Carry on dribbling

Article by Tom Worville

The Opta definition of a dribble measures a player taking on another player. What it does not tell us is how a player progresses the ball when in possession and how that player can move the ball forward before a pass, cross or shot, for example.

Dribbles can of course provide some insight, but due to the relatively few actions that happen per game (on average Premier League teams attempted 17.7 dribbles per 90 last season) it cannot tell us everything.

For this reason, I propose a metric – part-inspired from this analysis from Michael Caley on ESPNFC – that can help us better understand how frequently and how well a player can travel with the ball at his feet. A carry can be described as the following:

The distance and direction travelled by a player while in possession of the ball between actions.

I’ve used Lionel Messi’s goal against Athletic Bilbao in the 2015 Copa del Rey final as an example.

Messi collects the ball at ‘Carry #1’ and progresses with it until the ‘Shot’ at the end. The move is broken into several carries, due to Messi taking on multiple players in this chain of events.

In this example, Messi completes four dribbles, as noted by the dots on the chart. These also indicate the start of a new carry. By analysing each carry individually instead of just looking at where Messi starts and finishes with the ball, we get a better insight into the route he took with the ball (specifically the direction and distance travelled) and where those actions took place.

From this we can calculate two different carry distances. The first is what I will refer to as carry distance, which measures the raw distance a player moves with the ball. The second is direct carry distance, which measures how far a player progresses the ball towards goal, which is a good proxy for directness.

I’ll share a few examples on how this metric can be applied and help influence tactical decisions.

Leicester City and forcing the carry

Last year’s Leicester City embodied the antithesis of possession-based football – but what did they look like from a carries perspective?

Considering only carries that ended in a pass, Leicester ranked 20th in the league for carry distance. This holds even when possession adjusting (as if the team had 50% possession), so this already looks like a feature of their play. The league average carry distance leading into a pass was 2.9 metres in 2015/16, however for Leicester City it was only 2.12 metres.

The plot below shows the average carry distance for Leicester’s preferred 11 last year. It also displays the start and end locations of these carries, with the circle indicating the start.

Riyad Mahrez led the team in carry distance, moving 3.31 metres per carry that resulted in a pass. As you can see from the plot above, he often looks to cut inside when on the ball moving directly towards goal. This resulted in a total carry distance per touch of 2.8 metres, good enough for 25th best in the league.  When ranking how high up the pitch players are making carries, Mahrez can be found in an impressive15th place (for players averaging a carry per touch over 2.5m).

Influencing the approach

Armed with the knowledge that Leicester players are unlikely to travel with the ball, the opponent can look to ensure distribution options are limited for the player in possession, drawing him into an action with which he is not familiar, uncomfortable doing or contradicts the team’s tactical strategy.

Bournemouth and enabling Jordon Ibe

Jordon Ibe’s move to the south coast could turn out to be very profitable for Ibe (advancing his career), Bournemouth (improved performance) and Liverpool (potential to buy back a better player) if Eddie Howe can nurture and refine his talents on the ball.

In 2015/16, Ibe sat 4th in the Premier League for direct carry distance per touch, meaning that every time he received the ball he advanced the ball towards goal by an average of 4.5 metres. This per touch adjustment is useful to understand a player’s efficiency when they receive the ball. When looking at direct carry distance in opposition half, Moussa Sissoko tops the list, slightly ahead of Willian, Wilfried Zaha and Eden Hazard, but all of these bar Zaha drop out when touch adjusting – suggesting that they are not as direct when on the ball.

The plot below demonstrates the top 10 players for direct carry distance per action, with Ibe being the light green line. The bar chart on the right is ordered top to bottom by the average position of the players on the pitch, so Jefferson Montero is at the top on the pitch on the left and Gerard Deulofeu at the bottom.

All players included have played a minimum of 900 minutes

When looking at the carries on dribbles only, though, he drops down to 49th best in the league, with a direct dribble distance per touch of 6.5 metres. His dribble completion rate of 63% is OK, but considering he is advancing the ball a lot anyway this may be indicative of him trying too hard to take players on and potentially making poor decisions when in possession.

With former right midfielder Matt Ritchie leaving Bournemouth this summer for Newcastle, it’s worth looking into what Ibe brings to the team as his replacement.

From the left plot below the lines on the pitch represent the average carry made by each player and the right chart indicates the direct carry distance per touch.

Comparing the two, Ibe seems be to carrying the ball more centrally during his time at Liverpool. It could be due to the system he was playing in at the time – with Ibe being more central and sometimes playing on the left, which skews the average position slightly. Considering the explicit difference in playing styles between Ibe and Ritchie (in both carry distance and pitch location), this may indicate a change in approach by Eddie Howe on the right side of attack.

Getting a shot off early

By using carries, we can get a better understanding of the relationship between assisters and shooters, and understand how strikers prefer to take their shots. To demonstrate I’m going to use Olivier Giroud and Diego Costa as examples.

Giroud and Costa take their shots from very similar locations (roughly 12 metres from goal). However, Costa has an average carry distance of 3.4 metres per shot, indicating that he tends to travel on the ball beforehand, perhaps adjusting himself to gain a better position. Giroud on the other hand adds only 0.8 metres of carry distance per shot.

Having an understanding of how players take their shots – such as whether they follow a dribble or not – has ramifications when it comes to both opposition analysis and recruitment. For example when coming up against Diego Costa, it’s more likely that he moves towards goal himself – so the defence should be set to prevent him from these movements.

Additionally, within Arsenal’s system it’s evident that Giroud is reliant on his team-mates to give the ball straight to him in a position where can fire off a shot early.

Arsenal often out-shoot opponents who sit back and do not give up much space in the defensive third. The number of bodies and lack of space lends itself to needing a striker who can generate shots from tight spaces, or gets shots off soon after receiving a pass, such as Giroud. Interestingly though, new signing Lucas Perez has an average carry distance of 5 metres per shot – a major stylistic difference from Olivier Giroud as he is a player who is capable of attacking at speed and on the move. Perez will likely enable Arsenal to attack more on the counter or at greater speed this season, offering a new dimension to their play.

Top 5 and bottom 5 shooters per carry distance

To provide additional context about how both Costa and Giroud operate, below is the top and bottom 5 in terms of carry distance per shot from the 15/16 Premier League season. It should be stressed that these are stylistic elements – a higher or lower carry distance does not necessarily equate to a good or bad player. The cut-off used here is at least 50 shots taken. The dotted line indicates the league average of carry distance per shot of shooters with over 50 shots.

From this it’s interesting to note that both Southampton and Everton (now) have two players in the top 5 for carry distance per shot, with Bolasie being metres ahead of the rest of the pack. On the other side of this carries fence, it’s unsurprising that the five players with the lowest carry distance per shot are all strikers mostly used as traditional target men.

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