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  • Writer's pictureAmrit

Quantifying Playing Styles in the Hero ISL

Updated: Oct 11, 2018

Often, and especially this season, we’ve heard the commentators talk about how progressive the football played by the ISL teams has been. They draw attention to how the goalkeepers take short kicks or build out from the back and how in general Indian players are more comfortable passing the ball. How true are these statements? A football team’s philosophy, their playing style, is defined by the head coach. We’ve had 14 head coaches in the last season of the Hero ISL, let’s look at how each of their leadership has impacted the football.

I’ve built a framework to break down a team’s playing styles into 12 categories. Why 12 categories? The technique I will be using to group managers together requires the number of groups as an input. There is a method known as the Elbow Method that helps you arrive at this number. The results say that given the way teams in the Indian Super League performed this season, they would neatly fall into 12 categories.

Quick first impressions, Steve Coppell has a direct, defensive style. Alberto Roca and Sergio Lobera favor passing, balanced sides and Miguel Angel Portugal’s teams rely heavily on their wingers but are handicapped by an inefficient defense. Pretty accurate, I would say. Also, note that managers of the same team always continued with the same style but with a shift in focus/mentality. I think this matches what we’ve seen this year.

I broke down a team’s metrics into two distinct categories, Playing Style and Mentality. Playing Style is calculated from metrics like passes/shot, crosses per game etc that describe what a team did during a match. Mentality is things like points per game, goals scored/conceded per game etc. We then run a clustering algorithm on top. This is the part where the machine takes over and classifies similar managers together. I then interpreted the results but don’t worry you’ll get a shot at doing the same.


With mentality, I wanted to try to quantify how a team approaches a game. Keep it tight in defence and hope to nick a goal or go all out and score more than your opponents. No team in the ISL (not even Goa) has chosen the latter. As a result, we still have 3 categories,

  • Defence First – Focus on not conceding goals

  • Leaky Defence – Focus on scoring goals (they called leaky defence and not attack focused for a reason)

  • Balanced – Neutral Approach

As you can see, “Leaky Defense” teams have conceded both higher quality and a higher number of chances than the others, whereas, “Defence First” teams are the opposite. While xG Against and Goals conceded aren’t the only inputs into the mentality section, they’re a pretty good indicator of this part of the model.

Here’s why I didn’t call one of the clusters “Attack focused”. The “Balanced” teams out-performed them in terms of attack and the “Defence First” teams beat them in goals. So, these teams are not attacking and not defensive. All they we can say is they concede more goals than they score. I’m looking at you - Ashley Westwood, Miguel Angel Portugal & Alexander Guimares.

Playing Styles

Enough about Mentality, let’s get onto the real business – football. In the Playing Styles section, we will try to quantify and identify the defining characteristics of the teams each manager has put out in the Indian Super League.

Direct, Quick Transitions

These are teams, that take fewer touches of the ball and look instead to progress the ball large distances in a short amount of time. As a result, their attacks are shorter and the passes leading up to a shot will be shorter. In the chart below, you can clearly see that Steve Coppell, Alex Guimares & Joao de Deus are classified as direct teams. They all looked to bypass midfield battles and hit early balls for their strikers to chase – Izu Azuka, Balwant (arguably not a striker but he is their main outlet so point stands) and Danilo respectively.

Possession Football

Possession teams look to hoard the ball. As a result, they tend to have a higher number of shots and passes than their opponents and are seen as having dominated games. There can be no arguments here. Sergio Lobera’s side has been an absolute pleasure for the neutral observer. If you are not a regular watcher of Indian football and are interested in a starting point, look no further than FC Goa.

I would also point out that Albert Roca’s Bengaluru FC are closer to the pack than they are to Lobera’s Guars when it comes to turning on the style. Roca’s team are incredibly well balanced and well drilled and are still on the up.

Slow, Passive Football

In the above chart, you can also see that the pink circles or “Slow, Passive” teams, take less shots and make fewer touches than the league average. These teams wait for the opponent to make a mistake or capitalize from set pieces and individual brilliance.

Wing Play

Avram Grant, Teddy Sheringham, Ashley Westwood and Miguel Angel Portgual’s sides are all unique for one reason – they predominantly played with Indian wide midfielders and wingers this year. This group baffled me quite a bit cause they got clustered together and I was having a hard time figuring out why but it’s a combination of the fact that they’re on average poor shooter (but not the worst) but they tend to create more chances from crosses. Interesting little dichotomy there. These are the teams that also got clustered together as leaky defences. Clutching at straws but my hypothesis as to why they had poor seasons was in their chance creation rate not being up to par.

Delhi’s revival was after they signed Arana and got Nandha, Seityasen or Chhangte a run of games with each other.

As always, I'm interested in hearing what you think. Do you think I'm missing something criticial or do you think I hit the nail on the head? Let me know on twitter, @sgtsaltnpeppa.

Interested in stats and football? Start here.

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