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Ball Progression, Shot Creation, and Villarreal

Villarreal CF v CA Osasuna - La Liga Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

I’m a stats nerd. Let that be the preface to everything you are about to read. So, with getting loads of new data, I’ve been chomping at the bit for about two weeks now to dive into some ball progression and chance creation numbers for Villarreal from this season. I’ll lay out the data with some commentary along the way, then draw some conclusions at the bottom.

Ball progression

The first thing I want to look at is progressive carry distance distance (distance in yards moved toward an opponents goal with the ball at a given player’s feet) per 90 minutes. A stat like this needs a touch of filtering, because Javier Ontiveros leads the team in it, and the reason why is that he plays a relatively low number of minutes and is a very active dribbler. So what we are going to do in order to make sure we are working with a good sample size is only talk about players who have more than 11 total 90s worth of minutes played (or about 1000 minutes). Here’s what our team leaders look like in this metric.

data from (rounded)

As you’ll see I rounded most of the numbers off to make this a bit cleaner and easier to work with and sorted the list by progressive distance per 90. This list should be further subdivided positionally. Don’t try to compare Pau’s ball-carrying stats to Moi Gomez’, because Moi gets the ball more often in an area of the pitch where there is much more pressure and therefore he doesn’t get a lot of the ‘free’ yardage that a CB would when the ball is recycled backward and he can just take a several yard touch towards the center line and get progressive distance.

If we’re grouping by positional groups, notice how much more Ruben Pena progresses the ball with his feet than our other fullbacks do. It’s actually quite remarkable. He is so much more involved, carries the ball further, and carries the ball further per opportunity than Mario does and it’s not even particularly close. Similarly, Zambo has spent time both playing Iborra’s role and also in a slot similar to what Trigueros plays, and yet he progresses the ball much better than either with his feet (which is a great example of why he shouldn’t be played as a ‘defensive midfielder’). In terms of ball progression, Mario and Iborra are giving us practically nothing. Their numbers are most comparable to our goalkeeper.

When it comes to progressive passing, there are some noteworthy numbers too. Progressive passing, again, only counts passes forward down the pitch and how much distance they cover. Again, this is something that needs to be grouped positionally. The fullbacks especially, and also the CBs, and keeper do very well in progressive passing distance because they are usually not under much pressure and there is a lot of field in front of them when they go to make a pass. That said, a very interesting number tracked at fbref is progressive passes per 90, a progressive pass needing to travel at least 10 yards up the pitch to count in the metric. Santi Cazorla dominates here, averaging 8.42/90. Trigueros comes in at 6.42, Chukwueze and Zambo put up an almost identical number around 4.2.

The other ball progression number I want to point out, while we are here, is passes into the final third. Santi Cazorla and Manu Trigueros, as you’d expect, dominate this stat, with Santi at 6.9 passes into the final third per 90 and Trigueros at 6.49. Of the players listed above, Zambo comes in next at 4.17 per 90. It’s worth noting that Chukwueze, despite being a great ball progresser off the dribble, only puts 1.6 passes into the final third per 90. He comes in second, behind Santi, in passes into the penalty area, which suggests what we’d all suspect which is that he receives the ball in the final third and then is active in trying to get the ball into the penalty area.

Chance creation

Key passes are a number we’ve had for a long time, but now fbref shot creating actions broken down into the following categories: live ball key passes, dead ball key passes, successful dribbles that lead to a shot, shots that lead to a follow up shot, and fouls drawn that lead to a shot (via a penalty or direct free kick). These are all filed under Shot Creating Actions (SCA). On a per 90 basis, it’s Santi Cazorla who leads the way with just over 5.02 SCA/90. Of those actions, 1.08 come from set pieces, and whether you interpret his overall number as being inflated by that is your call. If we count only live passes, Santi still wins, but Chukwueze is hot on his tail. Dribbles that lead to a shot attempt are, to no one’s surprise, led again by Chukwueze and followed by Gerard Moreno and Zambo Anguissa.

Shots that lead to a follow up shot are interesting to me, but the reason why I think they are worth tracking is that A. It generally means the shot was on target, and B. It means the ball was connected with well enough that the keeper or defender could not control it. The top three here might surprise you. We have Moi Gomez leading the way with Trigueros and Anguissa just behind. Of qualifying players, the top three in fouls drawn leading to a shot are of course led by Chukwueze, followed by Gerard, Santi, and Anguissa again.

Some conclusions

The biggest takeaway by far to me was that Zambo Anguissa is completely wasted played as a defensive midfielder. When watching him play as a DM I could tell it was not his main position, but what I didn’t really have a grasp of was just how special he can be progressing the ball and creating chances when given the opportunity. Given the fact that Santi Cazorla is 34, if there were any way to work out signing Zambo on permanently and playing him and Trigueros above a true defensive mid I think we could have a devastating midfield duo on our hands.

The next thing I noticed is that Mario and Iborra at this point just represent safe players. I think Iborra has it in him to play a little further forward and that part of his progression numbers are sourced from him refusing to step out of his role, and I appreciate that, but seeing as he only completes 46% of his tackles 25% of his pressures I’m really not seeing the defensive return that justifies how little offense he puts out. He’s basically a warm body out there that needs replacing. Mario completes a strong percentage of his tackles and tackles and so at least brings the defensive side of the game to the table, but as we have discussed before in the modern game his old school fullback approach is tactically limiting to the entire flank.

A couple of other minor notes as we conclude. Ontiveros really needs more minutes. Take away the minutes parameter and he’s in the mix per 90 minutes in almost all these stats. He’s only 22 years old, I think there’s a real player there. Given the general pecking order on the right wing that probably means a loan but I think in 2-3 years time we could be looking at one of the better wide men in La Liga. The other note is that Paco Alcacer, minute parameter or not, doesn’t score particularly high in a lot of these areas in his small Villarreal sample size. He’s only getting about 30 touches per 90, which is far less than other forwards on the roster. How much of this is on the player and how much is on the team not giving him service remains to be seen, but when football resumes we have to get him the ball more.