“…Technique is passing the ball with one touch, with the right speed, at the right foot of your team mate.” – Johan Cruyff
Many football teams lay a great importance on quick passing and movement (one-touch passing), perhaps none more so than Barcelona, where the great Cruyff himself instilled this philosophy. In the Premier League, Arsenal are the biggest proponents of this philosophy but most others, including Liverpool – other than the six months under Hodgson, Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City value it and try to follow it.
Most top teams across the top leagues depend on this style to stay on top. Anecdotal evidence would support this. But given the wealth of stats we have at our disposal, there’s no reason why the question should not be investigated using data.
I am using “Touches” from the Premier League website, along with “Passes” for this analysis. I thought that this was a good proxy to understand the inclination towards the pass and move style. A player can touch the ball when they dribble with the ball, pass to a team member, shoot at the goal, block an opposition shot, clear the ball from a dangerous position or intercept an opposition pass. Other actions such as tackles may generate touches, as will goal keeper actions such as punches, catches, and saves. But to understand if a team is trying to follow a one-touch style, I feel looking at how many touches are actually passes should suffice.
If this pass and move style is effective for teams, they should be winning more. Looking at a scatter plot for no. of wins vs the pass to touch ratio, you can see a slight positive correlation but not a lot.
Indeed, the correlation coefficient between these two variables is 0.53, where the positive sign indicates that these two do move in the same direction but not always perfectly in tandem. So, teams for whom no. of passes comprises a very high percentage of the number of touches do win, perhaps a bit more than the others, but we cannot be very sure if the wins are a result of the style or not. If we look at the top 10 teams with highest pass/touch ratio, we find some of the most successful clubs of the Premier League era and also some very interesting candidates.
Other than Leicester City and Blackburn Rovers, all other champions feature in the list above. But the surprise at the top is Swansea. But the Welsh team, especially under Brendan Rodgers, are known to play possession football, so it is not as surprising as the presence of Norwich city in the top-ten. This is a side that has been relegated twice in last five years but still seems to pass more for every touch they take. Bournemouth obviously has a short history in the league and should be discounted but this season, Eddie Howe’s side have shown that they can implement this style very effectively.
In the current season, three out of current top four (as of GW8) are the top three sides by pass/touch ratio.
Southampton who have had a good run of initial fixtures is also present in the top four of this list. Seems like this passing style is working for sides that are enjoying themselves in the league currently.
But how has it worked for the past champions of the last few years?
Champion Sides from Recent Years
We can see that other than Leicester, who built their success on the back of the third fewest touches and third fewest passes in the league and Ancelotti’s Chelsea, every other champion has had a pass-touch ration in excess of 0.70, meaning at least 70% of the champions’ touches were passes.
Just out of curiosity, I also looked at the Liverpool side of 2013-14 – their pass-touch ratio was 0.696, just below the 0.70 threshold, just like their points tally from that season.
This analysis tells me that it is good for a team’s fortune if it has a good pass-touch ratio but it is neither indispensable nor completely redundant. It is like by having it you have purchased decent ingredients for a fabulous dish you are planning to cook. But how the dish will turn out depends on what you do with them.