With a little extra time on my hands I have taken started to look at what might be the differences and similarities between leagues, and with it whether there are any structural ‘rules’ in volleyball. Thanks to Michael Mattes and Manlio Puxeddu, who collected the files and Ben Raymond, who wrote the apps that let me crunch the numbers for the whole leagues. The leagues I will focus on are France, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Russia. For these leagues, I have almost full data for the 2016-17 season and I also think these are probably the top 5 leagues right now.
If you are still following the story, you are probably wondering, ‘Who are the best attackers?’ and ‘What is the best place to attack from?’. Well, I am glad you asked. I think I may have some answers.
ATTACK BY ROLE
Men’s volleyball in 2018 is a highly specialised sport. Players are split into their roles and virtually never step outside them. Players are either setters, opposites, outside hitters (or wing spikers in terminology I have only ever read in FIVB press releases), middle blockers and liberos. Of these five positions only opposites, outside hitters and middle blockers play a significant role in the attack.
It is not a very great surprise to learn that middle blockers are the ‘best’ attackers. Or at least middle blockers are the most successful attackers, but quite a large margin. What is something of a surprise to me is to learn that opposites are more successful at attacking than outside hitters. In this case I don’t think it is a stretch to say opposites are the best attackers. In some ways this should be logical. Learning theory says that the more you do something you better you get at it, and opposites attack the more than any other players in both practice and games. There could also be a selection effect in play in that opposites are chosen precisely because they are better attackers. Still, spiking from position 4 is generally thought of as being more effective than spiking from position 2 and especially from position 1.
Which lead us to…
ATTACK BY SET TYPE
Here we have only included fast balls to position 4, 2 and 1, pipes and first tempo attack from position 3. The definition of a fast ball is fairly variable and covers a large range of actual sets. Roughly it includes all balls that fly through the hitting window, whereas a high ball is a ball that drops into the hitting window. For scientific purposes we would need better definitions, and probably would need to add a few more types of attack, but for our purposes it gives us enough to make some comparisons.
By some margin, the most effective attack is from the middle of the court, either first tempo or pipe. Obviously, the speed (these are the fastest sets) and deception (they are always run together) of the attacks from the middle of the court make it much more difficult to block both individually and as a team. What is surprising is that the fast ball attack from position 4 is the least effective measured, across all leagues. Generally, the backrow attack from position 1 is considered the least effective of the standard attacks. It turns out that is not true. One explanation could simply be the dilution of attempts that occurs because there are twice as many outsides as opposites. Or it could just be that opposites are better at hitting, and should be hitting even more.
In summary, set as much first tempo and pipe as you can, when in doubt give it to the opposite, and throw a bone to position 4 every now and again to keep the block honest.
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