So recently I’ve began writing for a few other sites. I’ll still probably post a few articles on this blog, but most of them will now be on other sites. I’ll link them all on twitter and on here.
First one is on Mario Mandzukic and Antoine Griezmann for the new site – http://talkingtikitaka.co.uk.
Arsenal put in a much improved display at the Champions Manchester City on Sunday to get their first win in the city for over four years and their first league win against a Champions League side since beating City 1-0 at home in 2012. The midfield was far tighter than in previous away games against the “big sides”, being happy enough to sit off the City centre backs and the defensive midfield paring of Fernando and Fernandinho, looking instead to close the space in front of the back four where David Silva is usually so dangerous. The central midfield three featured two aggressive ball winners in Coquelin and Ramsey and one fighting technician in the form of Cazorla. In a first half where City had almost 65% possession Silva made just 27 passes, few of which posed any real threat.
For many people it was the midfield balance Arsenal has been crying out for, finally being able to fight successfully for 50-50 challenges and not rolling over at the sight of opposition pressure and intensity. In truth though the performance was far from perfect. There are still debates about the best potential balance for the midfield and attack, and there is the case of trying to fit all the necessary components in to try and achieve that balance.
Arsene Wenger has often spoke about trying to get the balance right between attack and defence with the narrative usually being that he has swung too far in favour of the former over the latter and has been over reliant on technical players. In truth, this game was probably the opposite. While the added physicality and counter attacking approach suited this match, Arsenal didn’t actually create much, instead relying on opposition error and being clinical with their half chances to score twice. In games where there is more emphasis for Arsenal to win they’ll need to be better with their ball retention in the final third. Secondly, in the early stages of the second half the game became far too open from Arsenal’s perspective and the City midfielders were able to carry the ball at a far greater tempo with more purpose. None of this is to say Arsenal’s midfield were poor on Sunday, far from it, just that there are still improvements to be made and potential questions.
At defensive midfield Francis Coquelin has somewhat come out of nowhere to make the position his own with Arteta out for a prolonged period. He’s read the game well, shown good strength in tackles and has distributed possession at a decent standard. It would probably be naive to use his performances to justify inactivity in the transfer market when it comes to midfield additions, but he has shown he can do a good job, both as a box-to-box ball winner and the deepest midfielder. In the current squad, halfway through the January window, he is currently the standout choice for the base of the midfield for now.
In central midfield another lock is Santi Cazorla, who since moving to a more central, slightly deeper role, in Arsenal’s new 4-3-3, has risen to new heights and has arguably been Arsenal’s standout performer. On Sunday he was the best player on the pitch, showing aggression when without the ball and immense control with it, weaving in and out of players in deep positions without ever playing himself into danger and distributing it cleanly with both feet. He orchestrated things from deep and was the pinnacle reason Arsenal were able to form some kind of stranglehold on the game and get up field which was crucial as he was the only pure technical player in Arsenal’s midfield five.
Aaron Ramsey is the most obvious candidate to fill the 3rd central role. At his best he performers all the duties you want a central midfielder to. Defensively he adds help for a holding midfielder and is perhaps Arsenal’s best ball winner. On the ball he can add control from deep, incisive passing and regular goals plus an immense engine which sees him cover huge amounts of ground. He’s had a tendency to be slightly sluggish technically when coming back from injuries but he’s a player who can get on a role, and was doing just that before he frustratingly strained his hamstring in Istanbul a month ago.
In the front three Arsenal have recently favoured power and pace in the wide areas and a focal point in Giroud centrally to hold the ball up and act as someone to bounce the play off. This has bucked the trend of recent years, were wide playmakers in the form of Cazorla, Wilshere, Ramsey, Rosicky and Özil have regularly been deployed on at least one flank, usually with a more direct player on the opposite one. This has brought obvious benefits and obvious downsides. Arsenal are now a very fast side and dangerous on the counter, but they often lack the ability to retain possession as effectively in advanced areas. Regularly at the Eithad dangerous breaks broke down due to sloppiness in possession and Arsenal were left on the back foot again.
I think the potential addition of Mesut Özil to the front three could greatly help in that regard. Özil has received wide criticism for his performances wide in the last year, but he does a good job there and was improving with every game until he sustained his knee injury. He can help Arsenal assert more control and dominance on games. He is admittedly not as prolific as in his preferred number 10 role, but with the move away from 4-2-3-1 he doesn’t suit a role in the midfield three over any of the aforementioned players.
However, I think there is a slightly weird situation brewing because I don’t think Ramsey is actually as well suited to his role in this system as he could be. All of Ramsey’s best performances in an Arsenal shirt have come alongside a holding midfielder – primarily Mikel Arteta and occasionally Mathieu Flamini – but also with a number 10 ahead of him. With no number 10 Ramsey is often drawn to the great space in front of him which isn’t filled by a teammate, and while his forward runs can be of great benefit it can lead to him leaving sufficient space for opposition to get in behind. This was seen in the early parts of the second half when the game became more stretched and Ramsey was often seen filling the number 10 space despite being needed deeper. It is similar problem Pep Guardiola found with Thomas Müller in his 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 system, where again a player of immense work rate was causing havoc tactically due to his attacking instincts and Guardiola was forced to abandon the idea of using Müller in an interior midfield role.
A number 10 filling the space in front of him could help Ramsey stay more disciplined and improve team structure without the ball even further after the improvements seen on Sunday. Ramsey can still make the lung busting forward runs with a true 10 in front of him; they’ll just be less regular and potentially more effective. Instead of surging forward every attack, he can arrive later when Özil has dragged the opposition defensive midfielders out of position. This is something we saw a lot last year, one example being in the home victory against Liverpool in the league, as shown by @DezilDez in this video. A compact Liverpool midfield is covering the space in front of the box, only for Özil to drag them wide, Ramsey to run into the space and score brilliantly.
I believe returning to a number 10 in front of Ramsey could create duel benefits of Ramsey keeping shape more regularly, and potentially scoring from his ventures forward at a better rate. When you add in that Özil is far more comfortable in a free central role than a wide one, where his passing options are more limited and his responsibilities without the ball are greater, it seems something that Arsenal should be trying to get working. The issue is a return to 4-2-3-1 would see Cazorla shifted wide, where he’d struggled in large chunks last year and in the early stages of this season.
Ever since the early parts of the season where Özil being played in wide areas caused much frustration I’ve thought about the potential use of a diamond midfield. The midfield three from Sunday would remain with Özil ahead of them behind two strikers or wide forwards.
Alexis Sanchez and Olivier Giroud would be the obvious strike paring, offering diversity in their partnership. Alexis could help push the defensive line back while Giroud can also act as a focal point to the attack. The fullbacks can compensate for the lack of width, particularly Hector Bellerin, who after impressing in recent weeks will get a run in the side with Debuchy’s injury. The former Barca winger is a particularly attack minded fullback, not afraid to try and break beyond and behind a defensive line with his electrifying pace. It could effectively look something like this.
My guess is that Özil will return in the current 4-3-3 in one of the wide areas, perhaps with additional license to roam, which realistically, isn’t particularly different to a diamond formation. In both situations Özil will likely present another horizontal line between the central midfielders and other forwards, regardless of where he is positioned vertically, with the aim of trying to meet an adequate balance between directness and ball retention. Moving to an untested diamond structure would represent a risk for a side who have won 10 out of their last 13 in all competitions, but I do think it’s a system to bear in mind, both for the immediate present and the long term as it may be able to get the best out of Arsenal’s most influential players.
How do you think Arsenal should setup? Feel free to comment or tweet me with your thoughts.
The German international is one of the best strikers of a ball in the world, but he lacks the all-round skill set for a side looking to win Championships
So long Lukas. It would be a lie to say we hardly knew ye. These last few restless months of frustration have felt like an eternity and your imminent departure feels somewhat overdue. But that doesn’t curb the feeling that getting rid of one of the more popular squad members and arguably the most skilled player at the club when it comes to the all important asset of striking a ball towards goal for next to nothing is a bit of a waste.
So it is, that a man with 121 international caps for Germany, the most prolific goal scorer at Arsenal in the previous two seasons in the Premier League and Champions League, a man blessed with immense shooting technique, power and precision is about to head off to Italy and struggling Inter Milan on loan for a small fee with an option to buy at £5 million.
There were a few jokes on social media before Arsenal’s trip to West Ham a few days ago that it would be a fitting swan song for the German. His record v the irons stands at an incredible 270 minutes played in four games, registering four goals and four assists in the process, meaning he directly contributed to a goal approximately every half an hour against them.
But in many ways that was his problem. In his two full seasons at Arsenal West Ham finished 10th and 13th, they were a lower mid table club, one which was responsible for nearly a quarter of the goals and assists Podolski provided in his Premier League career. Against sides Arsenal dominated Podoslki flourished because he put away the chances that were there, but against a higher calibre of opponent he wasn’t able to have the influence needed to have a real impact in front of goal.
That wouldn’t be a huge issue if he contributed to the team in other ways, but the truth is he lacked the all-round skill set for a modern wide man. He didn’t have the pace and off ball movement to create enough chances for himself and others, didn’t get involved in build up play as effectively as some of the creative 10s Arsenal used there and didn’t always track back to help his fullback sufficiently.
With Arsenal regularly struggling in the centre forward position last season, there were numerous calls for Podolski to be used as a striker, but a good shot and decent goal rate is far from all that is needed for a modern day centre forward. In truth, Podolski perhaps suffers from modern tactics shifting away from a strike paring more towards a sole front man, who needs to be able to hold the ball up and link up play with the midfielders more, something Podolski fails to do as effectively as someone like Olivier Giroud. When Arsenal have varied their striker approach from Giroud, Welbeck and Sanago they’ve preferred the pace and dribbling of Theo Walcott and Alexis Sanchez instead. There is a suspicion that Wenger signed Podolski as a striker, giving him the number 9, and playing him up top on his debut, only to quickly realise his shortcomings after watching him struggle in the role.
In a sense, Podolski represents what Arsenal became in the early parts of this decade. After the investment in youth that occurred in the Fabregas era failed to get the elusive trophy, players kept leaving and there was a more immediate threat to Arsenal’s standing in England’s top 4 and Europe’s top 16. Young prodigies were replaced as transfer targets with proven reliable performers in their peaks, such as Arteta, Mertesacker, Giroud, Podolski, Cazorla and Monreal. While all have been relatively successful they arrived when Arsenal were scraping the barrel of their resources to maintain their position in the Champions League. Arsenal are now trying to move beyond that and become a club that can compete for the highest honours, and there are signs with the arrival of Özil and Alexis, plus the high level improvements of players such as Aaron Ramsey and Laurent Koscielny, that they’re not that far away with a couple more signings, a reduction in injury issues and less tactical naivety. As such, Podolski has become a player below the calibre Arsenal are looking for.
Arsenal are now incredibly well stocked in wide areas. Recently Cazorla’s influence wide has deteriorated but Özil is still competent in the role and had a good World Cup playing as a left sided inside forward, when the likes of Podolski himself could’ve been used instead. Among the Arsenal forwards, all of Alexis, Walcott, Chamberlain, Welbeck and Campbell are good wide players who are younger than Podolski and offer a wider variety of skills.
Podolski is something of a fan favourite for his character, social media skills and antics involving Tottenham, so many will be sad to see him go. But the truth is, as one of the higher earners in the squad, someone starting to move beyond his peak years, and a player Wenger clearly lacks an adequate level of belief in these days, it no longer makes sense for either club or player for him to remain at Arsenal, especially as his departure could help fund holes downfield.
So farewell Poldi. Thank you for your service. It’s a shame it never quite worked out. You’ll always have the highlight of a couple of thunderbastards, terrifying Manuel Neuer and pissing off Tottenham fans though.
Much has been made of Lionel Messi’s supposed role change this season. A year after the arrival of Neymar and with Luis Suarez’s Barcelona debut now imminent Messi’s role has changed in order to allow Barca’s wingers to play more centrally and further up the pitch. Messi himself has explained this.
“I changed my way of playing this season because the other forwards play more in the centre now. Before we played with real wingers.” – Lionel Messi, 2nd October 2014
Collin Trainor also did a brief piece showcasing that Messi is now picking the ball up less in central areas, as such spaces are being occupied by other players. Additionally, with Xavi now being less of a first team starter, there has become extra onus on Messi to be a creative passer, making chances and goals as well as scoring them. The combined result of both has been evident in Messi’s chance created and assist numbers this season.
Messi has adapted brilliantly to the role and has so far claimed 9 assists from just 11 games in La Liga and the Champions League this season. One of the things I’ve always found incredible about Messi is that he’s managed to coincide super human goalscoring with being a high level creator as well, almost on a par with the likes of Mesut Özil, Frank Ribery and David Silva. So with reduced need to score himself, and greater incentive to create for others, just what can Messi achieve? Can he change what we can hope to realistically expect from creators, just like he has done, along with Cristiano Ronaldo, with goalscoring in the last few years?
So is Messi set to break the assist record and potentially shatter it? I decided to compare his current start with the best assist seasons from the 2009/10 season onwards in Europe’s top 5 leagues (when public Opta data begins). These are all seasons with at least 16 assists, plus David Silva in 2011-12, Andrea Pirlo the same year and Frank Ribery a year later (I wanted to get wider league coverage).
Messi is just 8 games into the season, but with 7 assists already he’s got off to a better start than any of the best assist seasons in the last five years have, including his own in 2010/11. But is it sustainable? I used data from all of the graphed seasons, plus every season from Messi himself, Özil, Iniesta, Silva, Fabregas, Ribery, Reus, Götze and Hazard and sorted them by the best KP per 90 minutes. This is how the top 20 or so look.
Although Messi has improved his chance created figures to world class levels, it’s not to unprecedented levels at all. Özil topped it in all three of his seasons at Madrid and Fabregas, Reus, Ribery and Silva have all done better in their best seasons. If Messi isn’t actually creating more chances than these guys have at their best we can’t expect him to keep churning out assists at rates far beyond what they have can we?
Indeed, a simple plot of these seasons, comparing their key pass rates and assist rates shows Messi sticks out like a sore thumb as having a ridiculously higher assist rate among all of the high volume key passers. After all whether chances and converted can be a bit random and such high conversion rates usually aren’t sustain nable.
In fact honestly, when setting out to try and answer the question of whether Messi could break assist records, my early indications where that the answer was no. Just comparing his current key pass rate to the likes of Özil and Silva made me think he’d be unable to maintain such high assist figures. But after looking through his past seasons in closer detail I realised that Messi has always done this. His ratio of key passes per assist has always been low since records began and it’s something of a consistent trend, both over his career and in comparison to other players.
From the players I looked at I used the six most consistently efficient creators (those who had the lowest key pass per assist ratios) and compared them over all the seasons where their key pass and assist volumes were high.
In a full season none of them have reached the highs of Messi in 10/11 and 12/13 and not even Messi’s current rates have yet. Is this a Barca thing? The idea that they’re predominantly a passing team and only shoot if they’re in a really good position or have a high chance to score makes sense. Fabregas’ ratio fell somewhat substantially upon arriving at Barcelona (it’s probably too early to make conclusions for this season at Chelsea) and Andres Iniesta hit ridiculous heights in 12-13 of just 2.75 key passes every assist, though his rates have been a bit more random.
Comparing Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, the clubs where the players in the above graph featured most prominently, it’s clear that Barca have mostly converted their shots at a better rate in the last four seasons. Shot conversion isn’t the most repeatable stat but there is enough evidence Barca usually do it well.
There’s also the chance that Messi creates much better chances than everyone else. It wouldn’t be at all unlike Messi to defy the norm so heavily, and a brief sample at his chance creating work so far shows many of them passing into really dangerous areas. Messi certainly doesn’t seem to bloat his key pass numbers from simply passing to someone deep and them shooting from improbable distance. To really asses whether Messi creates better chances than others we need to start trying to look more into key pass quality. This is something I’ve started looking into and will hopefully post something on the matter around the halfway mark of the season.
Regardless of the specific quality of his key passes, Messi has shown enough repeatability in his key pass conversion for us to assume it is a trend that will continue. If we were to take his average conversion rate over the last five full seasons of 5.32 and applied it to his current key pass figure of 3.5 per 90 minutes, it would give him an assist per 90 minutes figure of 0.66. Given his ludicrous start to the season Messi has had, he already has extra ground on any of the best assist seasons recently. If he were to match his minutes last season, his lowest amount in the last 5 seasons may I ad, and play another 1798 minutes this season, at the rate of 0.66 assists every 90 minutes, he’d end the league season with 20 assists, beating the record in Europe’s top five leagues over the last five seasons, one more than the record of 19 in Europe’s top five leagues since 2009.
There is, however, one more factor we need to consider and that is the impending arrival of a certain Luis Suarez, generator of 181 shots and 31 goals last season. He has the potential, and likelihood, of boosting Messi’s key pass and assist volumes further. Quite the impact he’ll have we don’t know, but it’s unlikely to be detrimental to Messi’s quest for assist greatness.
Whether or not he will break, or indeed shatter, the 19 figure we can’t be sure. His key pass figure should remain at such a level, it’s a reasonably repeatable stat and with Suarez coming it should only head up if it’s going to dramatically change. His conversion rate of key passes to assists is a bit more random, but it’s always been low with Messi. It could realistically be a bit higher or a bit lower than the average value I mentioned. Injuries we never know what will happen.
If I were a betting man my money would be on him getting 20+ assists, thereby reaching unprecedented levels since Opta data emerged publicly in 2009. Quite how high the figure is will depend on whether he, and his teammates, can keep such high levels of performance up, as well as a contribution from good old luck.
First lets rewind to the 28th of May 2011. Barcalona have just swept aside Manchester United 3-1 to win the Uefa Champions League. It’s domination. 68% ball possession, to go with 22 shots to United’s 4. Xavi completed almost double the amount of passes all of United’s central midfielders did combined and the quartet of he, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Lionel Messi out passed the entire United team themselves. It’s Barcelona’s second Champions League crown in three years, to go with Spain’s World Cup triumph in 2010, and people from all places are once again praising the success of heavy possession football.
Forward the clock 11 months and Barcelona are in the Champions League semi final, their fourth out of four under Pep Guardiola. This time their dominance on the ball is even greater, obtaining the obscene figures of 79% possession in the first leg and 82% in the second leg. Only this time the result is not an emphatic victory. Chelsea win 3-2 on aggregate to go to Munich where they would win their first ever Champions League. A month later Guardiola would manage his last game for the club. Barca’s period as the standout best club in the world is effectively over.
The result was seen as a huge shock but we’ve seen an increasing number of instances since where sides with huge chunks of the ball have effectively been shut down by sides sitting deep and often ripped apart by fast breaks during the rare moments they don’t have the ball. First we had Bayern Munich’s destruction of Barcelona in the 2013 Champions League semi finals where despite a having much less of the ball they were the dominant force. The following April a changed Bayern under Guardiola were destroyed in a similar manner by Real Madrid in both legs, and in between Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea brought Liverpool’s 11 game winning streak to an abrupt end despite having less than a quarter of the possession. And in the World Cup Lois Van Gaal’s Netherlands, without the injured Kevin Strootman and with a back line that lacked the pedigree of some other teams, found solace in a counter attacking system led by the speed of Arjen Robben. The Netherlands’ three best performances in Brazil where the three times their possession was lowest.
But are such occurrences just infrequent results that will always come up when hundreds of matches are played per season? Where they just acts of chance in a sport where upsets occur far more frequently than most at almost 50% of the time? Or are they all examples of a recent trend of possession, an in particular extreme levels of possession, actually being detrimental to a sides chance of success?
Well, possession is certainly not a hindrance in a simple sense. In the Premier League, La Liga and the Bundesliga over the last three seasons there is still a reasonably strong correlation between amount of possession and the number of points a team gets in a single season. Bar Atletico Madrid twice, no team has got more than 65 points with under 50% possession, though Atletico did win the title in the second of those instances with 90 points.
However, can we confidently say that sides are having success because of possession? Or could it just be the case that better sides naturally achieve higher possession figures? Certainly you’d expect sides at the top of the table playing sides at the bottom of the table to dominate the ball. The better sides tend to have players who are naturally better at retaining possession due to superior use of space, ball control and passing. On top of this better sides usually have higher aspirations and need for a win, meaning they need to be constantly pushing forward with the ball. Whereas on the other hand, lower sides may be happy playing for a point, therefore willing to concede possession, with concentration on defence with the hope of the occasional break.
This is even true at the elite level, albeit it at a lesser extent. In the last three Champions League knockout rounds, sides winning have averaged 52.3% of the ball compared to 47.7 for the sides suffering a defeat. However, it is when we start to look at extreme levels of possession, where we see that possession can actually be detrimental to success, and that sides are becoming increasingly equipped at conceding possession and generating success.
Extreme possession at the elite level
As someone who has watched the champions league the last three seasons and developed into something of a possession sceptic, I wanted to divulge into whether possession superiority was beneficial or in fact detrimental. Specifically I wanted to look at whether possession can be a hindrance in extreme cases against opposition of a similar level. I didn’t want to look at marginal cases of possession superiority, as I don’t think small cases are either relevant to the pattens of the game or show any proof to which team is better at ball retention. And I wanted to compare sides of similar pedigree in order to eliminate the cases where possession superiority is the result of a large quality gap, or where a tactical decision to surrender possession is extremely unlikely to come off, due mainly to the talent gap on the field.
As my want to look into the matter has mainly developed from watching the Champions League in recent season, that seemed the obvious place to start. I decided to cull the group stages just because you still get large mismatches in the preliminary stages. (No offence intended to Viktoria Pizen, but their destruction at the Alianz Arena last season isn’t really that relevant as to whether extreme possession is a positive or negative for Bayern against Dortmund, Madrid or Chelsea.) I also set the parameters for extreme possession to be any instance a side achieved 65% or more.
From the 2012 Champions League semi finals onwards (where Chelsea beat Barcelona) there have been 18 instances where a side has achieved > 65% possession. In that time 5 have been won, 6 drawn and 7 lost.
To see if this was a trend that was consistent I decided to look at more matches so broadened the boundaries to any clash between top four sides in Europe’s to five leagues from the 2012/13 season onwards as well. For the current season I used matches between last seasons’s top four. I found 21 instances of extreme possession in league football, with 5 draws and 8 wins either way. Interestingly the results in different leagues are revealing. In the Premier League, Serie A and Ligue 1 there were only five instances, 3 of which were won by teams who’d severely surrendered possession. In the Bundesliga there had been 8 cases, we’ll call it the Bayern effect, with the > 65% team achieving 4 wins, 2 draws and 2 losses. La Liga also had 8 games, we’ll call it the Barca effect, but the arguable superior opposition (apologies to Jens Keller) caused 3 wins and 3 losses.
In total this left 39 games where there was a huge case of possession superiority, 11 of which were drawn, 13 won by the side with superior possession, and 15 won by the side without. So while the results don’t absolutely show that possession is a clear hindrance, they do show it’s not necessarily a positive either. We’ll have to divulge deeper.
Analysing shot data
Anyone familiar with football analytics will know that shot data is regarded as the best indicator of performance. Quantity of shots are one of the most repeatable statistics in the sport and, along with other factors such as the location of shots, are currently seen as the best indicator of future goals. As a result the number of shots a team takes, where they’re from and whether or not they’re on target are a great indicator of how many goals they’re going to score and the same applies for shots they concede being a measure of potential goals against.
In the 39 games were a team had > 65% possession the side who had dominated possession heavily outshot those who didn’t and in total had 645 shots at an average of 16.54 per game. Conversely they suffered only 335 at 8.82 per game. In other words, the side who dominated possession had a total shot ratio, the ratio of their shots to the total of shots in the game, (TSR) of 0.65, compared to a TSR of 0.35 for the sides that surrendered possession. To put things into perspective, Man City won the premier league last year with a TSR of 0.65 and Cardiff finished bottom with a TSR of 0.38. This is severe disparity. Yet the huge gap in shot quantity isn’t represented to the same extent when it comes to goals. The side with superior possession outscored the one which surrendered by a total of 67-50, which while significant, isn’t to the same extent that the gap in shot quantity was. A total goals ratio calculated the same way TSR is gives the superior possession side a ratio of 0.57 and the team which surrendered the ball a ratio of 0.43.
This can usually either be because of two things. First, the sides with the ball could simply have been unlucky. Or, their shot quality could be significantly poorer. We have to look more specifically at the respective shots that were taken. For all the 39 games I did my own shot location data recording, based somewhat on the excellent work of Colin Trainor and Michael Caley. I created three zones, primary locations, secondary locations and marginal locations. Primary would be all shots inline with the six yard box and inside the area, secondary shots would be shots in the box from wide positions and inline with the six yard box from deeper positions. Marginal shots would be all others, from deeper positions and poorer angles. It wasn’t particularly detailed, but would give a decent indication of where sides were taking their shots.
Somewhat surprisingly for me, the teams with less possession weren’t shooting from significantly better positions. My theory was that teams without the ball sitting deep would mean the side having the ball not being able to penetrate the edge of the box as much, therefore not being able to shoot as regularly from prime positions and requiring more hopeful shots from range. The sides with 35% or less averaged 38.81% of their shots from prime zones, compared to 35.19% for teams whoch had at least 65%. Possession sides had a slightly larger proportion of secondary shots but also had a similarly larger proportion of marginal shots. Sides with less possession shot from reasonably better positions, but the locations themselves were likely not significant enough to warrant such a contrast in the efficiency of the different extremes shots.
A deep wall of defenders, however, doesn’t only prevent a team getting into the box, it also tends to make shot quality from the same position worse. So far data relating to the location of defenders relative to on the ball actions hasn’t come about, so having lots of men behind the ball doesn’t effect ExpGoal calculations and the like, but the presence of nearby defenders and ones in line with the shot and goal are obviously going to make shot quality worse. Shots are more likely to be blocked and shots are more likely to be put off target due to less of a clear sight at goal the chance of a defender potentially intervening if a shot isn’t take quickly.
In the 39 games, the teams with greater position had 34.73% of their shots blocked, compared to just 21.79% for the teams which mostly played without the ball. The scatter graph below shows there is a correlation, albeit it quite a weak one, between amount of possession and the proportion of shots which are blocked.
Of course, a greater proportion of shots being blocked also means a smaller proportion of shots being on target. There is a inverse trend between amount of possession and the proportion of shots on target. The average proportion of shots on target of 30.54 in instances of extreme possession rises to 41.11 for the sides who have had less than 35% of the ball.
Indeed the TSR of 0.65 for the team with superior possession falls to 0.58 as a total shots on target ratio (TSoR) and vice-versa a change of TSR from 0.35 to a TSoR of 0.42 for the sides with less possession, which very closely matches the total goals ratios of 0.57 and 0.43 respectively. When you bare in mind that the teams which conceded possession where marginally shooting from better positions then it suddenly shows that they’re not being more clinical with their on target shots, or benefiting from a lucky PDO (the addition of a teams scoring percentage and save percentage) in a similar way, but are instead simply able to get a greater degree of their shots on goal due to the benefits of less crowded opposition thirds, which in itself derives from having less of the ball than the opposition.
The final thing I wanted to look at with regards to shots is the effect speed of attack has on the likelihood of a shot being converted. Colin Trainor discovered that speed of attack is very important when it comes to shot conversion rates and could potentially be even more important than shot locations. He discovered that the quickest attacks had the best conversion rates despite not having the highest proportion of shots in prime locations. While I don’t have speed of attack data at hand, it’s somewhat safe to assume that the side who spent considerably less time with the ball will have had faster attacks. Possession superiority usually leads to territorial superiority, meaning the side without the ball tend to shoot a lot more from counter attacks. In his research Colin also discovered that there is a strong negative correlation between speed of attacks and the average number of touches prior to a shot.
What all this tells us is that despite possession usually helping raw shot generation it doesn’t have the same help in scoring goals. This could be just a random trend, but looking at matches over the last 30 months, and nearly 1,000 shots in total it wouldn’t seem so, especially when there are legitimate explanations for such a trend, such as the location of shots, the number of defenders in close proximity and the speed of attacks. Indeed, when we only look at shots on target, there is almost no disparity between conversion rates.
With Bayern Munich and Barcelona sitting comfortably atop of arguably two of the three best leagues in the world at the moment it would be ridiculous to suggest possession football is dead. In most cases superior teams will dominate the ball and as a result the most successful sides will usually be among the sides who have the best possession figures. However what we can argue is that at the elite level extreme figures of possession have shown minimum signs of being a benefit and that certain factors have shown it to in fact be detrimental.
Higher levels of possession can help you shoot more, that we’ve seen, but it’s also much harder to get said shots on target. Arguably a high possession figure means a side has to do more in terms of overall shot generation than their opponent to counter act the better quality of shooting they concede due to suffering faster attacks, with less men behind the ball from slightly better positions.
Possession football may not be dead but equally conceding possession has never been more alive. Ever since Chelsea spent the best part of an hour with ten men, one proper centre back and just three defenders against the best side of this generation; conceded just once and scored twice with a fifth of the possession of their opponents, the world has seen that it’s not only possible to win doggedly despite rarely seeing the ball but also that it’s possible to destroy opponents with fast counters the way Bayern, Real Madrid and Holland have in the last couple of years. Top sides are more willing to concede the ball and hit sides on the break. People who use the term park the bus in a disparaging manner could be in for a painful few years as world football evolves and more and more sides become happy to use the tactic to their advantage.