Many a football fan has passionately debated about which players were “the best.” But, it’s always been just a matter of opinion. Unlike baseball and basketball, there isn’t a lot of statistical information detailing how each football player contributes to a match as football is one of the most difficult sports to analyze quantitatively due to the complexity of the play and to the nearly uninterrupted flow of the ball during the match.
But researchers at Northwestern University, USA, lead by Luís Amaral, have used generalized methods from social network analysis to generate networks in which players are represented by nodes and arcs represent successfully completed passes. They also incorporated shooting information by including two non-player nodes, “shots to goal” and “shots wide”.
They found that the more ways a team has for a ball to travel and finish on a shot, the better that team is. And, the more times the ball goes through a given player to finish in a shot, the better that player performed.
This allowed them to rank the performance of all the players of the tournament, and identify players who had influential contributions in a specific match or during the entire tournament. Their results closely matched the general consensus of sports reporters who covered the matches as well as the team of experts, coaches and managers that subjectively chose players for the “best of” tournament teams. For example, eight of the top twenty players identified by Amaral, including Xavi and Fabregas, also appeared on the “team of the tournament” selected by the UEFA technical team.
- Quantifying the Performance of Individual Players in a Team Activity
J. Duch, J. S. Waitzman, L. A. N. Amaral,
PLoS ONE 2010, 5(6), e10937.