The Network Secret Of The Greatest Ever Football Team

Guardiola’s 2009 F.C. Barcelona. Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Henry and Puyol. Possibly the best team in history. Is such greatness magic or could it be backed by network science? Could the same tools we use to understand organizations be also used to decipher the utter dominance of Guardiola and Messi’s Barcelona?

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Simply the best

If you saw Barcelona’s humiliating defeat of Manchester United in the 2009 Champions League Final, you knew you had witnessed a new and winning way of playing the game. That calendar year, coach Pep Guardiola’s side won six buckets in dominating fashion. The team revolutionized the game with its possession-oriented game, short passes between players that were situated closely together, and immediate pressure on the opposition. This tiki-taka football inspired a new generation of managers.


Photo: Tsutomu Takasu, Flickr CC


More than shots and passes

To understand the team’s signature style, scientists have gone beyond analyzing the traditional metrics such as shots and passes. In a paper published in Nature, Spanish scientists Buldú, Busquets, Echegoyen and Seirullo used network science to explain the team’s dominance. Network science is the methodology of how any given entity spreads between nodes in a network. It has been applied to a range of phenomena such as the spread of a pandemic, war, fake news, forest fires and financial panics, but also the inner mechanics of success.

Network leadership and football enthusiasts ourselves, we bring you the conclusions of that article.

The network of Xavi

In the network drawn up by Buldú and colleagues, each player is represented by a node. A link is created every time players pass the ball, becoming thicker with each pass. You can also see the player’s position on the field. By isolating groups of 50 passes, the analysis uncovers how a given game evolves. Certain players are more ‘central’. And certain patterns of play are more common. Barcelona’s famous passing triangles are examples of those patterns.

Beldú and colleagues generated passing networks for every team in the 380 games played in the 2009-10 La Liga season. The paper explains how network measures such as the clustering coefficient could determine that triplets of players pass the ball far better in Barcelona than in any other team. The average shortest pass through the team is shorter, and the strength of the network (the so-called eigenvalue of the connectivity network) is much higher.

By analyzing the evolving 50-pass networks you can see how the team’s centroid – its average field position – changes throughout the game: Barcelona’s centroid is higher up the pitch and much more stable than the competition’s. The team’s ratio of advance shows a much higher likelihood of horizontal passes, meaning they pass the ball back and forth looking for attacking opportunities. Xavi, the brilliant midfielder, had the highest centrality of any player.



Greatness as a network

The researchers also found the network metrics that enhance the probability of scoring or admitting a goal. The data showed that not all teams behave in the same way, and how Guardiola organized his team differently – including the team’s clustering coefficient, shortest-path length, largest eigenvalue of the adjacency matrix, algebraic connectivity and centrality distribution.

This way of analyzing an organization can also be applied to business. In the illustration below, we have added a small company network for the sake of comparison. Xavi’s centrality in Barcelona is parallel to a CEO’s centrality in a company. For CEOs, this position can also be linked with a need to control everything, which is why CEOs are as likely to be blockers as playmakers.



Can network analysis uncover a team’s weaknesses?

«The likelihood that Barcelona will concede a goal increases with the dispersion of players around the team’s centroid – in other words, goals happen when the players spread out. That suggests an Achilles’ heel that other teams could attempt to exploit», says Technology Review in an article on the research.

Network analysis, of course, can not be used to simply copy Barcelona’s strategy and success. In any network, understanding culture and implementation are crucial. However, it is easy to imagine the many ways network analysis can add interesting dimensions to understanding sports. Technology Review speculates how you can discover the influence of single players on a game or how changing positions can influence a player’s performance. The popular Netflix series «The Last Dance» about Michael Jordan’s great Chicago Bulls teams of the Nineties, centers for a while around coach Phil Jackson’s famous triangles. It would be interesting to see network analysis applied to the NBA.

It is also easy to understand how this way to analyze an organization can be applied to business networks. Network leadership allows you to see the organization as a network of both formal and informal relations, allowing you to gauge the effectiveness of both internal and internal networks. It is what makes the organization tick and creates that occasional Barcelona magic.


Defining a historic football team, Nature article
Network science reveals the secrets of the world’s best soccer team, MIT Technology Review
How Network Theory Is Revealing Unknown Patterns in Sports, MIT Technology Review