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Analysis: Zero-Sum Creativity

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In a tactic where either Clint Dempsey or Andreas Ivanschitz creates a chance, the opposing defense is too often the winner.

In my last missive, breaking down the Seattle Sounders' loss to Sporting Kansas City into 16 10-minute intervals, I noted that the burden of chance creation has fallen primarily on Clint Dempsey and Andreas Ivanschitz. Seattle managed a reasonable rate of chance creation only in the initial, high-energy start of the game and at the playing-from-behind, depressing end. Two losses further into the season, that relationship persists.

ZeroSum1

We now have 48 10-minute intervals of play. The box-and-whisker plot depicts the distribution of Dempsey and Ivanschitz's combined share of team touches. More shots are strongly associated with the primary creators seeing more of the ball... not so much of a surprise, given the nature of a deliberately-built attack. More of a concern: The "0" and "1" bins account for 27 of the 48 intervals studied. Only eight of the remainder came with an even game state (encouragingly, four of those came against Vancouver). When the Sounders aren't playing from behind, they struggle to get the ball on the foot of their creative players, and often struggle to generate shots.

ZeroSum2

Part of the problem may be attributable to Dempsey and Ivanschitz occupying similar positions and roles in the attacking midfield. Ivanschitz moonlights in his envisioned 2015 role as an attacking winger, occasionally widening the attack towards the endline on the left. In the middle, the two attackers too often exchange any chances at the ball to the diminution of the other player's effectiveness (note how, if one were to draw a line from 12 to 12 on each axis, too many of the even game state data points fall along it; the average and 1 SD error bars are shown for each data set, showing that both players see increased usage most often when playing from behind).

Ironically... for all the complaints about Marco Pappa's tendency to cut inside as a winger, 2016's 4-3-3 has settled into a tactic that promotes that same confusion along the spine.

Some time ago I pointed out that an attack is a zero-sum game. Soccer tactics are set up to define who delivers the last few passes for a shot and who makes the attempt on goal, and to ensure that the chance comes from the best possible position. Early results on the season suggest too irregular a connection between the moving part of the attack, where the participation of one dangerous player in the buildup too often excludes the other.

ZeroSum3

Here we see all 48 intervals laid out as time progresses from the beginning of the season on the left to 0-3 on the right. On only 5-7 occasions do we see a simultaneous increase in touch percentage for both Dempsey and Ivanschitz (the bottom bar chart adds together their change from the previous time point), and many of these are tied to attacking in desperation.

Enhanced chance creation against Vancouver is an encouraging sign for Sigi Schmid's 4-3-3. But the season is to short and Seattle's expectations too high to simply let players work out the overlap in their natural roles if that leads to continued offensive stagnation.