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Missing Creative Spark for Fire is No Worry

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Critics of the Chicago Fire’s performance at Toyota Park on Saturday point to lack of sharpness in the attacking third of the field as the problem, but the numbers may not agree.

Even if the Fire improve passing in the final third, the numbers don't guarantee offensive success.
Even if the Fire improve passing in the final third, the numbers don't guarantee offensive success.
Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

MLS' Armchair Analyst M​att Doyle ​had some h​arsh words​ for the Chicago Fire regarding the team's attacking performance on Saturday, and while the feeling may be real, the reason is not so clear.

Pep Guardiola may not be green with envy (sky blue with envy?) over the way the Chicago Fire passed the ball in the attacking third of the field against Columbus Crew SC, but even he is likely aware that passing success in this part of the field does not always result in goals nor points in the table.

The Chicago Fire did, indeed, have a below average game in the attacking third by attempting only 93 passes and completing only 57% of those (53 passes completed). How did that stack up with the rest of the league in week 3? If they had performed better, could more scoring have been expected?

Assumed Relationship Between Final Third and Success

First, let us look at an example of what one might have expected from week 3 based on pass completion in the final third.

Note: the pass completion statistics are from week 3, but the goals scored are examples assuming one thinks that higher pass completion in the final third will lead to more goals. It could be assumed that the teams in the 40's won't score, teams in the 50's might score one goal, teams in the 60's might score two, and teams in the 70's might score three goals. Again, this is totally hypothetical just to show what the outcomes COULD look like if the data supported Doyle's implications.

Week 3 Chart

Week 3 Chart 2


The key factor to note is the C​orrelation Coefficient​ or R Value. Simply, this is a value between ­-1 and 1 that shows how well the data fits a straight line. ­-1 means the data is perfectly correlated on a downward sloping line. 1 means the data is perfectly correlated in an upward sloping manner. Zero means the data is not correlated at all and there is no apparent cause and effect relationship between the two data sets. I​n a data set consisting of 20 points, anything between ­-0.38 and 0.38 would demonstrate no correlation by which one could draw conclusions.

Relationship Between Final Third and Success in Week 3

Now that we have looked at what one might assume the relationship to be, let us look at what actually occurred in week 3.

Week 3 Chart 3

Note: Figures highlighted in red are values that are less than the season average for each statistic through three weeks of the season.

The bottom of this week 3 analysis shows four possible correlations, none of which show a statistically significant correlation. Since pass completion is the best indicator of expected goals, we will focus on this. The following chart shows how poorly the data fits the line we may have expected.

Week 3 Chart 4

Even if one is confused by Correlation Coefficients and R Values, one look at this chart reveals that improving a team's pass completion in the final third does not result in more goals. Additionally, as the other R Values show in the data analysis, attempting more passes has even less effect on both expected goals and expected points. There simply is no evidence through three weeks of the 2016 MLS season that one can expect more goals or more wins by merely improving attempted passes or completing more of those passes in the final third of the field.

Just for Amusement

It is clear where the statistical evangelists will stand on this matter, but let us take Doyle's criticism at face value. After posting his observation on Twitter, Montreal Impact legend Patrice Bernier took a swipe at the still healing Fire faithful by reminding them that the club just traded away Harry Shipp.

Shipp took the field later that evening and spent the first 81 minutes of the game creating chances against FC Dallas. As a team, Montreal attempted 75 passes in the final third at a completion rate of 49%. It is safe to say Montreal did not have more success in the final third than the Fire even though Shipp was wearing blue. Doyle and Bernier might want to hold off a few more games before anointing Shipp as the chance creating savior for whom Montreal hoodwinked Chicago into trading.

How Can Fire Fans Stay Positive?

After all of this analysis, perhaps there is one simple answer to the attacking problems exhibited by the Chicago Fire this weekend. His name is David Accam. Heck, with what onlookers have seen from him this season, the Fire could score 3 goals per game with 0% passing accuracy in the final third. As Accam has shown, he is best with a half field running start.