Just how important is possession of the ball?

A bit of research with stats n' stuff (25/03/14)

Liverpool Quartet

Pep Guardiola’s influence on how football is played throughout Europe cannot be understated. His all-conquering Barcelona team’s ability to dominate possession of the ball proved a near impossible tactic to counter. “Overloaded midfield” and “recycled possession” became the in-vogue axioms as teams attempted to replicate Barca’s unique and seemingly unsurpassable methods.

Bayern Munich’s more energetic and direct brand of football tore the Tiki-Taka doctrine asunder last season, showing the rest of the continent that what you do with the ball is far more important than how much of the ball you have. Don’t for second think that I am painting Heynckes’ Bayern as some kick and rush merchants – I’m not, but there was a distinct clash of footballing credenda in last season’s Champions League semi final double-header.

At today’s Bayern Munich, we have something of an experiment in football philosophy taking place. Pep Guardiola is attempting to “Barca-fy” the German champions, preferring his team to play at a more considered and controlled pace and though results are outstanding, some of the pizzazz of last season has been lost – so much so, that Franz Beckenbauer has even had a little dig at Pep’s Bavarian incarnation earlier this month:

‘This will end with us resembling Barcelona and nobody will want to watch us. We risk boring the fans. These players are being told to pass the ball right up to the goal-line.

‘If this is now the Bayern philosophy, it may bring us our joyful moments but we’ll probably end up playing like Barcelona and, when we actually get to the goal-line, we’ll recycle the ball and pass it backwards rather than scoring.

‘I have another view. If I can shoot from distance, above all against a massed defence, then I have to do that. It’s an effective formula.’

Bayern Munich have had an average of 71.1% possession in their league games so far this campaign, winning 24 of their 26 games. Guardiola values possession over all else and it is hard to argue with his rationale given his success as a manager. But is he correct in his thinking? Just how vital is possession of the ball?

Let’s take a look at the importance of possession in the Premier League:

Swansea City rank first in the Premier League in terms of average possession with 60% but sit just 4 points clear of the relegation zone having won just 7 out of their 30 league games so far.

Swansea also have the highest pass success rate in the league (along with Man City), with 86.2% of their attempted passes finding their target. But it is telling to note that just 25% of Swansea’s time is spent in the opposition’s half – the joint lowest percentage in the Premiership, which indicates the Swans are all too happy to recycle the ball in areas of the pitch that cannot hurt their opponents.

Fans of the Premier League are aware of Swansea’s penchant for over-playing, so stats like that won’t come as too much of a shock, but what about the league’s better sides?

League leaders Chelsea (54.7%) rank a lowly 7th when it comes to average possession. Chelsea do spend 30% of their time in the opposition’s half though, the joint 2nd highest figure in the league and if you couple that figure with Chelsea’s surprisingly low average number of short passes per game (428, ranking them 8th), then it’s clear that a more direct approach works for Mourinho.

It may surprise you to learn that Liverpool spend just 27% of their time in the opposition’s half, ranking them 11th in that regard, behind the likes of West Brom, Norwich and West Ham.  Although they sit in 2nd place in the Premier League, they sit in 9th place in the average possession standings with 54.3%.

The Reds have been incredibly prolific in 2013/14, preferring to play a fast paced counter attacking style under Rodgers, rather than the possession based style the Irishman adopted at Swansea. It’s a tactic that has allowed Liverpool’s attackers far more space to create chances, something that might not have happened when faced with massed ranks of defenders – a situation that occurs frequently when teams attack with a more considered possession based approach. Their total of 82 league goals so far is staggering, 8 of which have come from counter-attacks, the highest figure in the league by some distance.(Chelsea are 2nd with 4)

Man City seem to be enjoying the best of both worlds, sitting 3rd in the average possession charts with 58.3% possession, having the most average shots per game with 17.9 per game and spending the most time (31%) of any team in the opposition half.

So while we have established that dominating possession isn’t overly critical to the league’s top two sides approach, we can’t draw any concrete conclusions given City’s high possession stats.

In a general sense, it is interesting to note that 9 out of the 10 top placed Premier League teams make up 9 out of the 10 top place teams in the average possession per game standings – with Swansea City providing the only anomaly, suggesting that the more of the ball you have, the better your chances of success are. No points for stating the obvious I guess?

Maybe the most ideal example for analysis we can use is the change of manager at Everton and the contrasting styles and influence of David Moyes and Roberto Martinez.

Last season Everton averaged 52.9% possession in their games, while this season they have averaged 56.5% under their new Spanish manager. In terms of passing, last season’s figure of 369 average short passes per game under Moyes has already been drastically improved upon, with Everton making an average of 430 short passes per game this season under Martinez.

Last season, Everton’s average pass success rate per game was 79.4%, which again has been improved upon by Martinez side who have completed and average of 83.4% of their passes. But while Martinez’s Everton certainly come up trumps in the possession and passing stakes, Moyes’ Toffees had an average of 16.7 shots per game compared to the Spaniard’s Everton average of 15.2 so far, with Moyes’ side scoring 3 goals more than this year’s team at the same stage of the season.

But while Everton were a more potent attacking force under Moyes (which may surprise many), Martinez has managed to amass 4 more points for his team so far in the same number of games. With so little between the figures, we really need to see where Everton finish in May to make concrete conclusions about a passing style versus a direct style at Goodison Park.

It stands to reason that the more you control possession of the ball, the greater your chance of winning a game should be. However, the Premier League’s current top two; Chelsea and Liverpool have shown us that efficiency of possession and purposeful use of the ball are proving much more crucial this season than simply dominating possession alone.

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