PPDA stands for passes per defensive action.
As the high press became a more prevalent part of football, and the use of data increased, attempts were made to quantify pressing. While simple data such as tackles and interceptions in the attacking third, or the opposition’s pass completion rate in their own half, can give some indication of how well a team presses, they have severe and understandable limitations. PPDA is an advanced metric that attempts to quantify the act of pressing in football in a more comprehensive (though, it’s important to say, not full) manner.
PPDA focuses only on actions in the area of the pitch in which a team might reasonably execute a high press. The people that came up with PPDA decided on three-fifths (or 60%) of the pitch nearest the opposition’s goal. This is the whole of the opposition’s half, plus a fifth of their own half (below).
In this area, the number of passes made by the opposition is divided by the number of defensive actions made by the out-of-possession team to give a number for PPDA. These defensive actions are tackles, interceptions, challenges (or failed tackle attempts) and fouls. The number that this calculation produces gives a value to the intensity of the out-of-possession team’s press.
A low PPDA value indicates a higher intensity to a team’s pressing (though it doesn’t necessarily mean that – more on that later). A low value shows that the team allows their opponents fewer passes for every defensive action that one of their players makes. According to Wyscout data, Barcelona had the lowest PPDA in Europe’s top five leagues in 2021/22, with 7.26, followed by Celta Vigo and Köln. Liverpool had the lowest PPDA in the Premier League in 2021/22, with 8.62, followed by Manchester City, Chelsea and Leeds. This suggests these teams attempted to press their opponents with the most intensity in the English top flight.
A high PPDA value indicates that a team sits off more than others; they make few attempts to press the player on the ball in the opposition’s half or near the halfway line. Rather than counter-press after losing possession, the players make recovery runs and the team drops into a mid or low block.
In Europe’s top five leagues in 2021/22, Norwich City and Ligue 1 side Troyes recorded the lowest PPDA, with 16.93 passes per defensive action. Premier League sides Wolves, Everton and Newcastle were all in the bottom six.
The main limitation of PPDA is that some teams will have a low PPDA simply because they dominate territory so much. Paris Saint-Germain, for example, will always have one of the lowest PPDA values in Ligue 1, but that will be the result of them dominating possession more than a particularly extreme high press. This means that context or other metrics are needed alongside PPDA to get a truer understanding of a team’s pressing.
Pressing is also far more than the events that are included in PPDA. By only including on-the-ball events – tackles, interceptions, challenges and fouls – that a pressing team make, you are ignoring all of the work the rest of the team does. Much of the effectiveness of a press comes in how exactly the player challenging for the ball is supported. The shape of the team and distances between players is absolutely integral to their success. Also, a pressing team could force a misplaced pass in a dangerous part of the pitch without ever making a tackle or challenge to win the ball, but merely by pressing as a group near the ball.
Finally, as the defensive actions included in PPDA do not necessarily mean the player or team made any contact with the ball or had any success with their defensive action, PPDA doesn’t actually tell us how successful the press was. A team could therefore make lots of failed tackle attempts in the final third. They would still have a low PPDA value, but get played through on a consistent basis and concede lots of goals without ever winning the ball back high up the pitch.
PPDA is still useful because, even on its own, it can usually give a decent indication of the out-of-possession approach a team uses. We might not be able to ascertain quite how well a team presses, or how exactly they choose to press, but PPDA usually can – with a single figure – give us an idea of whether a team cares about pressing high or not.
PPDA can help us quickly work out how a team approaches the game when out of possession. With this number and some context around it, it is possible to grasp a team's style of play much quicker than through video analysis, which would take several hours. Just like most statistical metrics in football, PPDA is a useful tool that can add to our understanding of the game when used correctly.
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Author: Ali Tweedale