Blackburn Rovers have started to move up the table in recent weeks and improved pass completion statistics are at the heart of their upturn in form. With Steven N’Zonzi Rovers’ most accomplished passer, his ability to set the tempo and get the side passing will go a long way to dictating Blackburn’s chances of retaining their Premier League status over the coming weeks.
With 21 games completed prior to this weekend’s round of fixtures Blackburn Rovers have hauled themselves out of the bottom three of the table following two wins in their last three matches. Both victories came in unexpected fashion as a 3-1 win against Fulham despite playing over 65 minutes with ten men followed a 2-1 victory away at Old Trafford, inflicting on United only a second home defeat in the league in 21 months.
While neither game saw Blackburn dominate possession, registering 37% possession in Manchester and 40% against Fulham, they were able to make good use of the possession they did have, completing over 80% of their passes in both. These passing statistics are well in excess of Rovers’ typical pass completion rate, but Stoke City comprehensively dispel the theory that you have to be a good passing side to operate effectively in the Premier League as they have been consistently the league’s poorest passers in recent years.
Stoke have played fewer passes than any other side in the top flight (7,090 compared to a league average of 9,994) and also have the lowest passing accuracy in the division (65.3% compared to a league average of 75.5%), yet despite this are comfortably in the top half of the table in eighth place. Similarly, Blackburn’s passing statistics are not flattering, firmly occupying the penultimate position in the passing stakes.
However, while Stoke’s style and approach revolves around a direct route to goal, with passing and intricate build-up play often neglected, for Blackburn the opposite is typically true. A more patient passing game yields better results as illustrated by the following table:
Clearly there is a direct correlation so far this season between passing accuracy and the final result, as improved accuracy on the ball is rewarded with a greater likelihood of victory. This appears to support Steve Kean’s demand for his players to have more ‘courage’ on the ball – something he regularly calls for in post-match interviews.
The one player who stands out in the Rovers line-up in terms of his distribution is central midfielder Steven N’Zonzi. Restored to the side in a more prominent role following the departure of Phil Jones in the summer, who had occupied the deepest lying position in midfield for much of last season, N’Zonzi has blossomed into one of the league’s most accomplished ball-playing midfielders.
A comparison of Blackburn’s most prolific passers of the ball illustrates N’Zonzi’s importance to the side, particularly when you consider the upturn in results when Rovers’ passing is more accurate:
Looking at the above statistics, N’Zonzi stands out in the majority of categories and his importance in each is discussed below.
Passing is undoubtedly N’Zonzi’s forte and this is evidenced as he comes out on top statistically. With a pass completion percentage of 81% he is not only Rovers’ most frequent passer of the ball but he is also the most accurate. This accuracy is all the more impressive when considering that over half of his passes are played forwards and therefore into areas typically more heavily guarded by opposition defenders.
N’Zonzi is not renowned for running with the ball, but of the six players compared, he has successfully completed more dribbles per game than all bar Junior Hoilett. Playing second fiddle to the Canadian winger is not to be scoffed at though, as Hoilett’s quality when running with the ball is undeniable and he has completed more dribbles per game (2.88) than every player in the league with the exception of Wigan’s Victor Moses (2.95). While out-dribbled by Moses, Hoilett’s end product after running with the ball is far superior, having scored three and set up four this term, while Moses has managed just two goals and no assists.
The statistics show that one area in which N’Zonzi rarely operates is down the flanks. That he has attempted just seven crosses in 19 matches says as much, but when he does cross the ball it is invariably with accuracy as 43% of his crosses have found their target. Jason Lowe has the second highest crossing accuracy with 40%, but the consistency of his crossing ability is apparent, having completed over four times as many crosses as N’Zonzi. Lowe has been deployed at right back this season despite having emerged as a central midfielder, but, at least going forward from full-back, he is thriving in his new role.
Junior Hoilett has been much lauded this season for his creativity from wide positions but N’Zonzi’s lofted through ball for Mauro Formica to score against Fulham last weekend saw him match Hoilett’s assist haul for the season. The duo are now Blackburn’s most frequent providers with four assists apiece. Morten Gamst Pedersen has created the most chances having laid on 30 goal scoring opportunities so far this season, albeit this tally is scewed somewhat by 15 chances having been created from set plays.
N’Zonzi’s composure on the ball is fundamental to Blackburn’s play and his passing statistics demonstrate his importance to Rovers. When considering that N’Zonzi is operating in a side that collectively do not play as many passes as most sides in the league, his value is enhanced further.
The midfielder’s 1,049 passes comprise 13.2% of Blackburn’s total passes played. This makes N’Zonzi one of just three players in the league to have played over 13% of their sides’ total passes as he is bettered only by Leighton Baines (13.6%) at Everton and Alejandro Faurlin (13.3%) of Queens Park Rangers. As part of a side whose results improve in line with their passing accuracy, N’Zonzi’s role as Rovers’ best passer of the ball is vital.