Europe’s top sides spend more time further up the field
Where possession falls is a key consideration
A few years ago analysts at Manchester City discovered a link with winning that I can confirm is particularly strong in the Champions League.
Simon Wilson, then City’s head of strategic performance analysis, said: “When we studied the profile of the top teams against average teams, the thing we saw was that the best teams dominate possession in the final third.”
Over the last three seasons City spent 11, 12 then 13 per cent of their Champions League matches with the ball in the attacking third. Those figures are all above average, and teams whose figures are above average tend to win more than others.
Using statistics from the Uefa Champions League technical reports for the past three seasons, and a bit of basic maths, I was able to work out what proportion of matches teams spent in possession in different parts of the pitch.
All teams – good, bad and in between – spent about the same amount of time in the defensive third. Good teams, though, spent longer than bad teams in the middle and attacking thirds.
There are differences between teams who enjoyed different levels of success in the Champions League over the last three seasons - teams eliminated at the group stage, teams knocked out in the round of 16 and teams who progressed to the quarter-finals, semi-finals or final.
Each set of teams spent 14 per cent of matches with the ball in the defensive third.
The proportion of matches spent with the ball in the middle third rose from 24 per cent for teams who fell at the group stage to 26 per cent for teams knocked out in the round of 16 then 28 per cent for teams who reached the last eight or beyond.
The proportion of matches spent with the ball in the attacking third increased from nine per cent for teams eliminated at the group stage to ten per cent for teams beaten in the round of 16 and 12 per cent for teams who progressed at least to the last eight.
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Generally speaking, good teams have more possession than bad teams in total. As I mentioned last month, overwhelming possession can be a sign that a team is better at building moves than ending them. Usually, though, the two things go together. Teams who are good at passing tend to be good also at getting into shooting positions.
Critics who say possession is meaningless argue that a team could have a lot simply because defenders pass the ball between themselves in their own half.
The latest Champions League technical report makes the same point: “Possession stats, after all, are easily inflated by low-tempo passing interchanges in the defensive third against opponents who do not push up to press but prefer to rely on rapid transitions into compact defensive blocks.”
In practice, though, it does not happen. Good teams have more possession overall than bad teams, and this is because they have more possession in the attacking and middle thirds. In the defensive third all sorts of teams – bad as well as good – have the same amount of possession.
What is particularly interesting is that good teams who have little possession in total – exceptions to the general rule – still have a lot of possession in the final third.
Atletico Madrid, for instance. They were finalists, semi-finalists and quarter-finalists in the last three seasons. Although they were in possession for only 46 per cent of their matches they were in possession in the final third for 12 per cent. Or Monaco, semi-finalists last year. They were in possession for only 47 per cent of their matches but in possession in the final third for 13 per cent.
The longer you spend trying to do something the more likely you are to succeed. To score a goal a team must have the ball in or near the opposition’s penalty area. The longer they spend in possession in that zone the more often they should score.
Excessive final-third possession might be an indication that a team are not able to make the last pass that sets up a shot or header. Manchester City measured something else in the final third that also correlated with winning: accurate forward passes.
Simon Wilson said: “The success rate of the passes was very high, particularly forward passing. So now, when we recruit players, we pay special attention to individuals with high pass-completion rates.”
We saw some two weeks ago when City won their first Champions League game of the season 4-0 at Feyenoord, and we will see some again tomorrow when they play the second at home to Shakhtar Donetsk.
Top teams just don't run as much
The best teams in the Champions League do less running than the worst. This does not mean that a player in a bad team would become better if he stood still. More likely it is a consequence of the fact that football requires most effort when you do not have the ball, and bad teams spend longer without the ball.
Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about running stats is how little they differ between various sorts of teams. All teams work hard, with and without the ball. And differences between teams can be put down in large part to how long they have to spend doing the hardest work of all, chasing the ball.
I took data from the Champions League technical reports for the last three seasons. The average distance per match covered by teams knocked out at the group stage was 111 kilometres. The average distance per match covered by teams who won the Champions League was 109km.
As I have found in other competitions, successful teams did less running than unsuccessful ones but what is most striking is that the differences are small. A player for the Champions League winners might average about two metres per minute less than a player for a team knocked out at the group stage. Two steps per minute.
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