Middlesbrough, Game States and Zone 14

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:

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 02.15.07

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.Rplot23

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:



Attack, defence and Middlesbrough’s title hopes

Earlier today, Jonathan Taylor looked at whether a strong attack or defend would be more likely to win you the league. He concluded that over the past 10 seasons, being the league’s top team in either scoring or conceding alone was not enough to guarantee automatic promotion. This makes sense; no matter how many goals you score, if you’re conceding just as many, you are unlikely to win a huge amount of your matches and vice versa.

The relationship between final position and goals scored and conceded is shown on two chart below, along with Middlesbrough’s projected finishing values, assuming they continue at the same rate as they have done so far. While there is clearly a relationship in each case, it isn’t especially strong.



  • As we can see, Karanka’s side are by no means tearing up the league with their attack; Watford’s 2010/11 side finished with more goals (77) than Boro are projected to score and finished 14th. However, Middlesbrough are clearly within the right ballpark and would not be out of place int he top 2.



  • This is where Boro come into their own; they are clearly have an elite defence, worthy of any title-winning side.

Combined attack and defence

So where does that leave us? Well, we can combine attack and defence into one metric, Goal Ratio (often abbreviated to GR). Goal ratio is calculated by dividing goals scored by the sum of goals scored and goals conceded. As a result, it gives a number from 0 to 1, which is the proportion of goals scored by a team in their matches. This allows us to account for teams like 2010/11 Watford who, despite scoring a lot, concede a lot too and teams who don’t score as much, but have a tight defence. In this metric, Boro’s current performance matches up extremely well against teams of leagues past. Note also how much less variability in each position there is than when we looked at goals for or goals against; this suggests that it is a much more effective way to evaluate current performance.


Can this be sustained?

The final question to ask, is can Middlesbrough maintain their current Goal Ratio over the rest of the season. To do this I will look at some simple shots ratios.

Shots ratios

This plot shows Middlesbrough’s share of shots on target (SoTR/Shots on Target ratio, calculated in the same way as goals ratio) and their Goal ratio. There is a fuller explanation of what the plot is here, but in short this is useful because teams which have much higher Goal ratio than Shots on Target ratio tend to be unlikely to continue scoring at the same rate in the future. We saw this early on in the season with Charlton, who have now dropped down the table. Likewise, Norwich have been dominating games’ shots all season and are now rising further up the table.


Fortunately for Karanka, the black line and dashed line remain fairly close together, which suggests that it is unlikely for Middlesbrough’s Goal ratio to change hugely before the season ends.

While recent results and performances have by not been excellent, Middlesbrough’ underlying numbers remain strong and the team is well placed to challenge for an automatic promotion spot towards the end of the season. This is somewhat mitigated by the fact that in their remaining 13 games, they play each of the rest of the top 6, with 4 of those games away, but they can take encouragement in the fact that their promotion hopes are in their hands and that Karanka’s tactical nous has served them well in games versus their promotion rivals so far this season, with their underlying numbers and results staying strong even in tough periods of games: