The Pressing Game: Optimal Defensive Disruption in Soccer

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Abstract: Soccer, the most watched sport in the world, is a dynamic game where a team’s success relies on both team strategy and individual player contributions. Passing is a cardinal soccer skill and a key factor in strategy development; it helps the team to keep the ball in its possession, move it across the field, and outmaneuver the opposing team in order to score a goal. From a defensive perspective, however, it is just as important to stop passes from happening, thereby disrupting the opposing team’s flow of play. Our main contribution utilizes this fundamental observation to define and learn a spatial map of each team’s defensive weaknesses and strengths. Moreover, as a byproduct of this approach we also obtain a team specific offensive control surface, which describes a team’s ability to retain possession in different regions of the field. Our results can be used to distinguish between different defensive strategies, such as pressing high up the field or sitting back, as well as specific player contributions and the impact of a manager.

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