In their book The Numbers Game, Chris Anderson and David Sally, while evangelising for the use of statistical analysis in football, acknowledge that the use of data in football is in its infancy: if the discipline were medicine, they say, we would still be at the stage of leeches. While statistics have yielded great insights in other sports, football has remained intriguingly resistant to analysis, largely because it’s a game in which there are so few absolutes. Apart from perhaps goals, everything in football is relative: no stat has much meaning in and of itself without taking a host of other figures into consideration – which makes the use of data both difficult and fascinating.
Take, for example, the case of Southampton. They play an average of 59.1 long passes per match, the fourth most in the Premier League this season. Until Sunday’s 2-0 win over Swansea City (who average 59.6 per game, the third most), they played the second most in the league but they have fallen back from their average of 60.8, allowing Manchester United and Tottenham to move ahead of them.
Usual logic would say that a team hitting long balls is trying to make the most of the aerial strength of a forward, that they tend to sit deep and break quickly and that they are not too concerned about how much of the ball they have. Yet Tottenham, Swansea, United and Southampton are all in the top seven sides for possession this season (until this weekend, Southampton were fourth; obviously playing another side that prioritises possession has a short-term impact on the stats and Swansea had 58% of the ball at St Mary’s). Villa, fifth for long balls per game with 58.3 follow the more conventional wisdom and are 20th for possession.
Is it then, simply that because those sides have more of the ball, and so play more passes, they play more long passes? To an extent that’s true. While 16.1% of Aston Villa’s passes are long – the highest figure in the Premier League – only 10.5% of Swansea’s passes are long, the fourth fewest in the division, and 12.1% of Tottenham’s, the 11th most. A surprisingly high proportion of Southampton’s passes, though, go long: 13.3%, just behind Norwich and West Brom as the eighth most in the division.
In part, that is because, in Rickie Lambert, Southampton have a centre-forward who is good in the air and holds the ball up well, winning an average of 1.9 aerial duels per game. But it is also indicative of a basic trend in Southampton’s approach. Maurico Pochettino, their coach, played under Marcelo Bielsa at Newell’s Old Boys in the early nineties and although he seeks to play down the influence of Bielsa, they share certain principles.
Most notable of those is the emphasis on the high press and verticality: possession is not an end in itself, but in fact is almost a by-product of the demand to win the ball back quickly. The intention is always to catch the opposition defence before it is set, whether that is by winning the ball from them high up the pitch, or by getting it forward quickly. Southampton’s front four press quickly, in clear formation: one going to the ball, two backing him up and a fourth looking fill space and pounce if the ball gets through the initial wave.
Pochettino has now been in charge for 23 Premier League games, as opposed to the 22 Adkins had before being sacked last season. A comparison of certain key stats shows small but telling differences. Pass accuracy has roughly remained constant under Pochettino, moving from 77.9% to 77.8%, while long balls have gone up from 47.9 per game to 51.6, with the evidence of this season suggesting that figure will rise further.
Tackles have gone down, but interceptions are up from 18.3 per game to 20.7, something that has had a radical impact on possession, which is up from 49.8% under Adkins to 55.8%. The opposition have less of the ball and, while Southampton have scored only six more goals in an additional game under Pochettino, they have conceded 18 fewer, the result of which is 33 points as opposed to 22.
Pochettino has increased Southampton’s domination of the ball, but he has done it not with tiki-taka or short sideways passing; he has done it by being more direct and wining the ball back quicker.
How long can Southampton keep up their current form for? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below