For some, this has been a mystery. For others, it was always crystal clear.
Everyone can see Daley Blind’s weaknesses. You don’t need to be a football expert for this. He lacks pace. He can’t head the ball. He hardly scores or assists. He’s actually too slow for a left back and lacks the duelling power for midfield.
Why is it that all coaches he worked with, all football analysts and ex-players rate him so high? Why won’t Van Gaal or Ten Hag bench him for quicker players? Younger players?
Finally, there is a new statistical model being used which clearly shows in stats why Daley Blind is one of the best players in Europe. (Thanks to VI Pro)
The opening goal of Ajax vs FC Utrecht demonstrates Blind’s value vis a vis this new statistical model. And Blind’s role is key. The Ajax left back gets the ball after a turnaround of possession and his action allows for the pass to Steven Berghuis. He dribbles forward and passes to Tadic. The Serb finds Gravenberch who finds Antony. The little Brazilian scores. In traditional statistics, this goal will be summarized as “assist Gravenberch and goal Antony”. Expected goals and Expected Assists do add some context. These stats show you how likely that Antony goal was. But the role of Blind and Tadic in this move can’t be found in the traditional stats. There would not be a pre-assist even for Daley Blind.
This has “Final third” on the Y and “half opponent” on the X -axis. Name of graph: Successful passes
Daley launches his team mates forward like this an absurd number of times, allowing them to penetrate the box. This visualisation above demonstrates the combi of passes on the opponent’s half into the final third. Blind is a category in itself! Only Feyenoord playmaker Orkun Kökçü comes close.
The traditional stats say something alright, but they miss any context. For instance, a through ball getting a player face to face with the goalie is in these stats comparable with a horizontal pass at the middle line. Expected Assists helps to show which player actually create opportunities. The pass before the final pass was also not really on the radar, until the Expected Threat comes into play.
The aim of the Expected Threat is to add value to players who actually start the attacking move. This idea was launched by Sarah Rudd, who worked for Arsenal in 2011. Karun Singh took this model later and created a popular blog post to demonstrate this and the Athletic took the idea and popularised it.
The Expect Threat Zones. The lighter the block, the better the odds to score.
The idea behind Expected Threat is simple. The closer to the goal of the opponent, the high the chance that a goal is scored in the next 5 moves. Historical data helps to give values to these areas. So they divided the pitch into 192 zones (12 in the width and 16 length-wise). The players who get the ball in those high-value zones are scoring the most points, obviously.
Expected Threat identifies the players who are the most successful in finding the quickest route to a goal. And the scores are basically a compounded score of progression made on the pitch, through passing and dribbling (carry). Crosses are not part of this analysis, because the odds to score from a cross are way lower than playing the ball via pass and move into the box.
This sounds like higher math to some, but this video below will show what is meant. The Blind pass which results in the first Ajax goal.
Expected Threat will compare the starting point of possession, with Blind, to the final stage of this move, which is Tadic taking the ball in the box.
Statistically, the chance that a team scores within 5 moves at the spot where Blind gets the ball first, is 1,4%. This means, that only once in 67 times that the ball gets to that starting point, a goal will follow within 5 moves.
However, when Tadic takes the ball in box, the chance of Ajax scoring went up to 12.6%, which means that when a team gets the ball here, 1 out of 8 times, a team scores within the next 5 moves.
So, Blind’s pass has increased Ajax’ scoring changes with 11,1% points. And this gives Blind a value in the Expected Threat stat: 0,111 points.
Another example: the first Ajax goal against PSV. Again, Blind starts the move. This time he has a pass in the left channel towards Gravenberch. He brings the ball from a 0,5% zone to a 3,7% zone. With this pass, Blind collects another set of points to his name in the Expected Threat score. The score is lower than in the Utrecht example, because the zone where Gravenberch gets the ball has a lesser value (as it is further from the opponent’s goal).
The winning goal Ajax scored versus PSV also has Daley as a key component. With two trademark passes: he first plays Tadic in, hard and low. Then another pass towards Danilo. These types of passes demonstrate his value for Ajax.
Analysis the matches vs Utrecht and PSV show that Blind has numerous passes with which he accelerates the play. “I want to make every single pass count. In the match, at practice, always. I try to send a message with my pass, to the player I play the ball too. My pass should inform him what my idea is for his next move. When I play in to Dusan Tadic’s right, I want him to turn that way. It doesn’t always work out, but it’s always my intention.”
Recently, Blind spoke in the Cor Podcast about this: “Delaying the pass is the most important thing. When I get the ball, or anyone gets the ball, the opponent is usually in a particular position. They usually are comfortable. When I pass too quick, I am not doing anything about that positioning. But when I delay my pass, I force the opponent to do something. If they don’t come to block me, I can dribble forward. But if a players steps in, another one of my team mates will become free. I actually force the opponent to tell me what my best next move is.”
The facts show that Blind’s words are more than theory. He usually gets the ball in areas where he is not going to be a threat. Usually, on the left flank. The next step is for him to bring the ball there where a threat can develop. His hard, low pass to Tadic is his trademark, these days. Blind plays a cat and mouse game with his opponent. You act as if you don’t know where to go, you look around, maybe turn towards a less risky team mate in midfield, only to suddenly play the fast ball, skipping midfield, into Tadic or Berghuis.
Animation of Ajax’ build up patterns
Erik Ten Hag actually amended his tactics to fully benefit from Blind’s qualities. He is the first build up station. He usually drops back next to central defenders Martinez and Timber, or he moves way to the left, allowing Gravenberch to confuse the opponent by him dropping back. In both situations, the aim is to trick the opponent into making a press on one of these two. When they do start the press, the space around Tadic becomes wider and this is when Blind will play the ball.
Expected Threat captures this quality in statistics. Blind is the leader of this stat in the Eredivisie, as he was last season too. Last season, in the big competition, the stat leads were Neymar in France, Messi in Spain, Jaden Sancho in Germany and Jack Grealish in England. It’s no surprise that these four players are considered the top and three of the four made a big money move last summer.
This year, Blind shares the #1 position with Leo Messi again (France), Vinicius Junior for La Liga and Trent Alexander-Arnold in England.
This list shows the Expected Threat in passing. Different types of players can do well with this stat. Another Ajax player (Tadic) is second on the list, as a left winger. Ajax’ Timber is on the list as a central defender, while Veerman (these are his Heerenveen stats) and Kökçü are more playmakers.
There is a separate stat Expected Threats in Dribbles. Cody Gakpo does really well in that overview and that will also play a role regarding the interest from Liverpool, Man City and Bayern Munich in signing the lanky PSV star.
Stats do not tell the full story of course. One aspect that is not taken into account in the Expected Threat stat is the position of the opponent. Only the start and end position of the move are used and not how many opponent players are taken out of the game by the pass. In this way, teams that dominate on the opponent’s half will always score higher in this stat than counter-attacking teams.
But, this does give us a very objective and measurable reason why Daley Blind is revered by the football experts and that he fully deserves the title of the King of the Pass before the Pass….
I’m sure some of you will start to comment like crazy now….