This is part three of Liverpool.com’s series on data in football, packing, what it can tell us about current players and its use in the transfer market.
Part One, on what Packing is, how it’s used, and what it tells us about Thiago Alcantara is available here; Part Two, on Joe Gomez and what Liverpool are missing with the defender out with an injury is available here.
Mehmet Scholl knew he had made a mistake. He had wandered down a corridor in his mind and didn’t know how to get back. Only he was on live TV, trying to explain to a traditional broadcast audience a fancy new metric that, if not revolutionary, was supposed to help alter the understanding of the game. There were winces all around the studio.
Scholl, the former Bayern Munich player and B-team manager, was an early advocate of Packing. Unlike other metrics, he believed in both its breadth and simplicity. It seemed in equal parts rudimentary and, to Scholl, an explainer of everything.
Scholl brought Packing to a national and international audience during the 2016 European Championships. Rather than provide fresh insight, though, it was all a bit of a shambles. “Scholl is talking about packing again – and the network is annoyed,” croaked the headline in Stern. “ARD viewers annoyed by Mehmet Scholl,” read the headline in T-Online.
Scholl droned on and on about the concept of packing — an odd choice from a manager who used to routinely criticise ‘laptop’ managers — but he did not appear to have a full grasp of the particulars, or at least the ability to articulate the particulars and why they mattered in an easy to digest way. Nor could he work the touchscreen with the kind of precision required when rattling through something that is new — any show of weakness, any sign of dithering can be leapt upon as a sign that the thing you’re discussing yourself is junk; such is the cruelty of the TV game.
Scholl’s ill-fated attempts to bring Packing to the mainstream undoubtedly set the concept back in terms of its broadcast and media relevance. It exited, stage left. But it became an essential tool of the analysis trade in the Bundesliga, and counts a growing number of Premier League clubs among its endorsees. It is -house, both in terms of performance analysis and scouting. Like any kind of data set, it’s used as a quick digest to allow a coach or member of the staff to figure out a team’s style of play without trawling over hours and hours of video footage; it can also help recruiting departments identify the so-called market inefficiencies, those players who may have slipped through the cracks or who’re outperforming their surroundings.
Skeptics of Packing point to the no-duh element, or argue that other metrics provide the same level of insight when bundled together. But it’s a useful resource in determining the style and structure of a specific team as well as the ‘verticality’ and effectiveness of individual players — as the metric and company evolve, as the two work more closely with teams, the data is becoming more granular. Rather than look at how many bypassed defenders, the next step will be in what context was that defender bypassed: With what foot? In what flow of the action? At what speed?
Say a club wants to install a pass-and-move philosophy that targets overloading the centre of the pitch, then knowing who is bypassing the most defenders on average is not as useful as knowing where. Perhaps one player is inflating their numbers thanks to a system; raking cross-field passes that routinely cut-out five or six players. That player might be an excellent fit in another system, but the data is not useful for the club trying to find those players who can tippy-tap their way through the middle of the pitch to carve people open.
This, here, is where the present and future of data analysis such as Packing lies — not so much in covering and explaining what has happened, but in using that explanation to project what is to come.
Where that resource is most valuable: The transfer market.
Premier League clubs might have been interested to know, for instance, why Kai Havertz graded out so poorly in his final season at Bayer Leverkusen. By the Packing metric, he was distinctly average in the team’s build-up play and a touch above average at bypassing defenders. By comparison, other potential transfer targets Jadon Sancho, Christopher Nkunku and Marcel Sabitzer graded out at a world-class level.