The Useless Stat Of Distance Covered (KM) in the Bundesliga: Why Less Is More.

As Performance Analysis slowly aims to reach the heights of analytics that has been topped across the pond in sports such as Baseball and American Football, no stone is left unturned, every statistic examined with a magnifying glass by players and media alike. The armchair fan gets so many statistics thrown at them, it’s difficult to believe whether they really digest what all those ‘final third entries’ really mean and if locals at the pub understand what Roberto Martinez means when going on a rant about ‘asymmetric systems’ when really he’s set up for a draw.

One such statistic that is discussed more than others is the distance that is covered by players and the teams in kilometres (KM). Such is the appreciation, fans alike almost nod in agreement that Jordan Henderson must of had a good game because he’s covered every blade of grass and registered in the top 3 of players who have run the most in the game. This recently came to my attention listening to 5Live on transfer deadline day, when ‘experts’ to put it mildly in Jermaine Jenas, Phil Neville and Joey Barton seemed obsessive with the amount of high-intensity runs or overall Kilometres they have run as well as using it as a tool to judge how good a player is. Safe to say, Pirlo and Xavi wouldn’t get in their teams. When discussing Chelsea’s new acquisition of Columbian world cup star Juan Cuadrado, Phil Neville turned full scout mode on us and discussed how he had never seen a player run as much as intense as him, stating it so frequently that I almost forgot you needed to pass the ball to be a decent footballer and not run around like a headless chicken for 90 minutes cue Park-Ji-Sung.

I’m not for one moment suggesting that registering high numbers of kilometres run over the space of a game isn’t important, but if you don’t do anything with the ball, is it really as importantly obsessive as the pundits have been telling us. Perhaps even more worrying that players such as George Boyd and managers such as Shaun Dyche of Burnley almost seem to value hard work as a stat in ‘distance run in KM’ as if they’ve won a game with many clubs being known to post such stats on dressing room doors the Monday after a game. It can be seen as admirable to work so hard but it could be argued their missing the context of running wisely into dangerous areas rather than just running just for the sake of it. The impression I got particularly from Barton and co on 5live was the view that ‘it’s disappointing if we lose but if I run over 10KM in a game I’ve had a good game’ rather than look at any technical stats such as passes made or final third entries. Probably my own fault for spending a Sunday evening listening to Joey Barton and his views on technical ability, Naturally, I aimed to prove a point and state that although it is probably a good indicator for hard work, albeit sometimes aimlessly it is a pretty pointless statistic in correlation to success.

In Germany, the Bundesliga is one of the few leagues around the world that makes the data of its fixtures publicly available with data such as ‘distance run (km) per team’ becoming available only a couple hours after the fixtures have been played. After scouring the data of 20 fixtures played so far, it was clear to see that distance run in a game really isn’t an indicator to success, in fact quite the opposite. After 20 fixtures, Borussia Dortmund top the chart with total distance covered over 20 rounds with 2400.5 Km as well as topping the charts in the average distance covered per game with 120.025KM per game, but there you have it they find themselves positioned in 16th out of 18 teams. Even more startling is at the opposite end of the table, where Bayern Munich who are positioned in 1st have not only run the least over the course of the season with 2283.8KM and run the least per game with the team running 114.023 km on average, a massive difference of 6KM per game.

Such statistics pretty much disprove the thought that if you run more, you have a better chance of winning. Quite the opposite in fact, which can be seen on the graph below where Dortmund are running a lot more than not only Bayern Munich but the whole league as their stats are some way ahead of the league average.

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Distance Covered: Less Is More

For pundits, coaches and players not convinced, you could delve even deeper and look at how teams rank with the distance they run and if that actually correlates to a similar or better rank in their league positions. The answer in most cases of clubs in the Bundesliga is that the majority of teams that see themselves high in the rankings of distance run are usually lower down the rankings of their actual league position.

In fact as seen in the table below, 12 out of 18 Bundesliga show no increase in their ranking of distance run to their actual league position. Not only Borussia Dortmund see their league ranking diminish in relation to how many kilometres they run, Stuttgart are ranked as the 3rd best team in terms of many kilometres they run averaging 118km per game, but yet just like Dortmund sit in the relegation positions but even worse, bottom of the league. Arguably, only 1 out of the 6 teams that do show an increase are of worthwhile value, this is Schalke who rank running the 6th most on average, running 117KM per game who actually find themselves increased from 6th in 3rd position in the league. On the flipside the three sides alphabetically listed at the top of the table show further prove that running less is more. Ausburg, Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich are listed as the 4th bottom, 3rd bottom and bottom teams in regards to running the most in a game but yet find themselves at the opposite end of the table in terms of actual results and winning games, being pictured at 4th, 6th and 1st respectively.

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One quote I’ve come across quite recently, particular in my favourite book right now ‘the numbers game’ is “that’s the way it’s always been done”. The quote for me gives me admiration that clubs stick to their principles of the ways they’ve always done things but at the same time to me puts them in a dangerously precarious position to not evolving just for the sake of doing what has always been done. The same can be said with statistics such as distance run, for analytics to move forward it’s clear that a teams success in relation to how far they have run should be judged on where exactly they have run rather than just judging 11 Park-Ji Sungs aimlessly running around a pitch not really knowing what’s going on. As players must realise it is not always important how much you run but where you run, so must coaches and go must the culture of posting paper on dressing room doors stating who’s run the furthest when they’ve just been spanked 3-0 at home. It can be seen in leagues such as the Bundesliga that it’s not all about running, but where in fact you run and what you do with and without the ball. Contrary to popular belief, in terms of running in football; less is actually more, alot more.

Hope you enjoyed my post/rant.
Thanks for reading.

– Adam

The Goalkeeper: Undervalued or just doing their job?

Football is a simple game, complicated by idiots,” once said by some bloke who won a few European Cups in Merseyside a few years ago. Although many aspects around the sport have changed, the goal remains the same; to win. Football has come a long way since the days of 4-4-2 & long ball tactics, although the combination of both can still be found at some clubs in the Premier League. Gone are the days when defenders just had to defend, midfielders had to do the leg work and the attackers had to score the chances created, now everyone has to chip in with all aspects of their game.

Take international stalwart Phillip Lahm for example who for years was considered one of the best full-backs of his generation, on either the left or right side of the pitch still to his world-class standards and has now been converted under Guardiola‘s guidance into becoming arguably an even better and more effective defensive midfielder. In the same instance that we have seen players such as Lahm simply have to contribute more in other areas has the role of the Goalkeeper really changed? Yes, we have seen new terms crop up with new terms such as sweeper keeper in the last decade often used in association to mistakes such as a goalkeeper charging 20 yards outside his box only to give the ball away and concede a goal; the Heurelho Gomes school of goalkeeping.

Recently, working for Millwall’s academy; I watched us beat an U13’s Colchester 12-0. At 1-0, we conceded a penalty and it was brilliantly saved to keep us in the lead which then turned into a bigger victory. I overheard a parent stating “that’s what he’s supposed to do” and “that’s his job“, i’m not saying that had he not saved it, Colchester would have gone onto win but you never know in football. It got me thinking are keepers undervalued in the squad or are they simply just doing a job they are being asked to do.

The real question is when a goalkeeper has a good performance, is that because they have been outstanding or are they simply just doing what is expected of them? For example when Lionel Messi goes on one his many silky dribbles, goes past 6 players and chips the goalkeeper to the delight of the 100,000 Camp Nou faithful, many around the world profess his genius rather than say he was doing his job as a striker or for hipster terms Trequartista. So, when De Gea makes a string of world-class saves in the final minutes V Everton, he rightly got plaudits but part of me wonders if one of those shots had gone in, would there have been opinions the goalkeeper should have done better and failed in his performance as a goalkeeper? It goes without saying that only 1 goalkeeper has won the Ballon d’or, this could simply because we take for granted a keepers performance and although keepers of the past such as Buffon could argue they should have been considered, present keepers such as Neuer could find a case as as a goalkeepers performance is becoming more quantifiable.

Ballon D'or Winner?
Ballon D’or Winner?

From a Performance Analysis perspective, Chris Anderson, author of “The Numbers Game“(recommended read for any aspiring PA) states that a clean sheet will of course guarantee a point for his side but on average states that a clean sheet earns a team around 2.2 points per game over a course of a season. Pundits often talk about great goalkeepers contributing to a title challenge or even relegation battles by keeping strikers at bay to produce clean sheets, such stats can show how valuable they really are between a 4th and 1st place finish or on the other edge of the spectrum the difference between being 20th and 15th.

The value of the clean sheet is clear. Just like attack minded footballers are judged on stats such as ‘Chance conversion percentages’, goalkeepers are judged on their ‘shots-saved percentages’. Whether we choose to ignore them through blind faith, in big moments goalkeepers have and always will have a say. Take Edwin Van Der Sar‘s performance in the 2008 Champions League final V Chelsea or Petr Cech‘s in 2012 V Bayern Munich which in context was a game they simply should of lost if not for his performance.

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The main measurements as seen in the above figures of saves in the Champions League and Premier League, are an overall percentage of shots saved and a percentage of shots saved inside their own box. Straight away you see the usual suspects of world class goalkeepers particularly in the Champions League, with names such as Casillas, Cech & Courtois jumping out. Yet in the Premier League, it is a different picture entirely, with no disrespect although a few are up and coming goalkeepers, they are not in the top sides. For example there is no mention of Joe Hart, De Gea, Lloris amongst others as well as there being no mention of one of the best goalkeepers in the world at the present moment; Manuel Neuer in the Champions League top 5 in either statistic.

From another point of view, are the goalkeepers being wrongly judged on such stats? For example, are players such as Marshall displaying such high percentages because of the quality of his back 4 that is prone to more attempts on goal to say a Manchester City side. This is arguably the reason why Neuer is not in the top 5, as his Bayern Munich side are so pro-possession, shots against them would come at a premium so perhaps the percentage would be lower, although under such stats it would suggest he is under-performing in the saves department in comparison to the top 5 goalkeepers, he may have faced less shots but he is still making less than 80% shots-saved behind 5th place Sirigu at Paris-Saint-Germain.

Such figures need to be put in context, all they tell us are that the goalkeeper saved a certain amount of shots and not where the shots were from, whether they were a 1v1 chance outside the box or a desperate 30 yard strike in the final minutes. Just like many statistics in football and a performance analyst’s main displeasure is that they simply credit outcome but not process. There lies the problem with judging a goalkeepers performance, in that the defensive side of the game has not yet been able to be broken down in the same way that the attacking side can be measured.

In essence, the position of the goalkeeper seems to be the easiest position to understand. But far from it, it’s not just about saves, the success of the goalkeeper has so many more aspects to it, some that can’t even be measured yet. You can no longer look at the stats, in the modern day of analysing performance, it is the here and now of realising the context of whether the shot was opposed or unopposed and whether the goalkeeper made a good save or was simply doing his job. Also, how do you measure a goalkeepers performance if all he had to do was two saves in stoppage time? Was that because he organised his defence so that such chances for the opposition came at a premium? You just can’t quantify that performance through figures such as saves made.

Most people are of the view that stats in football are the essential element in the decision making process of distinguishing between a good and a great performer. This is not the case. As discussed earlier, they bring you to a point but they are not the answer. However, combining scouting through means of video and stats you can gain a superior difference. Expert coaches and Talent ID recruiters will use both, especially for Goalkeepers which is a different challenge entirely in comparison to other positions and one that you need to delve deeper into rather than just looking at a page of how many saves they’ve made.

However, clubs can never really guarantee success in the investment they make towards goalkeepers. Demands such as physical and mental simply cannot be measured, take De Gea for example who arrived as a young goalkeeper who lacked any sort of physical presence and struggled to deal with set pieces for the first few seasons but has now luckily for Manchester United developed into a world-class goalkeeper after a £19 million investment.

Despite the challenges; data, analysis and coaching can offer the goalkeeper a competitive edge. For example, when it comes to a goalkeeper’s positioning, old-school thoughts of coming outside of the goal line and closer to the shot to make a save have been ignored as stats have been used to show more shots are saved when a goalkeeper stays closer to his line, allowing more reaction time, which can be seen as more preferable than simply narrowing the angles for the shooter either side of the goalkeeper. A real life example would be Petr Cech‘s performance in the Champions League 2012 final who along with the coaching staff analysed every Bayern Munich penalty over a 5 year timespan. As a result he dived the correct way for every penalty and saved 3 out of 6 taken.

It’s clear that although the role of the goalkeeper is more difficult to measure than the rest of the team, they are a key cog in the team but remain undervalued. Think of any consistently strong championship-winning teams and there is a world-class goalkeeper at the helm of it, look at Van Der Sar, Buffon, Casillas, Cech, Valdes and Neuer. Neither should the goalkeeper be the main player, because their are so many factors on performance to analyse and when it comes to judging their contribution, stats just can’t tell us enough.

In my opinion, Neuer should win the Ballon D’or, but won’t. Mostly due to the fascination of goals and assists within in the sport, rather than focus on the guys at the other end who prevent the goals. Being a key cog in the 1st European country to win the World Cup in South America is arguably a far more recognisable achievement than being part of one of the most expensive sides in history to do what was simple expected, and win the Champions League. When it comes to it, it will always be the individual coach’s belief about what it takes to win but the great goalkeepers simply don’t just do their job and it will be some time before their performances are admired rather than just assumed the norm.

– Adam