Scientists Use Passing Data to Explain Barcelona’s Prowess

Part of the problem with the new ability to track so much sports data revolves around what to actually do with it. Which datasets are the wheat, which are the chaff? Even baseball, a sport that has been collecting ostensibly the same numbers for a century, still has dissension in the ranks when it comes to deciding which numbers actually matter. Add in the element of team play (multiple players passing and shooting at once), and it becomes even more difficult for sports like basketball and hockey. Soccer runs into the same trouble as well, though a group called the Qatar Computing Research Institute thinks they may have made some progress.

The group is using a technique called network theory to dissect passing patterns of all the major clubs. As it happens, many of the clubs use the same handful of styles or variations thereof. Barcelona, however, is using a totally different strategy. Known as tiki-taka, the approach focuses on fast, short passes and fast-paced play instead of more traditional, formation-based strategies.

The idea of passing analytics is not new to the world of soccer. There have been studies about field positioning, pass length, etc. But the institute’s new approach looks relational passing — how players are passing to each other — to see if patterns emerge. This is where Barcelona throws everyone else a curve. You can read a breakdown here, and the full study here.

This is a great example of the kind of data we thought un-trackable just a few years ago being brought to light. We always had numbers about goals and penalties and maybe even tackles, but data about styles, techniques and actual gameplay is on a whole other level. And as tracking and computing get better, there should be more research like this coming. What the Qatar Computing Research Institute found is impressive, but it’s most likely a mere sampling of what’s to come.

(Header photo via Börkur Sigurbjörnsson)

David G. Temple is the Managing Editor of TechGraphs and a contributor to FanGraphs, NotGraphs and The Hardball Times. He hosts the award-eligible podcast Stealing Home. Dayn Perry once called him a "Bible Made of Lasers." Follow him on Twitter @davidgtemple.

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