When Pep Guardiola joined Bayern Munich, one of the biggest changes he made was an increased emphasis on the long ball. For a team that had been built on rapid transition play, it was a piece of the switch from the era of Jupp Heynckes to a Pep Guardiola possession-based team. With Toni Kroos, it was an easy strategy to understand, but after his departure in the summer, Bayern Munich ended up with Xabi Alonso in what effectively became a swap between Bayern and Real Madrid. That "swap" may have been a bigger piece of the overall puzzle of how to make this side tick than I think any of us realized.
I first took a look at the correlation between pass completion percentage and shots for some underlying data and then again at the correlation between long ball completion percentage and shots among all teams in the Bundesliga. I used only this season's data, a sample size representing 450 individual team performances and 225 games.
Overall the conclusions weren't anything to write about as the correlation studies came out at 0.38 for both samples. While there is certainly a relationship between pass completion percentage and shots as we would expect, the correlation with long ball completion percentage was the same. This suggests that independent of long balls, it's just the act of completing passes that is more important then the type of pass.
Fast forward to just looking at Bayern Munich. The correlation between pass completion percentage and shots is 0.42. While that number is slightly higher then outright correlation between the statistics league wide, it's also something we should expect given that this is a possession based team -- stringing together functional passes would necessarily be a little more relational with shots in that type of a team. Given the previous return that suggests long balls aren't any more important then overall completion percentage, we'd expect to see the same thing for Bayern Munich in this regard -- except we don't.
|Pass% vs. Shots||LB% vs. Shots|
Bayern Munich's relationship between long ball completion percentage and shots attempted actually takes a massive leap, coming out at 0.56. However, taking a larger look across the Bundesliga reveals that this isn't a normal pattern. Ultra high-pressing Bayer Leverkusen shows zero relation between either pass completion or long ball completion, which accurately represents a side that is the personification of organized chaos yet achieve good results. In fact the only side that really compares is Augsburg -- which may say something about how easily Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg has been able to adapt to their lineup.
This all comes with some important caveats in that we're looking at particularly low correlation results and these aren't anything to hang your hat on with regards to reliability. The most we can really do with them is make some inferences. Adding to that is the whole chicken and the egg problem: do Bayern "need" the long ball because of Xabi,or did Bayern get Xabi because they "need" the long ball. Right now that's an impossible question to answer simply based on the sample size of games we have where Alonso hasn't played.
Though, given this pattern and given that Xabi Alonso easily leaves most of Bayern Munich in the dust when in comes to long balls per 90 (and long ball completion percentage) it may seem he fulfills a valuable role on this team. However, the catch to that may be that two of Bayern's other best performers in this regard are Jerome Boateng and Holger Badstuber. With both of them fully fit and earning playing time, maybe there's not really much of a need for a Xabi Alonso as an integral cog anymore.