Written by Adam Rae Voge | Soccer Writer & Data Analyst
The art of passing is so crucial to a successful soccer team, but evaluating passing can be subjective. Finding good passers is almost like determining what qualifies as art: You don’t know quite how to define it, but you know it when you see it.
Good passers must of course complete their passes at a high frequency. A passer who consistently misses their marks or gives the ball away should not be considered good. But is just completing your passes most of the time good enough? Not really.
That’s where the measure of progressive passing comes in. Simply put, a progressive pass is one that moves your team toward the opponent’s goal. It’s a pass that progresses your attack forward, basically.
Good progressive passers are consistent. They’re great at scanning the field, finding open teammates, and making passes that others can’t – or won’t – try.
Measuring ball progression
As tends to be the case in sports, there are several methods of measuring good progressive passing, and each has its own merits.
You could opt for a direct and simple approach and use one of any statistics sites’ measure of long balls, long passes, or through balls, which typically involve finding an open teammate making a run into open space down the field.
A more scientific approach might include progressive passes per 90 minutes and/or progressive passing distance per 90 minutes, two statistics tracked by FBRef.com, a publicly available soccer statistics website.
FBRef defines a progressive pass as one that moves the ball 10 yards (30 feet) closer to the goal than it’s been recently, or any completed pass into the opponent’s penalty area.
The best clubs do typically make the most progressive passes per 90 minutes. For instance, New York City FC, LAFC, and Minnesota United FC led Major League Soccer in progressive passes per game in 2021. LAFC missed the MLS Cup, but the other two did quality – with NYCFC going on to win the tournament. The squad’s performance in the MLS Cup final against Portland ended up being one of their most impressive performances in progressive passing terms, with their fourth-most progressive passes completed all season, and for the most distance.
In the English Premier League, the largest domestic competition in the world, the leading progressive passing clubs are Liverpool, Manchester City, and Chelsea, who also sit in the league’s top three places.
So, what do good progressive passing numbers look like for a player? That differs by position.
As you might imagine, forwards, strikers, and attacking midfielders who play closer to their opponent’s goal will typically have the lowest progressive passing distance numbers. This is simply because they have less ground to cover.
Conversely, midfielders, defenders, and goalkeepers will have the largest progressive passing distance numbers. Whether progressive passing is a number worth noting for a goalkeeper is a different conversation.
That considered, it’s crucial to compare players against others in their same position. Among defenders, few in MLS did better this past season than Andreu Fontas, the Sporting Kansas City center back. Fontas averaged more than six progressive passes and more than 550 yards of progressive passing per game, both of which placed him first among all defenders. Fontas not only attempted among the most long passes (30 yards or longer), he completed 81.5% of his attempts, better than 90 percent of defenders in the league.
These numbers are important to consider because Fontas finished the season with no assists, so a very casual reading of his stats might not indicate him as an especially good passer. But he advanced the ball up the field more than anyone at his position, and at a higher rate of success. That’s a pretty easy definition of “best.”
In the midfield, one example of an expert ball progresser this past MLS season was Michael Bradley of Toronto FC. The longtime American international completed 6.6 progressive passes for every 90 minutes he played, at a distance of 410 yards. Those were both in the 96th percentile or better among midfielders, placing him among the best in that position. Basic pass completion percentage, however, puts him in better than only about two-thirds of midfielders, so again he might not emerge from a more casual reading.
Near the goal
As you get closer to the opponent’s goal, progressive passing may be better measured by one of a few different metrics. On FBRef, there are statistics such as passes completed into the penalty area (PPA). Several sites also track expected assists (xA), the measure of expected goals (xG) set up by your passes. Review what xG means here.
Another popular statistic is key passes, which counts how many passes lead directly to a shot. That metric’s biggest weakness is that it says little or nothing about the quality of the shot resulting from your pass.
On the even more advanced side, there’s expected threat (xT), a statistic offered primarily by paid-access statistics sites such as Opta. xT, which was invented in the early 2010s by statistician Sarah Rudd, assigns likelihoods of scoring a goal to the different parts of the field. A player who moves the ball from one location to another, more dangerous position, has earned positive xT. The opposite is true about a player who moves the ball into a less dangerous position.
Over the course of a season, players who consistently move the ball into more dangerous areas emerge as the leaders in xT, helping to separate the good passers from the great ones.
Aside from watching the games and developing a keen sense of what truly great and incisive passing looks like, there’s no single universal way to measure a passer’s quality. But with great statistics like progressive passes, xA and xT, you may be off to a good start.