He who runs less laughs longest

After Man Utd’s 4-0 defeat at Everton on Sunday, their newish coach, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, declared that it wasn’t enough to have loads of talent.  What he wanted was for the players to ‘run more’.  Everton had collectively run 8 kms more, so the statistic would seem to make sense, but Olly obviously hadn’t been doing his homework. According to a recent study of the Spanish top flight, he who runs less laughs longest, as it were.  It’s the kind of annoying tweet that people would put onto Twitter to garner a few more followers (I know – I’ve done the same), with the obvious dangler question being, ‘Try to guess which team has run the most this season and which team has run the least?’

You can guess for a while, but you know that I’m going to tell you anyway.   You probably won’t have got the longest runners who are in fact Leganés, with an average distance of 114.75 kilometres run per match.  Now you see where we’re heading, because Leganés at the time of writing sit 12th in the table, safe from the drop but with little else to savour from their noble athleticism this season.  Where are Huesca, I hear you say?  Well they’re 4th, on 109.90 per match. Significant, I hear you murmur, since they’ve run themselves silly and they’re still bottom of the pile. Espanyol are second, and Real Sociedad 3rd.  This is interesting, because Real Sociedad’s supporters are often convinced that their side does not run enough, and Espanyol went through a rough patch this season in which their supporters also accused them of the same.   Girona are 5th in the runner stakes, and are currently dropping through the La Liga sky like a Led Zepellin, their stairway to heaven seemingly featuring a new diversion route to hell.  The stat for Girona also appears to be counter-intuitive, since their coach Eusebio is famed for his possession-obsession, but maybe he’s seen the light after receiving criticism for this at his previous club, Real Sociedad.  Of course, I may be guilty of concocting a defective equation here, namely that ‘More kms run = less possession’, but let’s investigate further.

Barcelona – out for walkies against Real Sociedad

Okay – that’s played with your curiosity for long enough.  The team to have run the least this season is currently two games away from winning the title, namely Barcelona.  They’ve averaged a measly 103.10 per game, with 2nd placed Atlético also below the league average of 108.91 in eleventh place.  Real Madrid, in case you were wondering, lie 14th on 107.90, but their supporters almost always accuse them of not running enough – and the stats suggest that they’re right.  However, before we rush to any more rash conclusions here, it’s worth underlining the fact that statistics mean nothing until they are interpreted, and the fact that Rayo are in 16th place with an average of 107 per game rather nips in the bud the thesis that it is always better to run less.  In Barça’s case it would seem to be true, but in Rayo’s and Levante’s cases (19th to Barça’s 20th) this obviously fails the thesis.  Getafe, back in the Champions League slots and widely castigated this season for playing hard and pragmatically are in the bottom half of the runners’ table, along with the slackers – managing 107.95 to Madrid’s 107.90, so their success must clearly reside in something else.

Leganés running, Villarreal winning

The researchers are cleverer than we think, don’t worry.  They have a further category that permits a mix of variables, as they call it in statistical analysis.  Interestingly, whilst a player averages 6.6 kms an hour in Spain’s top flight, the ball itself averages a flight speed of 22.4 kms per hour and the telling statistic (it would seem) is the speed at which the ball is circulated by any team.  Barcelona are top of this tree too, with 17.5 passes per minute, compared with Huesca’s lowly 12 per minute. Leganés, otherwise top of the runners, are just behind on a measly 12.1.  We could almost conclude that we were onto something if it weren’t for the fact that Getafe are the slowest ‘circulators’ of the lot, coming in at a sloth-like 10.3 per minute.  Again, it would seem that their effectiveness lies elsewhere, with narrow wins, narrow defeats and the occasional drubbing of unsuspecting opponents such as Sevilla on Sunday, who succumbed  3-0 in the Coliseum.  Then again you could also argue that it ain’t the speed of the circulation but rather the accuracy, and the speed-accuracy correlation does indeed stand up to analysis.  The top three sides, Barça, Atlético and Real Madrid are in the top five of the speedy passers (Betis and Espanyol are the other two), with Sevilla and Valencia just behind.  Only Getafe break the mould, in terms of league position.  Incredibly, they lie bottom of the table for pass effectiveness, but they have committed the most fouls.  Voilà!

Getafe – fair is foul and foul is fair

The same research team concluded that possession itself has only a 5% influence on the results, which is fairly startling.  It was noticeable, however, that Saturday night’s 2-1 win for Barcelona in the Camp Nou was achieved under the unusual conditions of the visitors winning in the possession stakes (52% Real Sociedad) but Barça’s effectiveness winning the day – even if both goals were scored by defenders. Interestingly, Barcelona are also the side in La Liga who send in the least crosses into the area (10.6 times per match), followed by Real Madrid.  Make of that what you will.   The ones who centre the most?  Eibar – by a long shot.  And the three bottom teams, Huesca, Rayo and Valladolid, are in the top six centring teams.   Don’t cross!  You know it makes sense.

Eibar, unusually for them, not crossing the ball

Anyway, enough of damned lies and statistics.  Just remember that the next time you’re playing and the coach shouts something dumb like ‘We need to run more!’ just wander across and let him/her know that it’s more about speed of circulation than anything else, unless you’re Getafe.  Have the figures ready. Meanwhile, with five games to go, poor Rayo and Huesca are looking destined for the cooking pot, having drawn 0-0 in Vallecas and probably blown the chance to keep the escape hatch open.  Villarreal beating Leganés 2-1 didn’t help either, and now Huesca are eight points from safety, with Rayo six points stranded too.  Valladolid are third from bottom but can certainly aspire to escaping with Girona and Levante wobbllng just above them.   Indeed, they play Girona on Tuesday night at home, which won’t be a game for faint hearts.

As you might have guessed, there’s a midweek fixture fest, which means that up at the top Barcelona can now win the title by the end of next weekend, should they beat Alavés and Levante and Atlético lose at home to Valencia on Wednesday night – a plausible outcome given the bats’ form of late, culminating in another fine win at Betis on Sunday night. Valencia’s bat cave is squeaking and flapping with joy these days, with the team still alive in three competitions  – the Europa League (they face Arsenal in the semis), the King’s Cup and the league itself where they lie fifth, just below Getafe.  In other words they have two possible routes into the Champs League next season, but they’re going for both.  And just to confirm, they’re the 6th quickest circulators and behind Barcelona and Real Madrid they’re the team (equal with Sevilla)who’ve most shot on goal.  Just goes to show, although I’m not sure what.

So…loads of footy this week although I’ll miss Real Sociedad v Villarreal on Wednesday due to a quick visit to Estonia.  I’ll be back for Sunday’s game against…..Getafe however.  Given the statistics, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

9 thoughts on “He who runs less laughs longest”

  1. I had always thought that the reason Barça and Spain a few years back won so many games late on was because they made their opponents run more without the ball which contributed to both physical and mental tiredness for the opponents. I wasn’t far off. Very interesting analysis. Thanks Phil.


  2. Aha….goes back Johan’s theory that the ball travels faster….did that I make it up in the spirit of the debate;-) My leftist conscience desperately wants Rayo to stay up.

    La Real were good for money Phil…..was wondering whatever happened to Illara and Zurujuta? They are one of the teams that play extremely well against Barca…..I loved Eusebio but he was kicked out; evidently one cannot build reputations just on one good game. Enjoy trip to the Baltic nation and enjoy fjording while you are at it!


    1. Thanks man….although it’s a work trip unfortunately. Illara and Zuru are injured – but they often are, especially Zurutuza. Rayo…yeah, it’s a shame. Don’t think they’ll make it. Raúl de Tomas – where is he going to go?


  3. Great article, you wouldn’t have a link to the raw stats? I’d love to see how lazily my team circulates the ball. Although I’m pretty confident we fall for the old “cross to score” pitfall far too often.


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