The Premier League and its Dwindling Romance With Possession
A phone rings, the owner picks it up. It’s a text message from the Premier League, “I’m sorry, it’s not you… it’s me. We can’t go on like this anymore. We had some amazing times, possession, but it’s over”. Tearfully, the recipient locks the phone, sighs and stares to the heavens. The affair had been a long one, a beautiful one at times but the 2015/16 season has seen the Premier League call time on the relationship with possession football. Like any Hollywood romance, the end will be dramatically publicised, analysed and inevitably become a talking point on Loose Women. Ok, the final point may not strictly be true. But nevertheless the recognition of this transformation should be a key talking point in the footballing world.
Over the past five years there has been a downward trend in terms of average possession in winning teams. In the 2011-12 season, one which must be fondly remembered for that nail-biting last day when calls of “Agueroooooo!” signalled that Manchester City had stormed to their Premier League title, the average winning possession percentage was 52.8. That year, City had a thoroughly impressive 58% possession, Arsenal 60.1% and Manchester United 57%. During the current Premier League season, the average winning percentage has fallen dramatically to 49.2%. This is the first time in over a decade that the average percentage of a winning team has dropped below 50%.
Whilst a change of 3% is minimal, it is quite possible to visualise this both on the pitch and in styles of play. The statistic is, of course, derived from all 20 teams who participate in the Premier League. When accounting for the top half of the table five of those 10 teams win with less than 50% possession. Leicester who currently sit second in the table are anarchists against possession football. A modern day Sex Pistols who put two-fingers up at those who look after the ball as if it belonged to the Queen. Claudio Ranieri’s men boast 42.9% possession for the season so far, but with 11 wins and three defeats all season the Italian is in no rush to change his philosophy.
Leicester are the chalk to Manchester United’s cheese. Louis Van Gaal is the guy at the party who arrived late, bought a sizeable amount of alcohol and proceeds to charm the girl everyone has already kissed. United have changed from swashbuckling transition based, attack minded predators into a slow, static methodical beast that simply does not know the answer to the question in front of them. Focussing solely on the retention of the ball, United lead possession stats this season (59%). Leicester have almost certainly started a trend, their mindset of defending deep and narrow whilst breaking to the wings at pace has begun to catch on. Their focus on transition, which started under Nigel Pearson last season, but has continued to evolve under Ranieri has started a new love affair.
So many teams focus on keeping the ball that their players flood toward the goal as their methodical way of unpicking the stubborn opposition defence slowly edges them forward. Two centre-backs become exposed against two strikers a suddenly the ball is in the back of the net. Inevitably, the goal is scored by Jamie Vardy or Riyad Mahrez, of course. Mentioned earlier, five of the top 10 teams in the Premier League have a winning percentage of less than 50%. Aside from Leicester they are: Crystal Palace, West Ham, Watford and Southampton. All these teams share a trend, they focus on the breakdown, they play with width and at pace. Michail Antonio’s goal for West Ham against Liverpool last weekend, demonstrated so purely what transitional football can do to teams who play possession football in 15 seconds.
Inevitably, smaller teams will adopt this approach with more regularity after the success of the five teams mentioned above. Football is a wonderful game, full of theories and new practices. Eventually bigger teams will find a way to nullify the use of quick transitions and stubborn defences, but for now it is wonderful to see.
A phone goes off, it’s the Premier League, again.. “What are you up to this weekend?”. Transition football smiles.