Looking at last season’s data, we can see what seems like a radical change when we compare the graph with that of four years previous. The ‘tail’ of the correlation has disappeared completely and the entire line seems to be moving towards something more linear. This is the effect of teams such as Wigan, and more recently Swansea. These clubs have used possession-based football as a way of avoiding relegation, causing teams such as Bolton and Blackburn (who have operated with less possession on average) to get relegated. Stoke are the only team who have maintained this philosophy and survived over this period.
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In terms of the top half, there are a few anomalous results. For example, Newcastle have overachieved by counter-attacking to finish 5th, and the impressive Swansea, who, if anything, underachieved by only reaching 11th. There is still a general level area in the bottom half, suggesting that there are still other factors strongly affecting the relegation battle. When comparing it with the 2010/11 season, the line of best fit is much less accurate as more teams find success using counter-attacking strategies and making efficient use of possession (notably Everton and Newcastle). This shows that varied and adaptable strategies still have a place in modern English football.
Noticeably it is the ‘smaller’ teams of the top half who adopt these strategies. This presents an interesting opposition, as smaller clubs with fewer financial resources have found success in the top half with lower possession. At the same time, however, those smaller clubs looking for survival in the bottom half have found success through having superior possession. This shows the fragile relationship between possession and success and that there is not a direct model for success in the Premier League via possession-based philosophies alone. This directly applies to both Arsenal and Stoke, who, with very consistent styles, have not managed to push above a glass ceiling in the league of late. Stoke have never finished in the top half and Arsenal are yet to convert their impressive style into a title-winning side. This should serve as a warning Swansea, Wigan and Liverpool should they wish to progress using only the ‘Spanish’ style, and suggests adaptability, rather than rigid and counter-able philosophies, are still vital in the Premier League.
Looking at the last four seasons together we can see this change in action. The line of best fit has gradually become smoother and more linear each year as a result of fewer teams surviving through counter-attacking philosophies alone.
As more teams have adopted styles which place a premium on possession and subsequently found success through these styles the graph has moved towards a more linear relationship. This was most clear in the 2010/11 season where the upper-mid table teams all aligned perfectly, yet this season is an anomaly. As can be seen from the comparison, there are a number of teams lying far from the line in both low and high positions. This shows that many different styles can be effective and that possession is clearly not the absolute in terms of success. That being said, there is some form of correlation, however inaccurate; from looking at the two extremes there is clearly a direct relationship.
No team has finished in the top 4 with less than 50% possession on average. No team has won the league with less than 55%. Likewise no team has been relegated with more than 51%, and only West Brom in 08/09 have had more than 50% and been relegated.
There is a clear correlation between possession and success, which provides the basis for the Spanish philosophy. In terms of the Premier League, the elite clubs have always had the greatest amount of possession, but this has come naturally through the dominance that comes with quality rather than from a predetermined style. The biggest effect of Spanish success upon the EPL to date is to be seen lower in the division as smaller clubs use it as a way to gain advantage over their rivals. The appealing thing about this philosophy is that it does not necessarily rely on heavy investment and thus cash strapped clubs see it as a cheap, and very positive way to gain success. This has altered the relegation dogfight dynamic and moved the Premier League towards a more linear relationship between possession and success.
Whether this can affect the upper end of the table in a similar way over the next few years remains to be seen. Perhaps Arsenal or Liverpool will finally have some success through this philosophy, or maybe even the arrival of someone like Guardiola will change the face of the league.
For now, though, as a measure of league position, it is not the most accurate as teams can still gain success through counter-attacking football and efficient use of possession. It is not the ‘moneyball-esque’ stat, which is the core of finding success. It is a by-product for the big teams or a way of gaining an advantage over fellow rivals for the smaller teams. Perhaps there is something which has a clear direct effects upon success, but whether this is final-third entries, as Allardyce believed, or something akin to forward passes or winning the ball back as a measure of efficient possession and high pressure remains to be seen. There is still something to be said for tactical diversity and adaptability; Arsenal’s lack of success since adopting their distinct style is evidence of this. Or perhaps success is still a combination of 11 or so factors.
A 21 year old working in sports media. I have worked on Match of the Day, Final Score and on UEFA Champions League and Europa League live games collecting stats and designing graphics. I'm a Newcastle fan with a keen interest in analysis and football data. Follow me on twitter @tbforrest
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