A New Soccer Statistic Tries to Place a Value on the Invaluable

Perhaps more incisive than just looking at the overall packing number is focusing specifically on bypassed defenders, who are after all the last outfield players with a chance to stop a goal. Lionel Messi is on top this season with 18 bypassed defenders per game.

The method can also help draw comparisons between teams that play very different styles. “Bayern, P.S.G. and Barcelona have a lot of ball possession,” Keppler said. “Other teams counterattack and press high. Packing would measure the value of their overall method.”

Four games into the Premier League season, Liverpool was averaging 57 bypassed defenders, the best figure in the league. They had been bypassed an average of only 26 times, for a net of plus-30, comfortably the best as well. They were followed in net bypassed defenders by Manchester City (18), and Bournemouth (15). At the bottom of the table is West Ham at minus-25.

And teams with good packing numbers are usually good teams. “If you have the quality to have a really good buildup, then you can see it on a statistical basis that those teams are more successful,” Keppler said.

In the World Cup, no one bypassed more defenders than Belgium, the surprising semifinalists.

Over the last year, references to packing have turned up more and more on blogs and message boards of statistically savvy fans. In that regard, it seems to be approaching the hotness of expected goals, or xG, the most buzzed-about advanced stat of the last few years. That statistic is built around shots taken, so, again, defensive midfielders like Hegeler and Reinartz are mostly left outside its measurements.

The de-emphasis on scoring could be a reason to fault the new stat. A series of moves that gets the ball up field and past several opposing players would score well in a packing discussion. But it would little benefit the team if an attacker then gave the ball away or shanked a shot.

Hegeler now plays for Bristol City in England, while Reinartz is retired. But their company, Impect, is thriving, collecting and selling packing data. Clients include ARD, the German broadcaster, and about 15 clubs, mostly in Germany. They have recently added Huddersfield Town, their first Premier League club.

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