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Utilising possession in the Premier League

19 October 2011

Stoke proved to be one of the most efficient teams with and without the ball last season (Image: Flickr, Ronnie Macdonald)

A number of questions have been raised recently over the usefulness of possession statistics in football. Liverpool’s Director of Football Damien Comolli claims that “there is less of a correlation between possession and success than we supposed… it tends to be overrated by most clubs.”

Both Soccer Statistically and Chimu Solutions (here and here) have looked at data from the MLS, and found that teams are actually more successful in matches where they see less than 50% of the ball, a counter-intuitive phenomenon.

They offer various explanations as to why this might be the case; bearing in mind the direction of causality (do teams sit back on a lead?).

Last season’s Premier League possession data, provided by EPL Index, shows a similar trend, to the extent that possession is a poor indicator of a match result. Winning teams averaged 50.1% possession; by extension losing teams’ average possession was 0.2% lower.

Statistically, these values are no different, and whilst there’s nothing to suggest that teams benefit from having less of the ball, there’s equally nothing to support the age-old belief that dominating possession is crucial to success. (Football365’s Mediawatch neatly tackles the Daily Mail’s Martin Samuel on this point.)

It’s perhaps a case of not how much you have, but how you use it. Based on average possession numbers from last season, Arsenal appear to be the immediate culprits in this respect.

Minutes in possession per goal scored

Yet surprisingly, only Manchester United were better than the Gunners last season in turning their possession into goals, taking on average just under 29 minutes on the ball to score (i.e. possession percentage multiplied by total minutes, all over goals scored). This may serve as vindication of Wenger’s philosophy on the pitch, though as we will see the main concerns are at the back.

It’s no surprise that Stoke are third on the list; Tony Pulis’ men need to be ruthlessly efficient with the ball given they are without it for prolonged periods in most matches. Meanwhile relegation for Birmingham was a culmination of enjoying only 47.6% possession on average, and failing to make good use of this limited possession. In contrast, West Brom were productive with their time on the ball, though perhaps more intriguing would be a Di Matteo-Hodgson comparison.

Minutes out of possession per goal conceded

From a defensive point of view, the focus shifts to Man City. Not only did Roberto Mancini’s men retain a substantial amount of the ball across the season, they were superbly resolute without it, conceding every 49 minutes on average when out of possession. Mancini’s faith in his defence has clearly formed the base for a more enterprising approach this season.

Stoke again come out favourably, needing and proving to be defensively stubborn in the face of consistent pressure. A 3-1 home win against Arsenal characterised this remarkable efficiency, conceding once despite their opponents enjoying nearly 67 minutes of possession in total, and scoring a goal just under every 8 minutes when in possession themselves. Needless to say the match also highlighted Arsenal’s frailties without the ball.

In comparison to the final league table, there’s a stronger correlation between points and minutes out of possession per goal conceded than with minutes in possession per goal scored, providing yet more evidence that, given a choice, teams should focus more on their defensive duties than attacking plans.

Do these statistics support a case that Stoke should seek to retain more possession, given their efficiency at both ends of the field? Surely if they chose to keep hold of the ball for longer they would score more and concede fewer? The answer is probably no; one of the reasons they are so strong defensively is perhaps because they have so little possession, as it enables the team to retain their shape and organisation at the back.

These statistics are useful in noting how well teams utilise time on and off the ball, and may be good compliments to looking simply at goals scored or conceded. The number of goals scored this season is perhaps too small for useful analysis, though it’d certainly be interesting to see if some teams have rectified certain inefficiencies.

All data from EPL Index, see their Stats Centre for more data.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. desigunner permalink
    19 October 2011 5:41 pm

    Very interesting post. Love the way you look at some numbers.

    I like to think football is mainly about possession (passing, movement, etc) and goals. Results can be about defending, organization, physicality, etc.

    Can a big club consistently adopt the Mourinho’s Inter V Barca approach and remain a big club even if they are winning? Will the fans and directors accept it?

    So for some clubs/managers it’s about showing they can play football and win (doesn’t always work out). For others it’s about using the rules of the games to get results (as many as they can). It’s hard to say either approach is the better one but you probably guessed which one I prefer 🙂

    It seems to me those that can balance the two (reminds me of the way Chelsea and United could defend against Arsenal and win comfortably) or truly master one style (Barca, Mourinho’s Inter) are likely to be most successful.

    • 19 October 2011 10:36 pm

      Cheers 🙂 Really like your take on the potential trade off, think you’re probably right in many ways. Think it’s horses for courses a lot of the time with personnel, expectations etc, hence the lack of clear evidence for possession advantage.

  2. 19 October 2011 10:16 pm

    This is a very interesting article, thanks.

    As a Liverpool fan, it’s something I’ve come across before – looking at last season, four of their five highest possession figures came under Roy Hodgson, yet three of those four games were lost (Blackburn 67.3%, Everton 66.7%, Stoke City 60.0%, all away from home).

    Liverpool passed the ball with a greater accuracy under Hodgson last season then they did under Dalglish too, but it generally didn’t do them much good, did it?!

    Keep up the good work, cheers.

    • 19 October 2011 10:39 pm

      Cheers Andrew. More evidence for how you use it I guess! Shows that possession doesn’t always particularly mean good football either, it really depends where you’re keeping it and at what stage in a match. Blackburn and Everton in particular had no real need to keep the ball at 2/3-0 up.

  3. 21 October 2011 11:23 am

    Nice article,I came to the same conclusion about Stoke and wrote it up here

    I fully agree with your point about the dangers for Stoke if they change their style to gain more possession.Their lack of possession is an integral part of how they play.You only had to witness how quickly they became a tight defensive unit,prepared to play on the counter when they briefly played 10 against 11 last night against a poor Maccabi Tel Aviv side.That’s how they play most weeks in the EPL and it’s obviously honed on the training ground.



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