The Case of the Missing Throughball, and Other Mysteries

Ben Torvaney noted last night that the number of throughballs per game looks like it’s been going down. It’s a pretty pronounced trend:

Count Completed Completion %
English Premier League 4450 1717 39%
2012 1655 596 36%
2013 1286 496 39%
2014 1132 460 41%
2015 377 165 44%
French Ligue 1 3738 1534 41%
2012 1605 593 37%
2013 942 378 40%
2014 825 411 50%
2015 366 152 42%
German Bundesliga 2333 1309 56%
2012 1115 550 49%
2013 715 432 60%
2014 401 254 63%
2015 102 73 72%
Italian Serie A 4985 2114 42%
2012 2789 1123 40%
2013 971 478 49%
2014 943 400 42%
2015 282 113 40%
Spanish La Liga 5601 2010 36%
2012 2146 745 35%
2013 1478 549 37%
2014 1559 557 36%
2015 418 159 38%
UEFA Champions League 1913 801 42%
2012 713 270 38%
2013 458 203 44%
2014 479 211 44%
2015 263 117 44%

If you were to take this at face value, it would be a hugely significant result: throughballs create high quality chances, and in the space of three or four years, defences appear to have discovered how to suppress them.

That’s obviously possible, but I strongly suspect that this is an issue with the way the data is being created. This is probably one of those things that you’re not supposed to talk about, and I don’t want to bite the hand that feeds this blog, so I hope the powers that be will consider this a good-faith bug report, and not the whining of an uppity lamprey complaining about the quality of the scraps it feeds off. Either way,  I caution you to look at any conclusions you make about a team or player’s output based on their number of throughballs over the last few years.

Just so we’re all on the same page, here’s the official definition of a throughball, which by all accounts has remained constant:

A throughball is a pass event which splits the defensive line, creating an attacking opportunity.

It’s difficult for us to confirm one way or another that a pass ‘splits the defensive line’ without watching every game. One thing we can notice from the table above is that conversion rates in some leagues seem to be going up. Perhaps that’s our first clue – is the ‘creating an attacking opportunity’ part being more strictly enforced? Perhaps failed throughballs are less likely to be throughballs.

Another clue is if you look at the next match event after a pass tagged as a throughball:

Season Clearance Interception Keeper Pass Shot
2012 10.13% 14.64% 22.58% 23.06% 13.81%
2013 7.79% 12.37% 26.83% 19.76% 17.25%
2014 8.71% 12.72% 27.17% 18.05% 18.20%
2015 6.80% 13.77% 27.27% 17.87% 20.13%

I’ve included only the types of events that seem to show a change. There are some interesting trends here:

  • Clearances have dropped as a proportion of next events. This backs up the theory that unsuccessful throughballs aren’t as likely to be tagged as such.
  • That said, interceptions have remained steady as a next event, however.
  • Balls that make it through to the keeper have increased somewhat as a proportion, up 5 percentage points from 2012-2014.
  • Throughballs that then set up a another pass have seen a big decline. Perhaps the interpretation of ‘creating an attacking opportunity’ doesn’t cover moves that aren’t as direct.
  • Shots have seen the biggest proportional rise from 2012-2014, which backs up the previous statement – the definition of throughballs seems to be increasingly focused on direct attacks.

There are possible footballing explanations for each of these trends. Maybe the Manuel Neuer effect has taken hold on goalkeeping across the leagues, keepers are pushing up and claiming the ball more, and that explains the increase in keeper touches after throughballs, for example. But overall, taking the absolute numbers, and examining some of the wider context, I’m suspicious.

If anyone can shed any light on the numbers, or has a genuinely persuasive argument that tactics have changed over the last few years, I’m all ears.

The Case of the Missing Throughball, and Other Mysteries

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