There was a very interesting statistic to come from the opening weekend of the Premier League, courtesy of Opta (see below). It showed that, of the six matches that had a winner, only three of them saw the winning team end with more possession.
Huddersfield blew apart a Crystal Palace side while only having possession for less than twenty minutes of the whole match, while West Brom (more on them later) and Burnley showed that a team does not need the lion’s share of the ball to win.
However, you cannot make a sweeping statement based off one weekend of football. Do the broader statistics show a change in the last few years? Does possession no longer guarantee success?
Leicester City, Making a Mockery of Possession Football
The year was 1995 when Alan Hansen infamously said of Manchester United, “you can’t win anything with kids” before that same team did the league and FA Cup double. Twenty years on and Leicester City made a mockery of the assuredness of some that you need to control possession to win games.
The Foxes were the biggest story in the 2015/2016 season, and perhaps the biggest story in Premier League history. Their incredible season led to global acclaim, as they blew away team after team on their charge to the title.
One area where they did not finish top of the table, not even close, was on the possession stats, where in fact they only had the eighteenth highest. That’s right, Leicester City, the champions of England, finished in the relegation zone for average possession. Quite clearly, they didn’t need it.
They exploited a fault in the top six clubs, who were getting too comfortable passing the ball around slowly, knowing that, eventually, they would get a chance to win the game. The Foxes threw themselves at their opposition, countered at a lightning speed and didn’t play through the midfield but rather straight up to their forwards. Their opponents were mystified, and for the whole season very few teams could figure them out, certainly not enough to stop Leicester making a shock swoop for the title.
Same Trend Seen Up and Down the Table
When looking at that incredible season, Leicester were not the only team to show the dwindling importance of possession-based football. Looking down the table, none of the three relegated teams were in the bottom three for average possession. In fact, Newcastle finished a comfortable thirteenth overall in this statistic, a team that could hold on to the ball no problem, but had such a leaky defence that as soon as they lost it panic erupted.
The champions of the 2016/2017 season, Chelsea, were also not the most possession-dominating team, finishing sixth overall in that regard. They made speed in the attack a priority, preferring not to dawdle on the ball, not allowing the opposition time to organise their defence. Match this with their clinical finishing and solid defensive line, and they once again showed that there are far more important aspects to football than possession.
Taking a look at the relegated teams from that year shows a similar result. Only Sunderland finished in the bottom three for possession, and even they finished higher on this statistic than they actually did in the league.
Middlesbrough perfectly typified how too much possession can be a dangerous thing. A team with the ability to pass the ball around well, they were twelfth on the possession table that season, yet found themselves relegated. A lack of pace up front, a lack of creativity in the middle, and an overall lack of goals saw the team go straight back down to the Championship.
They came across plenty of draws, the second most that season, but their lack of cutting-edge made it too easy for the opposition to defend against them. Boro ended up relegated a few weeks before the season ended, failing to impress with their slow and laboured passing style.
So who do we have to thank (or blame) for this shift away from possession-based football?
Poch, Klopp and Pulis Change the Premier League
Unlike what many fans believe, Mauricio Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp did not invent the closing down style now known as ‘Gegenpressing’. After all, Ajax and the Dutch national team were doing it in the 1970s. But Pochettino and Klopp did make it popular in the Premier League, which was rather slow to catch on.
This style wreaks havoc for teams that want to play slow build-up for a whole ninety-minute game. By closing down the player on the ball quickly, as well as closing off his passing options, the opposition find it nearly impossible to continue this style of play.
They have two alternatives, to speed up their passing, which requires very high-level players, or to go long and entirely avoid the press, which is difficult for teams not set up to play that way. The high press is now quite popular in England, and has meant that those teams who win the league often revert to a more simple, rapid style.
It is not just the glamorous managers we have to thank for changing the style of the Premier League. Tony Pulis, a man fans often scoff at, has played a major role in this change. His West Brom side have done the opposite of the gegenpressing style. Pulis urges his players when off the ball to sit deep in their own half, and defend from near their own box. This is not as simple as it sounds.
It requires a very high level of discipline and organisation. Pulis’ players almost employ a zonal marking system, just from open play. Players do not get sucked in towards the ball, and shut off any opportunities for through-balls and one-on-one situations. They force their opponents out wide, and with their tall, powerful centre-backs are able to deal with any crosses that come into the box. This style frustrates teams who rely on slow, patient build-up, as they are often reduced to long-shots and hopeless crosses.
It is no coincidence that West Brom have finished last for average possession every season under Pulis, yet have comfortably avoided relegation every time. It might not be pretty, but the 2013/2014 LMA Manager of the Year deserves a lot of credit for revolutionising the English game.
Change or Get Left Behind
Last season Arsene Wenger, a manager notorious for making his sides play that slow possession style that is becoming ineffective, let out his frustration at the direction English football was going. He was quoted as saying,
“I still think a sport has to encourage initiative and if it rewards too much teams who don’t take the initiative, then we have to rethink the whole process because people will not, for ever, come to watch teams who do not want to take the initiative.”
Wenger’s main complaint is his perceived lack of “initiative” from Premier League clubs. But I would argue that teams like Leicester, Chelsea and West Brom have taken the most initiative out of any club. They saw that they could not beat the likes of Arsenal at their own game. So what did they do? They changed it.
Sorry Arsene, the Premier League doesn’t work like that anymore. It’s not how long you have the ball for, it’s what you do with it that counts.
*All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com
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