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Comparing passing performance across the Premier League, MLS, and more leagues using PFF grades

2MAKN56 Ryan Sessegnon #19 of Tottenham Hotspur passes the ball as Ilkay Gundogan #8 of Manchester City dives in during the Premier League match Manchester City vs Tottenham Hotspur at Etihad Stadium, Manchester, United Kingdom, 19th January 2023 (Photo by Conor Molloy/News Images)

Finding an objective way to compare the performance of players across various competitions remains a challenge. Sure, a player who scores goals on the fly at a lower level may seem like a goal-scoring machine, but can they replicate that success in a top-level competition?

The level of competition, talent, and skill can vary greatly and make direct comparisons almost impossible. But, that doesn't mean we should ignore the context of the competition and just focus on a player’s raw metrics — and that is where PFF grades come in.

The PFF player grading system evaluates every player for every event during a game. Each player is given a grade of -2 to +2 in 0.5 increments on a given play, with 0 generally being the average or “expected” grade. This means an unpressured pass to a completely open target is expected to be executed successfully, leading to a 0 grade if completed, whereas a pass under pressure breaking the defensive line is above expectation, with a positive grade as a potential reward. PFF’s grading process is identical for each competition, giving us a tool to compare the quality of actions instead of just looking at quantities.

Let’s start with looking at passes. Passes constitute the majority of events in a game, with roughly three out of every four events being a pass. On average, a game consists of 900 passes. Passes are important, but the context of each pass gets lost when we aggregate them into metrics such as pass completion or even more sophisticated measures such as possession value or expected threat per pass. Exactly the context that determines the grade given to the passer, making it an appropriate tool for this exercise.

The first graph shows the gap between average passing grades per competition and the grand total. If a competition is above zero, it means the passing is of higher quality than average, but if it it is below, the opposite is true.

As expected, the Premier League, from which clubs like Southampton spent as much as all La Liga and Serie A clubs combined in the January transfer window, tops the ranking in terms of quality, followed by La Liga, Ligue 1 and the Serie A. On the other side of things, the quality of passing is below average in Major League Soccer and the Championship, while the Bundesliga's results are somewhat surprising and lower than expected.

To explain the Bundesliga’s surprising result, we first look at the pressure. PFF collects whether or not there was pressure on each event, including passes. We distinguish between pressure on the passer and pressure to close down a passing lane.

The second graph shows that in general, there is more pressure on passes in the Bundesliga than in any of the other leagues, although there is also a lot of pressure on passes in the Championship.

The fact that the Premier League has the highest average passing grades while also having a lot of pressure on passes further confirms that it stands out compared to other leagues in terms of passing quality.

Next, we look at the different types of passes for each competition in the third graph. There are more passes that aim to create a contest in both the Bundesliga and the Championship compared to other competitions, and as a result slightly more flick ons as well. Passes to create a contest typically need to be less accurate and thus in quality, since the main goal is to shift play quickly.

Combined with the high pressure numbers, this paints a picture of the infamous gegenpressing in the Bundesliga, a strategy that aims to win back possession as quickly as possible, preferably high up the pitch, since high turnovers tend to lead to big opportunities.

The use of PFF data is essential for evaluating the passing performance of a player, as it offers a fair and objective method of comparing player performance across various leagues. The PFF player grading system evaluates every player's actions during a game, assigning grades based on their performance, and using an identical rubric for each competition.

This provides teams with a reliable tool for comparing the quality of a player's passing ability within their competition. Moreover, the additional metrics provided by PFF, such as pressure on passes and the types of passes made, accurately describe the context of the competition, giving teams a comprehensive understanding of a player's passing performance.

By using PFF data, teams can make informed decisions when evaluating players and ensure they are acquiring top-performing talent.

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