Forget traditional soccer positions: We explore a novel philosophy that redefines roles on the pitch

Raheem Sterling will not play down the left wing in the same way that Sadio Mane does, much less Cristiano Ronaldo, when he is placed in that area

It was the year 2015 and Antonio Gagliardi he did the work for which he was paid: thinking about football. There was something in the way we talked about the sport that the Italian Football Federation analyst didn’t like at all. It was there that a light bulb went off: “Roles should not be defined by position, but by function.”

In other words: it makes little sense to talk about a right-back, when different players in that position are asked to do different things. What Benjamin Pavard does with Bayern is very different from how Trent Alexander-Arnold operates with Liverpool. Or we also have the cases of Jorginho with Chelsea and Casemiro with Real Madrid, two central midfielders who withdraw a lot, right? While their heatmaps may be similar, the things they do on the pitch are totally different.

Gagliardi partnered with statistical analysis company Soccerment to create an entirely different way of categorizing footballers, based on their roles. Using the data collected by the company Opta over the last five seasons and some algorithms of their own, they analyzed the Five Major Leagues in Europe and created 13 “groups” to define the outfield players based on their contributions or, better yet, their collaborative efforts. . For example, a winger who repeatedly tries to take on one-on-one duels and outflank an opponent instead of, say, crossing or entering the opponent’s box to create is defined a certain way, regardless of whether or not he succeeds.

You might ask if we don’t have the classic chicken and egg dilemma here. That is to say: did they define a type of player in terms of, say, trying X number of crosses, and number of dribbles and Z number of shots? Or did they just let the algorithm do its thing and rank players by statistical categories, grouping the categories that come up naturally?

They did the latter, helping to remove any bias you might have about what a feature should look like. And they ended up with 13 pretty different groups, based on player tendencies. The only thing missing was naming the groups (and here, the nomenclature might seem a little weird, but bear with me. This is your first try).

We have ball-stoppers (Cristian Romero, Tottenham), play-setting initiators (Virgil van Dijk, Liverpool) and frontline breakers (Kalidou Koulibaly, Naples). We can also see controllers on the wings (Pavard, Bayern Munich), wing creators (Achraf Hakimi, Paris Saint-Germain) and chance creators (Kevin deBruyne, Manchester City).

Likewise, we have ball thieves (Eduardo Camavinga, Real Madrid), playmaker directors (Thiago Alcántara, Liverpool); attackers back and forth (Nicolo Barella, Inter) and ‘one-on-one’ explorers (Vinicius Junior, Real Madrid). Next, we have mobile definers (Mohammed Salah, Liverpool), integral finishers (Robert Lewandowski, Bayern) and scorers (Sebastian Haller, Borussia Dortmund).

And obviously, we have hybrid players. The contributions of some soccer players place them in multiple groups. the star of PSG Kylian Mbappe falls into the mobile definer and scout ‘one-on-one’ categories. Joao Cancelo ranks highly as a wing creator and chance creator, something that makes sense to anyone who has watched the City and his Portuguese side (as he would have been classified in the previous generation) enter the rival area and assist. The defender of Real Madrid David Alaba It could be the most hybrid of all: it is located in five different groups.

A collateral effect of the grouping project reveals something that many already suspected: certain functions are much more predominant in successful teams. Great teams tend to have more creators (in the chances and wing creators categories), more players involved in playmaking, and fewer stoppers and stealers. Part of it is intentional: they own the ball more often and require more players who can work with it. However, it probably also serves as a reflection of the imbalance of resources in football today, with the big teams attracting (some might say ‘hoarding’) most of the talent.

The creators of this project admit that there is a huge room for improvement. For starters, there is more advanced and detailed data, both in terms of events, pressure and tracking. And obviously what a player does on the pitch depends on other factors ranging from who his teammates are, his team’s style of play, or the instructions a coach gives his team. They perceive their work as a starting point on which to build.

However, the concept on which it is based is evident. And he shows us how football evolves and the way in which, perhaps, it has surpassed the traditional nomenclature. Just as basketball has done, in multiple ways. We used to have a point guard who dribbled and passed, a shooting guard who shot, a small forward who carried the ball to the basket, a taller power forward who stayed close to the paint; while the center was the tallest on the team and is concerned with rebounding, blocking baskets and posting. Now, much of this traditional philosophy has disappeared. Now the focus is on individual skills, rather than defined positions.

Obviously, basketball is a more fluid sport; however, soccer has its own fluidity. Does it make sense to say that Liverpool play a 4-3-3 scheme when, when it comes to possession of the ball, Alexander-Arnold Y Andy Robertson advance much more than flyers? Or analyze the case of Sergio Busquets in the Barcelona. The culé squad theoretically plays under a 4-3-3 system; however, when they have the ball, the full-backs go up, the centrals split up and Busquets sneaks between them, becoming a de facto three-defense line.

We already recognize differences in abilities, often without realizing it. Raheem Sterling he won’t play down the left wing in the same way he does Sadio Manea lot less Cristiano Ronaldo, when placed in that area. Most understand it. Think of it as a possible next evolutionary step in our process of understanding football.

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Forget traditional soccer positions: We explore a novel philosophy that redefines roles on the pitch