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Possession Football: How Spanish success changed the Premier League (08/09)

Four years ago Spain used a possession-based philosophy to win Euro 2008. Since then, Spain and Barcelona have been the dominant forces in world and European football, with much of their success attributed to this style.
Two footballing clichés seem to underpin this. Firstly, that possession is ‘Nine Tenths of the Law’. Secondly, that over the course of a season positives and negatives will even themselves out. According to these theories, the team that can dominate possession for every game should be the most successful. But is this always the case in the Premier League?
I have tried to examine the validity of this claim by examining 4 years’ worth of OPTA possession data to find out just how important possession is to success and to see how our league has changed in the years since Spain’s success

Firstly, there is a misconception surrounding possession as a ‘moneyball-esque’ factor which can directly affect performance. For me, winning a football match is still a complex combination of factors, where some may be more important than others, but this examination is a good way of evaluating how directly possession can affect results. To achieve this I have taken every team’s average possession stats to try to find any correlation between this and a team’s final league position. This will then give us a line of best fit to show any correlation.

How the data looks

scatter graph for 2008/09

Starting with the 2008/09 season alone to gain a view of what to expect when examining possession, the data from the top 11 positions suggests that there is a direct relationship between possession and success. There is a bank of four teams at the top of the table with the highest possession stats, showing that the elite Champions League teams are those who are most dominant. This is a predictable result, and something that many will have expected. However, there is an interesting situation in the bottom half. This section of the data seems to suggest that the opposite is true.

At least for the season in question, the teams with lower average possession are more successful in surviving the drop. In fact, in the bottom half, the two teams with the highest average percentage were relegated, and the two with the lowest finished well clear of the drop. Looking at the graph, these teams seem like anomalous results. Firstly the two teams in 13th and 12th are Bolton and Stoke respectively. Both operated with similar philosophies, optimising efficient use of possession. On the other hand, in 20th position is West Brom, the only team below 10th to average above 50% possession, who, led by Tony Mowbray, were praised for their style, yet were inefficient in their use of possession and thus could not survive.

An interesting antithesis to the Spanish philosophy is on show in these teams. It is easy to overlook the fact that modern English football may have already had its ‘Billy Beane’ in the form of Sam Allardyce, whose philosophy is based around optimising final third entries, a strong defence to limit concessions, and efficient use of possession. Allardyce’s teams, and those inspired by his methods, traditionally operate with less possession than their opponents so this would suggest that possession is not vital to success. For this season, in the bottom half Bolton and Stoke achieved success through this philosophy, while Newcastle were relegated, perhaps because they concentrated on style over efficiency. At the other end of the table similar criticisms have been levelled at Arsenal, who finished third yet had the highest average possession, suggesting that they also made inefficient use of the possession they won.

2009/10 and More to follow…

All of the stats from this article have been taken from the Opta Stats Centre at EPLIndex.comSubscribe Now (Includes author privileges!) Check out our new Top Stats feature on the Stats Centre which allows you to compare all players in the league & read about new additions to the stats centre.

Tom Forrest
Tom Forrest
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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