AFC Cup Final 2022 Data Preview: Kuala Lumpur City vs. Al-Seeb

Article by Ben Griffis

The 2022 AFC Cup Final will take place on October 22nd, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur City FC will host Al-Seeb of Oman in the AFC’s secondary club continental competition. This stage is quite unknown to both clubs, with neither having reached the final in previous editions. A first Asian title is at stake for both clubs, then, as is a guaranteed berth in the AFC Champions League qualification rounds.

This article will take a look back at each club’s data in their matches leading up to the final: 6 matches for Kuala Lumpur City, and 5 matches for Al-Seeb. I’ll dive deep into each team and their opponents to see what we could expect from these clubs, the danger each team brings, and possible areas of weakness their opponent could exploit.

Post-Match Dashboards

Post-match dashboards with several key data visualized in one place is handy for a quick analysis. To view all of Kuala Lumpur City and Al-Seeb’s post-match dashboards, follow this Google Drive link. I will present competition-aggregate data in this article, but it’s nice to look at individual matches on top of that if you’re curious.

Main Passing Flows

The first area I want to analyze is each team’s main passing flows. We’ll be able to get a sense, over the 5 or 6 matches, of the general areas of the pitch each team likes to play in and where they focus their completed passes.

I divide the pitch into 30 zones and calculate the total completions from one zone to another, repeating for every zone. The arrows between zones represent completed passes from the arrow’s starting zone to the zone with the arrow’s head. The darker the color, the greater the number of passes from one zone to another. I put a minimum threshold of 7 completions for an arrow to be present. This allows us to see the most-used passing flows.

Kuala Lumpur City

We see that Kuala Lumpur makes heavy use of their flanks, and not so much their midfield. They are a bit asymmetrical as well, with the right flank mainly used to pass the ball up the pitch before sending in a cross. The left flank, however, has much more play with the midfield.

Something that also stands out are the passes from the middle of Kuala Lumpur’s penalty box (typically goal kicks and passes from the keeper). There are two strong flows, one to the left half-space just in front of the box, and another to the left half-space just past midfield.

There’s also one more main passing flow: lateral passes at the end of the defensive third. This indicates that Kuala Lumpur tend to pass around their center backs relatively frequently. And taking into account their flank play, we can get a decent picture for how they’ll play in possession. Lateral passes around the back before attempting to pass it to and up the flanks, possibly not using the middle of the park very often.

Al-Seeb can use data like this to prepare themselves and plan accordingly. Al-Seeb might look to force Kuala Lumpur City to play through the midfield, which could make Kuala Lumpur less effective given that they would have to adjust to unfamiliar play styles.

Al-Seeb may also allow Kuala Lumpur to play down the flanks as they please, and instead focus on being solid in their defensive third making it near impossible for Kuala Lumpur to create any dangerous chances.

Al-Seeb

Al-Seeb’s passing flows look rather different than Kuala Lumpur’s. Al-Seeb have made heavy use of the midfield third. There are connections to and from almost every zone, of course with varying strengths. Their left flank appears to have slightly more connections than their right, however this is also across 5 matches, so in a single match we probably won’t see anything too noticeable that Kuala Lumpur City could look to exploit.

Al-Seeb have several connections into the zones just in front of the box. These will be danger areas. The majority of connections in the final third zones are vertical balls from the zone just before it. We’ll see this later on, but that tells us Al-Seeb play many balls into the final third from just before the final third.

I would also like to point out now that Al-Seeb have played 5 matches so far, while Kuala Lumpur City have played 6, and two went to extra time. That means Kuala Lumpur have played almost two more matches than Al-Seeb. This makes it even more interesting to compare their pass flows, which do not account for the extra opportunity Kuala Lumpur City had to complete passes.

We should certainly expect Al-Seeb to dominate possession in the final. They will most likely dominate possession in the midfield and look to attack the final third with relatively short passes. Kuala Lumpur City will most likely be pushed back, however I don’t think they will mind too much. Given that Kuala Lumpur like to play passes from their defensive third onto the flanks, they might look to win the ball back in their third before swiftly countering down one of the flanks, where there could be space left by the Al-Seeb fullback and winger supporting the midfield play.

Overall, we can see that the 2022 AFC Cup final should be an interesting duel between two relatively different teams, at least regarding their passes.

Passes into the Final Third

Now let’s take a look at each team’s passes into the final third. The passes shown below are completed passes that start in the defensive or midfield third of the pitch and are received by a player in the final third.

Kuala Lumpur City

We don’t see too much of a pattern with Kuala Lumpur’s final third passes. They look to have a slight preference for the wings, but there are a ton of passes through the center of the park. There are enough passes centrally that I feel confident saying they don’t favor the flanks, despite their main passing flows showing a lot of passes down the flanks.

Taken together, that means that while we should expect Kuala Lumpur City to pass through the flanks often, they should still make good use of the central areas. The flanks have the largest density of passes into the final third, but there are still a relatively high proportion of passes entering in the middle.

Now let’s take a look at the starting locations of the passes into the final third. Very few vertical balls from the center up the center. Most of the passes received in central locations actually start on the flanks or in half-spaces. That then makes sense, given what we know about Kuala Lumpur’s main pass flows. They are utilizing longer passes from the half-spaces and flanks to enter the final third centrally.

Al-Seeb

We see a much different tactic when we look at Al-Seeb’s passes into the final third, however. Al-Seeb actually have a much higher proportion of these passes being received on the flanks than Kuala Lumpur do, despite Kuala Lumpur primarily using the wings to pass the ball up the pitch.

Al-Seeb are almost the opposite of Kuala Lumpur in this area. They have many of their final third entry passes coming from central areas and going wide. This should be an interesting dynamic to watch for in the match.

One more thing to compare between these clubs’ final third passes are the ones coming from deep in their own half. We can see a lot of passes from (most likely) the Kuala Lumpur goalkeeper in their box, while just about 4 from Al-Seeb’s box. Similarly with passes in their own half not from the box, Kuala Lumpur have quite a few more than Al-Seeb. This will also play into Kuala Lumpur’s much lower completion % with all their attempted passes into the final third. While these graphs don’t show incomplete, there are enough completed passes to see where the incomplete passes come from and target. Longer passes that players have to challenge for in the air will be a lower completion % than shorter passes on the ground.

Considering that we should expect Al-Seeb to dominate the ball, we should also expect Kuala Lumpur City to use long balls even more frequently in an attempt to both clear the ball from their defensive third and try to make some use of their limited possession. Al-Seeb should prepare for this aerial onslaught to ensure they don’t make mistakes and are caught out on the long counter.

Finally, notice how Kuala Lumpur has quite a few throw-ins from about midfield into the final third, while Al-Seeb has very few. This is an interesting tactical difference. Kuala Lumpur most likely use throw-ins at midfield to help progress the ball up the pitch, whereas Al-Seeb most likely pass them back or laterally to an open receiver to ensure retained possession. Something else to keep an eye on in what already appears to be an exciting match up.

Crosses Leading to Shots

Now that we’ve seen some general passing characteristics, let’s look at passes leading to shots. We’ll start by looking at all crosses (including corners) that directly lead to a shot.

Kuala Lumpur City

The majority of Kuala Lumpur’s crosses that assisted a shot were corners. That tells us (and Al-Seeb) two things. First, that they’re a danger on corners. While none led directly to goals, they can and will test the keeper. Second, it tells us Kuala Lumpur’s open-play crosses might not carry as much danger for a shot. That doesn’t mean crosses aren’t dangerous… because we don’t have the data here telling us what happened in the few seconds after a cross. It just shows us that Al-Seeb probably don’t have to worry about crosses directly testing their keeper.

Just 2 of Kuala Lumpur’s crosses were goal assists, showing us that while their corners and a few crosses might land at the feet (or most likely, head) of a teammate, they must be off target or relatively easy to stop.

Al-Seeb

Al-Seeb, as we’re learning, is almost the opposite of Kuala Lumpur. Only two corners have led to shots, although one of those was a goal assist. However, they have plenty of open-play crosses leading to shots, and many of these are from the left. 3 open-play crosses led directly to goals, 2 from the left. We can see the inherent danger in their crosses, but perhaps not their corners. Again, we have our two finalists performing almost the exact opposite of each other.

Finally, look at the relative are of the open-play crosses leading to shots for these sides. Al-Seeb’s crosses leading to shots are much closer to the box and typically more lateral in nature. Kuala Lumpur’s are a bit deeper, almost at the start of the final third, and closer to the touchline. Yet another interesting tactical difference of these two sides that we can see in the data.

Al-Seeb will need to watch out for the possibility of Kuala Lumpur’s deep, long crosses from the flanks. Coupled with us expecting Kuala Lumpur to try many long balls from their defensive third into the final third, Al-Seeb will need to make sure their defenders are up the the task they’ll have in the air.

On the other side, Kuala Lumpur will need to prepare for many relatively short passes all over the pitch, including Al-Seeb’s crosses into the box. Shorter passes can be incredibly dangerous if the defending team doesn’t close it’s gaps properly and quickly enough. Shorter, quick passes can and will devastate a team that is not organized and quick enough in their defensive movements. If Kuala Lumpur can ensure these gaps aren’t open for Al-Seeb, they’ll be very effective at shutting Al-Seeb down.

Non-Crosses Leading to Shots

Now let’s take a look at the other shot and goal assists, this time excluding crosses.

Kuala Lumpur City

This graph shows us that Kuala Lumpur do create plenty of shooting chances with their non-cross passes. These can also come from all over the pitch, as we see many from central areas, but also a few from wider positions.

There’s not a lot in here to draw major conclusions from, to be honest. We would expect the majority of passes leading to shots to come from more central areas, and that’s what we see.

Al-Seeb

We see a very similar picture looking at Al-Seeb’s as well. More shot assists, but fewer assists, is one key difference here. It does appear that Al-Seeb’s shots after shot assists were perhaps less dangerous than Kuala Lumpur’s, but of course without expected goals (xG) or post-shot xG data, it’s difficult to truly make a conclusion.

One key difference though, is that there appears to be a slight preference of the left flank for Al-Seeb. This is probably not very surprising since we saw in their passing flow map that they have a small preference of the left over the right. That their shot assists are slightly skewed left means they’re probably as effective on both sides at creating shots, but that they just happen to play down the left more.

Expected Threat via Pass

Now let’s look at each team’s most dangerous areas for passes based on expected threat (xT). xT essentially measures the added danger for a completed pass based on where it started to where it was completed. It takes into account the change in probability of a goal being scored in the next 5 actions from the start zone to the end zone. So, passes ending right in front of the goal normally have very high xT while a pass ending on the wings tends to have a low xT. xT can be negative, if the pass is from a position of high goal-scoring chance to lower goal-scoring chance.

Kuala Lumpur City

These graphs show heatmaps for the starting areas of passing xT as well as the ending areas. Overall, the ending zone heatmap over the course of multiple matches will look similar to Kuala Lumpur’s. There are some slight notes to take, and I’ll get to those.

The main areas where Kuala Lumpur generate the most threat via pass are naturally the flanks. And that’s in line with xT logic, as passes going from the flanks to almost anywhere centrally is a positive xT. We do see that Kuala Lumpur generate more xT deep on the right, but a bit more to the start of the final third down the left. Similarly, they hardly generate xT via pass inside the box on the left, but a lot inside the box on the right. This could be an area that Al-Seeb look to exploit: Al-Seeb should try to force Kuala Lumpur into the box on the left, where they might be less comfortable.

We also see some threat areas centrally. This ties in with what we saw looking at Kuala Lumpur’s non-cross shot assists. Mostly vertical balls from the start of the final third. Naturally, they will create decent xT from those areas as well.

The target zone for the most xT is of course inside the box, right in front of the goal. However, we do see a slight skew near the top of the box. There is more xT received at the top of the box on the right-hand side than on the left. This is of course something Al-Seeb will have to watch out for. Al-Seeb could plan accordingly knowing this information.

Al-Seeb

Al-Seeb have a somewhat similar xT start location heatmap, with slightly less xT in their hot zones than Kuala Lumpur (which can be seen by the less-intense red in the main areas, as the zones are shaded according to both clubs’ xT).

It’s probably not a surprise that Al-Seeb generate a lot of their xT via pass from the left flank compared to the right. We’ve seen through several pieces of data their preference of the left. And that’s no different here. Kuala Lumpur should be prepared to defend down their right flank, as everything we’re seeing shows us that’s most likely where Al-Seeb will want to play.

Al-Seeb’s xT target zone map is interesting to look at. Of course, we see much of the xT focused in the center of the box. But there are also lots of evenly-spaced xT zones on mainly the left side of the box as well. Going back to what I mentioned above, this is probably due to the relatively shorter nature of Al-Seeb’s passes. This is again another data point showing us how imperative it is for Kuala Lumpur’s defense to remain structured and in communication throughout the match. Any gaps that they create will be targeted by Al-Seeb.

Back Line Shapes, In & Out of Possession

The final piece of data focusing on Kuala Lumpur City and Al-Seeb I want to illustrate are the average locations of their back 4 while passing and while not passing. As I don’t have tracking data, only event data, this is as close as I can get to in- and out-of-possession locations.

Kuala Lumpur

These graphs show the average location of each player’s events (large dot), all of their events (the tiny dots), and a colored polygon showing all of their events that are within one standard deviation of their average location.

I use the most-used back 4 for each team in their AFC Cup campaign, however multiple players played in these positions for both teams. I’m using the most-used player as a proxy for the position as a whole.

We can see the average locations of Kuala Lumpur’s center backs are very similar. They’re about the same height, and they their average territory is fairly similar as well. We see a difference in their fullbacks, however. Right back Kamal Azizi is a bit higher on average than Declan Lambert on the left.

Azizi also has a more condensed zone that his passes typically come from than Lambert. Azizi’s passes are typically much closer to the touchline than Lambert’s, who, while making plenty of passes from the touchline, can be seen on the wing and half-space rather frequently.

This graph above shows all the locations of non-passes. We see a very flat back 4, which each player’s territory overlapping with about half of their neighbor’s territory. This is refreshing to see, given that we’ve shown how important it will be for Kuala Lumpur to remain structured at the back against what could be some dangerous passes by Al-Seeb.

Al-Seeb

Al-Seeb’s back 4 have a more symmetrical shape while passing than Kuala Lumpur. Both fullbacks are relatively high, although, as we’ve seen everywhere else, their left back Al Rawahi (who has since transferred away, but played the most games at left back in Al-Seeb’s campaign so far) was higher up the pitch.

There is little overlap in the average territories for all 4 of these positions in possession, which tells us that there are clearly-defined positions for their players in-possession on average.

Al-Seeb’s back 4 average locations of non-passes exhibits roughly the same shape as their average locations while passing. Each player typically covers a little more territory than when they pass, which is expected for mostly defensive actions.

The fullbacks will most likely push to challenge Kuala Lumpur’s play down the flanks, which we know they prefer. Since this is a natural positioning for Al-Seeb’s fullbacks, I would wager that Al-Seeb have the upper hand in this area. Since that’s the defensive style Al-Seeb’s back line are used to, they should be adept at defending and constricting space for Kuala Lumpur’s passes there.

Overall, all this data shows us that we should expect interesting tactical battles between the two sides.

Opponents’ Data

Now let’s take a look at what Kuala Lumpur City and Al-Seeb’s opponents have done. This will show us what our finalists have come up against on their way to the final. If there are clear patterns in their opponents’ data, we would assume that the finalists can deal with those patterns well, given that they, well, made it to the final!

Opponents’ Passes into the Final Third

We’ll start with looking at the opponents’ final third passes.

Kuala Lumpur City’s Opponents

Interestingly enough, Kuala Lumpur’s opponents have a very similar final third passing pattern to Al-Seeb. Not just the high proportion of balls from the center onto the flanks, but also the completion percent being low 60s. Of course, anything can happen in a given game, but since Kuala Lumpur made it to the final playing against teams who pass the ball into the final third like how Al-Seeb do, they should be well-prepared to defend against Al-Seeb’s passes here.

Al-Seeb’s Opponents

Al-Seeb’s opponents also have a somewhat similar pattern in this area as Kuala Lumpur City, however there are some differences. There appears to be more of a concentration of passes from central areas onto the flanks, something that KL City do infrequently. Al-Seeb might have to adjust to defending this type of pass against Kuala Lumpur which adds another level of interest into this match.

Al-Seeb have been used to defending a few longer passes from the opponent’s defensive third, so this is an area they may not need to adjust too much to in the final against Kuala Lumpur. Overall, both Kuala Lumpur and Al-Seeb have faced similar passes into their own defensive third to the passes their upcoming opponents make.

Opponents’ Crosses Leading to Shots

Kuala Lumpur City’s Opponents

Kuala Lumpur’s opponents have, like KL City themselves, been a danger from corners. This perhaps might bode well for Al-Seeb, who while not making many shot assists from corners, have seen one of their two shot assists from corners end up in the back of the net.

The majority of open-play crosses Kuala Lumpur have faced have been from the start of their own defensive third, which is not where Al-Seeb tend to assist shots from. While 4 crosses leading to shots have come from areas Al-Seeb tend to cross from, the majority are not. Kuala Lumpur may have to adjust to defending against Al-Seeb’s dangerous lateral, short, crosses. And those can be hard to defend against, so this may be a key area to watch for.

Al-Seeb’s Opponents

Al-Seeb’s opponents have only created 6 shots directly from their crosses. Given that none of their opponents’ corners have led to a shot, Al-Seeb are probably fairly good at defending corners. That bodes well against Kuala Lumpur, who as we have seen can be a danger from corners.

Not allowing many crosses to assist shots is a strong indicator both of defensive capability and of Al-Seeb’s possession dominance. They should be fairly prepared to defend against Kuala Lumpur’s aerial onslaught that could come.

Opponents’ Non-Crosses Leading to Shots

Kuala Lumpur City’s Opponents

Kuala Lumpur’s opponents have actually created shots from and to relatively similar areas as Al-Seeb have. Plenty all over the pitch, but with a slight tendency for them to come from Kuala Lumpur’s right side. They will definitely have prepared for these passes, but as we’ve seen above, they will need to remain disciplined and structured.

Al-Seeb’s Opponents

Al-Seeb don’t allow their opponents to create a lot of shots from passes, which should have been what we expected to see. The most common pass leading to a shot appears to be a vertical ball from the half-space into or just to the top of the box, which isn’t necessarily a pass Kuala Lumpur make often, as we saw from their graph. It’s very possible that Al-Seeb are good at defending the flanks so as to not allow dangerous passes to come from wide areas frequently. The fullbacks being fairly high with their non-pass actions leads me to believe that.

We should be set up for yet another interesting battle in this are of the match as well. Overall, this match is shaping up to be a great match up of two different teams who are used to playing against similar styles as their upcoming opponent.

Opponents’ Main Passing Flows

The final piece of analysis I want to present here are Kuala Lumpur and Al-Seeb’s opponents’ main passing flows. This will show us if each club is accustomed to playing against a similar passing style as their upcoming opponent overall. Again, given that these teams made it to the final, they should be good at winning against teams who play similarly to the past opponents in the AFC Cup.

Kuala Lumpur City’s Opponents

Kuala Lumpur’s opponents had a fairly similar passing flow to Al-Seeb’s, albeit with fewer midfield connections but the addition of strong wing play in Kuala Lumpur’s defensive third. This bodes well for Kuala Lumpur, as they will come up against an opponent who plays similarly to their past opponents but who may not play as much down the flanks in the defensive third.

Regardless, Kuala Lumpur will need to stay structured at the back, as Al-Seeb appear to pose a real danger with their passes in the final third.

Al-Seeb’s Opponents

This graph shows us how much Al-Seeb can dominate possession. Very few opponent connections. Further, the main connections in Al-Seeb’s half of the pitch are down the wings. This is very similar to Kuala Lumpur’s passing flows, so Al-Seeb should be able to counter those passes effectively.

A Final Word

Overall, these charts should give us a good indication of what we can expect from both teams in the upcoming 2022 AFC Cup Final. It looks like there will be a great tactical battle pitting two different teams against an opponent that is similar to the teams they’ve beaten on their routes to the final.

I think that, after analyzing all of this data, I would put Al-Seeb as the favorites. Their style and attacking patterns look to be difficult to defend against, and while Kuala Lumpur has had experience defending against a similar style, the slightest mistake could lead to a gap opening up for Al-Seeb to exploit.

However, we’ve also seen that Kuala Lumpur should be able to defend well and then play long balls into the final third or pass swiftly up the flanks. Al-Seeb may be good at defending crosses, but they appear to have not been tested with an aerial assault. Kuala Lumpur should target this possible weakness to test Al-Seeb. Again, one mistake could lead to a goal.

I’m very excited for this match. Two teams who seem perfectly fit to beat the other is what every final needs. Good luck to both teams, and congratulations to whoever wins, for winning their very first continental trophy!

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