The modern game is constantly changing. Last year’s hip back-three will be gone before we know it, while hopefully there’ll be less bleached blonde hairdos in 2017/18. Some things, though, change at a slower rate than cheap hair products. Possession in the modern game, especially in the Premier League, can be a confusing statistic.

Liverpool broke an unwanted record last season. Their away match to Burnley in August saw the visiting Reds keep a possession stat of 80%, only to lose 2-0. While there are many other contributing factors to this result, is it an example of a sea-change in tactics?

Possession for Possession’s Sake

Let’s look at the possession statistics of the top two clubs in this category: Manchester City (61%) and Liverpool (58.3%) versus the bottom two: Burnley (42.7%) and West Brom (40.7%). This, when you think of the style of play between the two seems pretty straight forward. Man City and Liverpool like to keep the ball even away from home, while West Brom and Burnley like to sit back and attack on the counter.

What gets interesting is when you look at the clubs in mid-table. Clubs that traditionally play a short passing/ possession based game like Swansea City (48.3%) and West Ham (48.4) particularly struggled last season.

With the pace of the game accelerating every year, clubs whose strategy has been rooted in compact defending and winning second balls have had a lot of success. Leicester City’s title run (44.8% possession) featured a lot of this type of play.

Photo courtesy: Wikimedia commons

So when does keeping the ball lead to failure?

Mistakes Lead to Goals

In keeping with our examples from earlier, let’s examine the differences in play between West Brom and West Ham. The two clubs finished with almost identical records on 45 points – with West Brom just edging out the London club for tenth place on goal difference.

A solid mid-table finish was par for the course in West Ham’s case, but Hammers fans endured a torrid time for much of the campaign. You can argue many other reasons as to why Slaven Bilic’s men couldn’t do better, but for sake of argument – let’s assume their positive play was actually what hindered them.

The Goal

Possession based teams need to do a couple of things to ensure the ball is at their feet more than the opposition:

  • Have a decently high passing percentage. Finding a teammate, who can then pass the ball on to the next man, ad infinitum (in theory at least).
  • Pass until you dribble. Taking on a man  1v1 can create chances, but it also opens up defenses to the counter. It should be done sparingly and by the side’s skillful dribblers.
  • Shoot when you can get it on target. Winning corners instead of blasting the ball into the gantry can help you keep the ball. Scoring also encourages your opponent to attack, which allows more space to pass the ball, keep it and occasionally dribble.

The Reality

This, on average is the blueprint in which West Ham would like to play. But the reality was much different.

The Hammers kept a passing percentage of just 48.4 last season, while Man City held a commanding 61%. Tottenham put an average 6.8 shots on goal in 16/17, compared to West Ham’s 3.8. West Ham’s attacking players were making dribbles at the same rate as Liverpool and Everton, but it clearly didn’t help their end product. West Brom are behind them in every category. But, their effectiveness in defense and lethal edge in front of goal brought them a good return on their investment.

The Concluding Assumption

As with anything in football, it is hard to take these numbers at face value. But this all came about from a gut feeling that I’ve been experiencing watching games over the past couple of years.

No longer do the ‘long-ball’ teams bob up and down between the divisions. Solid ‘football-playing’ sides like Newcastle and Sunderland are having trouble staying in the top-flight, because it’s harder to win pretty.