Dribbling Beats Centres

21 07 2008
Kids’ University — Dr. Daniel Memmert of the Institute of Sport and Sport Science, University of Heidelberg, punctures a few hoary old soccer myths
From an early age soccer players train almost every day. At the end of his professional career, a football player will have spent several thousand hours on the pitch improving his shooting prowess or optimising his efficacy in man-to-man duels. After all, it would be foolish to leave things to chance. But anyone who attended the lecture by sport scientist Dr. Daniel Memmert in the framework of the Kids’ University might start wondering whether so much training is really worth it. Memmert had a chastening message for his listeners: “47 percent of all the 920 goals in the period investigated were influenced by the factor of chance.”

Dr. Memmert had all kinds of other facts and figures to intrigue his diminutive audience with. Some of them would even have amazed the experts. It may not be all that surprising that in German League soccer about two-thirds of all goals scored come from passes from the wings. The really astounding thing is that only 0.8 percent of all attacks on goals originating on the wings actually lead to success. Charging through the middle is much more likely to get the ball into the net. Almost every tenth such attempt in the period under investigation was crowned with success. Especially effective are dribbling forays into the penalty area.

True, only 7 percent of the goals materialised after such dribbling attacks, but every 13th such attempt got the ball past the goalie. High centres, for example, are nowhere near as deadly. On average, the teams studied needed an average of 40 attempts before scoring a goal this way. And yet high centres are the weapon most frequently employed by soccer forwards. “Dribbling is much more effective because it’s much more likely to get you a penalty,” said Memmert. “And the shooting angle is better.” He also punctured a number of old soccer myths thought by many to be obvious platitudes. His colleagues have established, for example, that a goal in the first half is by no means as good for morale as is generally supposed.

Nor is it true that a team that has just scored a goal is much more likely to get one back in return. And players who have scored goals in two consecutive matches will not necessarily hit the mark in the third game as well. Another interesting fact is that so-called soccer experts are no better at forecasting outcomes than laypersons are, although the experts themselves naturally tend to believe that this is so. This, at least, is what the scientific studies on the matter have come up with.

Another much-rehearsed myth is that a player who has been fouled in front of goal should never take the resulting penalty himself. “It makes absolutely no difference,” the Heidelberg scientist proclaimed. “The goal chances are about 70 percent, whoever takes it.” The studies also indicate that a player who has been granted a penalty hardly ever gets a second one in the same game, even if it would have been justified. “Referees have trouble giving the same team two penalties in one match,” says Memmert. Otherwise, though, referees have a lot of whistling to do in the course of the 90 minutes. They have to make about 137 decisions in an average game, most of them (almost a third) about throw-ins. However, they make two-thirds of these decisions not on their own but with the help of the linesmen. Here the error rate is surprisingly high. “20 percent of the decisions are wrong,” says Memmert, who is also active in opponent analysis for the local soccer team 1899 Hoffenheim that has just entered the German premier league.

Add to those 20 percent the 47 percent of the goals influenced by chance and some soccer players may very well start asking themselves whether all the training effort is really worthwhile.
Andreas Wagner
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