Quantifying Directness – LVG Ball and Pulis dreams

“Directness” is a concept entrenched in football speak – colloquially, it implies a spectrum of eagerness with which teams attack their opposition’s goal.

By comparing the propensity of teams to play the ball forwards, we can get a simplistic measure of offensive directness.

(Total Passes Forward) / (Total Forward + Backward Passes) = Directness Coefficient

A perfectly indirect team would have a coefficient of 0, while a perfectly direct team would get the maximum of 1. The mean for Premier League teams this season is 0.649 with a standard deviation of 0.0168, both to 3 significant figures.

*edit*: x axis label on below vizs should read ‘…÷ (Total Forward + Backward Passes)’

Directness EPL 1516 1312

It was surprising to me quite how well the measure lines up with general opinion of this season, most notably when it comes to:

A) LVG’s United being the footballing equivalent of the end of Lord of the Rings III

Comparing the team’s directness relative to the rest of the league when Moyes was manager, there is an obvious difference:

Directness EPL 201314

And in actual change, where the higher the difference, the more directly a team is playing this season compared to 13/14 (i.e. when Moyes was managing United):

Difference in DC

LVG’s United has a Directness Coefficient that’s just over 6% smaller than Moyes’ team when he was in charge. Given that the mean difference between a team’s directness coefficient in 15/16 and 13/14 is only  -0.23608 %, while the second biggest change (in magnitude) after United is Arsenal who are about 2.8% more direct now, this is a pretty notable difference.

It’s worth noting, though, that this is descriptive and that there is no statistically significant correlation between a team’s directness coefficient and its goals scored. LVG isn’t being called boring solely because his team is cycling the ball around a lot – Bayern Munich and Barcelona are the least direct teams in their domestic competitions according to this measure – but because United are doing so without much offensive threat. Michael Caley‘s expected goals model ranks United attack as the 9th best in the league, while I’m sure you can guess where Barca and Bayern rank in theirs.

This lack of correlation between offensive threat and proportional directness is also interesting in terms of general football speak. Next time you hear a commentator say that a team needs to be “more direct”, take it with a pinch of salt. In truth, it depends on the team, the system, and the personnel. When it comes to tactical conclusions in football, context is king.

B) Leicester are the league’s most direct team

Spoiler alert – Leicester aren’t any more direct this year, by this measure.


As we’ve seen, managers can have noticeable effects on a team’s directness, and this probably affects the repeatability of this measure year on year as manager and personnel changes affect tactical choices, just as they presumably cause noise in the predictive power of any football model. But with Leicester, Claudio Ranieri’s team are playing almost identically in this particular capacity compared to last season.

My theory is that this is because Leicester recruited Ranieri to fit into and further their tactical ethos rather than completely upend it, a la Van Gaal. Similarly, Swansea are one of the least direct teams in every season they’ve been in the Premier League, regardless of who is in charge. Tony Pulis’ Stoke had the highest directness coefficient in the 2012/13 season, but now they are less direct than the average team.

This relates to a salient point made on clubs with ingrained philosophies and the recent Monk sacking by Miguel Delaney for ESPN:MigsA manager can change everything, nothing, or anywhere in between, but clubs that limit the reigns may be protecting themselves from the negative shocks of a disastrous appointment. Ranieri seems to have continued Leicester’s systemic directness and improved their chance creation while utilising players presumably signed by the club’s lauded recruitment team, perhaps through other factors like attack speed that could make up a broader conception of ‘directness’ than this particular model allows, or through other means like psychological intangibles.

Bonus: European Comparison

How does directness vary by league?

Mean by league

An interesting difference between Europe and the Premier League, here.

Lowest DC Europe 1312

Predictably, Bayern have the lowest Directness Coefficient in Europe.  Highest DC Europe 1312

While Darmstadt 98 look like the stuff of Pulis’ wet dreams.

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