The theory of categorising different teams and their styles

The theory of categorising different teams and their styles


Did you ever play Pokemon? If not, the concept isn’t too hard to understand.The Japanese phenomenon centred around fighting various monsters against each other. While no two monsters were the same, they would broadly be categorised. There would be fire monsters, water monsters, electric monsters…each individual Pokemon would belong to a larger denomination.


These denominations mattered. A fire Pokemon would probably not do so well against a water Pokemon, who in turn would struggle against an electric Pokemon.


While the Scottish Premiership is miles away from this Japanese fantasy land, there are parallels between the two. The principle of ‘nesting’ teams into different categories is gaining traction in the world of football. While no two teams are the same, the chances are they play roughly similar stuff to another team.


This is useful for a number of reasons. From a recruitment standpoint, you’re better off buying players from a club who play a similar style to you. So many transfers we see across European football are the equivalent of smashing a square peg in a round hole.


Good player, wrong team?


Take Carlos Pena for example. In his six months at Ibrox, there was clear evidence that the Mexican was a talented footballer. His ability to trap the ball under pressure and his predatory penalty box runs were obvious markers of quality. However, his work off the ball was so negligible, it cancelled out any of his positive traits.




Bad player? No. Bad for the team? Yes. Here’s how Club León lined up in 2015 when Pena  was at his most successful: Martinez; Hernandez, Megallon, Gonzalez, Delgado; Vazquez, Pena; Loboa, Arrechea, Montes; Britos.


The 4-2-3-1 with narrow wingers is not a formation you really see in Scottish football. During his time at Rangers, Pena was never used as a holding midfielder either. Not only did Pena come to a country with a different climate, culture and language, he also played in a new position in a new system. In hindsight, it’s no wonder he failed to stay in the Rangers team.


Beyond recruitment, there’s also the match day preparation aspect. It goes without saying that teams adapt their game to inflict maximum suffering on their opponents. Say you know that Team X plays a very similar style of football to Team Y. If you recently beat Team X with a certain tactic, chances are you should prepare similarly for Team Y.


So how might we go about quantifying a style of play? Let’s start with the speed of an attack. A good proxy for this would be how many minutes of possession it takes for a team to generate a shot:



So no surprises that Celtic are top of the list. The champions tend to dominate games, clocking up the shots as the game progresses. However, it is interesting to note that Kilmarnock have the second quickest in the league. Do Killie and Celtic play the same style of football? Absolutely not.


Adding in other factors


So we’ll have to add in a second factor to this discussion: aggression in defence.


Generally, teams either defend on the front foot and actively attempt to regain possession, or they sit back, hold tight and wait for their opponent to make a mistake.


One way to measure this is how long it takes each team to get an interception when they’re out of possession. Players obviously don’t pass to opponents on purpose, so for an opposing player to make an interception, they usually have to leave their defensive structure. In doing so, they are making a conscious decision to pick the first school of defending mentioned: actively trying to win the ball back.


Of course, the reverse is true. Teams usually have lower interceptions because they want to prioritise maintaining their defensive structure and avoid leaving gaps for opponents to pass through.


Let’s see how Scottish Premiership teams shake out in this regard:



Now, the difference between Celtic and Kilmarnock is clear. Celtic are the league’s quickest at making an interception; Kilmarnock are the league’s slowest. To those familiar with the respective teams, this makes sense. Rodgers’ side are known for putting immediate pressure on opponents when they lose the ball. On the other hand, Steve Clarke’s Killie are better known for sitting deep and then hitting through quick counter attacks.


Defining by ‘type’ of football


Looking at these two stats together, we start to paint a picture of which “type” of football each club plays.



This work was done on a fairly basic level, and yet there are some patterns already cropping up. Aberdeen have only won two of their eight games against teams in the bottom left quadrant. Against everyone else, their win rate is 78%.


Against teams in the top left quadrant (three of the bottom four), Hibs only have two wins from five. Partick Thistle are yet to beat a team with an aggressive attack.


As you add more data and test more correlations, you can get closer and closer to quantifying each team’s style of football. Once you do that, the benefits are clear: you can quickly identify which players would suit your team’s style of play, and which would be best avoided. You can not only see which type of teams your next opponent plays like, you can also see who they struggle against, then plan accordingly.


In the data arms race, clubs are doing everything they can to sneak an advantage. You can be sure that the top ones are doing something very similar to this.

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