Some of the earliest statistical studies of soccer were done by an Englishman named Charles Reep, who logged passing “moves” in a selection of matches and drew a series of very strong conclusions. Most goals, he found, were a result of very short passing moves of no more than three completed passes. Intricate passing connections produced a much smaller percentage of goals. So, in Reep’s mind, the solution is clear: Direct soccer will carry the day. Lump it forward as quick as you can, get off the first reasonable shot that comes available and keep going for it.
Now, Reep’s interpretation of this data was not merely unsophisticated, it was baldly wrong, as Jonathan Wilson has shown in his Inverting the Pyramid.
As a ratio of total passing “moves,” short moves result in more goals, but the percentage of short moves that score, in Reep’s own data, is actually somewhat lower than the percentage of long moves. What Reep found in the data, it seems, is what he had wanted to find in the first place: a justification for a direct and athletic style of football that was for Reep a truly “English” style.
On Thursday, the team playing Reep’s style of football was not England but its opponent. Uruguay defended hard and man-marked England’s key players. On turnovers, the South Americans made only the most nominal effort to pass the ball in midfield. Occasionally, they would attempt to circulate the ball through playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro, but in most situations Uruguay simply sought out the most direct forward pass.
No team in this tournament has been so focused on releasing the ball to the attacking third as Uruguay was on Thursday. The two teams following Uruguay in the chart, Japan and Ghana, were both attacking heavily, controlling midfield and chasing the match. They had pushed the Greek and American defenses back to their penalty areas and their high final third percentages came from simply setting up shop in that attacking area. Uruguay did not play that much in the final third; it simply bypassed the back and middle thirds of the pitch. Forty three percent of its attempted passes were sent into the final third, compared with an average of about 27 percent of all passes in the tournament.
Uruguay is not known for its direct style. But under pressure, Coach Óscar Tabárez developed a system that bypassed pretty midfield passing even more than the Greek or Ecuadorian systems. It was a reasonable response to Uruguay’s unbalanced roster. Tabárez can field Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez, two of the world’s best strikers, but few of his other players can be described as anything more than workmanlike. So he set up eight men in a defensive formation and ordered them to feed Cavani and Suarez as quickly as possible.
For the most part, this resulted in a huge number of speculative long passes. About 20 percent of Uruguay’s passes were classified as “long balls,” the second-highest percentage recorded in this tournament. Only about 11 percent of all total passes at the World Cup have been long balls, and Uruguay doubled that. It was lucky for Uruguay when Steven Gerrard’s mishit header bounced over the back line and onto the feet of Luis Suarez for Uruguay’s final goal. But it was a kind of luck that Uruguay had been striving for all night, a long speculative ball that just happened to spring either Cavani or Suarez for a big chance.
Now, this is not to say that Uruguay’s tactics controlled the match. Even with a more defensive formation, the South Americans struggled to contain England’s attack, and only some poor finishing from Wayne Rooney left the match at 1-1 for Suarez to score the winner.
That is much more the shot map of a “smash and grab” victory than a great tactical triumph. But in this case, the plan seems to have been to smash and grab. Tabárez hoped that just enough of his side’s long, direct passes would reach one of the strikers, and then he hoped one of the strikers would have a great shooting night. Suarez answered the call, and Uruguay grabbed all three points.
All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.
Michael Caley writes for Cartilage Free Captain, where he analyzes fancy soccer statistics and bemoans Tottenham Hotspur’s most recent failures. You can follow him on twitter at @MC_of_A. My full World Cup projections and methodology can be found at SB Nation.