Analyzing passing patterns against Marseille

I have made a few posts recently on here looking at Marseille’s distinctive defense but can’t help myself from dropping a third, and hopefully wider ranging and more informative post. I’ve looked at how other teams pass the ball against Marseille throughout the game as they strike a distinctive profile in many ways. This is very chart and graph heavy so if you hate those, this is not the article for you. If you can’t get enough of those, take a deep breath and jump in.

What the Marseille defense does well

-Keep the opposition offense from possessing the ball.

This is tied in with the offense, if you have an offense that completes a high % of their passes you keep the ball away from the opposition defense. However, PSG have a higher offensive pass completion rate and Lyon and Bordeaux have similar rates to Marseille and yet OM is in a class of its own as far as preventing completions.

-This is because they take the ball away quickly, especially at the start of the game: A takeaway is an interception, tackle, or ball recovery where the defense wins possession back. A few tackles that knock the ball out of play may be in the numbers but that will not significantly change the conclusion that Marseille are winning the ball back at a rate well above the rest of the league. They have the highest rate of takeaways in their own third and the midfield, and only PSG takes the ball away more in the opposition third.

-A big reason they take the ball away so much is their pressure forces teams to hit long balls up the field, which are easier to intercept. When the opposition has the ball in the midfield or their own third there are fewer options open due to the higher pressure which results in longer balls which are harder to complete and easier for Marseille to win the ball back.

-These long balls are hard to complete, especially against Marseille at the start of each half.

Just over 30% are completed, well ahead of the 2nd place team. This is likely because long balls against Marseille are less likely to be measured passes toward a clear target but more likely to be aimless boots vaguely forward to escape the pressure and avoid a more costly turnover deep in their own half.

-Opponents struggle to string long moves together

This is a pretty cool stat. It’s not one I am 100% confident in the accuracy of because it doesn’t factor in balls lost by dribbles and possessions ending in shots (a streak can continue after losing the ball that way) but it is still a rough way of seeing who is forcing you to move quick. And all of these stats emphasize the fact that Marseille make you move forward and do it fast or they will get the ball back. Most teams respond to this by hitting a long, inaccurate ball forward that is often won by Marseille.

So what goes wrong?

-With so many players pushed up the pitch and spread across the pitch, early in games Marseille can be cut open right down the gut.

The high-reward part of the press brings huge amounts of turnovers early in games as a frazzled opposition deals with the onslaught but there is still a high risk that if you get beat, the opposition will be in a good position and is able to put you at risk of conceding (middle of the pitch passes result in an assist or a scoring chance at 3 times the rate of a pass from the wings). Once the opposition make it into the attacking third, they take advantage by completing passes to the box at a very good rate.

This is a tradeoff almost every manager would make, a little extra sweat when the opposition breaks into your box is worth the big possession edge you are gaining, and the number of offensive chances taking the ball away will create. This is not the main tradeoff however, as anyone who watches Marseille or who has noticed the abundance of 1st half charts so far will know, it’s the fact that the game lasts 90 minutes.

The in-game fade

Marseille’s defensive pressure falls away as the minutes tick by. There is a small fade at the end of the first half, after halftime they pick back up but the fade returns stronger than in the first half as the 70th minute nears. The opposition controls more of the ball as the game goes on (game is broken up into 4 “quarters” min 1-22, 23-45, 46-68, and 69 on):

Monaco, Lyon, PSG, and the Ligue 1 average are added in for reference. Teams in general (and those other 3) allow fewer completions as the game goes on. Marseille is the opposite. The next two graphs show how the pressure eases and the opposition has an easier time moving the ball around as the clock runs toward 90:

Takeaway rate drops
which goes hand in hand with the opposition completion rate increasing

What was a ferocious press in minute 1 that forced opponents into a lower pass completion rate and a higher rate of turnovers than any other defense has become league average at both by the end of the game. This would be ok if it was part of a strategy, maybe Marseille is sitting back more, bringing more players deep and shutting down the openings that come with a poor press. This is not the case. The long balls that were so hard to complete in the opening minutes of both halves (see chart above-32.4% is the number), become much easier as the game goes along:

Long balls are completed at 43% in the second and fourth “quarters”

This leads to opponents spending way more time in the attacking third than they did at the start of the game, as they make over 2.5 attacking third passes for every 1 own third pass late in the game: Only 3 teams (Nice, Rennes, and Bastia) allow a higher ratio from minute 68 on. The other 4 teams in the top 5 allow a ratio of 1.47 in that time span. The opposition having so much possession in the final third against a defense who can’t take the ball away anymore spells trouble, which comes in the form of total number of passes into the box completed (chances created and assists have a similar trend). I think that satisfies the claim that it’s easier to move the ball against Marseille as the game goes along. Another possible downside of the full-blast pressure from the opening whistle is it robs you of some tactical flexibility as the score changes. As noted soccer tactician Nigel Tufnel has mentioned before, when you need that extra push over the cliff, Marseille are already at eleven. They can’t increase the intensity of their press anymore to try and change the game.

You can see Lyon doesn’t change anything while Monaco and PSG immediately crank up their pressure to win the ball back more after falling behind. Marseille’s falling rate can be explained by the fact that even game states happen proportionally closer to the start of the game while trailing game states happen closer to the end, when the fade has started. The fade is powerful enough that Marseille has no response late in games, they can’t change their defense much because they have already gone to eleven. The ratio of attacking third completions/own third completions, % of passes into the box and long pass% allowed all look the same when Marseille is behind as when they are tied.

What about when they take the lead, do they sit back and become harder to break down? They get less takeaways:

The % of attacking third passes that result in assists or chances created increases (from 6.8 to 7.8%), the share of completions in the attacking third that end in the center of the pitch (where a chance is 3x more likely to be created from) drops but drops equally to the league average drop. (Marseille share drops from 29 to 26%, league average drops from 23.7 to 21.4%). However, two important stats do change when Marseille take the lead. First, share of possession. In the table below it is represented by share of total completions:

You can see that Marseille let the opposition have the ball a small but significant amount more when they take the lead. The other metric that changes is the share of opposition passes in the final third drops even though the league average rises in that game state.

So we see that Marseille do sit back, concede a bit of midfield and own third possession at the benefit of keeping teams out of the final third. However, many of the in-game trends that plague Marseille overall are also true when they lead, as their defense flags late on even if they have a lead. The completion % allowed rises late in the game and no one allows more chances as a percentage of total passes in the final quarter of a game with a lead than Marseille. This trend of tiring is getting worse as the season gets longer as well. Compare this season long plot:

to this plot of just game 21 onwards:

Opponents are setting up shop in the Marseille third even more as the year goes goes on. 3.5 passes for every pass in their own third as the game ends compared to 2.5 for the entire season. The pressure is dying off by minute 65 now.

Since game 21, Marseille is winning the ball back in the midfield and in the opposition third like an average team. The rate for their own third is similar as well. The gas light is on and the tank is nearing empty. This article is about passing patterns but those are useless if they don’t lead to shots and goals. Both of those categories climb as the end game nears.

Can we pinpoint certain players who drop off?

Sort of. We can look at tackling + INT per 90 rates in the first 60 minutes of games and compare it to the same players rates in the final 30 minutes.

Why I say sort of, is we don’t know if there is some shift to the players roles as the game goes along. If there isn’t and the players have the same roles and responsibilities throughout the game then it looks like Imbula, Morel, and Romao struggle to keep taking the ball away for all 90 minutes. Fanni, N’Koulou, Ayew and Dja Djedje do not have the same problems at all.

What have we learned?

-How effective Marseille’s press is, especially at the start of games, in disrupting the oppositions moves, forcing them into low-percentage long balls, and taking the ball away

-That if you can break the press, you have a good chance to get the ball in the center of the pitch in the attacking third and create a chance or get the ball into the box

-That the press dies down as the game goes on, those long balls turn into better propositions and the opposition can begin to set up shop in the Marseille final third as the game comes to an end.

-That Marseille can’t crank the pressure up anymore when they fall behind as they are already at eleven. They do break with the Bielsa run-at-all-costs philosophy a little bit as they sit back slightly when they take a lead. -That some players see their takeaway stats slip more than others late in games.

Are there any recommendations we can make?

Marseille have been very good this season. They sit in 4th in the table but have a good claim to being the 2nd best team in the league based on expG. They very well could make the Champions League, which would be a great result and mean it’s hard to criticize too much but there are a few things I’d wonder:

-Are Imbula, Morel, and Romao’s fitness levels not high enough to play this style for 90 minutes? If that’s the reason they are dropping off in the final 30 minutes, should 1-2 subs be used strictly to keep the high pressure up. -Does the intensity really need to be cranked to 11 from the get-go? It makes for thrilling watching but it also seems better suited to a 70 minute game and not a 90 minute game. The final 20 minutes, Marseille struggle to contain any opposing offense. If they want to keep up the heat for 90 minutes, they need better conditioning, use their subs simply for defense, or lower the intensity from the get-go.

-If they need to keep the intensity so high at the start of games and can’t condition or substitute their way to keeping plan A going strong, there needs to be a more distinct plan B. Plan B might be attacking less when they have the ball and having more tepid possession but something needs to be done to stop the late-game onslaught.

-If Marseille add a European competition in the UCL or the Europa League next year, things need even more of a rethink. There needs to be 4-5 more players added, increased conditioning from a few key players, they need to hold onto Ayew and his great defensive work, or step back the pressure bit. If they are already wearing out 33 games into this season, next year at this point they could easily be at 43 or more games. Hopefully you now know more about the Marseille press than you ever wished to before. Any questions, comments, arguments, or reactions are welcome on a comment here or @SaturdayOnCouch on twitter.

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