The general consensus across the greater football community is
that the Spanish are king when it comes to possession oriented
football. When we consider Barcelona and the Spanish national side,
this is undisputed. But, do these truly exceptional squads unfairly
skew our perception of the Spanish football as a whole? Most
non-Spanish fans have a woefully incomplete view of La Liga. Since
international fans have considerably more access to Barcelona and
Read Madrid in comparison to the other La Liga clubs, have we
developed a bias?
It seems that we have.
Using Opta's passing data from the 2011-2012 EPL and La Liga
seasons, we have developed a robust passing model that estimates
the likelihood of each individual pass being completed
successfully. If the Spanish are indeed kings of possession
football, we should see Spanish squads attempting high efficiency
passes at a much higher rate than their competitors.
This is a comparison of La Liga and the English Premier League by
the type of passes that they generally attempt.
The x-axis measures the likelihood of a pass being completed.
For example, a pass in the 0.90 section has, by my estimation,
between a 90 and 95 percent chance of being completed. The y-axis
is the total number of passes that belong in that particular
The results here are contrary to my - and likely most people's -
general preconception. The English Premier League actually had more
high-efficiency passes attempted in 2011-2012 than La Liga.
But, like most football statistics that roll-up across many
different teams, this doesn't tell the whole story.
This is a team-by-team breakdown of every 2011-2012 EPL and La
Liga club by their "strong pass" to "weak pass" ratio. To clarify,
"strong" passes are classified as passes that are estimated to have
more than a 50 percent chance of completing. Conversely, "weak"
passes are passes that have less than a 50 percent chance of
completing. It's important to articulate that classifying a "weak"
pass does not by any means suggest that that attempting that pass
is detrimental to a team - in fact, practically every cross falls
into this designation. Instead, these two contrived descriptors are
simply used to give us a better understanding of team style.
A good rule of thumb in football analysis is that any graph that
plots Barcelona and Stoke City at opposite ends of the spectrum is
probably a good one. And, in this case, it makes a ton of intuitive
sense as well.
Curiously, outside of Barcelona and Real Madrid, the rest of the
high-efficiency teams are English clubs. In fact, Swansea City's
ratio almost perfectly matches that of Real Madrid.
A majority of Spanish clubs reside just beyond this top English
tier, suggesting that the league is generally more possession
oriented - but not a significantly large amount more than the
average English EPL side. On the tail end for the Spanish is the
club CA Osasuna who's playing style most closely resembles Aston
While we can't find any Spanish equivalents to Stoke, we shouldn't
be so fast to condemn this particular style of play. While Stoke
does attempt a higher percentage of "weak" passes than any other
squad in these two top leagues, they also complete these attempts
at an alarming rate.
In fact, we can build similar graphs to show the trends of
particular players to glean a better understanding of their
particular roles in their team's system. Ryan Shawcross is one of
Stoke City's defenders. Shawcross, like Stoke as a whole, attempts
"weak" passes at an exceptionally high rate. While this isn't
surprising, this is not the case for every Stoke player.
Steven N'Zonzi, who started 35 EPL games in Stoke's midfield
this season, has an entirely different distribution. N'Zonzi
attempts a much higher amount of "strong" passes than the average
player in either the EPL or La Liga. Is this what you would have
expected from a Stoke player? Given their reputation of employing a
very direct style of play? Clearly, it's important not just to look
at passing trends on a team-wide scale since there can be such
tremendous deviation across players on the same squad.
By wading a bit deeper into the stats behind La Liga's
pass-centric mentality and Stoke's long ball infatuation, we gain
the appreciation that some of our common talking points are a bit
more nuanced that we previously expected.