Passing networks are among the most well-known data visualizations in football.
They will give you a quick overview of a team’s approach to possession: their average form, the relative importance of different players, the hubs and radii of the passing game. They show who passes to whom and how often. As nerd graphics go, passing networks are easy to grasp – they look like an idealized version of what we see on the pitch.
Here’s an example of a pass network from last month’s Champions League final:
Let’s see how to read them.
Each player’s point indicates the average starting point of their passes between the opening whistle and their team’s first substitution in the relevant match, when the visualization is paused. The bigger the point, the more passes the player attempted.
The lines between the points of the players, as you imagine, show passes from one to the other. There is usually a minimum threshold to prevent the network from getting too congested. In the visualization above, players need to make five passes every 90 minutes in one direction to win a line. So, for example, there is a connection between David Alaba and Toni Kroos, who have frequently dropped deep to link up with Real Madrid centre-backs, but not between Alaba and his left-back Ferland Mendy. Thicker lines mean more passes between the two players.
The slope of a line indicates the direction of movement. For example, the line between Alaba and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois gets brighter the closer it gets to the latter, meaning it shows back passes from the centre-back. Sometimes, but not always, you will see a parallel line with the reverse gradient, indicating passes between the same two players going the other way.
Some crossing networks use color to display additional information beyond the number of crossings.
In our visualization above, the red-yellow-green color scale indicates possession value, or how much certain passing links or passers have increased the team’s scoring probability by bringing the ball closer to the opposing goal. .
know your way Athleticism‘s pass networks now?
Cool. So let’s try something a little more advanced.
Most of the time, a network shows the form of a team in a single game (or part of one). But how a team passes can change a lot from game to game, depending on the starting XI, the opponents, the score, the referee, the weather, whatever. One would have to look at many passing networks to get a general idea of how a team is playing.
Instead, sometimes it’s worth zooming out to combine a team’s many games into a single passing network, like in this old Cheuk Hei Ho visualization:
EPL Network Pass 2019/20 pic.twitter.com/nfA6vZpQJE
— Cheuk Hei Ho (@Tacticsplatform) November 9, 2019
A multi-game passing network smooths out the quirks of single matches and leaves us with a tidy sketch of what can be hundreds, if not thousands, of passes.
A problem here is that it’s not easy to combine multiple games into a single visualization.
You can’t really do it per player, because the comps change all the time. You cannot do this in different formations, as the positions also change.
So for a season-level look at the Premier League, we’ll follow Ho’s lead and show each team’s average passing network for all games in their most common starting line-up. This allows for positional matching even when individual players are rotated.
We are left with an overview of the many different ways Premier League clubs played the game last season.
There are a lot of things you can take out of each team’s pass network, but here are a few main things.
Most connected pass network: Manchester City. Come on, was that even a question? Pep Guardiola’s back-to-back champions play football as if the goal isn’t to get the ball in the net (although they’re decent at that) but to win the coveted Most Connected Passing Network Cup. Everyone passes to everyone. All the time. In total, 54 of the 110 possible passing pairs between the 11 positions in City’s standard 4-3-3 setup averaged at least five completed passes every 90 minutes, the limit for a visible line on their passing network very crowded. Even older versions of City weren’t that social.
Least connected: Pour one for Dyche-ball. Burnley completed their passes at a league-low 68.2%, and only seven ties in their trusty 4-4-2 reached the threshold of five completed passes per 90 minutes for a line on the passing network, at to know. All seven involved a full-back; only one included a midfielder. Dyche’s direct play has kept Burnley stubbornly in the Premier League for seven out of eight years and the last six in a row, but they weren’t at Barcelona.
Even though Burnley didn’t do much, they were still more connected, in a way, than Everton, who passed on the edges of their 4-4-1-1 but practically nowhere else. Only 76 out of 110 position combinations in this formation were on average equal a complete passes between them every 90 minutes, the lowest number in the league. The good news is that the formation – a drastic simplification of previous seasons – was only used at the start of the last one, and even Rafa Benítez had given it up in favor of a 5-4-1 before being substituted by Frank Lampard in January. .
The most symmetrical: There’s no real reason to prefer symmetry in a passing network other than that it looks pretty. Still, it’s worth noting that for all the different actors and roles that have gone through Manchester CityWith a fluid 4-3-3, the season’s averages are fairly well balanced, even at fullback.
Leeds‘ the occasional 4-2-3-1 might be the next most symmetrical. As hectic as their man-focused positioning might seem off the ball, they always found their form in possession, pinching tight defensive midfielders to cover wide centre-backs, who shoveled the ball to full-backs and wingers creating most of the team’s passing value at scale.
The most compact: Ralf Rangnick may not have had much luck implementing his aggressive counter-pressing style at Manchester United, but his team at least got his message about the value of compactness, trimming their passing network from the fourth-longest connection in 2020-21 to the shortest last season. Rangnick coached his team to stay “fit, tight and tight” off the ball and play forward quickly when they got it.
The most common: Compactness is a matter of taste. There is an old axiom in football that a team should shrink the playing area when they don’t have the ball and make it as big as possible when they do. by Brendan Rodgers Leicester made the second part when they played in a 4-2-3-1, keeping their full-backs and left winger wide and their centre-forward stretching the line high up the pitch for an extremely extensive passing network.
Position with the highest share of passes by a team: Back three form defensive anchors led this list, with Brightonthe middle of the center back (usually Lewis Dunk) and his chelsea counterpart (usually Thiago Silva) tied at 16.3% of their team’s successful passes. Including all passing attempts, the leader was Leicesteris the left central defender in a 4-2-3-1 (most often Caglar Soyuncu).
These players can be too important to their team: Research suggests that more centralized passing networks, where some positions are more influential than others, are less successful.
Lowest Pass Share: Centre-forwards don’t make many passes. Centre-forwards with the misfortune of playing for Norwich complete even less. Teemu Pukki led his relegation-bound side in the value of the passes he received, but had no one close to combine with playing in a heavy 4-3-3.
At the other end of the field, Manchester Unitedgoalkeeper, David de Gea, had the lowest share of his team’s passing attempts. One of the last pure stoppers from a wealthy club, De Gea has accounted for just 3% of United’s passes in their usual 4-2-3-1, where his disappearing red dot looks like a speck of accidental dust behind an otherwise healthy passage network.
Highest share of pass value: No player was more important to his team’s progress on the ball than Aston Villa Right Central Midfielder, John McGinn. His hyper-direct distribution accounted for 21.1% of the team’s positive pass value as he repeatedly pushed the ball into areas where Villa were more likely to score. McGinn’s pass rate of 74.0%, near the bottom of Premier League central midfielders, was a compromise Villa were happy to accept.
Highest share of receipt value: Passing value isn’t just created by the player behind the ball – receivers matter too. After Pukki, whose 30.5% share of Norwich’s receiving value led the league, the next two leaders in possession value for passes received were Newcastle centre-forward in a 4-3-3 and Burnley is the left striker in a 4-4-2.
Notice what these have in common? It’s mostly the same guy: Chris Wood, who may have helped turn the Premier League relegation race around when he took his talents to Tyneside in January.
Want more? It’s the same for the championship, on which we leave you to look.