Does having the bulk of possession help in Premier League matches?




By Tony Attwood

‘Time is up’ for Mikel Arteta at Arsenal after Burnley defeat

So said Talk Sport on 14 December 2020.  Fortunately, as is the case most of the time, they were totally wrong.

Indeed so bad at predicting the future is most of the media, it is a wonder that the scribblers and talkers are not so embarassed by their inccuracy that they don’t stop. 

But the question remains, is there a way to predict, accurately, the outcome of football matches?

If you are a regular reader of Untold you will know that we like statistics, and do find that they give quite a good indication of the way a match might go.  Indeed recently the Athletic (behind a paywall) recently tried copying our technique of looking at the way the season has been going and comparing it with past seasons.  (A method that tends to predict that yes Arsenal will win the league.  See for example What normally happens to the club that is top after 15 games of a season?)

However many other commentators seem to be much keener on quoting possession in terms of football matches.  In fact if there is one figure that is going to be quoted concerning a game it is likely to be possessioin.   But what no one asks is, “does possession tell us very much about anything, other than the amount of possession a club has in one game?”

The table below is in the order of possession percentage ranging from Manchester City who have two thirds possession across their matches this season, tp Nottingham Forest that has just over one third possession.

And yes the top five clubs in terms of possession occupy places in the top half of the league, although only just.  Chelsea are tenth in the league but third in the possession table.

And it turns out that although there is some relationship between league position and possession, we should note that Newcastle are third in the league but ninth in terms of possession.

So in general terms, teams that have more possession are doing better than teams that have less.  But Brentford who are ninth in the league are 18th in the possession table.  It turns out to be not a very profound statistic in terms of making us aware of any underlying trend

But what about goals?  Do the teams that score the most goals have the most possession?

Again there is a tendency for goal scoring team to be high on the possession charts, but again there are exceptions.  Chelsea for example are third in terms of possession but 12th in terms of goals scored.

And Wolverhampton who are 19th in the league, and bottom in terms of goals scored, are 11th in terms of possession.  Brentford who are ninth in the league and seventh in terms of goals scored are 18th in terms of possession.  Here’s the table…


Team in possession order Possession% Goals Goals Pos Lge Pos
1. Manchester City 66.2% 45 1 2
2. Liverpool 61.5% 34 4 6
3. Chelsea 58.7% 20 12 10
4. Arsenal 57.6% 40 2 1
5. Brighton 56.6% 32 5 8
6. Manchester United 53.2% 27 9 4
7. Tottenham 51.3% 37 3 5
8. Leicester 51.2% 26 10 13
9. Newcastle 49.6% 32 5 3
10. Leeds 49.4% 25 11 14
11. Wolverhampton 48.5% 11 20 19
12. Aston Villa 47.5% 20 12 11
13. Fulham 47.3% 30 7 7
14. Crystal Palace 46.4% 17 15 12
15. West Ham 44.9% 15 16 17
16. Everton 44.5% 14 18 18
17. Southampton 44.1% 15 16 20
18. Brentford 42.5% 30 7 9
19. Bournemouth 39.4% 18 13 16
20. Nottingham Forest 38.8% 13 19 15


And this reveals one of the big problems with the way that football is reported in England: the reporting is full of assumptions.  Generally speaking, possession of the ball is good – and the more of it the better.  But that’s it.

As we might expect, goal scoring shows a closer link with league position…  This table is ordered by the number of goals scored.


lge position Team Goals scored Goals scored position
2 Manchester City 45 1
1 Arsenal 40 2
5 Tottenham Hotspur 37 3
6 Liverpool 34 4
3 Newcastle United 32 5
8 Brighton and Hove Albion 32 6
7 Fulham 30 7
9 Brentford 30 8
4 Manchester United 27 9


The biggest difference here is Manchester United who are fourth in the league but ninth in the goals scored table.

As for goals conceded, that shows an even bigger variation between that metric and league position


Lge pos Team Goals against Goals against pos
3 Newcastle United 11 1
1 Arsenal 14 2
2 Manchester City 16 3
10 Chelsea 19 4
4 Manchester United 20 5
6 Liverpool 22 6
17 West Ham United 24 7
18 Everton 24 7
5 Tottenham Hotspur 25 9
8 Brighton and Hove Albion 25 9


Everton and West Ham are keeping the ball out of their net much of the time but they haven’t got the balance at the other end of the pitch.

What the tables confirm is that the best way to go up the league is to score goals – which is pretty obvious, but it does show where clubs like Everton and West Ham are going wrong.  They have a solid defence but clearly they are not attacking well enough to make use of that fact.

Overall, the much-lauded possession figure is the least relevant in terms of success, despite the regular howling at players who “give the ball away”.   If a club is wanting to improve, the best thing it can do is score the goals.

We’ll look at how best to do that in a later piece.

One Reply to “Does having the bulk of possession help in Premier League matches?”

  1. Darren Bent must be a fully paid-up member of the AAA and AOB.

    When you score 1 point on your specialist subject for Celebrity Mastermind, it’s probably best to keep quiet.

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