How Network Theory Is Revealing Previously Unknown Patterns in Sport

16. September 2014

Date: 16-09-2014
Source: Technology Review

Analysing the network of passes between soccer players reveals that one of the world’s most successful teams plays an entirely different type of football to every other soccer team on the planet.
Network Theory Soccer
If you’ve ever watched soccer, you’ll know of the subtle differences in tactics and formation between different teams. There is the long ball game, the pressing game, the zone defence and so on. Many teams have particular styles of play that fans admire and hate.

Innovations are common, with teams constantly adopting or abandoning new tactics. And given the international nature of football, new ideas spread rapidly, as players and coaches move from one team and country to another.

So it’s easy to imagine that it’s hard to play a truly unique brand of football, using tactics and skills that no other team copies.

That’s not quite true, say Laszlo Gyarmati at the Qatar Computing Research Institute and a few pals. These guys have used a network theory approach to characterise the play of all the top teams in Spain, Germany, Italy, France and England. And they say this metric reveals that while many teams share similar styles of play, one team stands out as truly unique, playing a style of football that no other team can match.

Football aficionados won’t be surprised to learn that that side is the Spanish team FC Barcelona, one of the most successful soccer teams on the planet. Barcelona have pioneered a type of football called tiki-taka that no other team has been able to master (with the notable exception of the Spanish national side, which generally has a large contingent of Barca players in its ranks).

Tiki-taka is characterised by rapid short passes and fast movement by the players. The idea is to dominate possession of the ball. That’s in sharp contrast to conventional tactics that focus on player formations. Read the rest of this entry »