Friday, 19 June 2015

Is it better to be direct or retain possession in the Championship?

Football is a game of many styles. While most fans would love their team to resemble Barcelona or Arsenal on a week to week basis it's just not possible mainly due to the skill level of most sides, especially the lower down the leagues you go.

The Championship has a reputation for being blood and thunder, very little skill and teams just 'hoofing' it down the pitch with little thought to keeping the ball.

But is it?

I wanted to look at whether teams who kept the ball better do exist in the Championship, and if so do they tend to do better than sides that play more direct.

I wanted to look in particular at a few things (all info using WhoScored), which teams played the highest percentage of longer passes compared to their total passes, were teams who are better passers of the ball generally able to play more accurate longer passes, where did the teams finish depending on their style.

Unfortunately as with all statistical data there are some provisos - The stats just show the number of passes so these are unrelated to goalscoring in anyway. A team could play 10 short passes across the back line before going long in 1 pass and it puts the striker through on goal - is that team a possession based game or long ball? The stats would show that they make 10 short to every 1 long pass - indicates a possession team even if their chances are created via longer passes.

The table below shows which teams play short/long passes as a percentage of their total passes.

Table showing % of Short/Long passes by team in the Championship 2014/15


The table clearly shows that the teams that play more short passes finish higher up the table. This is a common theme throughout the divisions as teams who are better at keeping the ball tend to create more chances - the obvious exception to this is Ipswich, who are ranked as the team playing the highest number of long passes compared to short but finished 6th in the league.

There are other anomalies such as Brighton being well down the league and also Fulham despite a passing style and Derby were the number 1 short passing team despite dropping out of the play offs on the last day.

While the number of long balls played could be a particular way of playing, how did the teams create their chances? We can see in the table below (click on the table to enlarge)

Table showing style of Key Passes made and difference to Total in Previous Table
Interestingly, most of the teams at the top created more chances as a % of their long passing than they did by their short passing, although most of the margins are quite small. Derby are interesting to note as they had the highest positive difference, despite being top of the previous table. So even though they played the highest percentage of short passes, when they did go long they made very little chances, which could be a sign of a team without a back up plan.

The teams down a the bottom, who tended to play a lot of longer balls, created more chances via short passing perhaps a reason they failed to deliver consistently as they persisted with a more direct game despite not creating as much from the longer passes they did play.

While these are just a couple of simple tables and don't give any clear definitions on a 'best' way to play it's clear that the better teams are able to do both, passing short to retain the ball but able to create chances via more than 1 method.

How do the Championship teams compare to the Premier League? Is the Championship really just constant long balls where the Premier League is beautiful?




From this table it's clear the teams in the Premier League play a much clearer passing  game - Derby, the team with the largest % of short passes to long passes in the Championship, would only be ranked 9th in the Premier League.

What is interesting is when we compare the top 8 in the Championship, who were much better than the rest of the division, and compare them with the bottom 8 in the Premier League, who spent most of the season battling to survive.




The table shows that 6 of the top 9 teams were from the Championship, with Bournemouth, Watford and Norwich all firmly in this section. Will they still play the same style when they are scrapping to stay up? It will be interesting to see if Bournemouth stick to their principles but this is another indication that maybe the Championship isn't quite as direct as it's made out to be.




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