Analytics: Asymmetry vs. symmetry in team shape


Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski. (Kerstin Joensson/AP)

The most celebrated soccer players in the world do the least defending.

Balance is a vital concept in soccer, and it’s found in many forms. Managers strive for balance within their team’s structure and formations, and players strive for balance within their own physical makeup and skill sets. This search for balance is at the heart of the sport.

When putting out a team a manager must think about the complimentary attributes of the players that make up their squad in order to address the formation properly. In a purely formational sense, balance is sought to limit weaknesses in team shape, create maximum predictability in a fairly unpredictable setting and to easily define the roles of players.

If complimentary pieces, or players, are fit together in sections of the field then it will be easier to attack in possession and defend out of possession if the players’ attributes strengthen their teammates’. Once together, the predictability of roles within a system creates easier repeatability. A simple recipe for success in soccer is when a good system is easy to repeat—much harder said than done.

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Also, players seek balance in their abilities to either “round out their game” (become a better all around player), or to accentuate other attributes. Obviously, a player with more capability (skills) in many areas (sets) is better than a player with less capability in limited areas. If a player understands that they are exceptional in one area, they might attempt to improve other areas of their game to limit mistakes in said exceptional area or to allow themselves to use said exceptional area more.

With an understanding of balance and the coveting of it, there are a few interesting questions. One of many is: Are there players that have limited skill-sets which are extraordinary that transcend the idea of balance?

The obvious answer is yes; look at defenders. Centre backs aren’t expected to maraud forward and contribute offensively. Although it is seen as a bonus, this is well beyond the positional requirement and the attribute is often to the detriment of the centre back.

But, every player on the pitch is expected to defend at some point and there are no exceptions. Even players high up the pitch have defensive responsibilities in order to make the opposition’s possession more predictable or to simply harass opposing defenders into making rushed decisions which potentially lead to turnovers.

Yet, some players seem to transcend even this expectation. There are players who are so offensively valuable, that they are essentially given free rein to perform how they wish on the defensive side of the ball as long as they produce at the offensive end.

Domestic league TotalDefAct (total defensive actions) x G+A (goals + assist) per 90 minutes

Given publicly available statistics, an understood way to measure defensive contribution is to sum tackles interceptions, challenges (tackled attempted) and fouls.

In their domestic league there are certain players that obviously contribute a great deal offensively, by scoring and assisting goals, but that do a negligible amount of defending. These are the players who are deemed able to transcend such defending expectations, and just do what they do best.

As represented in the graph, as we ascend the “G+A” axis while only slightly progressing down the “TotalDefAct” axis, some names stand out: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Neymar, Robert Lewandowski, Gareth Bale and Angel Di Maria.

It makes sense, that a forward or an advanced midfielder would do less defending than a defender or defensive midfielder. Fine. But if we take a look at players who contribute to both categories, some names stand out as well: Kevin De Bruyne, Jaimes Rodriguez, Miralem Pjanic, Juan Cuadrado, David Silva and even Javier Hernandez.

The argument is that a team cannot be balanced if there are certain players, specifically midfielders, who play in such a lopsided manner. Therefore structural problems will exist in a team’s shape, and will likely get exposed for such errors. Balance can be achieved if compensation is applied properly, but these concepts get more complicated within a team’s shape.

If a winger’s propensity is to stay high up the pitch, to consistently attempt to attack the opposition’s defence in advantageous areas, then there must be compensatory strategy to mitigate the exposure defensively.

Usually a centre midfielder playing on the same side of the pitch will be more conservative, and will have a profound tilt towards that side in order to cover the opposing wing midfielder. Sometimes, an outside back will play conservatively as well to contribute to filling the vacated gap.

Champions League TotalDefAct (total defensive actions) x G+A (goals + assists) per 90 minutes

In the UEFA Champions League group stage the sample size is too small to draw analytic conclusions about team or player performance, but some of the names still show up in similar positions to the domestic table. Players such as Robert Lewandowski, Cristiano Ronaldo, Theo Walcott, and Luis Suarez all have drastically low TotDefAct quantities, but their G+A quantities fluctuate.

The traditionally more dominant teams in Europe tend to have smaller formation and style fluctuations from their domestic leagues to the Champions League, especially in the group stage, and therefore these figures should strike some correlation as the tournament progresses.

Managers must evaluate the value of the offensive production of some players in comparison to their detraction to the team’s defensive effort with other players’ mitigation.

Some players, either because of their extraordinary offensively value individually or the circumstantially having other players to compensate for their tendencies, have the green light to march forward and don’t look back.

These are the glamour players.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored

Coleman Larned is soccer analytics writer based in Antwerp, Belgium. Follow him on Twitter

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