Yash Thakur takes a look at how teams create chances using the most effective type of pass
Through-balls are a sacred artform in football. They have just enough pizzazz to catch the imagination, while also being an effective weapon. Through-balls translate very well into shots, and the chances created from these have a good conversion rate, as highlighted in the “Where goals come from” series by American Soccer Analysis. But, while they are extremely threatening, they are equally difficult to execute.
In the last decade, through-balls have been a dying art form. A recent piece in The Athletic highlighted how the volume of through-balls has been on a downward trend in recent years. The slow death of the true #10 role, the evolving game, and teams finding easier to execute solutions for their chance creation problem, have all contributed in some part to this trend.
All of this makes through-balls an even more coveted skill (and, more importantly, they are fun).
So in this article, we will take a deep dive into the world of through-balls. We will analyze ~13k through-balls in the last decade (2011-12 to 2021-22 season) in the Premier League by trying to classify them into groups, then look at the players who have mastered the art form. We will go one step further and also credit the art of receiving and converting them as well (but that will have to wait until part 2).
Let’s dive in.
In order to gain a better understanding of the event, we need to define what constitutes a through-ball. For our purposes we have defined through-balls as: an attempted pass between opposition players in their defensive line to find an on-rushing teammate (running through on goal).
What counts as a through-ball is then dependent on the relative positioning of the defensive line and the passer. Based on this, through-balls can be longer in length originating in a team’s own half and playing behind the opposition high line or they can be short incisive killer balls near the opponent’s box through their low defensive block.
This definition will help us filter out through-balls and help us gain a better understanding of them.
Our first step then is to try and classify our through-balls into categorical groups based on where they begin and end. Using clustering, we identify six main groups for our through-balls:
- Originating from left half-space
- Originating from right half-space
- Originating from zone 14
- Originating from deeper right zone
- Originating from deeper left zone
- Originating from deeper central zone
While through-balls originating higher up the pitch are the most common ones, we can see the variation in length and point of origin clearly in the above groups. The top three most frequent clusters have an average length of 19.8 meters, while the bottom three are 40.3 meters long on average. Most of these passes are penalty box entries as well, with 64% of passes ending up inside the opposition box.
Frequency is one thing, but their effectiveness in producing shots and by extension goals will give us better insight as we continue to travel in the “through-ball-verse”. So the next step is looking at the rate at which passes from these clusters produce shots and goals.
We can see how threatening this pass type can be. A through-ball produced, on average, a shot every ~4 attempts and resulted in a goal every ~15. But it’s not just the direct goal contribution that through-balls help with: secondary chances are another major part of the threat from through-balls.
These passes put players into better positions inside the box to produce a threatening pass or cutback in the next action, counting for a pre-assist. In our dataset of ~13k through-ball events, there were 133 pre-assists, while the subsequent pass resulted in a shot 291 times.
We notice the Zone 14 effect here. While cluster ‘1’ is the most frequently occurring, through-balls originating in the golden Zone 14, the area of the pitch often regarded as the most threatening, has the best rate for shot and goal production. The Zone 14 cluster produces a shot every 3.64 pass attempts while resulting in a goal every 11.49 passes, which is much higher than the overall average.
Furthermore, through-balls from deeper wide areas have a lower goal (18.1) & shot rate (4.22) than the central ones. This underlines that not all through-balls are created equal.
One question we might want to ask next, is whether the length of the pass affects the effectiveness of it. Are shorter through-balls more effective at producing shots than longer ones? Well yes.
Shorter through-balls are more common, occurring with twice as much frequency. They are also much more effective. Shorter through-balls (<25 meters) produce a shot every 3.57 through-balls, much better in comparison to the shot every 4.23 passes for longer through-balls. They can help unlock a low block defence while being equally proficient at exploiting the space behind a high line.
Masters of the act
Classification of through-balls was step one in the process of understanding them. The next step in this process is to look at teams and players who have shown an affinity towards incisive passing in our database and credit them.
Verticality in passing is a desirable trait for teams and allows them to get closer to their goal. If we look at through-balls played by teams in a season since 2011, one thing immediately stands out, and that thing is Arsenal. They appear four times in the top 10 teams with most through-balls in a season since 2011, have the best shot conversion rate (a shot every 4.1 through-ball), and goal conversion rate (a goal every 13.1 through-ball) of all teams.
Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal were known for their exhilarating passing. The one-touch incisive passing between strong technicians enabled them to execute line-breaking passes. The 2015-16 season, when Arsenal were in the running for the title before losing out to Leicester, was arguably their best display of technical excellence. Mesut Özil, Aaron Ramsey, Alexis Sanchez, and Santi Cazorla all were able to exhibit their quality and efficiency in executing difficult actions on the ball.
The Özil-Sanchez duo ranked first and second respectively among players with most through-balls attempted during the 2015-16 season, shouldering the majority of the offensive burden.
Having a proclivity for vertical passing is one thing but executing it requires a certain level of technical excellence along with a setup that maximizes it.
Southampton during the 2012-13 season, just before Mauricio Pochettino took reins, are an interesting example of this. While they attempted a whooping 246 through-balls in the 2012-13 season, only 45 of them were successful (18.3%), while only 25 of these passes resulted in a shot (10.2%). The Saints were ambitious in their passing but the execution made them look wasteful.
Another thing to note here is the top 10 being dominated by teams from before the 2015-16 season. This falls in line with the overall downward trend in the volume of through-balls across Europe. Tactical evolutions over the last decade has seen teams prioritise protecting the area right outside the penalty box, denying the opposition room to cut through them with a pass. The rise in proactive goalkeepers is another factor that has discouraged teams from attempting these high risk passes.
Through-balls, while efficient, are extremely difficult to pull off with the current state of tactical development, and they require a combination of on and off-ball excellence.
Despite the drop off, we have seen some true technicians on the ball in the last decade in the Premier League. Santi Cazorla, David Silva, and Kevin De Bruyne all have their way with the ball. They regularly manage to time their passes and hit them with the perfect weight on top of having world class vision.
Four Arsenal stars and three from Manchester City stars up the top 10 for the most through-balls played in the Premier League since the 2011-12 season. The attacking pair of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil were Arsenal’s leading duo for a while, combining frequently. Christian Eriksen was one of the best creative players during his time under Mauricio Pochettino. Yaya Touré, one of the most well-rounded midfielders of the modern game, could do it all on the football pitch. Philippe Coutinho, during his sophomore years at Liverpool, was a sight to behold. Liverpool’s 2015 Player of the season, Coutinho was proficient at scoring and creating.
The pick of the bunch, though, are Manchester City’s David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. They picked up 21 and 15 assists respectively just from through-balls and for a brief period were Pep’s offensive 8s in his 4-3-3 formation, offering creative zing and security in possession.
David Silva is one of the Premier League’s greatest ever creative players. His elegance on the ball was something to behold. Silva’s deceptive body orientation while passing opened up avenues that didn’t exist and his excellent vision allowed him to spot passes invisible to the normal eye. The diminutive playmaker was extremely press-resistant, allowing him to receive in tight spaces under pressure and still move the ball forwards. His vision enabled City to utilise their wingers’ inside runs with passes into the channels.
Kevin De Bruyne has been the archetype of a modern creative midfielder. The variation in his repertoire is incredible. His line-breaking ability from deeper areas or from receiving between the lines allows him to find runners in behind. He is excellent at identifying potential targets and playing passes that attack the space rather than the man. De Bruyne often takes up positions in the half-spaces from where he can play a multitude of passes attacking the channels, the wide areas, or the far post.
Using TransferLab’s player plot feature we can compare the volume of attempted through-balls and their quality for players in the last 24 months in the Premier League. Kevin De Bruyne outshines everyone attempting the highest volume of through-balls per 90 while adding the highest value from them as well.
Looking into the category leaderboards will help us gain a better insight into player tendencies. Focusing on the top three clusters helps us highlight players who are intricate with their ball control and are savvy in tight spaces; this changes as we move into deeper areas. This helps highlight players who can ping the ball in an accurate and controlled manner to help their team gain valuable territory.
If we look at our three least represented clusters (the ones that originated from deep) we find players who use their range of passing to turn creators from deep. The usual suspects, KDB and David Silva, surface here as well but it sheds light on some other players.
David Luiz stands above everyone else for playing the ball from deep. His exquisite passing range saw him operate as almost a quarterback from defence or midfield. His passing was a massive factor in making a back three functional and even allowed him to play as the defensive midfielder. He offered great progression from defence, often helping his side gain meaningful yards inside the opponent’s half with one sweeping move.
Jonjo Shelvey’s strengths have always been in his excellent ability on the ball. His passing is crisp over medium to long ranges, enabling him to consistently pick targets from a deeper midfield position.
We can see a lot of through-balls starting near the halfway line and finding their way inside the opposition’s defensive third, although he can also deliver from shorter ranges.
Shelvey has excellent technique on the ball, and his ball striking makes him extremely dangerous when offered time and space on the ball.
One of the most noteworthy transformations in recent seasons has been the metamorphosis of Harry Kane the goalscorer to Harry Kane the playmaker and goalscorer. Kane, in recent seasons, has often dropped off the last line to receive and complement Tottenham’s runners in behind. He is one half of the reason why the Son-Kane duo is so lethal, as his skillset helps maximise Son’s abilities.
This quirk in his positioning and the range of his passing saw him pick up the award for leading assist provider last season alongside the top goalscorer one. He is a hybrid between the #9 and the classical #10, providing the best of both worlds.
This deep dive into through-balls has shown that they are a very effective weapon for teams with the technical capability to execute them (and an efficient means of giving up possession for the Southampton side of 2012/13). The idea that Zone 14 yields the best chances is also demonstrably correct, while our look at who delivered regularly in terms of through-ball production has highlighted some of the league’s best players.
In our next piece, we look at those who profit from the creators’ labours, the players who feed off through-balls.