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Our 'Possession-based' game - does it work? (with stats)


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Last season, some time around December 2019 I think (though I can't find it), I posted the data showing that when we had the bigger share of the possession, we actually came away with less points. I suggested this showed our real potency was as a counter-attacking side and that when we tried to control games it didn't work.

Since then, we have actively transitioned to base our whole game around keeping possession. The manager has actively talked about this, and recently has talked about how all the best teams and those which go up are possession teams. With this in mind, I thought it was time to parse over the data again and see whether he is right, that controlling possession helps us, or if my instinctive observation is correct that it is actually hampering results.

Possession data was taken from Google (type Blackburn Rovers in Google, then click matches, then select any given match to see stats). I appreciate the data might show differently via other sources, but this was the simplest way for me to put it together. It's for this season only, and does NOT include the two cup games (defeat to Newcastle when we had 65% possession and defeat to Doncaster with us on 68% possession), as I'm looking for points per game, but if these were included it would only look worse. I've done points per game to 3 decimal places, rounding up if the 4th decimal was a 5 or above.

I'll post a full breakdown of opponents, possession and points in another post here after, if anyone wants to cross-check the data I used, pick out interesting outcomes, etc.

When we have 51% possession or more

Games: 27

Points: 29

Points per game (PPG): 1.074

When we have 50% or less (note - all were 49 or lower)

Games: 7

Points: 14

PPG: 2

This is an admittedly small sample for less than 50%, as we have frequently controlled possession (which in itself given our league position shows that possession doesn't equal points). However, in just 7 games we took nearly half the points we took in 27 games. Nearly a third of our total points in just 7 games. Nearly double the points per game. It's also worth noting that in our only defeat in those 7 we still had 49% possession, the higher end of this bracket, nearly an even split. One of those 7 games where we only got a point involved us losing a man to a red card.

Meanwhile, the 27 games where we had more possession included 6 red cards for the opposition, none for us. 12 points out of those 29 points were gained in the 6 games where we played against 10 men. When we haven't been able to get a man sent off, we have taken 17 points from 21 games when controlling possession. Which is 0.81 points per game (which by the way if extrapolated would be just over 37 points from a season).

Alright, but what about degrees of possession? After all, there's not much in it between us having 51% or 49%. So I broke it down into roughly 10% sections for the main sample size of 51% or over.

When we have 50-59% possession

Games: 11

Points: 11

PPG: 1

When we have 60-69% possession

Games: 13

Points: 11

PPG: 0.846

When we have 70% or more possession

Games: 3

Points: 7

PPG: 2.333

OK, so some better news for possession fans here, in a way. Although when we have 60+ we actually do worse than 50+, which once more affirms the more possession we have the worse we do, when we absolutely DOMINATE possession at 70 upwards, we come away with a terrific return. A few problems there though. 1) 6 of those points came in the 2 games where the opposition had someone sent off. The other game was just a draw. 2) It's a very, very small sample this time.  3) You can't go in with a gameplan of 70% possession every week, it won't happen.

I'd say the data pretty heavily confirms, along with our eyes and our league position using this style, that basing our play on keeping possession rather than going for the throat doesn't work for us. I'm not saying possession games can't be successful, they absolutely can. I'm saying it doesn't work for us, with this team, under this manager. I feel we are more dangerous on the counter attack, as well as more susceptible against a counter attack.

Last season's data told a similar story when I gathered it, and although I didn't finish last season's, anecdotally I'd say it appeared to be a continuation of the same pattern, as I did keep an eye on it. I think this has been going on long enough now that the coaching team need to be reconsidering their approach. With all the data analysis staff and facilities these days, this persistent failure of our possession game has surely come to their attention by now.

If I've made an error with any of the data here, feel free to correct me.

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Using this site https://www.fctables.com/england/championship/ball-possession/   I've also had a look at our possession stats relative to other sides, for how much merit there is in the notion that you need to control possession to get out of this league.

On there, we have the 4th highest possession stats in the league, which clearly does not correlate to our position in the actual table of 15th.

There are some sides at the high end on both tables - Norwich top both tables. Watford are 2nd in the real table and 6th on this one. Brentford 4th in the real table, 5th for possession. Reading are 5th in the league, 8th for possession. However Swansea are 3rd in the real table, only 11th for possession, Barnsley are 6th in the league but a lowly 19th for possession, and Cardiff at 8th in the league only rank 21st for possession.

Meanwhile, high possession teams doing crap include ourselves, Huddersfield (2nd for possession, languishing in 18th in the real table), Derby 7th for possession, 19th in the league.

Again, I'm not saying possession games can't work, there are sides clearly playing it and doing very well. But I think you need both the personnel and the right approach to it to be a success. The high possession teams who are also doing well in the proper table all seem to have a bit of a different class of players to most of the rest of us. And possession clearly isn't the only way to success in this league.

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The data I've used to put this together. Opponent, percentage of possession we had (51% upwards are bolded to make them easier to differentiate) and the points we gained. I haven't specificed home and away, which tbf might be interesting (for stattos) since teams come to us and shut up shop, and maybe I'll do that at some future juncture if I can be arsed.

Bournemouth - 51%  0 points

Newcastle (LEAGUE CUP) - 65%, defeat

Wycombe - 70%, 3 points  (RED)

Derby - 37%, 3 points

Cardiff - 61%, 1 point   (RED)

Notts F - 62%, 0 points

Watford - 66%, 0 points

Coventry - 67%, 3 points  (RED)

Reading - 66%, 0 points

Swansea - 59%, 0 points

Boro - 49%, 1 point

QPR - 51%, 3 points

Luton - 59%, 1 point

Preston - 75%, 3 points  (RED)

Barnsley - 63%, 3 points

Millwall - 56%, 3 points

Brentford - 32%, 1 point (RED for us)

Bristol - 60%, 0 points

Norwich - 58%, 0 points

Rotherham - 68%, 3 points

Stoke - 69%, 0 points

Sheff Weds - 72%, 1 point

Huddersfield - 49%, 0 points

Birmingham - 45%, 3 points

Doncaster (FA CUP), 68%, defeat

Stoke - 55%, 1 point (RED)

Boro - 47%, 3 points

Luton - 58%, 3 points

QPR - 53%, 0 points

Preston - 65%, 0 points

Barnsley - 51%, 0 points

Forest - 63%, 0 points

Watford - 53%, 0 points

Coventry - 66%, 1 point (RED)

Reading - 68%, 0 points

Millwall - 49%, 3 points

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Appreciate the work you put into all of the above - you must have had some time on your hands lol.

But, I could have answered the topic question with a simple "No, we are 15th"

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I will take it further though.

Yes, it can work as other teams have shown but so can any other style, tactic if it is done correctly and to a high level. Look at Cardiff for instance. What this does do is debunks TMs claim that you have to be a possession based team to succeed.

It doesn't work for us due to the manager - simple.  He complicates things far too much and the players must be confused most of the time. Strikers on wings, wingers up front, strikers at RB, false 9's etc. For it to work, you keep it simple, make sure everyone knows their role, and you play players in their best positions. 

Also helps if you do not neglect the defense - you cannot Kevin Keegan out of this league. You need to be able to defend as well. 

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Decent effort. As with Jacknory my initial answer to that question was no. For what it’s worth I think we look a better side when we’re not faffing around with it at the back. I’ll also add the caveat there is a bloody low bar to being better.

Moggasaurus seems to be fixated on the idea teams with high possession get out of this division. But what he’s probably too stupid to realise is their possession tends to come in the opposition’s half. Our possession comes from the keeper and centre halves. Pointless possession. 

Edited by matt83
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I would ask, what has been more damaging-our defense, or the amount of chances we miss? So many games stick in my mind where we should have scored, only for us to be punished by the opposition. Now, we have just been straight up crap in games too, but in certain games we dominated, but just missed chance after chance. Now we are at the stage where we just look crap in the final third and aren't creating anywhere near the same amount of chances. A prime example would be the Bristol city game, missed chance after chance, then hit with a hammer blow goal after Williams slightly messed up. Many other games it was a similar pattern. 

With our defence, an excuse for them is the chopping and changing. It's not excuse for Mowbray though, because he was the one who neglected to sign reliable players for that position. 

The possession stuff counts for nothing really. You still need your forwards and defenders to do the basics right. We have been let down at both ends IMO. 

Edited by Bigdoggsteel
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8 hours ago, JacknOry said:

Appreciate the work you put into all of the above - you must have had some time on your hands lol.

But, I could have answered the topic question with a simple "No, we are 15th"

🙄 I mean, I know the simple answer is no. But since the manager has been banging on about how controlling possession results in success, and unlike most football tactical debates this one can be boiled down to hard numbers instead of opinion, it seemed worth putting those hard numbers down in public. Yes, there is a table which just shows possession per team, and a league table, and you can contrast those as I did in the second post to show possession doesn't always bring success, nor is necessary for success. But I thought it was worth seeing if the data also showed that for us as a team, we specifically do worse when we control possession. Not just that it isn't giving us any advantage, but that it actively makes us worse.

Quite frankly, I hope (against hope, of course) that the undeniable facts of the matter find their way back to the coaching setup and the Stubborn One considers tailoring his approach better. If that unlikely scenario did happen, it would be more than worth the half hour or so it took to put the data together (I type quickly, all the additional waffle didn't take long). Of course, I'd expect the data analysis team to have already broken this down for the gaffer, if they dare.

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The main problem with our possession ( in my opinion ), is the amount of pointless passes we make. It is a fact that most possession of the ball is lost when the ball is passed, either miss placed or not controlled. Therefore the more passes you make the higher the likelihood of loosing possession. If like us, you are making those passes in the defensive third, if you loose possession it more often than not leads to the opposition having a goal scoring chance. Get the ball quickly into the attacking third, and let the errors happen there.

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Yeah, my favourite saying is " We just pass it around until we lose it ". Usually in a dangerous place. My pet hate is where a player gets the ball in a not great position and then gives it to another player in a much worse position. Outfield players giving it back to the goalie is good example. Good passing teams work tremendously hard off the ball, there are no short cuts. Taking a pass on the run instead of stood still involves a lot more running, that is obvious.

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4 minutes ago, Tyrone Shoelaces said:

Yeah, my favourite saying is " We just pass it around until we lose it ". Usually in a dangerous place. My pet hate is where a player gets the ball in a not great position and then gives it to another player in a much worse position. Outfield players giving it back to the goalie is good example. Good passing teams work tremendously hard off the ball, there are no short cuts. Taking a pass on the run instead of stood still involves a lot more running, that is obvious.

We are always at that. With quick forwards, the amount of opportunities to play it forward that we squander, only to knock it back or sideways. Infuriating. Mowbray out 

Edited by Bigdoggsteel
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Do rovers have enough technicians in midfield to play that game? Its ok if u have busquets iniesta and xavi but rovers have no one of that type

Edited by roverandout
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18 minutes ago, roverandout said:

Do rovers have enough technicians in midfield to play that game? Its ok if u have busquets iniesta and xavi but rovers have no one of that type

Very true. Many of our midfielders are tenacious, defensively minded ones like Travis, Trybull, Johnson, Davenport and Evans. The ones who are supposed to be more creative in Rothwell, Holtby and Buckley often struggle to impact on games, and Dack is a number 10.

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18 hours ago, bluebruce said:

Meanwhile, high possession teams doing crap include ourselves, Huddersfield (2nd for possession, languishing in 18th in the real table), Derby 7th for possession, 19th in the league.

Might bode well for us today then. Swansea have lost 2-0 to Derby and 2-1/4-1 to Huddersfield.

Seems like they struggle against possession-based sides.

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Posted (edited)
On 09/03/2021 at 10:41, Bigdoggsteel said:

I would ask, what has been more damaging-our defense, or the amount of chances we miss? So many games stick in my mind where we should have scored, only for us to be punished by the opposition. Now, we have just been straight up crap in games too, but in certain games we dominated, but just missed chance after chance. Now we are at the stage where we just look crap in the final third and aren't creating anywhere near the same amount of chances. A prime example would be the Bristol city game, missed chance after chance, then hit with a hammer blow goal after Williams slightly messed up. Many other games it was a similar pattern. 

With our defence, an excuse for them is the chopping and changing. It's not excuse for Mowbray though, because he was the one who neglected to sign reliable players for that position. 

The possession stuff counts for nothing really. You still need your forwards and defenders to do the basics right. We have been let down at both ends IMO. 

Are you suggesting there is no link between the amount of possession we have and the results? Because the data, and last season's data too, suggests there is, but that it's an inverse relationship.

I get what you're saying that at the end of the day what matters is what we do in the opposition's box and what we let them do in ours, and ultimately that's largely true and there have been numerous individual errors, I don't know if any more than a normal season though. But possession does matter, because it ties into what happens in both boxes. But it isn't the quantity of possession that counts, like TM seems convinced of, but the quality, and that's where our inability to pick up points when we have most of the possession comes in.

We look crap in the final third as you say, because of how we are more focused on keeping the ball than going for the throat quickly. We have some quick players, and that's more of an advantage when there is a lot of space to run into. We should focus more on countering quickly, and sometimes you need to take risks to do that, but instead we slow play down until the opposition have tons of bodies in the box. Then, space is at a premium, and we ineffectively tap it round the box waiting for the opponents to make a mistake, opening a gap. We also fail to really move inside the box, since everybody seems to be trained to want the ball to feet, so those mistakes and gaps rarely come. The chances we do create this way are in a more congested box, and again space is at a premium. Decisions need to be made quickly, shots taken at short notice, making them a little harder to execute, more bodies in the way, tighter angles etc.

If you look at even a game like Wycombe at Ewood, one where we did dominate possession with 70% and played about 35 minutes against 10 men, most of our goals came on the counter attack, as did the red card. 3 goals were counter attacks, 1 was a penalty that came from a moment of Dolan brilliance and risk-taking, and the other came from the risk of shooting from outside the box.

At the other end, we ship quite a lot on the counter as we over-commit bodies forward, including fullbacks, trying to break through that wall that opponents set up for us frequently as we are so poor at breaking it down. Same principles for why it's easier to do a counter apply for trying to defend one. There's a lot more space, we can get pulled out of shape more easily, and we don't have the quickest centre halves around.

I'm not suggesting that having possession means defeat, nor that having less means victory, more that these heavy possession games tend to signify games we approached the wrong way for the team we have. And of course that TM's assertion that having high possession will result in success is blatantly, and statistically demonstrably, wrong.

Edited by bluebruce
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On 08/03/2021 at 23:36, bluebruce said:

Stoke - 69%, 0 pointsS

Sheff Weds - 72%, 1 point

Huddersfield - 49%, 0 points

Birmingham - 45%, 3 points

Doncaster (FA CUP), 68%, defeat

Stoke - 55%, 1 point (RED)

Boro - 47%, 3 points

Luton - 58%, 3 points

QPR - 53%, 0 points

Preston - 65%, 0 points

Barnsley - 51%, 0 points

Forest - 63%, 0 points

Watford - 53%, 0 points

Coventry - 66%, 1 point (RED)

Reading - 68%, 0 points

Millwall - 49%, 3 points

There's a run of games right there that shows our possession based football doesn't work. 

Let's award league points as you would in Cup games:

4 games where we've had less possession than the opposition have returned 9 points. 2.25ppg

12 games where we've had the majority of the possession have returned 6 points. 0.5ppg

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  • 3 weeks later...

Five games later, I'm updating these stats:

When we have 51% possession or more:

Games: 31

Points: 31

Points per Game (PPG): 1

When we have 50% or less (note: all were 49 or less):

Games: 8

Points: 15

PPG: 1.875

Both have come down a bit tbf, but the under 50% has come down because of a single game, a draw away to the best side in the league, one the manager was still dining out on today.

When we have 50-59% possession

Games: 12

Points: 12

PPG: 1

60-69% possession

Games: 14

Points: 11

PPG: 0.786

70% upwards

Games: 5

Points: 8

PPG: 1.6

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to put it bluntly they don`t work,mowbray has`nt got the ability as a coach to implement the tactics and the players are all out of position in his slavish desire to keep plugging on ,i can guarantee a decent manager would sort us out within a month

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