When Blackburn Rovers made Sam Allardyce the second managerial casualty of the Premier League season last December more than a few eyebrows were raised. These turned into looks of bemusement as, less than a month after taking ownership of the club, the Venky’s chairman Anuradha Desai spoke of their aspirations for “Blackburn to be fourth or fifth in the league or even better.” The timing of the comments in the wake of Allardyce’s sacking unsurprisingly led to speculation that the dismissal was as a result of perceived underachievement.
While ambition is laudable, achieving this aim with Blackburn who have not finished in the top five since being crowned Premier League champions back in 1994/95, would require a long-term strategy with considerable investment. That the Venky’s mentioned no such plan, simply asserting “the fans should trust us because this is in the best interests of the club”, was cause for concern among fans. More than six months on and there is little to suggest that initial concerns should be alleviating. After a relatively quiet summer to date, in which the most significant activity has seen the departure of Phil Jones and the recording of a bizarre Venky’s chicken advert, securing Champions League football still seems farfetched to say the least.
The departure of Allardyce did however, at least initially, result in a different approach on the pitch if not off it. In January Steve Kean was confirmed as Sam Allardyce’s long-term successor, securing a two and a half year contract at the helm. While not exactly a household name in the managerial world, there was optimism that the long-ball approach that has all but become synonymous with Allardyce and his sides would become a thing of the past. Kean, speaking after signing his new contract, implied that this would be the case, stating “I’d like to see us a little more dynamic in the wide areas, add some pace and a few more passes, because I feel if you are going to exploit a team you don’t always need to be so direct.”
Talk of keeping the ball and plotting a more attractive route to goal came as music to Rovers fans’ ears after becoming accustomed to seeing Paul Robinson starting as many attacks as many of the regular outfield players. Steve Kean’s first two games in charge indicated an instant shift in approach, as Blackburn posted their third highest followed by their highest possession figures of the season to date. By the end of the season, 10 out of the top 12 matches for possession held came under Kean’s watch, despite Allardyce taking charge of 45% of the Premier League matches in 2010/11. These statistics, however, don’t tell the full story.
The above graph shows that while Blackburn retained more possession in the period immediately following the departure of Allardyce, this was only a short-term trend. As the season wore on Blackburn began to concede more possession to the opposition, with possession statistics falling back in line with those displayed under Allardyce. Looking at the average number of passes attempted in these four periods, the final period under Kean saw fewer passes attempted per game (332) than each of the three previous periods (344 and 353 per game under Allardyce and 380 per game under Kean in the first half of his spell in charge). While Kean’s approach initially revolved around a passing game, when charged with delivering results it is easy to see how a successful strategy is favoured, even when this comes at the expense of his principles and preferred style of play.
Further analysis of the matches since Steve Kean took over shows how Blackburn yielded possession to their opponents more readily as each game went by. This, as can be seen by the downward sloping trend lines, is a pattern that developed both at home and away, although at a far greater rate at Ewood Park than on the road. While this might indicate a failure on Kean’s behalf to implement the philosophy he initially brought to the job, in reality the shift is most likely attributable to a realisation that there was an alternative approach more suited to achieving the results necessary to secure Premier League survival.
When advocating an approach that favoured more passes, Kean also alluded to the fact that a more pragmatic approach may be necessary. When outlining his desire to play more entertaining football he was careful to qualify his ambition by adding the caveat, “but this is a vicious league”. This acknowledgement that success is not always attainable by playing free-flowing football showed a willingness on Kean’s behalf to adapt his preferred tactics should this approach not translate into victories. A quick glance at Blackburn’s results alongside their possession statistics for last season makes a compelling argument for abandoning the possession-based approach.
Alarmingly, on the six occasions that Blackburn had more possession than their opponents they failed to record a single victory and picked up just two points. This compares to five victories in the 16 games in which they had possession of between 40 and 50% and six victories with possession of less than 40%, again in 16 matches. This presents a clear correlation between ball retention and results, however not the relationship you might automatically assume.
As is often said in football, “the opposition can’t score when you have the ball”, yet, while in principle this is correct, in Blackburn’s case it seems that more generally the opposite is true. Rovers kept seven clean sheets last season, but the 44.8% possession held in the win against West Bromwich Albion in January was the highest they managed in these matches. They achieved the same feat at home to Everton and away at Arsenal with just 30.4% and 31.7% possession respectively. Perhaps attack isn’t the best form of defence for a side with Blackburn’s resources.
Across the top flights of England, Spain, Italy, France and Germany last season Blackburn posted the second lowest average possession, only ‘surpassed’ by Stoke City. Despite this, neither side can be said to have had a bad season, with both avoiding relegation while Stoke also qualified for Europe via the FA Cup. In contrast, Bayern Munich’s 61.7% average possession put them second in the possession stakes but their season can only be considered a disappointment by their exceptionally high standards, as they won nothing in 2011 and finished just third in the Bundesliga. Barcelona’s metronomic passing game saw them unsurprisingly top the possession table, but the La Liga and UEFA Champions League titles that accompany their extraordinary passing statistics appear to be the exception rather than the rule.
Clearly possession, with a respectful nod in Barcelona’s direction, is not an indicator of success. Targeting high levels of possession should not therefore be employed as a strategy for achieving success – unless blessed with an exceptional group of players capable of all but literally passing the opposition to death, à la Barcelona. Yet even Barcelona’s celebrated ‘tiki-taka’ pass and move game does not guarantee victory. José Mourinho’s Inter Milan side secured the result required against Barça to progress to the 2010 Champions League final with just 25% possession and 10 men for over an hour of the second leg tie. Mourinho showed that when faced with superior opponents, organisation and tactical discipline can nullify sides who attempt to pass their way to victory.
Taking arguably Rovers’ best and worst results of last season – against Liverpool and Manchester United respectively – and comparing these to the reverse fixtures shows how this theory is applicable to Blackburn. At Anfield in November, Blackburn went down 2-1 having held 43% of possession in contrast to the home fixture in January, where Rovers had just 33% possession yet comfortably came away with the three points in a 3-1 victory. Similarly, Manchester United delivered a humiliating 7-1 thrashing at Old Trafford in November, where Blackburn registered 35% possession, but in the penultimate game of the campaign United came to Ewood Park and Rovers held possession for just 24% of the match, their lowest of the season, but still claimed a much-needed point in a 1-1 draw. Seemingly relinquishing 10% more possession can have a positive effect on the outcome of a match, although a different tactical set-up is necessary for this to be the case.
Returning to the quote from Steve Kean following his permanent installation as Rovers boss, two things stand out. The first of which has been addressed throughout this article, regarding Kean’s desire to add “some more passes”, which did not entirely come to fruition as the season wore on. The second was his preference for Blackburn to be “a little more dynamic in the wide areas, [and] add some pace”. Interestingly, it seems that while the former has been shelved to a certain extent, the positive results gained despite having low levels of possession was made possible by the latter.
Undoubtedly organisation, tactical discipline and a strong defensive core are essential when without the ball for long periods, but, in order to be successful when adopting an approach that largely neglects possession, making effective use of the ball when in possession is vital. The emergence of Junior Hoilett and the repositioning of Martin Olsson in a more advanced role afford Rovers counter-attacking options not previously available to them. The use of both in wide areas meets Kean’s demand for pace on the flanks and offers a goal threat on the break that makes Blackburn a more dangerous side despite their lack of possession.
The flexibility of Steve Kean’s tactical approach and his swift adaptation to the rigours of the Premier League during the first six months of his reign offer promising signs for Rovers. The shift from a preference of ball retention to a system that seemingly thrives without possession represents a fundamental change in approach, demonstrating a willingness on Kean’s behalf to alter his principles for the good of the team. That he has achieved this largely without resorting to the long-ball approach favoured by the previous management team is a bonus for the Ewood Park faithful.