Possession (Sheffield Wednesday – NFFC Programme Notes 2012/13)

Like many Forest fans, I watched our away encounter against Leicester City from the comfort of my own living room. When Cox converted the equalising penalty, I jumped up and screamed out his name in jubilation. Despite my next door neighbours now believing me to have a mild form of Tourette’s, I don’t regret the over-exuberant celebration one little bit. It was an invaluable point against one of the favourites for promotion.

My honest view of the game was that Forest showed tremendous character and resolve to salvage a point, having been outperformed, for the first time this season, by the menacingly impressive Foxes. After the match, I was surprised to discover that a significant body of supporters had a completely different perspective.

Some fellow reds are convinced that Forest dominated the game and deserved to win it. The reason being the possession stats that were published a short time after the match had finished.

The value of possession in football has recently been brought into sharp focus by Celtic’s miraculous home win against Barcelona in the Champion’s League. During this historic encounter Barcelona had a staggering 84% of possession and yet still fell to a 2-1 defeat.

Anyone who watched the game would have to admit that Barcelona completely dominated and, on the balance of play, deserved to win handsomely. But part of football’s irrepressible charm is that the ‘dominant’ team does not always prevail; Celtic may not have seen as much of the ball but they deployed a counter-attacking strategy effectively, ruthlessly converting their chances. It proves that football is not all about keeping possession; there are many ways to skin a Catalan!

Celtic’s giant-killing exploits show that impressive possession stats don’t necessarily win you football matches … but what I’m really interested in is whether or not a higher proportion of possession is necessarily indicative of a team’s dominance?

Despite Forest having 53% of possession, I’m still convinced that we were second best at the King Prawn Stadium last Saturday. Our passing wasn’t incisive, we struggled to create chances and, when we lost the ball, Leicester carved us open like a festive goose.

Although I tend to trust my own eyes above the match stats, I still wanted to find out where the discrepancy between the two lay. Basically, there are at least a couple of factors that skew the possession statistics, in this instance creating the illusion that Forest were the marginally better side last weekend.

Firstly, Leicester played a more direct fast passing style – most of their attacks starting with Kasper Schmeichel launching the ball into the opposing half. By contrast, Forest tried to pass the ball out from the back whenever possible. On the day, Leicester’s style proved more effective, but it meant they spent less time on the ball. Their first goal, for example, resulted from only seven seconds (three passes) of possession.

Another factor to consider is that for large periods of time Forest were a goal behind, and therefore chasing the game. Statistically speaking, when two relatively even teams are competing, it is much more likely that the team who has fallen behind will have a greater share of possession. The other team can afford to sit back and try and hit their opponents on the break. This is a common pattern for Championship games to take.

Think back to when Forest won 3-1 against Cardiff at the City Ground, earlier in the season. Forest looked easily the better side but because Cardiff were two or three goals behind for the majority of the match, they actually secured 51% of the overall possession.

During the Leicester game, one particular phase of play acutely demonstrated the problem of using possession stats to try and measure a team’s dominance. I am referring to Elliott Ward’s fantastic goal-line clearance from Martyn Waghorn’s close range shot. Prior to this eventuality, Forest had enjoyed 30 seconds of possession in and around their own penalty area, stringing together a sequence of 14 passes. Leicester won the ball and 6 seconds (one single pass) later Forest were inches away from disaster!

If you examine this small phase of play in isolation, Forest would appear to be dominating, but in reality we were penned into our own half, much more likely to concede than to score. Football is a game where possession means very little unless you can hurt the opposition with it.

I’m not claiming that keeping possession of the ball is not important, nor am I implying that this particular statistic ought to be overlooked when analysis of a game is undertaken. But one of my pet football hates is people trying to use possession stats, in isolation, to prove which team has performed better. Proportion of possession is just one element of analysis that can be used to paint a picture of how a game has transpired.

There is a key difference between ‘possession’ and ‘meaningful possession’; therein lies the reason that statistics and interpretation don’t always marry up. My advice is to trust your own football brain above all else!

Follow Me on Twitter: @Dave_Abbiss


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