Modern day football managers have a reputation for producing some eyebrow-raising analogies and former Blackpool manager Ian Holloway, who is currently working as a Sky Sports pundit, could fill his own catalogue. Some of his quotes have earned almost legendary status but top of his list has to be ‘I’m chuffed as a badger at the start of mating season’.
However, comparisons of this type are nothing new, back in 2001, the then Aberdeen manager Ebbe Skovdahl, came out with this all-time classic ‘Statistics are like mini-skirts – they give you good ideas but hide the most important things’.
Some will argue that it is only the result that matters but Big Data is changing the way football is viewed and analysed. One statistical area that attracts a lot of attention is ball possession and there is a clear correlation between the amount of possession a team has and their success on the pitch. Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona and Bayern Munich all top the possession tables in their respective domestic leagues and all three are likely to be confirmed as champions again by the end of the season. Serie A leaders Juventus rank only 4th best in terms of monopolising the ball, while English Premier League leaders Leicester City, defy the trend completely, and would amazingly be in the relegation places if the table was ranked by possession stats, proving that a combination of good organisation and counter-attacking football can be equally as effective.
But what about players who squander possession – does it really matter?
OPTA are the primary source for detailed player statistics so it’s important to grasp a thorough understanding of how stats are compiled when looking for significant trends. In the case of their ‘dispossessed’ stats there is an important distinction to make between an unsuccessful take-on and being dispossessed when in control of the ball. A tackle will be awarded to any player who wins the ball from another player who is in possession. However, the other player will get an unsuccessful take-on if he is trying to ‘beat’ his man, while he will be marked down as dispossessed if he is in possession and not attempting to ‘beat’ his man.
Goalkeepers and defenders cannot really afford to take too many chances in possession – if they lose the ball in their own third there is every chance that they will end up conceding a goal. The 10 players listed in the Oulala infographic above that have been dispossessed the most times during the current Premier League campaign can all be classified as offensive-minded players. Harry Kane, Alexis Sánchez and Sergio Agüero were also 3 of the 4 players to be dispossessed the most frequently during the 2014/5 Premier League season, with the other being an under-performing Eden Hazard, a notable absentee this time around.
Forwards will often attempt to hold the ball up, playing with their back to goal, occasionally allowing defenders to nip in, to steal the ball away. They will take more risks as they assess their options, looking for that decisive pass. Squandering possession in this manner is unlikely to have too much of a bearing on the outcome of a match or even a fantasy football contest for that matter. The aforementioned Oulala have one of the more advanced fantasy scoring formats where loss of possession is penalised, but any negative points attained are more than likely to be offset by points earned each time these players successfully hold the ball up, by shielding it from their opponents.
So to summarise, the number of times a player loses possession is not really that significant – it’s more likely to be a positive sign that the player is playing with confidence and a willingness to get on the ball, to make a positive contribution. However, when a goalkeeper or defender loses the ball it might be best to look away!