Armchair Analyst: Stats revolution comes to MLS

How MLS' deal with Opta will shed light on the sport in the US

On Friday, the news came down that MLS has signed a deal with Opta to provide high-level statistical analysis this year, and for the next few. If you’re a regular reader of this column, you could probably guess that I’m pretty excited about the news.

Soccer, our beautiful game, is a duplicitous little sport. One the one hand, it is the simplest of events – 10 field players with no inherent differences vis-à-vis the laws of the game, and one objective. But as the great Johan Cryuff said, “The hardest thing to do is to play soccer simply.”

The second-hardest thing to do is to fully appreciate everything that is happening on a soccer field. The simplicity of the game masks an opacity, and I take it as my job to make the game a little more transparent to the viewing public. Opta stats will help greatly in that regard.

Here are three things I’m looking forward to seeing Opta reveal about MLS this season:

1) Dax McCarty and Pablo Mastroeni will be amongst the league leaders in midfield "events."

[inline_node:324050]This, I’m assuming, will be a carry-over from 2010. We don’t have Opta stats from last year, but I’d bet my right arm that those two guys led MLS in the amount "events" last season. I’d also throw in Chris Birchall, Geoff Cameron and Brad Evans this year.

Using Opta's metrics, an event is anything involving a challenge - be it a 50/50 challenge, a pass attempt or pass received, a tackle, an interception... literally anything that is measurable. Add it all together, and you get the sum total of a player's ability to effect the game all over the field.

In 2010, each of those guys played in a system - the 4-1-3-2 or 4-1-3-1-1 in certain cases - that was based upon their ability to not only force turnovers, but to do so for 90 minutes in places where those turnovers could be made into chances almost immediately. Then each of those guys was asked to fill passing lanes on both sides of the ball to facilitate the transition from defense to offense.

It's an huge workload, and the events will tell that story.

Obviously, Cameron and Evans missed big chunks of last year with injuries, and Evans, at least, has a fight for playing time on his hands this year. Birchall also missed time last season, since he was a part-time starter.

But when they’re on the field, all five will perform similar, crucial, labor-intensive roles.

2) Interceptions are more important than tackles.

Last autumn, it caused a bit of a stir when it came to light that American export Stuart Holden was leading the English Premier League in tackles. This is not a bad thing – tackles are still a crucial part of the game, and Holden’s ability to make them both often and cleanly was a big reason for Bolton’s hot start.

Since then, however, Wanderers have cooled off a bit, in part because Holden missed time with an injury, but also because they don’t play passing lanes as well as the teams they were neck-and-neck with earlier in the season. That means Bolton are easier to pull out of position, and when good teams see that, they punish them with alacrity.

[inline_node:327575]Now, this doesn’t mean Holden should stop tackling, but it’s pretty clear they’re playing a different game than the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea and, of course, Arsenal. The Gunners are the Premiership’s consummate “force the interception” team, always operating defensively in groups of threes and trying to force bad passes that can lead to small-group attacks.

A good illustration of this can be seen in the heat map from last September’s 4-1 Arsenal win over Bolton. Arsenal actually lost more tackles than they won that day, but generally forced interceptions higher up the pitch than Bolton were able to do.

The result was a blow-out. Statistics obviously don’t correlate that nicely all the time, but it’s illustrative of the importance of the interception in the modern game.

3) Winning midfield headers still matters.

It’s easy to look at Barcelona and say, “They barely even challenge for goalkeeper punts” – but no other team in the world can match what the Blaugrana do. They’re playing a different game.

Instead, take a look at a more traditional great team like Borussia Dortmund and how viciously they compete in the middle of the pitch. Reason is, with the pace, fitness and vision of modern midfielders, you’re almost always one touch from breaking in on goal. Dortmund know that and go into every 50-50 challenge as if their lives depend upon it.

That will be the case in MLS as well. And be aware, this isn’t a call for Route 1 football, but a way of preventing it. Teams are pragmatic enough to take any path to goal offered to them, and if a team is conceding 50-yard outlets, it will get burned.

As far as I know, this isn’t a stat that has been looked into that much, but it’s my hunch that it’ll play a role in how 2011 turns out for most MLS teams.

These three are obviously just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a ton more that Opta can and will reveal about MLS as the year plays out, including stuff that no one will have guessed at.

And that’s what makes this a great day. Soccer in the US just got a little less opaque and, together, we get to take a look at the stats and figure out how.

Matthew Doyle can be reached for comment at matdoyle76@gmail.com and followed at twitter.com/mls_analyst.