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Passing metrics, Mesut Özil, Granit Xhaka and Arsenal’s midfield

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On passing metrics (packing), Xhaka, Özil and Arsenal’s midfield composition.

Arsenal v A.F.C. Bournemouth - Premier League
The Lads
Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images

Yesterday, Raphael Hongistein of ESPN FC posted a fascinating interview with former midfielder Stefan Reinartz about statistical analysis in football, more of which you can read here, while you can read our coverage of the story here.

For revision, I’ll quickly quote the important aspects of Reinartz’s statistical analysis:

Reinartz and Hegeler decided to look at passing; more specifically, they searched for a way to assign a numerical value to effective passing. Over the course of 18 months, they came up with a system that counts the number of opponents taken out of the game by a pass (or a successful dribble) and called it "Packing."

“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.

Finally, as Drew pointed out yesterday, “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.” Two of the best players at it are Granit Xhaka and Mesut Özil. Finally, while some passing statistics don’t favour teams or players who play direct passes, packing does (one of the best packing numbers from Euro 2016 was Italy’s Graziano Pelle). This is a stat that doesn’t just reward passing; it also rewards intelligent runs.

As any Mesut Özil watcher can tell you, the quality of runs is incredibly important. It’s what allows Özil to play a more expansive game. Furthermore, with Granit Xhaka now in Arsenal’s midfield, Arsenal have the player who can not only defend with authority, but can also contribute to building play as Per Mertesacker discusses, by passing in between the lines to find someone like Özil, who is not only a strong passer, but is also excellent at finding pockets of space to receive possession. However, with Arsenal’s midfield composition (ahem Francis ahem) forcing Özil to drop deeper and deeper to maintain control, he was unable to be as effective further up the pitch as possible, especially as the season moved on. The addition of Xhaka will help Özil.

Those two will make up two members of Arsenal’s midfield; Özil as the number 10, Xhaka likely as the number 6. The number 8 role should be taken by Arsenal’s new number 8, Aaron Ramsey, who offers the missing piece between Özil and Xhaka: excellent movement in between the lines. This is crucial for two reasons: it gives Xhaka options for building play, allowing Arsenal to simply not build through one player, as they so often had to last season, and Ramsey also gives Özil passing options with his runs in behind.

From the right, Ramsey’s movement is different, as any seasoned watcher can attest to, (player’s movement not as good from position that isn’t his natural position shock) and he simply doesn’t offer the same threat in behind, limiting Özil’s options, as well as the link up play of Olivier Giroud. And again, we now have statistical proof that taking players out of the game through passing and movement has a decent correlation with winning. For Leicester, that manifested itself through Riyad Mahrez’s dribbling and Danny Drinkwater’s long passes for Jamie Vardy. For Arsenal, that will manifest itself through the passing of Xhaka, Özil and Ramsey, and the movement of the latter two.