This season has been one to make the Premier League weep with joy. Three establishment teams (Chelsea, Manchester United, and Liverpool) are having or have had dramatic troubles and it’s looking increasingly likely that the other pre-season title favorite, Manchester City, will have to make do with just a UEFA Champions League place.
Two out of the top three teams have never won the title in the Premier League era, and Leicester City, on top right now, barely avoided relegation last season. The teams outside of the traditional big four this season will surely see even more money deposited into their coffers. This is despite none of the best teams in the world playing in England, and none of the best players in the world playing in England, despite the fact that England has the most money. And even with all the resources floating around, English teams seem to consciously eschew the more refined, technical styles of the continent that leads to European success.
Aside from Arsenal and Manchester City, two teams that have experienced very little managerial or player turnover in the past few seasons and so have had a chance to embed styles, it seems the more possession you have the worse you do in the Premier League. But in other top European leagues, whether with Barcelona in Spain, Bayern Munich in Germany, or Juventus in Italy, those who have the ball are usually the victors. Why has the Premier League diverged?
|Premier League table by possession (actual position)||Actual Premier League table (possession position)|
|Manchester United (5th)||Leicester City (18th)|
|Arsenal (3rd)||Tottenham Hotspur (5th)|
|Liverpool (8th)||Arsenal (2nd)|
|Manchester City (4th)||Manchester City (4th)|
|Tottenham (2nd)||Manchester United (1st)|
|Chelsea (12th)||Southampton (11th)|
|Swansea (16th)||West Ham (13th)|
|Everton (11th)||Liverpool (3rd)|
|Bournemouth (15th)||Watford (17th)|
|Stoke (10th)||Stoke (10th)|
One theory is just due to the turnover of personnel and a happy coincidence that there are so many managers of the same tactical school in charge at the same time. Due to the money in England, there is always a huge personnel turnover at some teams pretty much every transfer window. With large sums of money comes little patience on the part of owners and there is often a lot of managerial turnover as well. Amongst all this change, it is difficult to implement a system and ideology of passing patterns and rigorous offensive movement like Barcelona has managed. Similarly at Bayern, Pep Guardiola knew he was unlikely to be fired so he had the time and knowledge to implement a complicated philosophy. If your targets are more short-term, it is easier to focus on a defensive shape and let the offense take care of itself by allowing your players to run forward on the break when there is more space.
Leicester City are the embodiment of this. They are almost bottom of the possession table with around 43% of the ball, but top of the actual table, taking 2 points a game on average. They are under a new manager in Claudio Ranieri, whose strategy early in the season was just to be defensively solid. (It didn’t quite work out that way with Leicester actually having a porous defense but there was no way their strategy was to outscore people). Having two forwards who hit form early and an easy schedule allowed them to gain momentum and now people are seeing the results.
Tottenham, another breakout team this season playing with verve and flair, have a manager heavily inspired by former Chilean coach Marcelo Bielsa. Mauricio Pochettino’s ideas center on winning the ball back and using it to score, not sterile dominance. Another Bielsa disciple, current Chilean coach Jorge Sampaoli once compared losing with possession dominance to spending all night flirting with a woman only to see her leave with someone else.
Another theory is the pragmatism helped by the fact that the financial gap in England grows ever wider, and trying to emulate the top teams’ style of play is all but impossible. As each season goes by, it seems fewer and fewer teams actually face the threat of relegation. Before the start of this season you could say that 70% of the league was safe before a ball was kicked. This has meant a very cutthroat mindset amongst the not-haves in England to get into that 70%, desperate not to be in with six teams confined to fighting it out not to be in three places.
Slaven Bilic at West Ham and Quique Sanchez Flores at Watford are amongst this new breed of Premier League manager that are not obsessed with aesthetics but with the short term results they are told to deliver. Long-term ideals like a possession oriented style of play filtering up from the academy have been quashed in favor of some effective fast-break football. In the table above, you can see that it’s mainly the establishment of the Premier League that is wedded to the idea that ball possession equals superiority. Pressure to keep up with, or to try and overhaul those above, is what caused teams like Watford, Leicester, and even Tottenham to innovate. Manchester United, growing fat on their laurels, have stagnated rather than adapting to a style of football specifically designed to get points off them.
This immovable object versus unstoppable force makes the Premier League exciting, but it is unlikely to serve up a team that can challenge the best across the continent, where Barcelona and Bayern Munich can hone and refine their style of play year after year.
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