Barca outpossess opponents in 300 consecutive games

Barcelona have outpossessed their opponents in 300 consecutive games, the Catalan club has posted on its official website. That record could potentially come under threat over two Champions League semi final legs with Bayern Munich, the first of which will be played this evening in Munich. Bayern have the second highest average possession total in Europe's five major leagues- 63.6% to Barca's 69.6%. Coverage begins at 2:30 this afternoon on FOX Soccer Channel.

Dempsey not suited for center attacking midfield role in Spurs' 4-2-3-1

In the lead up to tomorrow's crucial North London derby, Andre Villas-Boas will certainly be concerned about his side's recent inability to effectively transition the ball forward through the middle of the pitch since the injury to Moussa Dembele.

In their last two league games Spurs were blanked at home to Wigan, a team with the fourth worst defensive record in the league, and only managed to score on a set piece header in the 2-1 loss to Manchester City, a game in which they had only two shots on target. Dembele operates as one of the two holding midfielder's in Spurs' 4-2-3-1 and has the ability to advance the ball from defense to attack with his powerful vertical dribbling.

Dembele's bursts are so important for Tottenham because, unlike their rivals for Champions League spots, they don't have an attacking midfielder/withdrawn forward gifted at playing just off the striker and linking play between deep lying midfielders and forwards down the middle. In Spurs' current 4-2-3-1, both Tom Huddlestone and Sandro stay relatively deep in their holding roles. Therefore it's crucial the central player in the attacking midfield three finds space to get on the ball in attacking positions and has the technical ability and creativity to find forward passes that dissect the defense.

Spurs have played Gylfi Sigurdsson and Clint Dempsey in this central playmaker role but neither have performed it particularly well. Sigurdsson has struggled to have the impact he did at Swansea last season while Dempsey isn't suited for this role. He's a fine athlete and a good finisher with a knack for popping up in the right position to score goals. He is not however an especially technical player nor does he have the passing ability and vision to pick apart a defense with one clever ball.

The lack of an effective center attacking midfielder means Spurs best method of advancing the ball forward has been down the wings with Aaron Lennon and Garreth Bale. They'd of course frequently utilize the incredible pace of Lennon and Bale even if they had a strong central attacking midfielder but the problem is that these two are most effective on the counter when they have space to run at defenders. When the opposition gets their midfield behind the ball it's more difficult for them to use their pace to run by defenders. This is when it becomes important to have an attacking midfielder that can find seams between opposition center backs and holding midfielders in middle of the pitch to get on the ball and create.

Villas-Boas has used Dempsey as the center attacking midfielder in the defeats to Wigan and Manchester City. Last weekend at the Etihad he completed only 8 passes in the attacking third. He completed just 4 passes in the final third the weekend before against Wigan- an astonishingly low number for an attacking midfielder.

Without a player adequately linking midfield to attack Spurs have been forced to skip over the midfield and play hopeful longballs out of the back to advance the ball into the attacking third. They completed just 47 of 99 attempted passes into the final third against Manchester City, a truly abysmal conversion rate. A large portion of those failed passes were hopeful longballs launched towards the box. The attempted longballs can be explained in part by the fact the taller Adebayor had been given the start at striker over Jermaine Defoe but Dempsey's failure to find space to get in possession was also largely to blame.

Spurs' inability to get the ball to their striker in dangerous goalscoring positions is evidenced by the locations on the field Adebayor received the ball last weekend. Of the 31 times he received the ball, only one of those was inside the box and several were near midfield or in Tottenham's defensive half. Defoe was given the start the previous weekend against Wigan. He only received the ball 7 times in the 58 minutes he was on before being subbed, none of which were in the box. In order to score goals your striker needs to receive the ball near the penalty area. Much of that responsibility falls on the central attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 and at the moment Sigurdsson and particularly Dempsey are not getting the job done.

Obviously there will be other key factors in tomorrow's North London derby, particularly the poor recent defensive record of both teams. After keeping clean sheets in each of their first 3 games, Arsenal have managed just one in their last 14. They've conceded more goals in the last 4 games than they had the first 13. Spurs meanwhile have just one clean sheet in the league this season. However, all of the leagues top sides have had their defensive struggles this season including both Manchester clubs and Chelsea. One of the major factors that currently separates these sides from Tottenham is that they all have very gifted players to play off of the forward and create goalscoring chances-Cazorla at Arsenal; Fellaini at Everton; Kagawa and Rooney at Manchester United; Harzard, Mata and Oscar at Chelsea, Silva and Aguero at Manchester City. Over the course of the season Spurs lack of a central attacking midfielder may well prevent them from securing Champions League qualification.

Premier League Net Passing 2012-2013

In February, Dan wrote two excellent pieces explaining the net passing statistic and how the relationship between net passing and goal difference for an individual team can shine light on the importance that team places on dominating possession (we prefer using the net passing metric over possession percentage because it is more fine grained). Net passing is simply the number of passes a team completes over the course of a game less the number their opponent completes. If team B completes more passes in a game than than team A, team A's net passing for the game is negative.

For teams whose tactics are largely centered around ball retention and patient buildup play we expect a strong positive relationship between net passing and goal difference. In other words, as net passing increases for these teams we would expect to see goal difference increase positively.

For teams who prefer to play primarily on the counter, outpossessing the opponent is unimportant. Counterattacking teams want their opponent to have possession and to commit numbers forward so they can break quickly while the opposition is out of position. Counterattacks require fewer passes than slow buildup play from the back. Therefore, for primarily counterattacking teams, we expect no discernible relationship between net passing and goal difference.

Of course, many top level sides use both counterattacking and possession styles based on factors like the style of play of the opposition and whether the game is played at a club's home stadium or an away ground. For instance, we'd expect Manchester United to boss possession in a league game against Stoke at Old Trafford and have a positive net passing value (which they did last Saturday). However, in a Champions League game against Barcelona at the Nou Camp, we'd expect them to keep a compact defensive shape, allow Barca to have the bulk of possession and then look to quickly counter and therefore have a negative net passing value. For these sides, we'd expect a weaker relationship between net passing and goal difference.

Premier League Net Passing 2012-2013
The bar chart below shows the average net passing for each of the Premier League's 20 teams after eight games (Reading and Sunderland have played only seven games). Teams are listed from left to right according to their position in the league table (Chelsea currently sit atop the table while QPR are last). Manchester City, a side with very technical players capable of short intricate passes, have the highest net passing value. They are outpassing their opponents by an average of 231 passes per game. Stoke City, a team that focuses more on physical strength and territory than possession, have the lowest net passing value. They are being outpassed by an average of 226 passes per game.

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I'm also including this graph of passes completed per game for anyone interested.

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Net Passing and League Standing Relationship
While Dan looked at the relationship between net passing and points per game for individual teams, I wanted to look at the relationship between net passing and league standing for all 20 Premier League teams to determine the explanatory power of net passing on league position. If we believed that net passing was the only factor that determined whether a team won or lost a game, we'd expect the team with the highest net passing value to be in first place in the league and the team with the lowest net passing value to be in last. The bars in the net passing bar graph above would get progressively shorter as we moved right from the first place team to the last.

Clearly this is not the case. Manchester City have the highest net passing value yet they are only third in the league. QPR have a positive net passing value but are in last place. Liverpool have the fourth highest net passing value in the league but are still in the bottom half of the table while West Brom and West Ham are 6th and 7th respectively despite having substantial negative net passing values.

The graph shows what we're all well aware of- there are more factors that determine the winner of a soccer game than simply who passes the ball more. For example, in Manchester United's two defeats this season to Everton and Tottenham they outpassed their rivals by 818 passes. Arsenal completed 414 more passes than Norwich last Saturday but were beaten 1-0. Teams have to convert possession into goal scoring opportunities and then have to finish those opportunities. For a number of reasons, it often makes sense for certain teams to employ tactics that aren't focused on ball retention and allow the opposition to control the bulk of possession- it doesn't necessarily mean these teams will finish in the bottom of the league because they have a low net passing value.

The bar graph is interesting however in that it shows of the ten teams that have positive net passing values, seven of them are in the top half of the table. Of the ten with negative net passing values, seven are in the bottom half of the table. That there are more teams with positive net passing values in the top half of the league suggests there may be a relationship between net passing and league position.

To determine exactly what the explanatory power of net passing on league position is, I plotted league position versus net passing for each of the 20 Premier League teams below. Teams higher up on the y axis are in the bottom half of the league standings and teams further to the left on the x axis have higher negative net passing values. If we believe that higher net passing values improve a team's league standing, we'd expect our trend line to slope down and to the right (indicating that as net passing increases, league position gets closer to first place). Indeed, the trend line is negative. The r^2 value of 0.229 tells us that net passing explains about 23% of the variation in league standing. So although net passing clearly isn't the only factor that determines the winner of a game, it does seem to play a part in determining league position.

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The negative slope makes sense. Controlling possession and outpassing your opponent requires a team to have players that are technically gifted (good control and passing ability). Having a lot of technically gifted players also makes a team more likely to win games. Manchester United will always boss possession against a team like Stoke because their players are more technically talented and more often than not they'll beat Stoke because they have superior talent. Because of the superior talent required to play a possession game, it makes sense that top teams also generally have high net passing values.

The analysis however does not determine the subtle difference of whether top teams are top teams because they dominate passing or whether they dominate passing because they are top teams (for a team like Arsenal with a strong emphasis on ball retention regardless of the opponent my guess is the former, for a more tactically more flexible team like Manchester United I'd guess the latter).

Sample Size Issues
The significance of this analysis is limited by the small number of games played in the Premier League thus far. Eighteen teams have played only eight games and two have played only seven. Teams have also not played the same schedules as one another which will also influence net passing and league position. For example, West Ham has only played three games against teams currently in the top half of the table (and lost two) while seven of QPR's eight games have been against teams in the top half. Would QPR and West Ham's net passing and league position look different if their schedules had been swapped? More than likely they would. It would be interesting to do this analysis for the whole of last season. A project for the future perhaps.