percentages increased across the board. Undoubtedly his more advanced role will have affected these figures to some degree.

V. Icarus

2009/2010 was not a good season for Carrick. During his first three seasons at the club his career had followed an upward trajectory; with each new season he became more involved in United’s passing play, took more shots, created more scoring chances and played in a more advanced role, but 2009/2010 saw him regress in almost every measurable way.

His passes per 90 minutes rate and the playing time adjusted percentage of United’s total passes he contributed fell to career lows of 65.0 and 11.24% respectively. Similarly his per 90 minute rates in shots, passes into the penalty area, key passes, interceptions, loose ball wins, tackles attempted and blocks all fell from their 2008/2009 rates. The only statistics that improved were his aerial duel attempts per 90 minutes which rose from 0.36, 0.37 and 0.26 in his first three seasons to 0.84 and his aerial duel success rate which rose from a collective 20% in his first three seasons to 50% in 2009/2010.

His passing was more evenly spread out over the pitch than in previous seasons. He attempted at least one pass in 154 of the 200 5.25×6.80 areas in the heat map which is more than any other season bar 2006/2007, though it’s worth remembering he attempted 430 more passes in 2006/2007 than 2009/2010.

His pass length ranges give us the first signs of a clear change in his passing which was to come in 2010/2011. His short to long pass ratio increased from 10.25, 7.5 and 8.91 the previous three seasons to 13.61. His percentage of long passes fell from 6.86% to 4.59% and his percentage of short passes rose from 61.12% to 62.44%. 2009/2010 was in many ways a season of transition for Carrick and the increased reliance on short passes was one of the areas which hinted at what was to come in 2010/2011.

In terms of passing accuracy 2009/2010 was a mixed bag. His short pass accuracy fell to a career low of 84.85% but his medium length pass accuracy increased to 85.87%, up from 79.34%, 79.61% and 80.69% the previous three seasons, and he topped the 90% mark for only the second time in his United career when he completed 91.06% and 92.38% of his passes in the 16-20 and 21-25 metre ranges; the first time he topped 90% was in 2007/2008 when he completed 91.56% of his passes in the 16-20 metre range.

His passing directions were almost identical to 2008/2009. His forward, sideways and backwards ratios were 33.84%/38.49%/27.67% compared to 33.99%/38.57%/27.44% the previous season.

When you look at his 2009/2010 numbers it’s hard to deny that he underperformed. The natural question is why? It’s tempting to look to the 2008/2009 Champions League final. Carrick was widely criticized for his performance in the final, and even though I mentioned in my tactical review of that match that I thought much of that criticism was unfair, it’s certainly plausible that his poor showing in the final combined with the criticism led to a drop in his confidence levels which negatively affected his performance in 2009/2010.

The general weakening of United through the departures of Ronaldo and Tevez could be another contributing factor, or maybe it was just natural regression back to his “actual” level after punching above his weight in 2008/2009. As is almost always the case I don’t think there is a single easy answer. Whatever the case, 2009/2010 was largely a season to forget for Carrick and it’s probably best that we move on to 2010/2011.

VI. Sea Change

For better or worse the Carrick of 2010/2011 wasn’t the same player he was in his first three seasons at United, and the main reason for this is the deeper role he played. In 2008/2009 his average starting position was just past the halfway line, about a metre into the opposition half, but by 2010/2011 his average starting position had dropped almost three metres deeper from that position, despite the average positions of his central midfield partners and other teammates staying roughly the same.

In the above graph 0.5 is the halfway line and each change of 0.005 denotes a change in average starting position of half a metre on the pitch.

In 2008/2009 52.66% of his passes were played in the opposition half; in 2010/2011 that number was 44.26%. In 2008/2009 he played 24.47% of his passes in the attacking midfield areas AM1 and AM2 and 21.88% of his passes in the defensive midfield areas DM1 and DM2. In 2010/2011 the corresponding figures were 16.77% for AM and 26.93% for DM. Similarly passes in the attacking third (excluding corner kicks) dropped from 16.75% to 11.48% while passes in the defensive third increased from 12.86% to 16.21%. In addition to his passing starting from deeper areas his passing was also more restricted than in any other season. Of the 200 5.25×6.80 areas in the heat map he attempted at least one pass in only 140 of them, the fewest of the five seasons.

The shift to a style of play dominated by short passes that began in 2009/2010 was completed in 2010/2011. His average pass length fell to 18.27 metres and his median pass length fell to 16.16 metres. Short passes made up a career high 65.07% of his passes with most of the increase coming from the 0-10 metre range where the percentage of total passes increased from 16.70% to 20.11%. His long passes stayed constant at 4.73% while his medium length passes fell from 32.97% to 30.20%. His short to long pass ratio increased slightly to 13.75.

As well as becoming shorter his passing became more conservative. Forward passes made up only 31.11% of his total while his sideways pass percentage of 45.16% was a considerable increase on the previous seasons (38.79%, 36.36%, 38.57%, and 38.49%). His short passes were particularly conservative with 57.22% going sideways and only 20.21% forward.

His passes into the penalty area became even more infrequent. In total he attempted 22 passes into the penalty area, 1.00 per 90 minutes, and only 4 of them found a teammate. His key passes fell to 0.73 per 90 minutes.

With his passes becoming shorter and more conservative it’s no surprise his accuracy increased. His short pass accuracy was 89.52% (837/935). He couldn’t maintain his exceptional medium length pass completion from 2009/2010 but his 82.49% (358/434) was still the second best in his career. His long pass accuracy was 57.35% (39/68).

As you might expect given his deeper role he took fewer shots, 0.86 per 90 minutes, in 2010/2011 than in any other season, and between the lack of shots and key passes, and in general more conservative passing it is clear his offensive contribution isn’t what it was in previous seasons. The question is whether his defensive contributions improved enough to make up for that loss? While it’s impossible to answer that based on the data alone his career high interceptions, 2.82 per 90 minutes, combined with the eyeball test suggest he has improved defensively in the last few seasons, but trying to quantify just how valuable that improvement is and whether it offsets the loss of offensive value is beyond my current analytical capabilities.

VII. Napoleon

Carrick’s performances in the Champions League in many ways mirror those of the team as a whole. With Sir Alex opting to take a pragmatic approach to the competition United have in recent years played a more conservative type of football in the Champions League than in the Premier League. This is reflected in the lower goals scored (2007/2008-2010/2011: 1.58 in the Champions League vs. 2.05 in the Premier League) and goals conceded (0.67 vs. 0.73) per match numbers. Other metrics reinforce the point: in the Champions League United take fewer shots (14.92 vs. 17.89), attempt more passes for every shot they take (35.52 vs. 31.18), and the average position of the team is roughly two metres deeper than in the Premier League. In away matches in particular United have become quite adept at doing just what is required and nothing more; an approach which has drawn praise from some and criticism from others.

Carrick’s role in the Champions league has been predominantly the deeper, more defensive role he played in the 2010/2011 Premier League season. Even in 2008/2009 when he had, in terms of offensive contribution, his best Premier League season, in the Champions League he had already transitioned to the more defensive role. While his teammates’ average positions were the same in the Champions League and the Premier League, Carrick played almost three metres deeper in the Champions League than he did in the Premier League. As a result, when looking at his statistics from 2007/2008-2010/2011 we see his shots, key passes and passes into the penalty area were all lower in the Champions League than in the Premier League while his defensive statistics like interceptions and loose ball wins were all higher. His interceptions in particular were notably high (3.74 per 90 minutes in the Champions League vs. 2.22 in the Premier League) and increased year-on-year, reflecting the growing emphasis on interceptions and defensive positioning in the way United defends as a team. In the graph below you can see a clear upward trend in the number of interceptions made by the entire team per match in both the Champions League and Premier League while reversely the number of tackles attempted has fallen.

His passes in the Champions League were more heavily weighted toward short passes than they were in the Premier League. In the four seasons from 2007/2008 to 2010/2011 short passes made up 61.67%, 63.36%, 65.17% and 65.69% of his passes while the corresponding Premier League figures were 60.19%, 61.12%, 62.44% and 65.07%. At the same time his passing became more polarized as his long pass percentages either stayed roughly the same (2007/2008 and 2010/2011) or increased (2008/2009 and 2009/2010) relative to his Premier League percentages while his medium length pass percentages fell every year. With the small sample sizes involved it’s hard to determine whether this was an intentional change in his game or whether it’s just random fluctuations caused by the small data sample.

As his passes became shorter they also became more conservative. In the same four seasons forward passes made up 22.11%, 20.67%, 20.11% and 18.13% of his short passes in the Champions League compared to 24.31%, 23.15%, 21.93% and 20.21% in the Premier League. His backwards pass percentages were higher in three of the four seasons, 2007/2008 was the only exception.

His deeper role is highlighted by the differences in his pass location percentages. In the Champions League passes in the attacking midfield area AM made up 19.55%, 16.46%, 14.61% and 15.11% of his passes when in the Premier League the corresponding figures were 22.90%, 24.47%, 21.15% and 16.77%; the gap between the 2008/2009 figures is particularly noteworthy and shows how different his roles in the respective competitions were that season. The same trend was visible in his passes in the attacking third (excluding corner kicks) which made up 11.97%, 9.20%, 9.74% and 11.65% of his total passes in the Champions League compared to 14.63%, 16.75%, 14.91% and 11.48% in the Premier League.

His passing accuracy was similar in both competitions; the only real difference was in his medium length passing which was slightly more accurate in the Champions League. This could be explained by him attempting fewer medium length passes in the Champions League and suggest that he preferred to either play it short and safe or play it long, whereas in the Premier League he would be slightly more willing to attempt a riskier medium length pass. The data is too limited and the sample too small to say for sure but it does seem like a plausible suggestion.

VIII. Jigsaw Falling Into Place

Part of the problem with the Carrick debate is that there is a larger debate going on at the same time about what the role of a central midfielder is in the modern game, and obviously your stance on that issue will have a large effect on how you evaluate Carrick. That is why one person can look at his passing and bemoan a lack of adventure and creativity while another applauds his ability to retain possession.

There is no doubt that Carrick’s game has changed over the years. His first three seasons at Manchester United saw steady improvement which peaked in 2008/2009 when he had his most productive season at the club. After a difficult 2009/2010 season he redefined himself in a deeper role and had his best defensive season to date. The question is whether that change made him a better player or not?

I don’t know. The data alone is too limited to answer questions of ‘better’ or ‘worse’ and the results of my eyeball test are inconclusive. I think it’s fair to say that defensively he is better now than he has ever been, but as mentioned earlier, whether that defensive improvement is enough to offset the drop in his offensive production is very difficult to say. My gut feeling is that in the context of the Manchester United team, surrounded by creative attacking players like Rooney, Nani, Giggs, Valencia and others, the marginal utility of the offensive value Carrick can provide is small enough that exchanging that offensive value for increased defensive value is a trade-off worth making. In other words even if he is in some sense a more limited player now than he was two years ago, his value to the team is greater. Of course in a different team, system or midfield dynamic that could all be reversed and the exact opposite may be true.

So the end result is that after all these words (I did warn you at the start that this was going to be long) we may be no closer to knowing for sure whether he is a better player now than he was a few years ago. Whatever your thoughts on him I hope this article has given you a better understanding of who Michael Carrick is, how he plays and how his game has changed during the five seasons he has been at Manchester United. Congratulations to everyone who made it all the way through to the end. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.


The 2006/2007 figures are missing the Sheffield United away match due to incomplete data. For the 2009/2010 figures I omitted the Fulham away, Wolves home and Wolfsburg away matches because he played those matches in central defence. The Champions League figures cover only 2007/2008-2010/2011 because unfortunately I couldn’t find data from 2006/2007.

Categories: Players

Graph: 2010/11 Premier League Shot Volume vs Efficiency

July 10, 2011 1 comment

Below is a graph of the goals per shot and shots per 90 minutes ratios of every player who took 40 or more shots in the 2010/11 Premier League season.

Data Sources: and

Categories: General

Shot Stopping vs Preventing Shots Revisited

June 16, 2011 1 comment

In a previous post I suggested that for a goalkeeper shot stopping is more valuable than preventing shots. By using some simple maths I showed that at real world save% levels (c. 60-80%) increasing save% by 1% is 1.5x to 4x more valuable than decreasing SoT/match by 1%. In this post I will build on that by looking at how often goalkeepers come to catch or punch crosses and how valuable those aerial contributions are using data from the first 16 rounds of the 2010/11 Bundesliga season. [1]

Goalkeepers face a lot of crosses every match. To be more specific, based on the data a goalkeeper faced on average 20.5 crosses per 90 minutes, or roughly one cross every four and a half minutes. Despite the high volume of crosses coming their way the average goalkeeper is passive in dealing with them, making only 1.24 catches and 0.83 punches per 90 minutes on average. Of all the crosses they face goalkeepers catch or punch only 10.1%. [2]

Of course some goalkeepers are more active in the air than others. The most active goalkeepers dealt with c. 15% of total crosses – Weidenfeller (15.2%) and Neuer (14.9%) – while the least active dealt with c. 6% – Sippel (6.4%) and Mondragon (6.2%). If we look specifically at the most dangerous crosses, the crosses into the six yard area, the average goalkeeper deals with only 32.8% of them and even Manuel Neuer, arguably the strongest goalkeeper in the world when it comes to aerial ability, deals with only 52.5%.

The relevant point is that even the most active goalkeepers deal with only a small minority of crosses. In addition to the low volume of aerial contributions there is also the question of how valuable each contribution actually is.

Let’s look at it from another angle and ask how valuable is a cross on average? If we simplify the question a little we could say that the value of a cross depends on three things:

1. What percentage of the time the cross finds a teammate
2. What percentage of the time the teammate is able to convert the cross into a shot on target
3. What percentage of the time the shot on target results in a goal

Intuitively it seems clear the value of the average cross is very low. The three-way parlay of finding a teammate, getting a shot on target and the shot resulting in a goal is very unlikely. According to a stat from @Orbinho via @11tegen11 in the Premier League the average cross leads to a goal only 1.6% of the time, so the value of a cross is 0.016 goals.

If the value of a cross is so low then the value of a goalkeeper dealing with that cross must also be low. If the average goalkeeper claims two crosses per 90 minutes and the most active goalkeepers claim just under three (Neuer 2.75), then the value of being elite at claiming crosses is c. 0.015 goals per match. Contrast this to shot stopping were the value of being an elite shot stopper is c. 0.2-0.3 goals per match.

In summary, crosses are a high volume low value action. Even the most active goalkeepers deal with only a small minority of total crosses, and each contribution has only a small value. The value of preventing shots by dealing with crosses pales in comparison to the value of shot stopping.

Something I didn’t address is the psychological benefit of having a goalkeeper who is good in the air on your team. I can’t speak from the perspective of a high level player but as a fan I know having a goalkeeper who is poor in the air fills me with fear and worry, and having a goalkeeper with a strong aerial presence has some positive value beyond simply the value they create by dealing with crosses. However I find it very difficult to believe that value could ever be enough that I would rather have an elite aerial contributor than an elite shot stopper.

I would also add that my view on the psychological benefit is that it comes not so much from dealing with a lot of crosses but more from simply not making any mistakes when you do deal with them. There are few things more frightening in football then seeing your goalkeeper flap at a cross, and that can have a negative effect on a team’s confidence. I don’t think a goalkeeper who mostly stays on his line but when he does deal with crosses does so confidently would have anywhere near the same kind of negative effect.

[1] I would have used the first 17 rounds to get the full first half of the season but the data for the 17th round was unavailable. The sample is also missing the match between Mainz and Stuttgart from the first round due to incomplete data.

[2] Goalkeepers do also drop some crosses (roughly 1 in every 20 matches on average according to the data) and sometimes come for a cross and miss entirely which is not reflected in the data (some keepers more than others of course) which would increase the actual value by a few tenths of a percent.

Categories: Theory

A Closer Look At Luka Modrić’s Passing

June 9, 2011 7 comments

While Gareth Bale may have won the PFA Player of the Year award and Rafael van der Vaart impressed with his goals and assists, for Tottenham fans it was the diminutive midfield maestro Luka Modrić who deserved the Fan’s Player of the Year award. Sir Alex Ferguson is a known admirer of the Croatian and many Manchester United fans see him as the ideal replacement for Paul Scholes, while Tottenham fans who know how important he is will be desperate to keep him at the club. In this post I take a closer look at his passing in the 2010/11 Premier League season using data gathered from the Guardian Chalkboards.

For this analysis I have considered only matches Modrić played in central midfield. Altogether the sample includes 2418 minutes played in 27 matches. 1338, or 55.3%, of those minutes were played in home matches, meaning his passing numbers may be slightly inflated from what they actually are. On the other hand he couldn’t have faced a more difficult range of teams. In the 27 matches in the sample he faced every team from the top nine in the final league table (excluding Tottenham of course) both home and away. He also faced teams 10-13 and 15 at home and teams 12 and 14 away. The only “easy” matches he played were Blackpool and West Ham at home and Birmingham and Blackpool away.

Modrić was the fourth most active passer in the league; only Danny Murphy, Michael Essien and Barry Ferguson attempted more passes than he did. In the matches he played in central midfield he attempted a total of 1715 passes in open play of which 1483 were successful. Per 90 minutes he completed 55 of 64 passes.

55.5% of his passes were played in the opponent’s half, 44.5% in his own. Of his passes in the opponent’s half 47.1% were forward passes, 34.2% sideways passes and 18.7% backwards passes. Of his passes in his own half 42.7% were forward passes, 38.9% sideways passes and 18.4% backwards passes.

His pass success rates in the opponent’s half for forward, sideways and backwards passes were 77.7%, 91.1% and 95.5% respectively. His pass success rates in his own half for forward, sideways and backwards passes were 75.2%, 96.3% and 97.9% respectively.

The accuracy of his different passes and the total number of successful/attempted passes of each kind are summarised in the following table.

Opp Half | Frwd Pass | 77.7% | 348/448
Opp Half | Side Pass | 91.1% | 296/325
Opp Half | Back Pass | 95.5% | 170/178
Own Half | Frwd Pass | 75.2% | 245/326
Own Half | Side Pass | 96.3% | 286/297
Own Half | Back Pass | 97.9% | 138/141

His lower forward pass success rate in his own half compared to the opponent’s half could be explained by the higher proportion of long passes he attempts. In the opponent’s half long passes make up 5.5% of his passes whereas in his own half they make up 8.5%. The long passes in his own half also tend to be more difficult forward passes whereas the long passes in the opponent’s half are slightly easier sideways passes. In the opponent’s half he completed 35/45 long passes, a success rate of 77.8%. In his own half he completed 30/57 long passes, a success rate of 52.6%. Overall he completed 2.42/3.80 long passes per 90 minutes.[1]

In 27 matches he attempted exactly 27 crosses with a success rate of 14.8%. Over the course of the season (including matches he played on the wings) he delivered 31 corners into the box, finding a teammate with 29.0% of them. His total cross success rate (including all crosses and corners) was 22.6%.

Over the course of the season he created 2.06 goal scoring chances per match (source: but only 2 of those 64 chances were converted into goals. Possible explanations for this could be that Tottenham need to buy some better strikers, that for some reason the kinds of chances he created weren’t particularly good goal scoring chances or it could just be bad luck. Without more detailed data it’s hard to know what the reason is.

Performance Against Top Sides

To see how he performed against the strongest opposition I looked at the matches he played against Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool. He played all five teams both home and away and played the full 90 minutes in each match, and for the most part his numbers are similar to his overall numbers.

On average he completed 51/59 passes of which 51.4% were in the opponent’s half. His ratios of forward, sideways and backwards passes and their corresponding success rates in the opponent’s half were 43.0% (79.2%), 39.1% (89.0%) and 17.9% (96.3%) respectively. The corresponding numbers for his passes in his own half were 37.9% (71.3%), 42.8% (94.3%) and 19.3% (100%). He also completed 2.4/4.4 long passes per 90 minutes.

As you can see he attempted slightly fewer passes and more of his passes were in his own half, he was slightly more conservative in his passes in terms of forward and sideways pass ratios and he attempted slightly more long passes, but for the most part the numbers stack up well which suggests he doesn’t wilt under pressure and is capable of performing at his usual level even against the best opposition.

[1] If you compare my long pass numbers to the numbers from for example you will see they differ quite a lot. I think this can be explained by me being a lot stricter in my definition of a long pass when gathering the data.

Categories: Players

A Closer Look At Mario Gómez’s Shooting

June 5, 2011 3 comments

Mario Gómez finished the 2010/11 season as the Bundesliga’s top scorer with 28 goals in 32 appearances. Per 90 minutes he scored 1.03 goals, or put another way he scored a goal every 87 minutes he was on the pitch. In the top European leagues only Cristiano Ronaldo (40) and Lionel Messi (31) scored more goals than he did (Antonio Di Natale equaled his tally of 28). In this post I take a closer look at his shooting and goal scoring using statistics gathered from the official Bundesliga website.

In total Gómez took 95 shots or 3.50 per 90 minutes. Of those 48 were on target, 26 off target, 16 were blocked, 3 hit the post and 2 hit the crossbar. The majority of his shots, 79, came from open play. 2 came from penalty kicks, 4 from counter attacks, 4 from corners, 1 from a throw-in and 5 from free kick crosses.


One of Gómez’s strengths is his ability to score goals with either foot or his head. With his right foot he scored 13 goals from 49 shots, with his left 9 goals from 24 shots and with his head 6 goals from 21 headers. His goals-to-shot ratios were very good with all three; 0.27 with his right foot, 0.37 with his left and 0.29 with his head.

Shot Locations

To see where his shots came from I divided the pitch into seven sections: Six Yard Left (orange), Six Yard Middle (green), Six Yard Right (purple), Penalty Left (yellow), Penalty Middle (blue), Penalty Right (red) and Outside Area.

Gómez is a real penalty box predator; only 5 of his shots came from outside the area. 51 of his shots (53 if you count the two penalty kicks) came from Penalty Middle and 19 from Six Yard Middle, so altogether 75.8% of his shots came from directly in front of the goal. His other shots came primarily from Penalty Left and Right, 9 and 7 respectively, with 1 each from Six Yard Left and Right.

Given most of his shots come from directly in front of the goal it’s no surprise most of his goals do as well. 14 of his goals were scored from Six Yard Middle and 11 from Penalty Middle. 2 were scored from Penalty Right and 1 from the penalty spot. His goals-to-shot ratios from Penalty Middle and Six Yard Middle were 0.22 and 0.74 respectively.

Shot Destinations

Gómez tends to favour his left side when aiming his shots. Of the 48 shots that were on target 18 were aimed at the left third of the goal, 23 at the center third and 7 at the right third. Of the shots that were off target to the side of the goal 10 went to the left and 6 to the right. He hit the left post twice and the right post once. In total he shot to his left more than twice as often as to his right; 38.0% to his left versus 17.7% to his right.

When choosing the height of his shot his range was more balanced. 27 (34.2%) of his shots were aimed high (the top third of the goal and everything off target above the goal), 19 (24.0%) to the middle third and wide on either side and 33 (41.8%) to the bottom third and wide on either side.

In the following table I have summarised the destinations of all of his shots on target. I split the goal into nine sectors – top left, center, right, middle left, center, right, bottom left, center, right – and listed how many shots ended up in each sector and how many goals those shots resulted in.

Destination | Shots | Goals
Top Left | 3 | 1
Top Center | 3 | 0
Top Right | 3 | 3
Middle Left | 3 | 3
Middle Center | 7 | 3
Middle Right | 1 | 0
Bottom Left | 12 | 7
Bottom Center | 13 | 8
Bottom Right | 3 | 3

The bottom sectors were the most productive for him with 18 of his 28 goals coming from there. The left side of the goal was more productive than the right with 11 goals scored to his left versus 6 to his right.

To any Bundesliga goalkeepers reading this I would offer a suggestion: the next time you come up against Gómez and he is about to shoot stay low and get ready to dive to your right. Whatever you do don’t dive to your left.

Finally, what would this post be without a video of Gómez in action, so here is a video of all his goals from this season, including not just his 28 Bundesliga goals but also his goals from other competitions. Thanks to jackmcrobert for the video.

Categories: Players

Manchester United Central Defenders By The Numbers

June 4, 2011 1 comment

In this post I will look at the performance of Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic in the 2010/11 Premier League season using data gathered from the Guardian Chalkboards, but before I do so I feel the need to make a few points.

1. These numbers are not meant as a definitive measure of a player’s performance. Defending is a very complex art and it would be silly to suggest that it could be summed up with a few simple metrics. As is always the case, these numbers should be used to supplement the eyeball test, and in cases where the results differ from your observations they should be used as a test – is there a reason the statistic could be wrong? is there a problem with how the data is gathered? is it possible the statistic is right and I’m wrong? – to make sure your observations are sound. I will touch on this point again later in the post.
2. The sample sizes used here are very small so everything should be approached with the appropriate level of skepticism. The total minutes included for each player is as follows: Vidic – 3118, Rio – 1710, Smalling – 1037, Evans – 871.
3. I include in these numbers only minutes played at center back which means Evans and Smalling are missing some minutes they played at left back and right back respectively.
4. I have omitted from the data all passes made in the last ten minutes of the Blackburn away match since it was a highly unusual situation and to include those passes would pollute the sample with data that is not a true reflection of a player’s game.
5. I haven’t included Wes Brown’s minutes because he only played one match at center back.


Evans was the most active passer, completing on average 43/50 passes per 90 minutes. Vidic and Rio were next with 38/47 and 37/46 passes respectively while Smalling brought up the rear with 30/40 passes. Note however that Evans played a disproportionately large 61.5% of his minutes in home matches, so you would expect his passing numbers to be slightly inflated. Smalling played 45.5% of his minutes at home so his actual numbers may be slightly higher than they seem. Vidic played 48.0% of his minutes at home while for Rio the corresponding number was 52.6%.

In the graph above I have separated each players passes into forward, sideways and backwards passes. As you would expect each player plays the majority of his passes forward. Vidic is the most frequent forward passer with 62.3% of his passes going forward. Rio is close behind with 61.5%, Evans is third with 56.8% and Smalling last with 52.8%. When it comes to sideways passes Smalling is clearly ahead of the rest with 37.3% of his passes directed sideways. Evans, Vidic and Rio are all close together with 26.9%, 24.5% and 26.5% respectively. Smalling plays the fewest backwards passes, 9.8%, while Evans plays the most, 16.3%. Rio and Vidic are close together with 12.0% and 13.1% respectively.

The success rates of each player’s forward, sideways and backwards passes are shown in the graph below:

In addition to attempting the fewest forward passes Smalling is also the least accurate forward passer, completing only 60.7% of his forward passes. Evans is the most accurate at 77.2% while Vidic and Rio are very close with 71.4% and 72.0% success rates respectively. When it comes to sideways passes Evans, Vidic and Rio are all close, completing 96.2%, 95.2% and 96.1% of their sideways passes. Smalling is slightly less accurate at 91.8%. Each player’s backwards pass success rates are very high, as you would expect and hope.

Needless to say these numbers don’t tell us everything. For example they tell us nothing about the ratio of long, medium and short passes a player played. They also tell us nothing about how difficult each attempted pass was, or about how much pressure the player was under when they attempted the pass. This is where combining these numbers with your own observations from the eyeball test becomes important.

Defensive Actions

The graph above shows each player’s successful aerial duels, successful tackles, interceptions, successful clearances (both headed and non-headed) and blocks per 90 minutes.

Smalling was the most active aerial dueler, attempting 5.2 aerial duels per 90 minutes and winning 3.8 or 73.3%. Rio was the least active, attempting 2.7 and winning 2.0 or 75.0%. Vidic won 2.9 out of 4.3 attempted aerial duels for a success rate of 68.4%. The weakest in the air was Evans who won only 2.3 of 4.6, a success rate of only 50%.

On the ground Vidic was both the most active and most successful tackler. He won 1.6 of 2.0 attempted tackles, a success rate of 78.9%. The second most successful was Rio who won 76.0% of his tackles, 1.0 of 1.3. Evans won 1.0 of 1.4, 71.4%. The weakest tackler was Smalling who won only 58.8% of his tackles, 0.9 of 1.5 attempted.

Evans made the most interceptions, 3.6 per 90 minutes. Vidic, Rio and Smalling won 2.9, 2.4 and 1.8 respectively.

Smalling made 5.1 successful clearances per 90 minutes out of 8.8 attempted, a success rate of 58.4%. 68.3% of his clearances were headed. Vidic was successful in 5.0 of 9.7 attempted clearances, or 51.6%. 60.8% of his clearances were headed. Evans attempted 8.0 clearances per 90 minutes but succeeded in only 3.4 of them, a success rate of 42.8%. 64.9% of his clearances were headed. Rio attempted the fewest clearances, 6.9, and was successful in 3.6 of them, or 51.9%. 54.2% of his clearances were headed, 45.8% non-headed.

Smalling made the most blocks, 0.87 per 90 minutes. Vidic, Evans and Rio made 0.84, 0.72 and 0.42 respectively.

Smalling won and conceded 0.95 and 0.87 free kicks per 90 minutes. The corresponding figures for Evans were 0.93 and 1.24 and for Vidic 1.01 and 1.15. Rio won 0.53 but conceded only 0.16 – just 3 free kicks conceded all season.

On The Usefulness Of These Numbers

Are these numbers meaningful? Can we use them to answer questions like who is the better player, who performed better over the course of the season? Take Evans and Rio. Evans completed more passes, won more aerial duels, won more tackles, made more interceptions, made the same number of clearances and made more blocks. The logical conclusion then is that Evans is the better player, yet anyone who has watched Manchester United play could tell you that Rio is by far the better player, and was also much better over the course of the season.

These numbers alone are not enough to make judgments of relative worth and value, but that doesn’t mean they are useless. Used in the right context and as a supplement to the eyeball test they can have value. For example, knowing that Evans won only 50% of his aerial duels is valuable because we then know this is an area he has to improve on. I don’t need the stat to know that Evans is poor in the air – I can see that with my own eyes – but having the stat reinforces the point.

Goals Allowed

If simply looking at the stats isn’t enough to tell us who is the better player we need to find other ways of answering the question. One way is to look at how many goals a team concedes when the player is playing. While this method also has obvious flaws and limitations I decided to include these graphs anyway. The first graph shows how many goals the team allowed per 90 minutes when each player was on the pitch. The second graph shows how many goals the team allowed per 90 minutes when a certain center back partnership played. Even though they do gel well with the eyeball test I wouldn’t put too much stock in these.

For reference the number of minutes played by each partnership is as follows: Vidic/Evans – 673, Vidic/Rio – 1594, Vidic/Smalling – 851. Evans/Rio, Evans/Smalling and Brown/Smalling also played together this season but the sample sizes were so small they were of no value and so I omitted them.

Categories: Players

2009 Champions League Final: A Tactical Review

May 18, 2011 1 comment

Starting formations

United started the match strongly and within two minutes Ronaldo had forced a good save from Valdes after Anderson won a free kick on the edge of Barcelona’s penalty area. They played with a high tempo, attacking with pace and directness, and by the eighth minute had already taken five shots while Barcelona had none. They also succeeded in forcing Barcelona to play uncharacteristic rushed long balls up the pitch which United’s defenders dealt with easily.

United’s plan was clear from the first few minutes. They were going to press aggressively high up the pitch and try to disrupt the supply from Barcelona’s defense to their midfield, rather than sit deep and try to disrupt the supply from Barcelona’s midfield to their attack. The focal point of this pressing was Ryan Giggs. When Barcelona’s central defenders had possession Giggs, together with Ronaldo, would close them down and chase the ball all the way back to Valdes. The result was that while on paper United had a midfield trio of Carrick, Anderson and Giggs to match Barcelona’s trio, in reality United’s shape was much closer to a 4-4-2 than a 4-3-3. During extended spells of Barcelona possession Giggs would drop slightly deeper and loosely mark Busquets but most of the time he stayed in his advanced position.

Giggs played a very advanced role and focused on pressing aggressively high up the pitch

United's first half formation

The result of this was that whenever Barcelona was able to bypass Giggs they had a 3v2 advantage in central midfield. While that in itself was worrying it was made even worse (from a United point of view) by Guardiola’s tactical masterstroke.

Barcelona began the match in their standard 4-1-2-3 formation with Henry on the left, Messi on the right and Eto’o through the middle, but in the fifth minute Guardiola switched Eto’o out to the right and Messi into the center. It was a small tactical change but it was one which set the tone for the rest of the match, and one which Sir Alex had no answer for.

Formations from the fifth minute onward

In the two seasons since the final, and especially this season, Messi playing as the central striker rather than out on the right wing has become a common occurrence but at the time it was a surprising switch. It wasn’t the first time Messi had played in a central role but primarily he was still considered a right winger/wing-forward, and United probably wouldn’t have expected the switch. Now instead of Evra marking Messi out on the wing (at the time it didn’t seem like an outlandish idea that one full back by himself could contain Messi) they had to deal with Messi in a central role, floating freely between United’s midfield and defense.

The switch caused United several problems. Firstly it left Vidic and Ferdinand with no one to mark, a situation they probably wouldn’t have expected going into the match. Secondly, and more importantly, considering Giggs was playing in such an advanced role it effectively gave Barcelona a 4v2 advantage in central midfield. Even when Giggs dropped deeper to mark Busquets Barcelona still had a 3v2 advantage with Messi, Xavi and Iniesta against Carrick and Anderson, and they used this advantage to great effect. Xavi, Iniesta and Messi completed 66, 56 and 43 passes respectively, 165 in total which accounted for 43% of Barcelona’s passes. The corresponding numbers for United’s midfield “trio” were 93 completed which accounted for 26% of United’s passes. On the flip side while Barcelona’s central defenders accounted for 15% of Barcelona’s passes, United’s central defenders accounted for 29% of theirs. While the overall ball possession stats were roughly even, 51% in favour of Barcelona, it’s clear it was Barcelona who were passing the ball in the areas of the pitch where they could actually hurt the other team.

Carrick received a lot of criticism for his performance in the final, and if rumours are to be believed even Sir Alex placed a large portion of the blame for the loss on Carrick’s shoulders. While he certainly didn’t play well, to me much of the criticism seems excessively harsh. The tactical decisions of both managers left Carrick in an impossible bind. If he dropped deep to mark Messi he left Anderson alone against Xavi and Iniesta. If on the other hand he joined Anderson and challenged Xavi and Iniesta he left Messi free to roam. No matter what he did it was going to be a losing situation for United. In the end he didn’t fully commit to either choice and not only did Xavi and Iniesta control the midfield but Messi was allowed to roam free, constantly finding himself in space between the midfield and defense.

Messi consistently found himself in acres of space between United's midfield and defense

Sir Alex needed to react and find a way to deny Messi time and space in between United’s midfield and defense. Eto’o and Henry were constantly threatening runs in behind United’s back four so having Ferdinand or Vidic follow Messi into midfield would have been too risky. While that may limit Messi’s effectiveness it leaves the back three too vulnerable to simple runs in behind the defense. The obvious choice then would have been to drop Giggs into a deeper role alongside Anderson, essentially taking up Carrick’s place while Carrick drops even deeper to mark Messi. While that leaves Busquets free, if the choice is between leaving Messi free and leaving Busquets free, well that’s no choice at all.

United's midfield formation left Carrick and Anderson outnumbered

Dropping Giggs deeper would have helped

Sir Alex acknowledged after the match that he got his tactics wrong and only he will know why he didn’t react when he saw what was happening. United’s high pressing approach wasn’t effective in limiting the supply to Barcelona’s midfield, and when Barcelona’s midfield received the ball they consistently found themselves in 3v2 or 4v2 situations. Whether making a change would have had any effect on the result is an altogether different question, but it would at least have made it more difficult for Barcelona to control the match.

When the change did come it came in the form of a halftime substitution. Anderson made way for Tevez and while the Argentinean brought some more energy and attacking thrust it did nothing to address the real problem of Barcelona’s midfield dominance and Messi’s free role and ultimately had little influence on the match. Giggs moved into a deeper role alongside Carrick, Park and Rooney switched wings and Tevez played up top with Ronaldo, but United’s attacking play didn’t change. As they had done in the first half as soon as they won the ball they looked to play long diagonal balls out to the wide areas, bypassing Barcelona’s midfield and looking to exploit their weaknesses in the full back positions, but apart from a few instances when Rooney exploited the space behind Sylvinho and got into good crossing positions United struggled to get the ball into Barcelona’s penalty area, and the times they did Barcelona dealt with the situations relatively easily. Pique in particular had an excellent match at the heart of Barcelona’s defense.

Sir Alex brought Berbatov on for Park in what was by now a 4-2-4 system and unsurprisingly Barcelona were able to carve through United’s midfield at will. The second goal came in the 70th minute when Lionel Messi capped off his excellent night by heading home a Xavi cross. United fought on till the end but Barcelona defended well and the United comeback never materialised.

In a match of two decisive tactical decisions Guardiola outfoxed his opposite number just like his players outperformed theirs. Manchester United will feel disappointed they didn’t perform to the best of their ability and when the two sides meet again on the 28th of May at Wembley they will be desperate for revenge. It remains to be seen whether they have learned from their mistakes of two years ago.

Categories: Tactics