Possession Football or Direct Play, something to think about.

I’ve spent the past couple of years analysing goal scoring patterns in professional football as part of my research degree at University of Canberra.

There are a number of very interesting things to come out of the research (thankfully) but the evidence has made me wonder if the debate about Possession Football versus Direct Play is really that important.

The notion that possession football is an alternative way of scoring goals and involves lots of passing, doesn’t hold up when the evidence is examined. While there has been a slight increase in recent tournaments, in the number of goals scored with six passes or more there are still more goals from five passes or less particularly in International football, i.e. World Cups and European Championships. I’d also like to add that I used a different criteria for a zero pass goal and did not include any goals scored after a save by the goalkeeper or from rebounds off the goal posts or a defender.

The criteria for Direct Play were the long ball forward and a low number of passes leading to a goal, five passes or less. Disparaging remarks were and still are made about teams, which play the ball long, from the back third, which leads to a couple of interesting points.

First of all more goals were scored in World Cups and European Championships from playing the ball out of the back third with five passes or less, than goals from six passes or more, by teams one would describe as playing Possession Football, e.g. Spain & Holland, both finalists at the World Cup in 2010. Did they make long passes?  Yes, they did.

The important point is that even though team’s play Possession Football they score more goals from being “Direct”, which basically means attacking the opposition quickly and at speed regardless of where possession is regained on the field and how the ball is transferred from one end of the field to the other.

It’s also worth looking at other analysis I have done on the best teams who play possession based football and their success rates of keeping the ball from the number of times they played it from the back third to the final third.  In the Confederation Cup Final between Brazil and Spain, both teams had around a thirty percent success rate, as did Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich in the European Cup Final. These are interesting statistics about the best international and club teams in the World and Europe when they play each other. However, they might have a higher success rate against lesser opposition.

Based on the success rates of thirty percent when top teams of equal ability play each other and play possession football, would you expect a higher or lower success rate from playing long balls from back to front, with the tactic of winning second balls in the opponent’s half of the field?  An interesting thought which, will no doubt create a lot of discussion.

Ron Smith

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