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.
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.com – Subscribe 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.