European League Underdogs

I’m taking a little detour away from physics blogging today to dip my toe into the world of football (soccer). With Leicester City’s success in the Premier League this season, I feel compelled to dedicate one post to this most unlikely of events. To those not familiar with English football, prior to the beginning of the season, Leicester City FC was famously a whopping 5000/1 bet to win the Premier League. There is an amusing BBC video demonstrating how unlikely this victory was by comparing to some other 5000/1 bets. Teaser: bookies are giving 5000/1 odds on Elvis being alive.

The last decade of world football has been dominated by a style of football colloquially referred to as “tiki-taka”. This type of football has been most often associated with Barcelona FC (and more recently with Bayern Munich) at the club level and by Spain on the international front. Tiki-taka is built on a heavily possession-based game. This high percentage of possession has two effects:

  1. It denies the opposition chances to score by denying them the ball
  2. Players of extremely high technical ability are required so that:
    • They can retain possession in tight spaces
    • They are able to find openings in the opposing team’s defense

Tiki-taka has probably been the most successful strategy in modern football, but it requires the best players in the world to execute the strategy. Therefore, this is a luxury that only teams with a great deal of money can employ.

The question then naturally arises: how is a team with fewer resources supposed to compete against the teams with better players?

To answer this question, I would like to concentrate on three teams, one from the Premier League (Leicester City), one from the German Bundesliga (Borussia Dortmund) and one from La Liga in Spain (Athletico Madrid). In the past seven years, these three teams, despite being at a huge financial disadvantage compared to other teams in their leagues, were still able to win their respective domestic leagues.

For those who are unfamiliar with football, in the Premier League, the teams with the most money are Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea and (despite what Arsene Wenger will tell you) Arsenal. In the German league, it is without a doubt Bayern Munich. In the Spanish league, Real Madrid and Barcelona are by far the richest teams in the league.

So how did the aforementioned underdogs overcome the odds and win their respective leagues on a shoestring budget? I contend that the answer is with a three-pronged strategy:

1. Tackle Hard

Take a look at the plot below. It ranks the season’s champions in terms of tackles per game. For example, in the Bundesliga season ending in 2013, the champions were Bayern Munich and they ranked 18th (dead last) in their league in terms of tackles/game. It is important to take into consideration when reading the plots that the English and Spanish leagues have 20 teams, while the German league has 18 teams.

ChampsTacklingStats

This plot shows that on the way to their league titles, Athletico Madrid and Leicester ranked 1st in the league in the number of tackles per game. Borussia Dortmund ranked 2nd in tackles/game for both their 2011 and 2012 trophies.

Note that it is rare for a team to win the league with the highest number of tackles per game. This is especially true in Germany where from 2013-2016 Bayern Munich, who won the Bundesliga in those four seasons, ranked dead last in tackles/game.

2. Tackle Smart

Just because an underdog team tackles harder, however, doesn’t mean that they will miraculously start winning games. Take a look now at the plot below. It shows the end-of-season league position of the team with the highest number of tackles/game.

LeagueRankTopTacklers

One can see that there is no pattern at all! In fact, if we take the average league position over the past seven years of the top-tackling teams we get:

  1. Premier League: 9.4
  2. Bundesliga: 8.4
  3. La Liga: 9.4

Keeping in mind that the Bundesliga only has 18 teams, this says that the tackles/game statistic is basically irrelevant! However, I showed in the previous section that Leicester, Athletico and Dortmund all had a high tackles/game trait in common. What gives?!

The data shows that Leicester, Athletico and Dortmund do something different. They don’t just tackle hard, they tackle hard and smart. This means three things:

  1. They seek to win the ball back in dangerous positions
  2. After recognizing a dangerous position, they win the ball back by pressing with more than one player
  3. They take advantage of the turnovers by producing goal opportunities, especially on the counter attack

This means that what these three teams do is defend well as a team. It’s no use having many great tacklers on the team if they do not collectively pressurize the ball when they see an opponent in a weak position. If one watches as much football as I do, one will realize the extent to which Athletico Madrid has turned this collective defending almost into an art form.

3. Don’t Worry about Possession and Take Advantage of Counter Attacks

The last important ingredient is to take advantage of this collective tackling and use it to benefit on the counter attack. Many teams that tackle hard are too slow to get the ball forward and therefore lose their tackling advantage.

Leicester (8 counter attack goals) and Dortmund (11 counter attack goals) ranked 1st in the number of counter attack goals scored in the 2016 and 2012 seasons, when they respectively won their domestic titles. Athletico Madrid (8 counter attack goals), on the other hand, ranked 3rd, behind (you guessed it!) Barcelona (10 counter attack goals) and Real Madrid (13 counter attack goals). It should be kept in mind, however, that Real Madrid and Barcelona outscored Athletico over the season by 27 and 23 goals respectively. Therefore, it can be said that these three underdogs put a huge emphasis on effective counter-attacking football.

Needless to say, this means that these three teams do not put an emphasis on possession-based football unlike their tiki-taka counterparts. In their championship winning seasons, the highest possession any of these teams had over the course of the season was Dortmund in 2012 with a measly 53.3%. In fact, in the 2016 season, Leicester had 44.3% possession over the course of the season, third last in the league! Athletico also routinely finishes outside the top 5 in La Liga in possession stats, including their title-winning season.

Putting All of it Together

Okay, so that was probably a lot to process, so let me summarize and paint a picture of what the data tells us.

It turns out that the underdog champions have quite a bit in common with each other. One significant revelation from these statistics is that it is not only important to tackle hard but to also tackle smart. This intelligence in tackling requires the entire team to be on the same wavelength. Teammates need to help each other to win the ball back and the team’s forwards need to make themselves available for a pass immediately after dispossessing the opposition. Take a look at this video (taken from here) to see how fast Leicester can turn defense into attack. Athletico and Dortmund also employ similar lightning-paced counterattacks.

There is an important lesson here for teams that do not have the wealth of the Barcelonas and Real Madrids of the world. There is a way by which one can beat these teams. This requires an extreme dedication to a collective defensive strategy coupled with an emphasis on direct counterattacking football on the offensive end. To play with this strategy requires the entire team to buy into this ethos. These teams cannot have “luxury players” that don’t graft.

Lastly, let me say that following Dortmund and Athletico’s domestic success, both teams went on to play in the UEFA Champions League (UCL) final. In Athletico’s case, they are in the European Cup final again this year (to be played May 28th). This begs the question as to how far Leicester can go next year in the UCL. Unfortunately, bookies have wised up and are only giving Leicester 100/1 odds to win the entire thing.

Most of the statistics were obtained at http://www.whoscored.com

Update: An article about Atheltico Madrid has appeared today discussing similar themes and can be found here: http://www.espnfc.com/club/atletico-madrid/1068/blog/post/2880642/diego-simeones-magic-touch-keeps-atletico-madrid-in-contention.

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