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Possession and anti-possession can be friends

|| It doesn't quite scan as well as the Neighbours themetune, but it's true ||

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Mark Thompson

Dec 17 2019

4 mins read

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I must be finding my subscription to The Athletic worth the (almost permanently 40% reduced) subscription fee because I’m using it yet again as the starting point for a newsletter. This time it’s Michael Cox’s piece on Newcastle vs Burnley, a game which everyone apart from me seems to instinctively recoil against.

The hook of the article is the question ‘what does a match look like when it’s between two sides who don’t want the ball?’. The bit that interested me is the following two paragraphs:

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I don’t know whether Cox chose these quotes just to summarise the two managers’ wider philosophical outlook on possession or not, but taking them purely at face value it intrigued me that both statements can be true.

Sean Dyche is very correct when he says that possession doesn’t win games, and that it’s a myth that has long-been debunked. But Steve Bruce may well be right when he says that his team needs to learn how to keep the ball better as part of their general improvement. Where things get fuzzy is his use of the possession statistic to back this up or, maybe, the way it was phrased.

Lemme just present that quote again:

Last season Newcastle were second bottom of the Premier League in respect of keeping possession. If we’re to improve, it’s something we have to get better at — we have to keep the ball better.

Granted, Bruce doesn’t actually specify the metric for ‘keeping possession’, but let’s assume that it’s their average share of possession in matches as that’s the possession statistic that’s most frequently used, and it seems like a fair assumption to make.

Based on the way that their teams are currently playing, I don’t imagine that there’s too much of an ideological difference regarding possession between Dyche and Bruce. I just think that they’re taking different things from the possession percentage statistic.

Dyche, I imagine, has been irked by Burnley’s low share of possession being thrown at him. Quite rightly he points out that possession, in and of itself, means nothing.

Bruce, meanwhile, has identified a problem in his team. He’s reached for a statistic to back this up. It seems like he’s implying that a low share of possession shows their need to improve at keeping the ball, and it may well do, but it may also mean that Newcastle were playing a style which deliberately let their opponents have the ball for long spells of time.

In terms of a manager speaking at a press conference, I think this is fine. Bruce knows what he means, and I think the general message comes across. However, you wouldn’t want to use it in serious analysis within the club. Cox’s article also highlights David Moyes:

And there are various examples of managers focusing too much on the passing figures, as Rio Ferdinand memorably recalled of the David Moyes era at Manchester United: “Moyes wanted lots of passing. He’d say, ‘Today I want us to have 600 passes in the game. Last week it was only 400.’ Who cares? I’d rather score five goals from 10 passes.”


I’m not really sure what Moyes was wanting from his team in that second-hand anecdote, but for Bruce, I imagine that what would be more useful would be stats which focus on where and how his team are giving the ball away. They could look into possession sequences where the team fails to a) retain the ball b) play an unpressured long ball* for X seconds after gaining possession of the ball.

*playing a long ball may be a strategy, and so it shouldn’t be counted as ‘losing possession’, but a long ball played under pressure may be an indication that the team have played themselves into trouble.

This rather specific example probably wouldn’t make for a good answer at a press conference, and it probably wouldn’t make for a good message to players either (just tell them what they need to do rather than the metrics they’ll be judged on), but I just found it interesting that these two seemingly opposite quotes from Dyche and Bruce could, in theory, happily coexist.

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