Tackles versus Ball Recoveries
Today’s match was a fantastic example of the importance of ball recoveries in understanding the role of the defensive midfielder in football.
First, a ball recovery is, well, it’s when a team on defense regains possession. There are some more, technical, components to the way that Opta collect that data but the best way to think about ball recoveries is as the moment a defensive player turns defense back into attack.
A player can get a ball recovery by picking up a loose ball, by the opponent passing the ball to him, or even by collecting the ball after a teammate makes a tackle. The important thing is that the defender regains possession and keeps possession for his team. This is the essence of defense: to win the ball back and re-start the attack.
Tackles, on the other hand, are not what you think. Last week I got a bunch of questions as to how Coquelin could go 6/6 in tackles, get a yellow card for a bad tackle, and foul at least one more time to send the punditocracy into foaming mouth fever over how he should have been sent off. The answer is simple: tackles are by the Opta definition always a successful event.
When a player goes to ground to win the ball, in order for Opta to count that as a tackle, he must win the ball. If the tackled ball goes to a teammate or to the tackler, he get a successful tackle. If the player attempts a tackle and the ball goes back to the attacking team that’s a failed tackle. And if the player goes to ground and scythes someone’s shin in two, that is counted as a foul and not a tackle at all.
This runs counter to the way that broadcasters and the fans talk about football. When we see Ryan Shawcross attempt to break someone’s leg, we say “that’s a bad tackle” but Opta says “that’s a foul”. So, when you see me say “Coquelin was 6/6 tackling” what I mean is that he went to ground six times, won six tackles without fouling, and Arsenal recovered the ball six times.
Back to ball recoveries. If the point of defense is to regain possession then I think we need to have a stat like “Possessions Gained” which would include ball recoveries, tackles, and interceptions. In Coquelin’s case, he had 5 tackles (led both teams), 6 interceptions (led both teams, tied with Bellerin), and 15 ball recoveries. That’s 26 times that he recovered possession for Arsenal.
The entire team made 80 ball recoveries, 23 tackles, and 28 interceptions. That’s 131 recovered possessions. Since he had 26, that means that Coquelin accounted for 20% of Arsenal’s recovered possessions today and he only played 81 minutes. In the time that he was on the pitch, Arsenal only had 68 ball recoveries. That means he had 22% of Arsenal’s ball recoveries! And accounted for 23% of Arsenal’s total regained possessions for the first 81 minutes. That’s simply amazing.
Cazorla was second on the team and had 20 total recovered possessions (14 ball recoveries, 2 tackles, and 4 interceptions).
Interestingly, if you add Coquelin, Cazorla, and Gabriel together, they accounted for half (40) of Arsenal’s 80 ball recoveries.
One last thing I want to mention which I think tips the books in favor of Coquelin for man of the match: he had two inch-perfect tackles in the box which prevented Liverpool from getting big chance shots on Arsenal’s goal. In fact, despite the ooohing and aaahing of the announcers and the crowd, Liverpool only had one big chance in that game. I put that down, largely, to Coquelin. In that first half, he single-handedly kept Arsenal ticking over: winning the ball back, starting the attacks, and mopping up after the rather disjointed play of Arsenal’s makeshift center back pairing.
Oh yeah, and Coquelin led all players with 91% passing (Walcott went 1/1, that doesn’t count) on 76 attempts.
Cech had 8 saves today and it’s safe to say he hasn’t been worked that hard in years. In fact, the last time Cech made 8 saves for his club was when Chelsea beat Basel 3-1 in May 2013. He also had a 10 save match when the Czech Republic played Turkey in October of 2014. And, the last time he had at least 8 saves and kept a clean sheet was against Birmingham in the FA Cup in March of 2012.
But not all saves are made the same. Coutinho had a shot from 25 yards straight at Cech, that counts as a save, just like his finger-tip save that pushed the ball into the upright. I think we need a new stat: “big saves”! How many “big saves” did Cech make today? I counted three. You?
A tale of two halves
What a weird game. I tallied up the passes, tackles, and whatnot from the first half and compared them to the second half and it looks to me like both teams had exactly opposite halves.
Chambers and Gabriel
When I saw that Chambers and Gabriel were starting today I literally gulped. Not figuratively, literally. This is a huge game and Brendan Rodgers is a pretty astute manager. He would look to put pressure on Chambers in possession and exploit the 20 year old’s lack of experience.
It nearly paid off. Chambers didn’t turn the ball over constantly (Alexis led both teams in that stat with EIGHT total turnovers and dispossessed) but he did make a lot of poor passes and looked flustered throughout the match. He finished the game with just 81.6% completed passes. But more than the percentage (he only misplaced 9 total passes) it was where he coughed the ball up: 4 of his poor passes were in and around the Arsenal 18 yard box and 3 of those were in the first half. He also had a failed attempted dribble out of his own defensive third. The center back needs to be the rock in the team and can’t be running off like a Vermaelen with his head cut off or kicking the ball to the opposition when flustered.
But he is only 20 and he will learn.
All stats via Opta through Whoscored.com and the 442 Stats Zone App.
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Want to learn more about Opta’s event definitions? Read this.