Barcelona, Arsenal, Eden Hazard and the art of Danger Zone passing
"One pass too many." "Needlessly elaborate." "Why didn't he just have a go?"
These complaints arise every time an attack sputters out near the penalty area with a difficult pass that doesn't quite reach its target. Clubs that focus on intricate passing attacks through the center of the pitch, most famously Barcelona and Arsenal, regularly field such complaints from fans and pundits alike. And yet, statistical analysis can demonstrate the value of attempting that one extra pass within the penalty box.
The statistic here is something I call "danger zone passes." The "danger zone" is the region in the center of the 18-yard box from which most goals are scored. DZ passes refer to passes which are played from within a few yards of this central area.
In general, if you get the ball at your feet in this region, you typically have at least a five or 10 percent chance of scoring with a reasonably taken shot. Choosing to pass essentially means letting that opportunity go by, but there are great benefits to passing if you can connect with a teammate in a better position.
This chart shows the likelihood of scoring a regular shot (taken with the feet, not assisted by a cross, not following a set play) if it is assisted by a danger zone pass compared to if it is not.
It makes sense, of course. When a pass is received in or around the center of the box, defenders have to key on the player who received it. Another completed pass will eliminate those defenders who tracked the ball initially and defended the first attacker from the play. Even in a packed penalty area, a successful second pass will often create just enough of an opening for a big scoring chance.
This is why teams like Barcelona are constantly playing that extra pass. It is a strategy to create big chances, and the data bears out that this is of particular benefit to the Blaugrana.
Over the past three seasons, Barcelona have attempted 180 shots assisted by a danger zone pass and scored 59 of them. No other team has attempted more than 130 shots or scored more than 40 goals. Barcelona are followed, at some distance, by Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. Despite regularly finishing outside the Premier League title race, Arsenal still outperform Chelsea and Manchester City by this measure.
The key to Barcelona's excellence this season has been unleashing Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez to create around the danger zone. Barca's attack is less focused on their midfield but in the final third, many concepts remain the same. They make the extra pass and create more goals for it.
The question in the Champions League is whether any defense in the world can prevent Barcelona from stringing together these key passes. After calmly demolishing Paris Saint-Germain in the quarterfinals and dominating Bayern Munich in the semifinals, Barcelona look like clear favorites to lift the Champions League trophy this season and their unmatched interior passing is a big reason why.
At Barcelona, it is obviously the three forwards who facilitate these danger zone passing moves. Indeed, one of the striking things about this statistic is how it often identifies the best passing strikers. The player most likely to receive passes around the danger zone is of course the center-forward, who is therefore the player with the most opportunities to play these sorts of passes. It is notable that the best DZ passing attacks in England all depend on forwards who can play a good pass in tight areas.
Despite limited minutes, both Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck show up among the top Premier League players in danger zone passes either completed or received. A pass received in a good scoring position is a shooting opportunity but for more intricate attacking teams, that received pass is also an important creative opportunity. Forwards who can pass in tight spaces are absolutely necessary to such attacks.
At the same time, the danger zone passing statistics can identify simply great attacking players who might otherwise not have the statistical record to demonstrate their greatness. Such is the case in the Premier League this season with Eden Hazard.
The statistic backs up what many observers have noted. Hazard's 13 goals and eight assists are good numbers, but they fail to fully capture his brilliance. When good things happen for the Blues in attack, one can be confident that a Hazard run, pass or dribble was involved. Among Premier League players, Hazard dominates in danger zone passing because he is so skilled at getting free in tight spaces near goal to either play or receive a pass.
To dominate these numbers as a midfielder is even a step more impressive. Hazard does not naturally take up positions in front of goal initially but must make runs against his defender, either on or off the ball, in order to get there. While goals and assists do not quite demonstrate the Belgian's greatness, danger zone passing stats place Hazard at the top of the league where he belongs.
Such interior passes lead to goals at impressive rates. Across Europe it is Barcelona who make the best use of such passes while in England, no one is better at facilitating them than Eden Hazard. It is not a surprise that Barcelona are the Champions League favorites and Eden Hazard has won the Player of the Year award.
Michael Caley is a writer bringing a statistical approach to football analysis. Follow him on Twitter: @MC_of_A.