Premier League teams and the outdated idea of ‘playing the percentages’

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In the “7 seconds or less” Phoenix Suns era, Jack McCallum described how head coach Mike D’Antoni “built a team around Nash that ran like hell and tossed up three-point shots like so much wedding confetti”. The idea of playing quickly has almost become a catchphrase at this point. Tony Pulis claimed in April 2016 that the “one thing I’ve wanted is players that have a go and run around” after losing 2-1 to Manchester City. Indeed, along with many other managers, he bases a large amount of his coaching process on isolated fitness drills; not least in his renowned pre-season marathons.

The objective is simple. Scoring goals is the hardest, most complicated thing in football, right? So, if you try to catch the opposition off-guard in the quickest way possible, then you can devote larger parts of your team’s game on the more controllable aspects, such as team shape and energy. Such rigid, counter-attacking strategies have commonly been accepted as pragmatic, and embodies the approach of many commentators and coaches.

However, this is a misalignment of risk. An effective implementation relies on seeing the space vacated by the opposition as soon as the opposing team has made their mistake, communicating with a teammate well enough for them to make the correct run, and them instinctively being able to do the rest before the opposition can recover. This includes knowing what decision to make, having the technique to pull it off and then the team having the fitness to pull off the same patterns at other times. Moreover, the opposition must not be able to do the same, despite there being more opportunities for them to pull such attacks off. It can be very effective if meticulous attention is devoted to these quick counter-attacks, along with the team’s overall shape and stamina for the rest of the game, but it certainly isn’t safe or simple enough to be characterised by running.

When Jose Mourinho claimed that “if you don’t play counter-attack then it’s because you are stupid”, he was referring to it as “an ammunition that you have, and when you find your opponent unbalanced you have a fantastic moment to score a goal”, rather than an entire philosophy of playing. After all, if the opposition’s mistake isn’t clear the moment the attacking team recovers the ball, it will invariably be given away if getting up the pitch as quickly as possible is the first objective of possession. Immediately after that period, the opposition will have a possible chance to counter-attack. In other words, counter-attacking can be used effectively no matter how many other attacking tactics a team has in their arsenal, and can be inherently risky if it’s not used carefully.

Below is a breakdown of the Premier League with the most propensity towards ‘risk-averse’ possession (as of 20th January 2018 per Whoscored):

Team Possession per game (%) No. of times dispossessed per game Propensity towards risk-averse possession
Brighton 46.5 7.6 6.12
Manchester City 66.2 11.2 5.91
Manchester United 53.0 9.9 5.35
Chelsea 54.7 10.5 5.21
Arsenal 58.8 11.3 5.20
Burnley 44.3 8.5 5.21
Tottenham 58.8 11.4 5.16

 

If you look at the ‘goals conceded’ column (again, as of 20th January 2018), this matches the top eight apart from Arsenal (what a surprise?). Even so, the team who replace them, Liverpool, are faced with an onslaught of vitriol every week towards their defence. Contrary to common belief, keeping the ball to relieve pressure seems like a far ‘safer’ strategy than soaking up pressure and using one asset in ‘pace’ to relieve it. Of course, this doesn’t mean every team should always use it, or that it will solve every problem on the pitch; it’s just likely that having periods where the team can’t concede and can relieve energy involves less risks than having to run around and be reactive to the opposition for almost 90 minutes.

If you Google search ‘Tony Pulis we lacked’, you will see the barrage of games in which he made seemingly identical claims of his teams lacking in assets like ‘finishing touch’, ‘luck’, ‘spark’, ‘tempo’ or just ‘quality’. Especially when he often refers to goals conceded as “that little bit of magic”, he makes sure the issues he highlights are as isolated and unsystematic as possible, presumably to deflect pressure. This is just an example, but when excerpts like these get released so often by a manager who’s been in English football since 1992 and in the Premier League since 2008, the underlying ideas are likely to become more intuitive to the wider footballing audience.

They paint a picture of running being synonymous with hard work and the rest of football being down to the elitist, uncontrollable factor of ‘quality’. Prioritising running and pace can be seen as a strategy to some commentators and coaches; if that box is ticked, the team have done the best that they could, even if the other factors are left up to chance.

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