Unlocking unknown patterns of play in football through network theory.

Unlocking unknown patterns of play in football through network theory.


Sports analysts use different tools in order to understand how and why one team won or to predict outcomes of upcoming games. In 2014 a paper was published by Qatar Computing Research Institute named “Searching for a unique style in soccer” that looks at football through the lens of network theory. Football is the largest sport in the world and the game is seemingly played in a very similar fashion all over the world. With those factors in play it’s hard to imagine that some teams can play the sport in a unique way to others and have incredible success at the same time.

In football, goals are far and few inbetween and thus one has to look at other factors that occurs during the 90 minutes of play. Passes is one such factor and is very important to teams. Number of passes and pass accuracy is regarded as very important statistic.

In the paper they looked at the pattern of passes in all the top teams in England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France. These countries are widely recognized as the countries with the best football leagues in the world.


The passes analyzed are three consecutive passes between players. There are five different patterns that can occur, namely ABAB, ABAC, ABCA, ABCB, and ABCD. The first player to execute a pass in the sequence will always be A, the second B, third C and fourth D. The number of times each team uses the different sequences through 20 games played in the 2012/2013 season.


The team that stands out is Barcelona FC who also won the league that season. When looking at a football game it can be hard to pin down exactly what makes one team better than another. Why does Barcelona have a higher percentage of possession? Why do they create more goal opportunities?

When looking closer at Barcelona FC we find that they consistently use the sequences ABCD and ABCA, the more direct passages of play, less frequently compared to other teams.

At this time Barcelona FC played a infamous style of play dubbed “tiki-taka” where they would keep possession of the ball by playing simple passes between the players while looking for an opening in the other team’s defense and jump on it. It was praised by some and hated by others. But one can’t deny the strategy was effective at the time. It was used for some time and still is at some point to this day, but modified.


Using network theory to analyze the passage of play is a very interesting approach. Trying to understand what strategy gives a team the highest chance of winning is a never ending process for coaches, analysts and players alike. Applying tools like this one is definitely a stage in the right direction given the results and barcelona’s dominance at the time with their tiki-taka style of play. The results is give a very different insight into the way a team plays football compared to other statistic such as possession and goals approaches. While the traditional statistics often indicate how well a team is playing, this approach tells us more of what strategy a team applies. It also opens up a lot of opportunities for further development and other forms of analyzing tools.  

I feel this approach can be developed further to give a better overview. Including more factors that come into play in football. You can include weighted edges of the difficulty of the pass to get a more indepth look at the quality of the passes.

I think we will see a lot more of this type of analyzing in sports all over the world as more data gathering tools become available.



Gyarmati, Kwak, Rodriguez, 2014. Available from:


Read date: 08.11.2017