Monday 12 November 2012

The Five Best Passes During Week 4 of the Europa League.

Passes are the life blood of a football match. The vast majority of them are completed and serve to either maintain possession before a more ambitious assault is unleashed on the opposing goal or to protect a position of strength and prevent the opposition from launching an attack of their own. But it is the spectacular and ambitiously successful passes that grab most of the headlines, especially if they result in a goal scoring  chance. Often the player who provides the chance shares with the scorer a substantial amount of the credit for a goal.

The amount of difficulty involved in completing a pass is dependent on many variables. Defensive pressure on both the passer and the intended target will partly determine whether or not a pass can be easily completed, as will the area of the pitch from where the pass originates and the intended destination. Players can be expected to complete the majority of passes they attempt deep in their own half, partly through lack of intensive opponent pressure and through prudent choices of intended recipients.

The longer the distance of a pass and the deeper into opposition territory and more central the target, then the more difficult it is to complete the pass. By pooling large numbers of passes from different areas of the pitch and recording success rates for these passes, we can begin to develop a model to predict how likely an average passer would be to complete a particular, individual pass.

Passes are therefore neither created equally, either in their difficulty of execution or in their influence on the outcome of a match. However, in this season's UEFA Europa League a simple five yard pass between defenders as they run time off the clock is as valuable as a 40 yard point pointed through ball to open the scoring. Please visit to read about the initiative to provide a day of schooling for young people, worldwide.

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To support the program, I've used my passing model described here to quantify the five most difficult passes that led directly to goals during week four of the Europa League. As is traditional I'll list the five in reverse order.

Number 5, Diego Capel, Sporting Lisbon (vs Genk).

Capel's assist was typical of the kind of low percentage pass that can bring high rewards. The penalty area is quite naturally well defended and to create an inviting chance often requires pin point accuracy to drop the ball close enough to the six yard box to increase the chances of a goal, but not close enough to invite the keeper to claim an easy catch. Breaking down the right wing, he chose to cut back onto his left foot to provide an inswinging far post cross for van Wolfswinkle. That gave him more margin for error in finding his striker, but required his team mate to put most of the power onto the header. An excellent fast counter attacking goal from a team who were down to ten men at the time.

Number 4. Szabolcs Huszti. Hannover (vs Helsingborgs). 

A constant feature of difficult passes is that they are aimed into the penalty area from distance and Huszti's  lofted outswinging delivery was a perfect example of the art. The aerial route reduces the number of potential defensive interventions, but increases the amount of time defenders and keepers have to converge on the ball....unless the ball is hit with pace. The harder the ball is hit, the less accurate it becomes, but Huszti executed direction and pace to perfection.

Number 3. Fininho. Metalist Kharkiv (vs Rosenborg) .

Fininho started this goal build up with a neat nutmeg out on the left wing. This was the longest crossfield ball so far, but it was hit wingwards and towards the right hand edge of the box, an area that was likely to be less populated by defenders than the heart of the penalty box. It was partly an attempted assist and partly a ball designed to change the point of the attack. Taison had stayed wide to accept the pass and the defense drifted out to meet him. However, instead of controlling the ball, he smashed an unstoppable shot high into the net from an narrowing angle. Not quite the most difficult pass on show on Thursday, but by some way the most unlikely goal.

Number 2. Gareth Bale. Tottenham Hotspur (vs Maribor).

Another excellent left footed delivery from the flanks. Bale took advantage of a momentary stumble by the Maribor defender. But he still had to curl the ball around his desperate, attempted recovery and find Defoe's feet, central to the goal and at the edge of the six yard box with great accuracy. The pace of the ball also meant that Defoe merely had to steer the ball into his choice of corners with the keeper tempted, but powerless to intervene.

The Top Five Passes from Europa League, Week Four.

Team. Minute. Scorer. Passer. Chance Of Pass Being Completed. Chance Of Pass Being Converted.
Club Brugge. 14 Trickovski. Donk. 22% 16%
Tottenham. 22 Defoe. Bale. 35% 18%
Metalist Kharkiv. 4 Taison. Fininho. 35% 2%
Hannover. 3 Diouf. Huszti. 38% 21%
Sporting Lisbon. 64  Wolfswinkle. Capel. 39% 11%

Drum roll....

Number 1. Ryan Donk. Club Brugge (vs Newcastle).

The wide margin winner for the pass of the round. Pass completion is made easier if the recipient can create a passing angle for the passer, either through movement or by inviting the pass to be made into space. Diagonal running makes for an easier pass and conversely passing when the passer, defender and striker are almost perfectly in line significantly increases the tariff.

Donk had 10 Newcastle players in front of him, Trickovski deep and a defender directly in line when he attempted a pass resembling a desperation Hail Mary from the NFL. His margin for error was tiny. Under hit the ball and a defensive clearance was an almost certainty, over hit the pass and the keeper/sweeper came into play.

The ball had to land perfectly in stride to be collected by Trickovski's vertical run, but the execution was precise and the rewards were large when the striker arrived at the edge of the box, in a central position with the Newcastle defence all behind him, save for an exposed keeper, who he duly beat.

An outstanding pass, a fine finish and a worthy winner.

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