Possession play yields fewer EPL victories this season

LONDON • It has always been "nine tenths of the law". To football purists, it is the key to success, with former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers once claiming that keeping the ball more than your opponent gives "you a 79 per cent chance of winning".

Possession, though, is not what it once was. This season is becoming the season of the counter-attack.

Of the 87 games that have been won in the Premier League this season, 42 of the victories have gone to teams with a minority of possession in those fixtures.

In the most recent round of fixtures, only two of the seven teams who recorded victories (Manchester United and Southampton) enjoyed a greater share of possession. Stoke, Crystal Palace, Norwich and Newcastle all won despite having less than 40 per cent of the ball.

  • 42

  • Number of times that EPL teams have won this season - out of 87 games in total - despite having less possession

  • 28.5%

  • West Ham's possession when stunning Man City in September

The approach of Premier League managers is increasingly in keeping with that of another former Liverpool manager, Gerard Houllier, who once celebrated a creditable draw at Barcelona by telling his team's frustrated opponents that they could "keep the ball and we'll keep the result".

It is still too early to claim that ball-huggers are going out of fashion but those who prefer to defend in numbers, get behind the ball and then hit decisively on the break are becoming increasingly effective.

According to Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, the two most effective exponents of this trend are Crystal Palace and Leicester, an opinion that is supported by the statistical evidence. They are the only two sides to have won twice with less than 40 per cent possession.

West Ham, however, recorded arguably the most eye-catching result of a team playing in this manner, when winning 2-1 away to Manchester City despite having only 28.5 per cent of the ball.

Critics of this approach argue that it is negative, at its worst "anti-football", but its demands should not be underestimated with teams required to be well organised, to have pace and precision and to have a comprehension of when countering will be effective.

The principle may be simple and in some ways reductive but putting it into practice requires hours of drills and players capable of absorbing pressure and attacking space when and where it opens up.

This season, none have done the latter more effectively than Jamie Vardy who, as well as being the Premier League's leading goal-scorer, has won possession more times (13) in the final third than any other player.

For managers such as Wenger, recent developments are making life far from easy.

"It's harder because you know you dominate the game but if you lose the game, you have a problem," the Frenchman said. "Yes there is a little trend there because I believe, on the flanks especially, we have players with huge physical power and absolutely tremendous pace. When you speak about the two teams who do that (best) it's Crystal Palace and Leicester.

"Their players have not only pace but power, they can cover a longer distance - (55m to 65m). Leicester as well, with their full-backs they have absolute power and pace and that is why it is a system that suits them but when you are in a club that is supposed to dominate the games you need to have both."

Ideally, Claudio Ranieri would prefer Leicester to become more expansive but for the time being he is happy to commit to Houllier's mantra, particularly as counter-attacking has helped his team to climb to third in the Premier League table.

"We have less possession and we are third in the league - when we have more possession we will be first in the league," the Italian manager joked.

"I am not worried about possession. I will give (other teams) possession. I want to score goals."

The lingering fear, though, is that such expediency will hardly help players in England to become more technically proficient. It is a concern that Roberto Martinez shares, although he recognises why, in a results-driven business, managers are becoming increasingly pragmatic.

"There is an art to counter-attacking football... but you don't want to see that in football," the Everton manager said. "As a coach you've got a choice - you can be a coach who works on getting the ball and breaking teams down or you can be one who looks to keep a clean sheet by being defensively perfect, making sure you are well organised and then hitting teams on the break.

"It's true that because we had the trend of Spain and Barcelona playing the kind of possession football that they became renowned for, that it becomes quite effective when teams sit quite deep and hit on the counter. You can only do that when the other team wants to get on the ball. If they don't get on the ball you're not going to be able to hit them on the counter.

"Is (the trend) damaging for football? Yes - 100 per cent, certainly in terms of player development. But in the professional game it's your choice."

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 21, 2015, with the headline 'Possession play yields fewer EPL victories this season'. Print Edition | Subscribe