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Evaluating Juventus players’ position from recent Serie A, Champions League matches

Juventus v Olympique Lyonnais - UEFA Champions League Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

It has been argued that even for professional soccer coaches, they can only recall about 30 percent of the plays correctly after the game. This argues for more data driven analysis of the game. But these data can be expensive. A typical subscription of OPTA or Prozone data can cost quite a lot of money. To take an alternative and systematic approach to analyzing the offensive performance and pattern of Juventus with sports data, I developed a semiautomatic method to obtain data to create players’ position's map of Juventus in each game. These maps focus on the times when Juventus creates a chance to score. The procedure is as followed:

First, I isolate all of the chances that were created in the game. This is easily done with the Chance is defined as any shots created or any attempted and successful passes delivered to the penalty box. These chances are then identified by their time of occurrences with statzone and I track and identify all of the possessions that led to these chances. A possession is defined as one series of consecutive passes. The approximated positions of all the players and passes (not shown in this post) involved in each possession are recorded. This information is used to calculate the approximate position and range for each player in the game when Juventus creates a chance to score. I plot these results on a pitch to create a players' position map. I generate the player's position map for the six Juventus' Serie A and Champions League games dating from the beginning of November to the first game in December.

I generate the player's position map for the last six Juventus' Serie A and Champions League games:

There are several types of information displayed in these maps: First, the circles/dots represent the approximated position of each player when the chances are created during the game. Second, the lines represent the vertical and horizontal ranges of each player's position. Therefore, they are the approximated range of areas where a player operates when the team creates scoring opportunities. Third, the size of the circle/dot represents the number of passes, shots or dribbles each player carries out when they contribute to scoring opportunities.

It should be noted that these maps only address the players' positions and contributions mostly during the offensive phase of the game (when a chance is created). It is, therefore, biased towards offensive players and against defenders. Normally during a game defenders usually contribute to more passes than offensive players. However, because many of these possessions — or passes — do not result in a chance, these passes are not counted in these maps. Moreover, these maps display very limited defensive contributions of the players, just because usually very few defensive actions have to be carried out during an offensive phase of a team. Last but not least, a player can contribute to the offensive phase of a game simply but positioning in an advantageous position. Such contributions will not be reflected by these maps, simply because it is very difficult to track every player's position and quantify such contribution to the offensive performance of the team.

These maps do still show much interesting information about the offensive performance of Juventus (or any teams). First, the amount of actions — passes, crosses, shots, and dribbles — do not always reflect the offensive output of a team. For example, Juventus played almost the most impressive game of the season against Atalanta and their worst game against Genoa. However, Juventus places way fewer passes in the Atalanta game than the loss to Genoa. We all knew playing more passes does not always mean scoring more goals. This is obvious to any soccer fans, but I just had to point it out. Second, even though the number of passes may not directly translate to the offensive dominance, there is a general trend that Juventus places more passes during their offensive phase against Serie A teams than against Championship League teams. This is probably down to the much better quality of the opponents in the Champions League. This is also illustrated by looking at the average number of passes per possession during the offensive phase of Juventus:

Juventus likes to control possession. They seem to exert more dominance over lesser Serie A competitions. Stronger teams, however, restrain their possession-based offensive games. The number of passes per possession is fewer against the European teams (or Genoa when they completely dominated Juventus in the first half). This may suggest that it is more difficult for Juventus to exert possession dominance against these opponents and they need to/are forced to play a more direct offensive game. Interestingly, such change of style seems to happen against Atalanta. They played a very direct offensive game where they used almost 33 percent fewer passes to create a chance comparing to the previous games.

By just looking at the number of actions of each player, one should also notice that Alex Sandro is crucial for Juventus in their offensive phase. He records the most / second most number of passes, crosses, shots and dribbles in all of these games where he started. This year he morphs into one of the most critical players for Juventus.

Miralem Pjanic’s Position

Massimiliano Allegri has been subjected to many criticisms on how he handles Pjanic. Pjanic has not been performing consistently. Many suggest that he should play as the trequartista and criticize that he plays too far from the goal. I plot the Pjanic's position where he placed and received the passes in the five games he started:

In the Atalanta game where Pjanic played arguably his best game for Juventus, he positions a lot closer to the goal. In particularly, he received the ball in a way more advanced area compared to previous game. The currently limited evidence do seem to suggest that it is better for him to play closer to the goal to be effective. Whether this is due to a change of formation to 4-3-1-2 is unclear. In the home game against Lyon, Allegri tried to play the 4-3-1-2 formation with Pjanic as the trequartista. The offense did not perform well in this game. In particularly, Pjanic was very ineffective in that game. So what is the difference between the two games? Against Atalanta, Juventus played very intense pressing against Atalanta defenders and midfielders and resulted in a lot of counter attack opportunities. Such intense pressing has rarely been seen this season. This is one reason the offense was so effective in this game. Without Paulo Dybala and Juan Cuadrado, Juventus does not have a player, other than Alex Sandro who can change the speed of the play. (Marko Pjaca does not count because he has not played very many minutes due to injury.) Therefore, they always pass the ball around without generating genuine scoring opportunities. Without these players, the intense pressing against opponents become important, because it is the easiest way to increase the speed of the offense. Whether Juventus will be able to maintain such performances will be a question remains to be answered.

Gonzalo Higuain’s Goal Drought

Prior to his goals against Dinamo Zagreb and Torino, Higuain had gone through a period of goal drought for about a month. One theory is that since the injury to Dybala, Higuain has to take more responsibilities to help to construct plays. It seems to be reflected by his more withdrawn position compared to Mario Mandzukic:

In the four games when Higuain started together with Mandzukic from this data set, Higuain operates mostly in the space between the midfield and Mandzukic. Critics argue that to connect the ball between the midfield and Mandzukic, Higuain often stays very far from the penalty box. Therefore, he often needs to cover a vast area during the offensive phase, making him less clinical in front of the goal.

If that argument is correct, one would assume that Higuain would operate a lot closer to the opponent's goal when he plays with Dybala. The reason is that in this season, Dybala is Juventus' leading player to play between lines and to connect the midfielders and the strikers. Therefore, when Dybala is on the field, Higuain will not need to carry those responsibilities and can focus on finishing chances. To test this idea, I compare Higuain's position when he plays with Dybala and Mandzukic:

As we can see, Higuain operates even further from the opponent's goal when he plays with Dybala comparing to when he plays with Mandzukic. Therefore, the reason for Higuain's goal drought is not because he plays further away from the goal.

One stat that shows a big difference is the number of shots Higuain takes when he plays with Dybala versus when he plays with Mandzukic:

Higuain is taking more than 30 percent fewer shots when he plays with Mandzukic. One reason maybe that the primary target option of the ball in the penalty box is Manduzkic when they play together. Mandzukic is often closest to the goal when he plays. Therefore, most of the highest scoring chances go to Manduzkic instead of Higuain:

And obviously when Mandzukic is not playing, Higuain is the first option to finish a chance:

Allegri has insisted that Higuain does not need Dybala to score. It is true that Juventus should be able to create enough chances for their strikers even without Dybala. And Higuain is also a complete striker that he does not need Dybala to create easy chances for him to score. However, on the other hand, it is easier for Higuain to score when he is playing with Dybala than Mandzukic because he can focus on finishing.

This is probably only one of the reasons why Higuain was having a mini goal drought. Another reason may be that when Dybala is not playing, Juventus actually generates fewer scoring opportunities:

Juventus has about 25 percent fewer shots per game without Dybala on the field. It is obvious that he is the main creative force for Juventus. His dribbling and pace can generate opening for his teammates. Moreover, even when he is not having the ball, his mere presence will attract defenders, thereby freeing his teammates. This may also be the reason why Higuain is shooting 30 percent less when Dybala is not playing.

There is a lot to learn from these data. If you have any ideas to study them you can let me know. In the future, I will also lay the passes between players onto these maps.