The Future Game: Analysing football's developmental trends
How is football innovating and evolving in terms of playing trends at the highest level?
Howard Wilkinson, current Chairman of the LMA, has always been forward-thinking regarding innovation in the game. During a recent discussion around analytical trends with Blake Wooster, Prozone’s Business Development Director, he asked the following question:
“If the passing success rate in the Premier League 10 years ago was 74% and now is 86%, in another 10 years’ time, will we have a perfect passing game?”
Of course, Howard asked the question with his tongue firmly in his cheek, but it raises a series of interesting questions regarding the on-field development of the game. Hypothetically, the former Leeds United and England manager has got a point. If we extrapolate current passing trends, then passing success in the Premier League will reach 100% by the 2031/32 season.
In reality, we know that this won’t happen. Despite the average 4.6% seasonal increase in passing success in the Premier League over the last 10 years, common sense tells us that this trend will inevitably plateau. However, such trends raise a number of questions around the impact that current passing fashions are having on football.
We can use longitudinal analysis to demonstrate how the Premier League game has changed over time. A basic starting point was to show that, despite the decreasing number of balls played into the final third, 1,066 goals were scored in the Premier League last season, the most since the division was adapted to its current 20-team format in 1995. The number of shots per game has also seen a 2.9% increase over the last 10 years, with the number of goals per game also exceeding the average over the last four seasons, but why is this?
One explanation is that the Premier League has become increasingly technical over time, with teams now being more likely to favour a patient, intricate style of play. The data backs this theory up and also shows that such clear passing trends are by no means exclusive to the English game.
The key question is, if high quantities of passing and possession are key indicators of success, then won’t the best passing teams always win? If we delve deeper into the data, it’s possible to see that the situation isn’t that clear cut. Although there is a general upward trend in the number of passes completed by Premier League champions over the last decade, there have been instances where clubs have gone against the trend and been successful.
Jose Mourinho’s 2004/05 title-winning Chelsea side made 12% fewer passes than reigning champions Arsenal and yet finished just 12 points clear of them in the final standings. Similarly, the league winners in 2006/07 (Manchester United) and 2009/10 (Chelsea) were able to win the title despite making fewer passes than the previous season’s champions. While the quality of passing is clearly important for winning teams, it is not the only success factor.
We can also look to several examples of teams and managers who’ve engineered notable results against heavily possession-based sides. Internazionale and Chelsea’s famous Champions League semi-final defeats of Barcelona can be cited, as can Switzerland’s victory against Spain in the 2010 World Cup. The question is, are such results simply outliers reliant on chance, or do they represent impeccable tactical and technical preparation? To prevent luck from being a dominant factor, Prozone analysts have produced a Points vs. Passes chart for the Premier League over the last two years.
The chart enables us to see which teams have over-achieved relative to the league norm across a sustained period of time. Stoke City and Newcastle United have been conspicuous in their ability to be consistently effective despite a relatively low number of passes.
Conversely, there is the danger of falling into the trap of presuming that Swansea City were ineffective in 2012, with a high number of passes per point gained. However, teams like Swansea have demonstrated that passing can be employed as a defensive strategy, with possession being used in low-risk areas to keep the ball away from the opposition.
One of the most interesting developments is the polarisation of styles in the Premier League. Teams in the division today are more likely to win by either having a very high or very low net passing figure, something that suggests clubs are either embracing the generally increased focus on possession or combating it with far more direct styles of play.
Whichever way teams decide to play, whether in line with passing trends or against them, it is clear that the definition of a distinct playing philosophy by managers is becoming increasingly important as the game continues to evolve in a variety of interesting ways.
Pioneers in performance analysis, Prozone is committed to delivering analytical insights that go far beyond the traditional guages of performance. Pushing the boundaries of what can be done with performance information, we are helping to drive the evolution of football analytics and change the way we look at football data.