One of my biggest pet peeves when watching a game of football is what I’ll term the faux-forwards pass (if you can think of something that sounds less pretentious, please let me know). What I mean by this is the pass sideways, often into lots of space, that although progressing the ball vertically up the pitch, does not actually get the team closer to scoring a goal. This is almost always made worse by the fact that this is often greeted by cheers and encouragement from the crowd (see also: corners). It’s a distaste for this habit Tom Payne at Huddersfield also seems to share:
Why do I bring this up? Well, over the course of the season, it’s felt like the 15/16 Middlesbrough has done this a lot. This probably wasn’t helped by the signing of Jordan Rhodes, who offers little in build-up and for whom the rest of the team seem to love crossing to at the expense of other (probably more fruitful) methods of attack.
More specifically, I’ve been struck by how much more impotent build-up has seemed when level versus when Middlesbrough have been in the lead, especially when it comes to faux-forward passes. At a quick glance, it seems like this isn’t just me and this is a pattern supported by the data.
The following image shows the angle of passes originating in zone 14 (the central area in front of the box) at different game states for the 14/15 and 15/16 seasons. The length of each bar corresponds to the number of passes in that direction. If other words, if there are a lot of passes towards the goal, there will be a large bar pointing up.
A few things are immediately apparent. At close game states, Middlesbrough’s attack is clearly far more skewed towards the right wing compared to a relatively symmetrical distribution last season, as well as being perhaps slightly less vertical. This is likely in part due to Emilio Nsué’s emergence as first choice right back (Nsué captained Equatorial Guinea and played at centre forward in last year’s AFCON). I think it’s also fair to attribute some of this to Stewart Downing, who plays the sideways pass to Adomah/Nsué fairly frequently (this is all the more painful, when he (occasionally) is capable of things like this).
Meanwhile at +1 and -1 (leading and trailing by one goal, respectively), there seem to be significant differences in how the ball is played from the central attacking area. When trailing this year, it would seem like the team has been significantly less direct (at least in this area) than they were previously. That said, it’s worth noting that Karanka’s Middlesbrough are not a team that goes behind very often, so these numbers may be distorted due to sample size. On the other hand, at +1 it would seem that despite passing the ball forwards more, the team is actually penetrating the box less; last, the attack seemed to be more focused through the channels.
These aren’t great signs for Middlesbrough’s attacking play and the turnover of players at the sharp end of the pitch this summer can’t have helped. However, it seems unlikely that Karanka will tweak the tactical scheme that has got him this far and to be fair to him, it will probably get Boro promoted anyway; the man can coach a mean defence (someone also needs to have a serious chat to whoever’s organising the transfer strategy but that’s n issue for another time).
The last question to ask is how the passing pattern displayed above compares to the average. How do teams normally pass from zone 14 at different game states. Perhaps surprisingly, the overall pattern seems relatively robust across game states, at least for the Championship: