QSAO\’s Analytics Mythbusters: Breaking down positional nuances (Part 1)

By Constantine Maragos

As we progress through the seasons of various professional sports, we start to notice trends worth looking into. As I have begun to expand my analytical prowess, I have begun to develop own questions, and look to answer them through the published work of others – something that QSAO does for the sports community (Look out for all-new content next semester! – shameless plug). But I digress, in Part One of the latest edition of QSAO’s Analytics Mythbusters, we look into the overall contribution of high-receiving running backs and the importance of pass footedness in the EPL.

1.    How much do running back target rates contribute to winning?

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Ever since Aaron Jones’ 159-receiving yard, 2-touchdown performance versus the Kansas City Chiefs, two things came to mind; 1. Thank you for blessing my fantasy team and 2. How much of a contribution do talented receiving backs actually make to winning? Before looking closely, it is important to recognize the value of a running back who can catch. Such players allow coaches to incorporate an entirely new aspect into their offense. Catching running backs are commonly used as a safety valve or ‘check down’ on their offense. This is crucial, as they can turn a throwaway play into small, yet effective yardage gains. Catching backs are also important because essentially act as a receiver who can block the pass rush. They can disrupt the rusher on their way out of the backfield and into their route, which buys the quarterback additional time inside the pocket. With this in mind, running backs can disguise themselves as a blocker, then release downfield if the quarterback needs a last-second option. Additionally, when a running back runs a route to catch a pass they are often mismatched against heavier, slower linebackers which allows them to make a better run with the ball.

Essentially, a catching running back’s importance is shown through the many teams who have, at one point, featured a back that primarily runs, and then another that can slot in for third downs and passing plays. 

Looking deeper, here are the running back leaders in Targets Per Game and Receiving Yards Per Game

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Graphic retrieved from Fantasy Footballers

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Graphic retrieved from Fantasy Footballers

From these rankings, the first thing I noticed is the absence of Green Bay\’s Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams. I say this because their combined 8 receiving TDs (3 for Jones, 5 for Williams) account for not only 44.4% of Green Bay’s receiving touchdowns, but over 25% of the Packers\’ total touchdowns. The reason for this is that Green Bay primarily utilizes the pair\’s catching abilities in the red zone.

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Graphic retrieved from Sharp Football Stats

Jones and Williams rank fourth and seventh in Red-Zone Target Rates, respectively. Additionally, only one of the pair\’s touchdowns was caught outside the red zone (Aaron Jones’ Week 7, 21-yard TD vs. Oakland). Looking away from the Green Bay duo, Chargers running back Austin Ekeler is also heavily involved in the Chargers’ passing game. Looking at Ekeler’s red-zone numbers, of his six receiving touchdowns, four are within the red zone, however, Ekeler has been successful in doing so. Ekeler has recorded an 89% Red-Zone Catch Rate, which ranks first in the NFL (for reference, Jones & Williams own 74% & 86% catch rates, respectively).

When looking at red zone numbers for running backs, there is one notable name missing – Christian McCaffrey. CMC is arguably, if not the, best running back in the NFL. Of his four receiving TDs, none have come in the red zone. Furthermore, he ranks second in targets per game and receiving yards per game. With McCaffrey being more or less the only outlier in red-zone targets amongst running backs, you need to look at his overall impact on games. CMC runs the ball for over 100 yards per game, along with his impressive 53 receiving yards. In McCaffrey’s case, his ability to catch the ball is just another tool in the toolbox.

Another interesting case is Alvin Kamara. Despite being injured for two games, Kamara still ranks 4th in receiving yards. However, of his 9 targeted throws (3rd amongst running backs) in the red zone, Kamara holds a ~55% catch rate. On top of that, as shown above, Kamara only has one throwing TD (Week 3, 29-yards vs. Seattle).

McCaffrey and Kamara\’s stats show the importance that their catching has in supporting an offense. Both McCaffrey and Kamara have played with less experienced QBs this season, meaning that they are relied on far more to produce, as they have done. With this in mind, how does this skill translates into team success? In the 2019-20 season, there have been 73 passing TDs from running backs. Of the top 15 running backs in the league for receiving yards/game and target rate, only 25 cumulatively lie within the above rankings, respectively. Furthermore, of the 16 teams featured in those rankings, only 5 are above .500 in the standings. With that being said, the most common use of catching running backs is through diversifying a team’s offense or creating another red-zone target. Regarding their overall addition to team success, the ability for a running back to participate in the passing game is an added utility to their game, rather than a skill that will take a team over the top.

2.    How pass footedness in the Premier League affects production

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As we elaborated upon in our last article, maintaining possession is essential to winning in soccer. The most crucial, yet seemingly most underrated aspect of soccer is a side’s ability to facilitate possession through accurate passing. Within central roles specifically, it is key to find players who can move the ball up the middle third of the field, and into attacking positions.

I recently stumbled upon an article written by James Yorke, focusing on pass footedness in the Premier League. Through data collected by StatsBomb, Yorke was able to break down passing habits amongst Premier League players from the 2018-19 season. Yorke also explains how player footedness is primarily applied to shooting statistics, rather than passing. Such data applies to a far smaller percentage of overall events in a match than passing, which essentially links the majority of events in a game together (which is also highlighted in the soccer portion of our last article).

As a preface, here are a few counted stats regarding player footedness provided by StatsBomb. On average, there were 870 passes per game during the 2018-19 season. Around two-thirds of those passes were right-footed, with around 75% of players being right dominant. When making passes with their dominant foot, right-footed players pass at an 87% rate, while left-footed players do so at around 85%. Regardless of foot dominance, right-footed passes are completed around 81% of the time, whereas left-footed passes have a 78.5% succession rate. Among others listed in the article, these trends generally hold when minimizing the width of the pitch to that of the penalty box, which minimizes the effect of wide players vis-a-vis the touchline.

Breaking it down further, when looking at pass footedness across the 20 Premier League teams, divided into the three-thirds of the pitch, the gap between left & right-footed passes is extenuated.

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Graphics retrieved from StatsBomb

Notice that in the defending and attacking thirds, teams rely far more on their dominant foot. We can attribute this to the use of wide players to carry the ball upfield. Further, when examining the two teams who made the most passes in 2018-19, Chelsea and Manchester City, you notice two extremes.

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Graphics retrieved from StatsBomb

Essentially, when comparing the two sides is that, while apart from Chelsea’s two left wideouts in Marcos Alonso and Emerson, Chelsea is almost entirely right-dominant. The closest player to achieving two-footedness is Pedro, with a 27-73% split. Looking at Manchester City, they host a litany of left-dominant players. Most notably, Fabian Delph actually ranks in the top three of two-footed players with a 35-65% split (however does not qualify due to lack of minutes). Otherwise, the graphics above highlight how the EPL is dominated by right-footed players.

Moving along, the main purpose of Yorke’s study is to pinpoint two-footed passers within the league. In conclusion, there was only one – Cardiff City’s Harry Arter

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Graphics provided by @etmckinley and StatsBomb

Arter passes at a 48-52% split, however, only makes roughly 24 passes per game at a 78% success rate, which is a relatively low volume amongst central players. After Arter, the closest split amongst Premier League players is Diogo Jota (35-65%). With that being said, the ability to pass with both feet, especially at high volume is extremely rare. Of the top two-footed players, Ilkay Gundogan is the highest volume passer (71 passes/90). In assessing his pass volume, we see a higher skew to his right foot. Although in a central role, players have the freedom to use their dominant foot as opposed to playing on the wing, and rightfully so. What I found the most interesting is that of Arsenal’s three most-played central defenders (Laurent Koscielny, Sokratis, and Shkodran Mustafi), all of them are almost entirely right-dominant. With that being said, it highlights a fundamental element of soccer – the need to be able to pass with both feet. Whether that be to any degree, it is difficult to successfully stop the opposition when limited to one foot. Teams will adjust and punish said shortcomings. To elaborate, using players with essentially zero in-game ambidexterity hampers the ability for a side to facilitate play.

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Graphics retrieved from StatsBomb

As shown above, Arsenal had one of the leakiest defences in the Premier League last year with a negative shot differential, paired with one of the worst non-penalty xGoals in the Premier League. Such statistics outline the importance of players (especially those in central defensive roles) who can use both feet in maintaining possession. With that being said, Arsenal could definitely use reinforcements in that department, just look at their Yearly Shot Differential in Emery’s short stint with the club.

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In conclusion, along with other excellent work on their site, if you would like to look into your own passing research, StatsBomb provides some free datasets to work with. And keep an eye out for part two of this article, which comes out tomorrow!

Sources

Fantasy Pros: NFL Running Back Target Rates By Week

Fantasy Footballers: Running Back Receiving Stats

Sharp Football Stats: Red Zone Statistics

FootballDB: NFL Team Scoring

ESPN – NFL Football

FOX SPORTS – NFL Football

StatsBomb: Pass Footedness in the Premier League

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