The Discrepancies of the ‘Aerial Duel’ stat: Case-Study of Lisandro Martinez vs Brighton

Introduction

During Manchester United’s opening season loss, Brighton and Hove Albion disproportionately focussed their attacks down their right-hand side–specifically targeting Lisandro Martinez.

Here’s what Adam Lallana said in his post-match interview.

With their new signing [Martinez), we know the Premier League’s difficult so we thought we’d ask him questions early on. We landed on second balls, gained good territory and attacked the ball well in numbers.

Adam Lallana

This was evident through out the match as shown in the visualisations below by twitter user @Markrstats on his automated twitter page @markstatsbot.

In the first visualisation below, you can see a bias of passes directed towards the left side of United’s defence, with one of the dominant ones the long pass from goal-kicks–which will form the chunk of the analysis today. Brighton was also considerably more direct on their right side compared to their left.

Here is another visualisation showing the two sides progressive passing. The trends are consistent.

So during the game, we often saw United set up for Brighton’s goal kicks like this:

UNITED’S SET UP DURING BRIGHTON’S GOAL KICKS

Nevertheless, after reviewing a couple of data providers at the end of the match, I realised that most of them had Lisandro Martinez with no aerial duels attempted, with Statsbomb via FBREF having him at 100 percent (1 attempted and 1 won).

FBREF PAGE HIGHLIGHTING LISANDRO MARTINEZ’S STATS

I wondered how all these balls could be launched in that direction just for Lisandro to leave the game with so few aerial duels attempted and an immaculate aerial duel rating then decided to do an investigation, which was in part motivated by the two tweets below.

Definitions

Before we get stuck in, let’s find out the definition of some key terms.

  1. An Aerial Duel according to Opta,

Aerial duels occur when two players contest a ball in the air; this is a symmetrical event because neither player starts with possession.

  1. A Ground Duel according to Opta,

Ground duels are asymmetrical events, because one player has possession and the other is trying to regain it.

I found these to be unsatisfactory while doing this analysis so I coined up a new term: Contested aerial opportunity.

  1. A Contested Aerial Opportunity according to me,

This refers to any situation where two players are in contact (or close proximity of each other) while competing for the ball in the air. 

The player who makes the first contact with the ball, with whichever part of their body, ‘wins’ the contested aerial opportunity and vice versa.

The references points for this stat are the ball and the proximity of the players from each other–not whether to not the players going up in the air–like with ‘aerial duels‘ from Opta’s definition.

I differentiated these because we will discover that not all aerial balls are duelled for in the air. In many situations, players engage with the aerial balls without jumping to compete in the air with their opponent–which Opta’s definition of an aerial duel doesn’t account for. 


For the sake of clarity, here is what an Uncontested Aerial Opportunity looks like, using an example from the Brighton game. There will be several examples of Contested Aerial Opportunities as you read on.

LISANDRO MARTINEZ IN AN UNCONTESTED AERIAL OPPORTUNITY

Case-by-case breakdown of Lisandro Martinez’s ‘Contested Aerial Opportunities’ vs Brighton

First Half

2nd Minute

Robert Sanchez plays a long ball in the path of Lisandro and Danny Welbeck, and they ‘contest’ for the ball–with each other trying to outmuscle the other and get into the best position.

LISANDRO AND WELBECK CONTESTING FOR A GOAL-KICK

Welbeck eventually gets into a better position and tries to control the ball while holding Martinez aside.

WELBECK WINNING THE FIRST BALL

The key thing here is that, although the two players competed for the long ball, with the Brighton Striker reaching the first ball, the situation does not count as an aerial duel (according to Opta’s definition).

But with my term ‘contested aerial opportunity’, this would count for Welbeck (contested aerial opportunity won) and against Lisandro (contested aerial opportunity lost).

In case you are wondering, the situation also does not count as a ground duel, according to Opta.

Because neither player was in possession of the ball, this situation does not count as a ground duel. So how does this enter the stat sheet? It will be a pass completed for Robert Sanchez since Welbeck made first contact, and nothing will be recorded against Lisandro Martinez. Assuming Martinez got the first ball, it would have been recorded as a recovery for him.

Here is how the rest of the entire sequence played out:

Welbeck’s control is slightly off, but he can apply immediate pressure after, causing Shaw to launch the ball and Brighton to retain possession in the middle third of the pitch.

Lisandro Martinez: 1 aerial opportunity contested, 0 contested aerial opportunities won.


17th Minute

In this situation, the Brighton defender heads a ball back into United’s half, and Lisandro and Welbeck prepare to attack the ball. Because they are both within proximity of the ball, this will be an aerial contest opportunity.

The ball bounces, and Welbeck leaps and gets first contact while Lisandro stays on the ground. Because the latter does not jump and compete in the air for the ball, the data sites do not count it as an ‘aerial duel.’

Welbeck keeps the ball alive, and once again, there is a second ball to be dealt with, which Fred comes out inferior in, and Brighton maintains possession in United’s defensive third.

See the full sequence below:

Lisandro Martinez: 2 aerial opportunities contested, 0 contested aerial opportunities won.


22nd Minute

Once again, Robert Sanchez directs his long ball to United’s left side, and Martinez and Welbeck are close to each other, with the opportunity to contest for the ball.

Here is another angle just before the ball arrives. Both players have their eyes on the ball and are in contesting position.

Welbeck can pin Martinez down and lay the ball off to his teammate Lallana who then propels the attack in United’s defensive third;vBrighton gains territory in United’s half.

Here is how the rest of the entire sequence played out:

Despite Welbeck coming out best in the situation, this will not be recorded as an aerial duel won for him; in addition, it will not be recorded as a aerial duel lost for Lisandro because neither player went off the ground for the ball.

By my definitions though, this will count as an aerial opportunity contested, with Welbeck being the beneficiary of the ‘aerial opportunity won’ stat.

Lisandro Martinez: 3 aerial opportunities contested, 0 contested aerial opportunities won.


23rd Minute

Lisandro is marking Welbeck as the cross comes in.

Welbeck wins the first ball and directs the header towards goal but it ricocheted off Lisandro’s head and is redirected out of the box.

I do not know how this particular situation did not count as a *aerial duel* given the proximity and attempt to head the ball from both players; nevertheless, therein lies the discrepancy with that stat. This would have counted as a ‘blocked shot’ for Welbeck and and block for Lisandro–since he was not the last man….

Here is the full clip:

Lisandro Martinez: 4 aerial opportunities contested, 0 contested aerial opportunities won.


36th Minute

As the long aerial ball comes in, Martinez and Welbeck are within close proximity of each other. By my earlier definition, this counts as a contested aerial opportunity.

Lisandro wins the first ball while Welbeck spins behind, anticipating that the Argentine would try to stand up to him–as he did in the previous instances.

FREEZE-FRAME OF LISANDRO WINNING A CONTESTED AERIAL OPPORTUNITY

Here is a clip of the full sequence:

LISANDRO WINS A CONTESTED AERIAL OPPORTUNITY

Lisandro Martinez: 5 aerial opportunities contested, 1 contested aerial opportunities won.


Second Half

During the second half of the game, Brighton became less direct and stopped launching the targeted balls to United’s left-hand side. By this time, they were already 2-0 up and could afford to retain and recycle possession when possible.


Conclusion

This brief walk-through of some situations Lisandro was put in this match highlights the deficiencies with the ‘Aerial Duel’ stat. Like some others have echoed, the stat alone is not a good measure of a player’s aerial ability, and it is important to contextualise it. Because Lisandro could not compete with Welbeck in contested aerial opportunities, Brighton used that long ball to gain territory and pin United back throughout the first half.

Caveats of ‘Contested aerial opportunity’ stat

The key caveat for this stat is determining what proximity makes the situation ‘contested’. 

Here is an instance from the 79th minute of that same game. I chose not to include it because I felt the ‘contested-nature’ of the situation was particularly subjective.

At no point during the flight of the ball did Lisandro make contact with Welbeck, so the English striker was able to receive and lay the ball off to his teammate.

If you have any other caveats or limitations for the stat, endeavour to drop it as a comment here, via Twitter DMs or as a reply to the reference tweet.

Pointers ahead of Brentford

Brentford are an extremely direct team and have a striker, Ivan Toney, who dominates in contested aerial opportunities. 

I would not be surprised to see Lisandro dropped or moved to another position to accommodate during the match. Should he start, it will be valuable for the deepest midfielder adjacent to him to be dominant physically and capable of winning the second balls (take your guesses about who that might be).


Manchester United’s Lisandro Martinez (left) and Brighton and Hove Albion’s Danny Welbeck during the Premier League match at Old Trafford, Manchester. Picture date: Sunday August 7, 2022. (Photo by Ian Hodgson/PA Images via Getty Images)


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One thought on “The Discrepancies of the ‘Aerial Duel’ stat: Case-Study of Lisandro Martinez vs Brighton

  1. Was always funny to read people saying Lindelof is better than Maguire at “Aerial Duels” because of his stats at those when in fact he usually just shied off them making his “Contested Aerial Opportunities” awful. Still, a stat that records who actually kept the possession after both “Aerial Duels” and “Contested Aerial Opportunities” would be nice, since Maguire heads the ball aimlessly and it was Brighton who kept the ball in the above example of Martinez’s won “CAO”.

    Like

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