Progressing from the back
Moving on from defence, we’ll look at moving out from defence. Measures like this can be tough to look at. Players on possession-based sides will rack up huge numbers, which isn’t always reflective of how progressive they are. They can be passive and collect large figures. It’s worse because the figures available have no context. A lot of progressive pass models look at if a player moves it further than it’s been in the last x passes. This should do a better job of identifying players who move their team up the pitch. Those who are more active in their efforts to progress and force the issue. It’s hard to replicate something like this with the figures available
I tried to balance efficiency and activity by looking at the proportion of passes that are accurate and progressive. It doesn’t escape the problems mentioned. I doubt it even minimises them. But it’s an attempt to try and balance out the difference in how often a player has the ball vs what they do with it. The below graph is meant to be centre-backs, but with the way I’ve filtered it, it’s players who have appeared at centre-back. Centre-back may not be their main position but they’re still here. Despite that, no one steals the attention from María ‘Mapi’ León.
I’ve liked Mapi and her international teammate Irene Paredes when watching them for Spain. Her performances at international level and the strength of Barcelona make it little surprise to see her dominate here. It’s also fun to see that she often takes corners for her side. I can’t imagine there are many centre-backs who takes their team’s corners. You could argue it’s testament to her technical ability. Especially with Barcelona not short of other technical players who could take corners.
Most of the players who have strong numbers for progressing from the back are Spanish, which may come as a result of missing data. Laia Balleste has more minutes in the advanced search than on her individual page, as do some other players. Then, removing the top clubs, Eibar duo Puyi and Queralt Gómez are the top two for the percentage of passes that successfully move the ball into the final third. But, looking at their pass maps, they’re not that accurate in going forward. It may be that they benefit from not going side-to-side as often as other players/clubs do. Puyi sends 70.4% of her attempted passes forward for example. This is where looking at things the way I am can fall down a bit. Those who go forward a lot, even with a not so great completion, will shine. Whereas players on possession sides may make more passes side-to-side as they try and draw a low-block out. It’s not to say these players can’t be good at bringing the ball out of defence, but that the figures may look somewhat inflated.
It’s also a drawback of looking at things in such a broad way. With things like this, it often feels the most important thing is knowing what you’re looking for and looking at. The type of defender you want, the type of style they play and what the metric you’re looking at is actually measuring. The below graph helps show some of the differences. Those with the most accurate progressive passes per 90 don’t attempt to go forward as often. Puyi goes forward a huge amount. But that’s not a huge surprise. Eibar play the 2nd highest percentage of long balls in Spain for the games in the sample. It’s likely they’re not bothered about passing around at the back but instead look to get the ball forward quickly.
It’s an annoying thing to try and balance. Looking at pure figures can exaggerate those who do a lot. If you make a lot of passes it’s not surprising if you can make a lot of progressive ones. But percentages can exaggerate those who don’t perform as many actions. Then, with so much depending on not only the team’s style but also the options available to the passer, you do start thinking what’s the point of looking at any of this anyway. I wanted to look at percentages as a way to try and look for players who try and be progressive more often, but it doesn’t look like it went to plan.
Going back to pure figures, the below graph shows progressive passes attempted and the completion rate. Mapi and Renard are the leaders again, which should come as little to no surprise at this point. Neither should Irene Paredes’ (Hernandez’s) position. PSG also have the 23-year-old duo Alana Cook and Paulina Dudek in great positions. Cook has the best accuracy in the sample. 35-year-old Lena Goeßling is also in a great position.
Leah Williamson from Arsenal attempts a lot but with less accuracy than a lot of those from other elite clubs. Again, there’s some interesting changes (at least if they last in the data until the end of the season) that I might look into at a later date. Some of Williamson’s passes seem to have altered from previous seasons. More a style shift than a performance one. Arsenal as a team have some figures that alter their identity a bit. Williamson does tend to have an eye for a bit of a killer pass. Others might too, but I’ve seen more of Williamson. If she can play a teammate in on goal or try a difficult pass to turn the opposition, she often doesn’t hesitate.
It’s always fun seeing which players are accurate when moving the ball forward, even if they’re not as active. Youngsters Hannah Godfrey (Tottenham) and Oihane Hernández (Athletic) both occupy this kind of position on the left. Though the latter has spent more time at full-back in the data available.
Taking out players from some of the top clubs (top three in England, top two in France and Germany, Barcelona and Juventus) gives the following graph.
Spanish duo Núria Mendoza (Real Sociedad) and Laia Aleixandri (Atlético Madrid) occupy the top right corner either side of Rebecca Knaak from Freiburg. All three are still quite young or just entering their peak years, Mendoza was born in ’95, Knaak ’96 and Aleixandri ’00. Roma’s Elena Linari has the best accuracy with a still high number of attempts. Though she did only join Roma in January so there isn’t a big sample for her.
Moving on to full-backs, there are three left-backs that have been huge sources of progression for their sides this season. Melanie Serrano from Barcelona, Carolin Simon from Bayern Munich and Lisa Boattin from Juventus.
Serrano and Simon look a bit more conventional than Boattin in the figures. They’re also among the leading full-backs for attempted crosses per 90. Simon is first and Serrano third, with Barcelona teammate Ana-Maria Crnogorčević second. Boattin profiles a bit different. She has huge passing figures but pretty average crossing ones.
From the few clips I watched, she looks more like she’ll help push the ball upfield than go bursting past the winger on the overlap. Though this could be down to Juventus’ style more than her own.
What made her stand out apart from the figures was some of her pass maps. When looking through them there were more inwards passes or switches than I expected. It looks like something Juventus want to do. In the clips I watched from the 4-0 win against Bari (which wasn’t the best game to watch as Bari are bottom, but Boattin had a lot of actions) there were a few occasions when Boattin had the ball deep and had a winger wide, a midfielder in the channel and a forward dropping. She’d look to push it into the midfielder or longer to the forward rather than going down the flank or offering width herself. There were times when the winger moved inwards and Boattin made the run down the line, either as an overlapping option or offering a decoy to drag a defender and allow the winger to move inward, but these were less frequent to her getting the ball deeper and looking to move it upfield.
20-year-old Esme Morgan also stands out above. She’s played all along the backline for Manchester City this season and has been impressive. She often looks at ease on the ball and able to make the most of space in front of her. I wrote about her at the start of the season (I didn’t publish it) and watched lots of clips from her loan spell at Everton for it. She’s been at City and involved with the England youth teams for a while, so it’s not a bold statement to make, but she looks a huge talent. It’ll be interesting to see what position she finds herself in long-term. Whether she goes back to centre-back or continues as a full-back.
21-year-old Lucía Rodríguez has made the most progressive passes per 90 after removing the top clubs. I only watched a few clips of the Real Sociedad defender, but she looks interesting. A lot of the long passes were hopeful balls up the flank, but she showed at other points that she has strong technique. Like Boattin, there quite a few switches or balls into the channel. She also doesn’t play a lot of crosses. But, she got forward against Deportivo and offered a threat from wide. From her six passes into the box (which includes crosses) she created three shots. Two of the crosses were interesting because of the way she struck the ball. Rather than going more with the inside of her foot, she went closer to the laces, hitting them in driven and quite flat. It looked like a good technique, though the effectiveness is questionable. They created opportunities, but didn’t curl into the striker’s path like typical crosses, which can make it easier to meet. She’s only 21-years-old, playing for a 4th placed La Real side and has some strong figures, so looks like one to keep an eye on.
WyScout has a metric I like the idea of called accelerations. I’m not sure if it’s computed or more subjective, but it’s defined as “a run with the ball with a significant speed up” and must be over 10m. It’s an idea I like because players can be passive picking up progressive runs or carries. If a team faces little pressure on the ball, a defender can move 10m upfield with little resistance. It could be useful for assessing full-backs. If they receive the ball wide with some space to run into, it could help identify the ones more likely to burst into that space.
The graph below shows accurate progressive passes and accelerations. At the bottom right there are some players who have spent time at centre-back as well as full-back. Those that haven’t are perhaps more interesting. Barcelona duo Melanie Serrano and Marta Torrejón shine for passes but not so much for accelerations. The players mentioned before (Boattin, Rodriguez, Simon and Morgan) are all down in that bottom corner too. AC Milan’s Valentina Bergamaschi leads the way for accelerations, while Lucy Bronze (Man City) and Sakina Karchaoui (Lyon) look the two who offer both at a strong rate. Both Camilla Küver and Verena Aschauer have strong figures too. Both play for Frankurt and Küver is only 17-years-old, though she’s also only played a small number of minutes.
Normalising the figures between zero and one, then adding them together to get an idea of who does both has Karchaoui and Bronze as the top two. Then it’s Küver, then Bergamaschi and Stokes, the two who lead for accelerations per 90.
Taking out the top teams gives the below graph.
Bundesliga trio Küver, Aschauer and Hoffenheim’s Maximiliane Rall occupy the top right now. 22-year-old Beatrice Merlo from Inter Milan and 20-year-old Olga Carmona from Real Madrid also aren’t miles away. @OmVAsports wrote about Carmona’s performance against Madrid CFF and Madrid’s team as a whole, which features Carmona too. She’s a winger playing left-back, but looks to have become a useful asset going forward from deep for Madrid.
For a final bit of fun before moving on, I thought I’d look at which players have the most similar output (across all metrics) as Lucy Bronze. The top five are: Maximiliane Rall (Hoffenheim), Marta Corredera (Real Madrid), Lisa Boattin (Juventus), Kylie Strom (Atlético Madrid) and Hanna Glas (Bayern Munich). 7th on the list and 1st in the WSL is 21-year-old Ona Battle, who’s had a great debut season at Manchester United.
A quick summary again:
- Looking for players who progress from deep can be frustrating. It can start to feel pointless.
- For centre-backs, it’s players from the big-hitters that stand out most. But Mapi Leon often stands out from them too. Wendie Renard is the only player who sometimes comes close.
- Paulina Dudek and Irene Hernandez look a good progressive duo for PSG. Alana Cook has also put forward some strong figures, with the best progressive pass accuracy in the sample.
- Leah Williamson attempts a lot, especially long balls, but her completion rate isn’t as high as those from the likes of Lyon, PSG or Barcelona. This ties in with something I’ve been meaning to look into, which I might write about at the end of the season.
- Hannah Godfrey (Tottenham) and Oihane Hernández (Athletic) are both accurate when progressive but don’t attempt a lot
- Removing the elite clubs (I took a while to decide what to do with Atlético Madrid here but left them in) 20-year-old Laia Aleixandri (Atlético Madrid) shines with Núria Mendoza (Real Sociedad) and Rebecca Knaak (Freiburg).
- I didn’t mention her before, but 22-year-old Martina Lenzini from Sassuolo consistently popped up when looking at most metrics. She had a good quantity and completion for progressive passes, but the completion dropped somewhat when looking at completion of passes into the final third.
- For full-backs, both Carolin Simon (Bayern Munich) and Lisa Boattin (Juventus) put up huge progressive pass figures, but not accelerations. Boattin also doesn’t play a huge number of crosses, while Simon does.
- Barcelona’s full-backs also have great figures for passing, but not accelerations. Should say this is more about style than anything though and I’m not saying it as a drawback or negative.
- 21-year-old Lucía Rodríguez from Real Sociedad is the player with the most progressive passes outside the top clubs.
- Combining accelerations and progressive passes sees Lucy Bronze (Manchester City) and Sakina Karchaoui (Lyon) shine most.
- Frankfurt duo Camilla Küver and Verena Aschauer also shine for the above. Küver’s only 17-years-old, though her figures do come from a small sample.
- Olga Carmona (Real Madrid), Maximiliane Rall (Hoffenheim) and Beatrice Merlo (Inter Milan) are three more full-backs who look to have strong figures for progressing from deep.