An athlete who feels he is underappreciated can sulk, sound off to the media, or go on a Twitter rant. Or he can invent a new statistic that proves his worth. That’s what two defensive midfielders did, and now their invention is the talk of soccer’s statistics world.
Stefan Reinartz and Jens Hegeler were defensive midfielders in the Bundesliga in 2015 when they created the metric known as packing. The rudimentary statistics in soccer, like goals and assists, cast favorable light primarily on strikers and attacking midfielders, the players who do most of the scoring and assisting. The grunts of the sport, defensive-minded midfielders like Reinartz and Hegeler, often get offensive moves started, but they are seldom recognized statistically.
Reinartz and Hegeler reasoned that what they did best was move the ball past opposition players. That is what packing measures.
“Football is a low-scoring game, and it’s not possible to rate a dozen players based on just three goals,” said Lukas Keppler, the managing director of Impact, the company that now tracks the stat.
“Stefan is not one making spectacular dribbling, but he has a great passing game, which wasn’t analyzed as he wished. Simple vertical passing wasn’t appreciated. Maybe now, you have a number that shows the person making the passing is more valuable that the player who makes the spectacular shot without any outcome.”
The methodology behind packing is fairly easy to understand. Essentially, players earn a point for any move — a cross, a dribble, a long pass — that causes the ball to move past opposition players. If a move begins with five opponents between the ball and the goal, and ends with two, that’s three points. The receiver of the pass is awarded points as well.
So who shines most in packing? The best player this season, as he has been for some time, is Real Madrid midfielder Toni Kroos, who has bypassed 79 opponents per game and whose total sometimes reaches 100. The typical team as a whole bypasses an average of 306 players each game.
As for those on the receiving end of decisive passes, the leader is Eden Hazard of Chelsea, with 102 per game.
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 build up, 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, Impact, 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.
The company has 65 operators just for data collection and now tracks packing in England, Spain, Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. It plans to add Major League Soccer starting next season.
So that leaves the big question. Why do they call it packing? “‘Bypassed defenders’ sounds boring,” Keppler said. The bypassed players, you might say, “are ‘packed away’ and somehow taken out of the game.”