Making the First Pass: Glen Kamara shines in Rangers draw with Hibernian

courtesy of SNS

courtesy of SNS

written by: @TheGersReport

Last season, I stumbled upon an extended quote from an NHL coach about how he measures “how fast his team is playing” by tracking what his team does once they regain possession. Do they play ‘north-south’ & drive possession up the ice…or do they recycle possession & play ‘east-west’? I did a bigger write-up about this in the original post from November 2017 in my first attempt to track this stat in a Rangers loss to Dundee.

This past weekend, I decided to dust off this kind of game tracking for Rangers match with Hibs to see what could be learned. A quick synopsis of what I’m looking for when collecting this data:

Each time Rangers regained possession from Hibs on Friday, I kept track of whether the player moved the ball…

  • North (forward) with a controlled pass or dribble

  • South (passing backwards)

  • East/west (passing side-to-side to a teammate)

Additionally, I tracked where the possession began (defensive third, midfield, the attacking third) & whether Rangers were able to transition the ball into the final third. If that did happen, I also accounted for shots created or any other positive results (free kick, corner, throw-in, ball into danger zone with a teammate in position to create a chance). I also parsed out the results based on the Game State (the score of the match) to find out what happened to Rangers play before & after they scored & then after Hibs equalized.

Nerd Note: I didn’t count the times a Rangers header was attempting to regain possession. I only counted the times in which they could make a controlled play (pass, dribble, or kicked clearance) after Hibs lost possession in the run of play.

During the match, there were 70 times Rangers regained possession in open play & had a controlled play to make. They moved the ball forward with a controlled pass or dribble 59% of the time, played the ball backwards 19% of the time, played it ‘east/west’ 14% of the time, & relied on a clearance up the pitch 14% of the time.

That doesn’t mean much until we add some context to the numbers…

Defensive Third

Rangers earned possession in the defensive third 26 times & the first pass/dribble went forward 54% of the time, backwards 8% & east/west 8%.  Rangers defenders looked to simply clear the ball up the pitch 38% of the time.

In transition, Rangers were pretty effective at driving possession through the zones into the final third. When they didn’t rely on a clearance, Rangers were able to transition from the defensive third into the attacking third on 50% of those regained possessions. For some comparison, Rangers only managed to do that on 17% of the time in that loss to Dundee last season.

courtesy of Andrew Milligan (PA Wire)

courtesy of Andrew Milligan (PA Wire)

Here is the individual breakdown of each player & the first pass they made after earning possession in the defensive third.

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*PR means plays that end in a positive result in the attacking third (shot, corner, free kick, throw-in)

Earlier this season, I highlighted that Connor Goldson’s play out of the back could end up being a hinderance to Rangers’ transition game. First, I looked at how he looked to get the ball out of the defensive third when he had won possession & how his tendency to rely on clearances meant that the ball was just going to come right back at the Rangers defence.

Then, I looked at his passing stats from Europa League matches to evaluate his ability as a ball-playing center back (along with the other center backs from Rangers & Celtic).

Goldson was the outlier & not in a good way.

In the match against Hibs, Goldson regained the ball nine times in the defensive third & relied on booted clearance up the pitch 78% of the time. As a team, Rangers had 10 such clearances & only one led to Rangers establishing possession in the attacking third.

Interestingly, for a separate project I have tracked 145 Defensive Third Exits by center backs from different leagues & when they rely on a clearance…it leads to possession in the attacking third…10% of the time (the same as Rangers rate on Friday).

Back to the numbers from the Hibs match, you can see that Goldson & Joe Worrall combined for 16 possession regains & 31% of those led to Rangers successfully transitioning into the attacking third. Joe Worrall’s ability to make a controlled pass rather then rely on a clearance is what really drives those results.

Besides the two center backs, it clearly was Glen Kamara who had the biggest impact on triggering the transition out of the final third. Whether it be with a controlled pass or by dribbling the ball out, Kamara looked to drive the play forward & this resulted in successful transitions into the final third a couple of times & both of those led to shots (including Rangers only goal).

This is when Kamara first gains possession in an opportune situation to trigger a counter attack with Arfield & Candeias (the eventual goal scorer) ready to join him in attack. Also notice that half of Hibs’ 10 positional players are now suddenly behind the ball.

This is when Kamara first gains possession in an opportune situation to trigger a counter attack with Arfield & Candeias (the eventual goal scorer) ready to join him in attack. Also notice that half of Hibs’ 10 positional players are now suddenly behind the ball.

Kamara has decisively decided to carry the ball up the pitch. This is the unique skill-set that he brings to the holding midfield role. Does a Ross McCrorie or Ryan Jack make this kind of play transitioning from one box to the other by dribbling up the pitch?    Umm…no.

Kamara has decisively decided to carry the ball up the pitch. This is the unique skill-set that he brings to the holding midfield role. Does a Ross McCrorie or Ryan Jack make this kind of play transitioning from one box to the other by dribbling up the pitch?

Umm…no.

Kamara has carried the ball all the way to the doorstep of the final third & has Candeias open to his right as Hibs defenders have marked the more central options (Morelos & Arfield).

Kamara has carried the ball all the way to the doorstep of the final third & has Candeias open to his right as Hibs defenders have marked the more central options (Morelos & Arfield).

Kamara finally makes the pass after transitioning the ball from box-to-box all on his own. This will lead to Candeias’ initial shot & then eventually Rangers only goal.

Kamara finally makes the pass after transitioning the ball from box-to-box all on his own. This will lead to Candeias’ initial shot & then eventually Rangers only goal.

Midfield

Rangers started a new possession 30 times in the midfield (remember I only count the times in which possession was lost by Hibs & claimed by Rangers).   Of those possessions, the first pass went forward 53% of the time, while it was played backwards 27% of the time, & the first pass went sideways 20% of the time.

Rangers turned possession into a successful transition into the attacking third on 57% of the possessions that began in midfield.  When they did, it translated into a shot on only 6% of those successful entries into the final third.

Back when I tracked that Dundee match, I wrote:

This rate seems low, & the next step would be to study these plays to see how, why & when the possession broke down.
— The Rangers Report (November 2017)

In that match Rangers generated a shot on 22% of entries starting from midfield…against Hibs it was 6%. That’s bad.

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Logic dictates that if the first move after gaining possession is forward…that is the best way to create tempo, while cycling the ball to the side, or behind you will lead to a more deliberate pace. While Rangers did a decent job of getting the ball into the attacking third, not much came of those entries with only 29% of those entries leading to something positive.

There are two groups here, players who looked to get the ball forward & those who looked to recycle possession.

Group one includes Goldson, Worrall & Glen Kamara. That’s it. Two center backs & the team’s holding midfielder. They combined to move the ball forward 73% of the time they started a possession in midfield & that drove the transition into the final third 64% of the time.

The other group includes Tavernier, Jack, Candeias, Arfield, Halliday, & Kent. They combined to move the ball forward 44% of the time & as a result their possessions led to a final third entry 44% of the time. The wide players on this list moved the ball forward on their first pass chances 57% of the time.

courtesy of SNS

courtesy of SNS

Attacking Third

Rangers began a possession (after Hibs gave it up) in the attacking third eight times, which represents 11% of the regained possessions. Of those, six were played forward…but only 25% of these possessions led to shots.

Interestingly, Ryan Jack led the way with three of the eight possession regains in the final third. Tavernier, Arfield, Halliday, Kent & Morelos each had one.

Totals

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If we stick with the theory that playing the first ball forward helps create more tempo in transition, then Glen Kamara was truly the only player creating that tempo nearly every time he won possession for Rangers. Meanwhile, one of the team’s most direct players, Ryan Kent, ended up cycling the ball as much as he did pushing the play when he regained possession.

Team Trends by Game State

How a team plays while tied, or while protecting a lead or when chasing a lead can have a real impact on the numbers. Let’s see the trends for Rangers at each of the Game States from Friday.

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I’m not really sure what to make of this. In the first 43 minutes, when the scoreline was 0-0, Rangers averaged 0.79 possession regains per minute. In the next half hour or so, they played with the lead but still were regaining possession at a steady rate. Then, either because of fatigue (only one sub was used) or because they were mentally shook…Rangers only averaged 0.29 possession regains per minute in the final 17 minutes of the match.

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The data suggests that Rangers still looked to drive possession with a high tempo when they regained possession in midfield, with them actually being more direct when they played with a lead then when the match was 0-0. Obviously they really looked to push the pace after the score was tied. The problem here is that they simply weren’t winning back possession at the same rate as earlier in the match.

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For the match, Rangers only transitioned a possession regain into the final third 45% of the times they began in the defensive third or in midfield. While the previous set of data suggests Rangers were more direct in that half hour they played with the lead, it wasn’t working. It’s likely Hibs made some adjustments to pressure the ball more given that only 25% of Rangers possession regains led to the ball being carried into the final third. This is where a performance analyst would need to assess what happened so the team can make the necessary adjustments moving forward.

Some notes…

  • A lot of the team numbers are pretty similar to that Dundee match I tracked in 2017. But it’s interesting to note - in that match the center backs (Danny Wilson & Ross McCrorie) accounted for 24% of the possession regains. In the Hibs game, Goldson & Worrall accounted for 40%. It’s only two isolated matches - 16 months apart - but it seems like Rangers center backs are having a much bigger role in the build up play this season.

  • I mentioned a side project I’m working on tracking Defensive Third Exits. I’ve tracked three matches involving Connor Goldson (a very small sample size)…but of Goldson’s 24 exit attempts….21 have been clearances. In the study so far, 10% of clearances lead to possession in the final third, while 49% of Controlled Exits (dribbles, controlled passes) lead to transitions into the attacking third. In the matches tracked, only one of Goldson’s clearances led to Rangers establishing possession in the final third (5%).

  • In that study I began doubting if center backs really could deliberately rely on Controlled Exits to trigger transition play…but then I discovered a prospect in the German second division. I tracked a match just to watch David Bates (who looked good but played it safe with his clearances). On the other team was a 20-year old named Rick van Drongelen who appeared to make a concentrated effort to refrain from the simple clearance…to take an extra second on the ball to look for a controlled passing outlet. It was glorious…as each & every time he made that controlled exit…the ball transitioned into the final third. That was some Modern Fitba shit right there.

  • I like this kind of data…individual matches tracked for specific statistics that help evaluate transitional play. I used to do a lot of work with Final Third Entries & found the results would uncover a lot of positives that were slipping past the eye test. I’ve been tempted to give that kind of match tracking a go again.

  • This was written under the influence of Blonde Redhead & Bob Welch-era Fleetwood Mac.