Possession Football: How Spanish success changed the Premier League (09/10)

Possession Football: How Spanish success changed the Premier League (09/10)

In this article, I will be moving on from the 2008/09 season (Part 1) to look for some similarities or trends. In the 2009/10 season there is a similar curve in the line of best fit, and teams that are relegated could be accused of being inefficient. However, there is the beginning of a change in place; the curve is less dramatic in the bottom half and there are anomalous results above the curve, as well as under it. Whereas in the previous season we saw teams with low possession overachieving through efficient use of the ball, in this season we have Liverpool in 7th, lying high above the rest of the mid-table teams in terms of possession. This could be explained merely as inefficient use of possession but it also shows that even in the upper echelons of the division, possession dominance is not enough on its own to achieve a high finish. Liverpool averaged 58.68% across 2009/10 but they still finished below Aston Villa, who averaged 47.31%.

To look at the section between 9th and 4th it would be hard to draw a correlation in this area alone. Furthermore, for the teams below 9th the data is spread around the line, suggesting a fairly level playing field between these teams where possession is not a deciding factor. There are only two points which stand out in this area, and both are teams which operate under a distinct style.  Stoke, who we looked at previously, are in 11th, incidentally their most successful season to date, and in 16th sit Wigan, the only team below 8th to average above 50% possession.

This is important to this investigation for a couple of reasons. Firstly it is evidence of teams adopting possession-based football and the Spanish model for something other than dominance. Wigan under Roberto Martinez used this style to gain an advantage over the teams around them, as they progressed with this style they were eventually able to compete more often with larger teams, but in the end this advantage over the fellow relegation battlers was enough to see them survive. A team adopting a different style suggests that change is afoot.

Secondly, it also counters any preconceptions we may have about the Premier League being competitive throughout. This clearly shows that there are 3 or 4 big clubs within the division each season who dominate the stats and leave every other team fighting amongst themselves for the rest of the positions. In 09/10 only 8 teams averaged over 50% because the ‘big 3’, and underachieving Liverpool , were so far ahead in terms of possession. This suggests that possession seems important once you reach an elite level, but could in fact just be a by-product of the gulf in quality or dominance in other ways. In other words, teams have more possession because they are better, they don’t get better through having possession.

However, if 2009/10 was an argument against a clear relationship between possession and points, then 2010/11 is a huge supporter of the natural correlation between possession and success. No fewer than 10 results sit on or by the line of best fit suggesting that there is still a strong relationship between the two variables.

The most striking section is from 11th to 5th where the correlation is incredibly strong. This could suggest that there is a natural hierarchy of teams based on performance and dominance, and that possession is a fair reflection of that performance. This can sometimes be upset by teams under- or over-achieving in a season, and that final league position is not an ultimate measure of who played the best football.

There are some similarities between the seasons though: Arsenal continue to underachieve yet have the highest average possession. Stoke are well clear of relegation yet have the lowest average. They are joined in the sub-42% club by Blackburn (managed by Sam Allardyce) who also were well clear of relegation.

The teams below 10th are still seemingly separated by something other than possession. There are two teams this season who survived  the drop and averaged over 50%. Wigan used similar methods to repeat their success, and Wolves were also successful in surviving by gaining an advantage over their fellow strugglers in this way.

There is less dominance on behalf of the ‘elite’ teams to be seen from the 10/11 season. This can partially be down to Manchester City achieving a good finish with quality of players over style and team performance, but also the champions, Manchester United, were less dominant with only an average of 56.26%. The effect of this ‘evening out’ of possession can be seen in the top half, as more teams break over the 50% barrier. Could this be down to more mid-level teams placing value of possession as a way to win matches and compete with ‘larger’ teams? This would explain the drop in averages for Manchester United, as more teams attempt to compete, and also accounts for the strong correlation in the top half.

This season also saw perennial survivors Bolton relegated. The teams which traditionally achieve survival through efficient use of possession and maximising final-third entries may well be being replaced with the likes of Wigan, who use possession in a more ‘Spanish’ way.

2011/12 and some conclusions to follow…