Raphael Honigstein of ESPN FC posted an interesting interview with former midfielder Stefan Reinartz about a new statistical system he and current Hertha Berlin player Jens Hegeler have come up with called “Packing.”
The basic premise, like many new statistical models in any sport, is that old stats were cool and all but they did not really have any predictive value when it came to success on the pitch. The system he and Hegeler came up with focused on “the number of opponents taken out of the game by a pass (or a successful dribble).” Here’s a brief excerpt on what they found the correlation to be:
"The correlation between getting the ball past opponents and winning is between 0.3 and 0.4," Reinarzt explained, "with one being a 100 percent correlation. If you then drill down into the numbers of defenders that were taken out, the correlation rises to 0.6, which is statistically very significant."
I’d strongly encourage you to read the interview, specifically if you want to know how well it correlated or did not correlate with Euro 2016 results.
The most interesting tidbits, from my biased perspective, were the mentions of Granit Xhaka and Mesut Özil and how the model viewed their tournament performances. On Xhaka:
With an average of 82 opponents taken out in each game, Real Madrid's Toni Kroos was the most effective passer at the Euros, according to Reinartz. Switzerland's Granit Xhaka amassed the fifth-best Packing rate (55 opponents, on average), which could explain why he was valued so highly by Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger, who sanctioned a €45 million transfer from Borussia Mönchengladbach.
"Our numbers for the Bundesliga show that Xhaka was the second-best holding midfielder after Xabi Alonso in the league, too, when it comes to verticality," Reinartz said.
Anyone who watched the Euros could not help but come away with respect for Xhaka’s passing ability. Surrounded by a team with underwhelming attacking talent (sorry, Xherdan, there’s a reason why you’re at Stoke), Xhaka pulled the strings well and played incisive passes from his deeper midfield position when the opportunity arose. Arsenal have lacked such a capability from midfield since Mikel Arteta’s injuries and it is clear that Arsene Wenger desired more passing ability in the center of the pitch.
As for Mesut:
Mesut Ozil's ability to find space in the opposition half as an outlet to teammates was equally remarkable. Passes to the German playmaker took out 63 players per game on average. This is the kind of insight that traditional statistics didn't provide; Ozil's passing skills were well-known, but his movement perhaps wasn't as valued.
"Ozil enables you to get the ball past players," Reinartz said. "He's the best in the world between the lines... that's why he's an automatic starter under any coach even if the public don't always appreciate him. I believe the importance of attacking players as pass recipients is the greatest insight we have gathered over the last couple of years."
Lovers of the German playmaker’s game have always appreciated his movement and ability to receive the ball in space in dangerous positions. It’s always nice to see some sort of statistical measurement corroborating what the eyes think they see. The Xhaka-Özil combination should greatly aid Arsenal’s watchability this season, that immeasurable trait that Arsenal fans grasped hold off throughout the lean years of the early Emirates era that went missing too often last season.
Like any statistical model in soccer, this is not the end all be all. It might not even be much of anything. But, as the piece mentions, clubs like Borussia Dortmund have begun to use this system so it’s likely this will only get more and more notoriety. It does make sense though. Teams that can penetrate the opposition defense typically win. This model seems to have taken the relatively un-controversial statement and tried to quantify it to see who really is the best at it. Here’s to hoping that having two of this system’s most lauded players in our side leads to on-field success next season.