The signature passing moves that explain why this Premier League title race is so close – The Athletic

By John Muller6h ago

What if the story of the Premier League title race could be told in two passes?

Not two particular passes. Any pair of passes. Every pair, in fact.

That’s impossible to do just by watching the games. Passes wash over you hundreds at a time, week in and week out, with the non-stop ping-ping-ping of an overcaffeinated group chat. You skim past most of them, pay attention to a few, and probably don’t remember much later, except a few zingers here and there. No offence to Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Mikel Arteta, but if you got a notification for every Premier League pass, you would have muted these guys years ago.

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Over time, though, the passes acquire a shape. Players start to vibe with each other. Rapports develop. Patterns proliferate like inside jokes. Lines of attack become as familiar as well-worn arguments. The basic unit of exchange is the passing pair, like a call and response: receive here like this, pass there like that. Tactics are a conversation.

Thanks to mountains of football data, we can scroll through the passes log and take the measure of the entire season, one pair of passes at a time, until the personality of each team emerges from the deluge of details. Whoever wins this very tight Premier League race — and at this point, frankly, your bet is as good as anyone’s — it will go down as a contest not just of wills but of contrasting styles of play.

But we’re already getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start with how Arsenal became boring — and scary-good.

Arsenal

The last time we saw the current Premier League leaders in league play, they were slowly squashing Brentford like one of those hydraulic-press videos.

For minutes on end, Arsenal would win the ball in the Brentford half, swing it out to the wing, combine, attack, counter-press, repeat. In the rare moments they didn’t have possession, they weren’t so much defending as tapping their toes and checking their watches, waiting for the ball to fall out of the sky so they could run the whole thing back again.

Maybe this sort of football is fun for you. For the colour commentator on TV, it seemed to offend some sense of fairness, though he dressed it up as a tactical concern.

“Sometimes they’ve got to try to let Brentford out a little bit in order to find a bit of space,” he complained as Arsenal squeezed ever closer to Brentford’s goal. “When you pen a team in for long periods, there’s very little room to get behind them.”

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Even as he spoke, Arsenal were doing their thing again. The ball swung from left to right around their high back line, making its way to Ben White in the right half-space. He shovelled a diagonal pass out to Bukayo Saka on the wing, jogged forward 10 yards or so, and got the ball back in space after Saka had drawn a double-team.

White didn’t launch it into the box right away. Instead, he waited for Martin Odegaard and Kai Havertz to twist around each other, scrambling their markers, then slipped a short pass straight ahead to Havertz, who tapped it back to Odegaard a few yards away. Arsenal were bunched together in close quarters now, playing piggy-in-the-middle at the corner of the penalty area.

Still, they refused to cross it.

They played low and short and fast, always at the edge of the box. After a few more passes and rotations, Odegaard shook free and split the defence with a dagger to Havertz, whose first-time shot was blocked. No problem. All that combination play had shrunk Brentford down until Arsenal’s centre-backs had crept all the way up to the final third. They won the ball back again, combined on the wings again, and kept the routine up for several breathless minutes until, finally, White found Declan Rice for a goal.

This is who Arsenal are now. They’ll strangle the life out of you. Arteta likes to talk about “suffocating” opponents with one of the world’s best high presses. “More than control, I want dominance,” he said. “Dominance in the right area and not allowing the opponent to breathe. This is what we do.”

Weird as it sounds given their total of 33 goals in eight league games this calendar year (winning all eight), Arsenal are a defensive team these days. Their 0.64 non-penalty expected goals allowed per game are the best by any team other than Manchester City in Europe’s big five domestic leagues in at least the last seven seasons. It’s stingier than even City themselves have been in the last two. But just like Guardiola’s reigning champions, whose meticulous possession play is really about defensive structure, Arsenal’s stranglehold on the game starts with how they pass.

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That innocuous one-two out to the winger and back? That tiny third-man pattern at the corner of the box? These are the subtle hallmarks of Arsenal’s suffocating new style.

This is the part of the story where pass pairs come in. By clustering every two consecutive passes in the same possession from the last six seasons — more than a million pairs in total — into 300 broadly similar types, we can break teams’ possession patterns down to tiny fragments to take their tactical fingerprint.

Out of the 300 types, Arsenal have done some version of the short up-and-back pattern near the right corner of the box 110 times this season, for 0.9 per cent of their total pass pairs. That’s not all that much in the grand scheme of things, only about four times a game, but it’s way, way more than most teams — over five standard deviations from the Premier League average.

If you had to forge Arsenal’s signature from pure passing data, it would look like a cramped little scribble on their right wing.

Arteta’s team didn’t play like this a couple of years ago. As recently as 2021-22, Arsenal were pretty good at passing the ball but not so great at “dominance in the right area”. Their field tilt, or share of both teams’ attacking-third touches, was just 57 per cent back in those faster, looser days — far less than the 71 per cent now. They used to let you breathe.

The dominance that Arteta craved began on the wings. As Saka and Odegaard matured into one of the world’s best attacking partnerships, White started slinking up the sideline to support them. This trio aren’t just the heartbeat of Arsenal’s chance creation. While their patient combinations nibble away at the edge of the opposition, the centre-backs and Rice inch forward behind them to tighten the noose in rest defence. When they lose the ball, Arsenal are right on top of it, ready to recycle it to the wings. It’s a virtuous — and, sometimes, virtually endless — cycle.

For years, Arsenal’s scattered pass pairs betrayed a team in search of a style. This season, all those tight exchanges at the corner of the box look like nothing so much as fingers wrapped around a throat.

Liverpool

While Arsenal are busy slowing the game down, Liverpool are stomping on the gas pedal.

Even though they’ve never been as patient as Manchester City, Klopp’s team used to be England’s second-most circulating side.

You may remember their title-winning glory days of 2019-20 for the flurry of long-range balls that took defences by storm — and they certainly did plenty of that, at least compared to Guardiola’s short-passing machine — but their signature pass pairs back then involved a lot of sideways play at the halfway line as they poked around for an opening to rain down fire.

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Lately, they’ve become something else entirely.

In 2021-22, when Thiago shifted to his favoured left side and took over the team, Liverpool began passing through midfield much more than they had before. Last season, the squad underwent an awkward, injury-riddled rebuild and sat deeper, sometimes struggling to get out of their own half.

This season’s edition splits the difference: they still play through the middle, but they go fast.

Why go through midfield? Because that’s where Trent Alexander-Arnold, who remains Liverpool’s most important ball progressor, hangs out these days.

Over the last couple of years, Alexander-Arnold and Mohamed Salah have swapped channels. Salah has moved from the right half-space out to the wing, where he can find more space to play facing goal, while Alexander-Arnold has tucked in to access more of the pitch as an inside full-back, or half-back.

To some extent, they’ve even traded signature passing pairs. From 2018 to 2021, the narrower version of Salah loved to receive a short pass from left to right in the centre of the attacking third and stab a finishing ball into the left side of the box. That’s an Alexander-Arnold special now.

On the other hand, for each of the previous five seasons, one of Alexander-Arnold’s trademark patterns involved receiving a lateral pass out on the right wing and launching a diagonal cross into the box for a striker or box-crashing left winger to run onto. Now Salah does that exact same pass pair nearly as often as Alexander-Arnold used to. (Not coincidentally, his expected assists per 90 minutes are at an all-time high, more than double last season’s average.)

But Liverpool’s need for speed isn’t just about the players on the ball: it’s also about the runners.

In the old days, Roberto Firmino would drop into midfield from the centre-forward slot while Salah and Sadio Mane ran in behind from the wings, forming a sort of narrow V-shape up top.

This season, with human cannonball Darwin Nunez at striker and the snaky Luis Diaz out on the left, that V has flipped upside-down to become an arrow aimed straight at goal.

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Unlike Firmino, Nunez is a tireless depth runner who loves to stretch the back line to its snapping point. Diaz plays wider than Mane used to and prefers the ball to his feet, so he can dribble at defenders. Together, they open space between the lines for Liverpool’s rotating cast of young attacking midfielders to push the tempo through the middle.

The result is a very good team who don’t play much like other elite sides. When algorithmically sorted by their passing pair preferences, teams tend to gather into six or so general styles of play: those that circulate in the attacking half such as Arsenal or City, those that launch it up the wings like Brentford or Everton, and so on. Then there’s Liverpool, whose deep passing and fast attacks have more in common with Chelsea, or even Burnley, than the high-control group who usually win titles — a group Liverpool themselves were in last time they became champions.

(Suhaimi Abdullah/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Not many teams can play direct and still dominate games, but that’s what the last, latest draft of Klopp’s Liverpool manage to do. By direct speed, a measure of vertical yards gained per second in open play, they’re the ninth-fastest team in the Premier League. That’s almost unheard of from a title contender in the era of positional play.

The glue which holds Liverpool’s game together is that they still find a way to press effectively — not a slow, compact, suffocating defence like Arsenal’s, but a high-speed barrage of bodies chasing after the ball, a sort of youthful tribute act to Klopp’s old heavy-metal-football days.

This frantic Slinky-down-the-stairs style — stretching the game vertically, then squishing from behind — is exhausting and sometimes porous, but it works. This season’s defending, Klopp says, “is much clearer again. Offensive line, the way it starts, the high press, the midfield press, everywhere, it is clearer they are all in. That makes a difference.”

If Liverpool can keep having their cake and eating it — demolishing opponents with long balls to a line-stretching striker and spiky progressive passing pairs through their box midfield, all backed up by a relentless press — Klopp might just go out in one last blaze of glory.

Manchester City

Man City are still Man City. What’s left to say about a team who have been the best in the world for what feels like half a lifetime?

They still smother opponents high up the pitch. They still pass and move majestically, as if all 11 players are programmed in some secret mathematical language no mortal has managed to crack. They still have Erling Haaland stamping around the box like a cranky T-Rex with a man bun, gobbling up Premier League centre-backs for brunch.

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Except, for some reason, it’s not working quite as well as it used to.

Compared to 2021-22, the last season Before the Haaland Era (BHE), City’s points per game rate has slipped from 2.45 to 2.25, their goal difference from +1.92 per game to +1.25, their expected-goal difference from +1.68 per game to a downright pedestrian +1.04. It’s enough to make a perfectionist like Guardiola tear his hair out.

Along the way, City cast off old and unwanted players, signed a platoon of new talents and retooled to become bigger, faster, stronger and dribblier than ever. Yet they’ve still become measurably worse.

The pass pair data doesn’t offer many hints as to where a screw or two may have wriggled loose. City’s signature patterns still show the same high circulation that has always made Guardiola’s side a surefire winner. So why aren’t they — you know — winning quite as much as they used to?

One easy answer is that the players doing the circulating have changed.

City have spent most of this season without an injured Kevin De Bruyne — a massive loss, obviously — but he’s been capably backed up by Julian Alvarez and Phil Foden, who is in the form of his life. Jack Grealish, a key figure in the treble run a year ago, has been injured a lot too and often relegated to the bench, but only because Jeremy Doku hit the ground running past every defender in sight. John Stones has also been in and out of the line-up, although this kind of thing happens all the time in GuardiolaWorld without seeming to dent the team much.

(Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

There’s been no seismic shift in the stylistic data, no single easy explanation to make the decline make sense. A lot of piecemeal changes have left this City team just a little bit creakier at both ends of the pitch — enough, in this season of small margins, to keep things very interesting.

And yet one key data point hasn’t changed: even now, one point behind two very good teams with 10 games to go, City remain comfortable favourites for the title, just as they’ve been all along.

Maybe pass pair data doesn’t hold all the secrets to football. But what else outside Guardiola’s brain possibly could?

GO DEEPER

The Premier League, where scoring first doesn’t matter anymore

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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John Muller is a Senior Football Writer for The Athletic. He writes about nerd stuff and calls the sport soccer, but hey, nobody’s perfect. Follow him at johnspacemuller.substack.com.

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