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Does ‘winning your battles’ win you games?

Many a time when I played/play the game, managers and coaches have used the ‘win your personal battles’ line as a pre-game motivator. I guess the theory is, if you stop your opponent being effective, and that happens all over the pitch, then the opposition as a team won’t cause you problems.

However, in reality, there are no players in world football that can win EVERY battle – that’s what makes us human! In the Premier League, and in a statistical sense, battles are referred to as duels. More specifically, ground 50-50 duels, tackles and aerial duels.

The paradigm here, was to look at which Premier League teams were winning the higher percentage of duels this season and what impact/correlation there was with that and league position.

Aerial duels

Aerial wins v league position

No surprise to see the likes of Stoke and Liverpool as the leaders in terms of aerial battles; big teams with an emphasis on direct play and crossing. The opposite applies to teams like Swansea, where their emphasis is on keeping possession and playing through the thirds, thus having a lower aerial win rate.

Correlation-wise, it is interesting to see 5 of the top 8 teams all in the ‘high aerial, high position’ quadrant, with the other 3 just slightly below the line for aerial rate. Also interesting, is the lack of teams in high league positions winning very few aerial duels.

Ground 50-50 duels

Ground 50-50 duels wins v league position

Quite a contentious bone this one with the current ‘lawing’ in football under massive scrutiny and the inconsistent refereeing that has occurred. A ground 50-50 duel in today’s game is very different to that of the older generation and probably not seen anywhere near as much.

Again, Liverpool find themselves leading the pack for percentage wins, with Wolves, Blackburn, Everton & Newcastle at the other end.  Interesting here, that all the current top 4 teams in the ‘high ground wins, high position’ area and the bottom 4 lie in the exact opposite.

Newcastle and Aston Villa stand out as the anomalies – Villa win a high percentage of their ground duels but find themselves languishing near the bottom, where Newcastle are in the upper heights of the table with a lower ground % win rate.


Tackles won v league position

This one for me shows the best correlation and highlights the importance of winning back and retaining possession in the Premier League today. Not one team resides in the ‘low tackles, high league’ quadrant, showing that it has been essential to have players of an aggression and retention based attitude in this season’s league when aiming to finish high up.

All of the top 9 clubs are in the ‘high tackles, high league position’ category with not one of any team from mid table downwards. However, what this doesn’t suggest, is that teams not making and winning a high percentage of tackles will struggle. Stoke, Norwich & Swansea all have low tackle win percentage’s but languish just below mid-table and Wolves have won a good percentage of their tackles yet find themselves relegated.

The 3 graphics highlight some noteworthy results in terms of how important winning duels are in the top flight. In all 3 cases, the top clubs tend to be the ones that are winning a good amount of duels, albeit not always the highest.

What could be said, is that a good performance across all 3 duel areas will probably stand a team in good stead. The following graphic shows just that…

Overall duels won v league position

From a congregation of aerial duels, ground duels and tackle win percentages correlated with league position, only Newcastle from the top 10 do not make it into the ‘high duels, high position’ quadrant. All of the teams currently fighting relegation are significantly placed in the ‘low duels, low position’ category clarifying the importance of ‘wining your battles’ and just how crucial the regain is at the top-level in England this season.

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