The figures from Arsenal v Man U are utterly extraordinary, and misleading


by Tony Attwood

One of the most extraordinary things about football in England is that we are given a mountain of data and statistics about the game in general and each game in particular, but no one ever says why these statistics are important or even interesting.   Meanwhile other statistics (such as one referee’s habit of awarding home wins all the time, and another of hardly overseeing any home wins) are never offered, let alone discussed.

One such set of data, the obvious example in fact, is the ongoing list of transfers most of which (97% or 98%) of which will never happen.  And now here’s another irrelevant factor.   Possession.

Possession for yesterday’s game: Manchester United 42%, Arsenal 58%.  That sounds good.  That sounds like Arsenal were on top.   That sounds like possession is important.

But the key to realising that something is amiss is that no one in the media ever seems to link possession to any other statistic – like how it relates to winning or losing.   The implication is that with possession a club is likely to win and without it likely to lose.  It seems obvious.  

But therein lies the clue that something is amiss, for when something is “obvious” it normally means it is irrelevant.

In fact, as the difference between a club’s position in the possession table and the actual league table shows, we can have a club that is seven places lower in the league than the possession position suggests.  And we can find a league position being eight places higher than possession.  

And it is the fact that both of these statements are true that shows how irrelevant possession is.  Of course, you can’t score without possession, but dominating possession does not imply a club is going to win.

Yes Manchester City are top of the possession league and second in the actual league table,  but Newcastle are 11th in the possession league and third in the actual league table – and it really only took me five seconds to work that out.

So why do the commentators go on and on about possession statistics when they are effectively irrelevant?

I’ll come to that in a moment, but first the data.   This table is in the order of overall possession in matches by the “Big Seven” clubs that we are particularly following this season.

Now if you don’t want to get into all the statistics, columns two (league position), three (possession position) and four (difference between league position and possession position) are the key factors.  The last three columns are there to show the details of possession.


Club League Position Possession position Difference possession overall Possession home possession away
2 1 -1 65.6 % 64.7 % 66.4 %
9 2 -7 60.3 % 60.0 % 60.6 %
1 5 +4 56.5 % 59.0 % 54.0 %
3 11 +8 49.1 % 53.7 % 44.4 %
10 4 -6 56.9 % 53.6 % 60.1 %
5 9 +4 50.3 % 52.0 % 48.5 %
4 6 +2 51.9 % 50.4 % 53.3 %


As we can see the league position and the possession position are related, but only very slightly.  The difference between the two numbers can be up to eight places either way.   Newcastle are third in the league but 11th in the possession chart.  Chelsea are 10th in the league but fourth the in the possession chart.  Possession is helpful, but not that helpful.

In fact possession has become a very misleading statistic, because the media present it as being meaningful, with the implication that more possession is better (undoubtedly explained through the notion that “of course it is” and “if you don’t have the ball you can’t score”).  But it’s not that important.

So why do journalists and reporters keep mentioning possession?

One very possible answer is that they do it to make it sound as if they are informed.  Another is to avoid the statistics that they absolutely do not want to have discussed, such as the referee statistics which show that some referees have an enormous home team bias while others are the opposite.

Here’s another set of data that is quite interesting, but not one you will ever see in the media.   The top four places for this season were predicted throughout the media, and virtually all the main outlets went with first, Manchester City, second Liverpool, third Chelsea, fourth Tottenham Hots.   So let’s see where they are at the moment…


Predicted today Team P W D L F A GD Pts
1 2 Manchester City 20 14 3 3 53 20 33 45
2 9 Liverpool 19 8 5 6 34 25 9 29
3 10 Chelsea 20 8 5 7 22 21 1 29
4 5 Tottenham Hotspur 20 10 3 7 39 31 8 33


And did those pundits get the sack with their irrelevant gibberish?  No of course not.

Indeed none of them has explained how they came to make such wild and whacky predictions.  And if you are interested, we predicted Arsenal to be third – and of course we are off line with that, but at least we explained how we did it, based on the progress of the previous two seasons, and the results of the last 35 games of last season.  

Ah well, it was ever thus.

Arsenal and the hunt for the title

7 Replies to “The figures from Arsenal v Man U are utterly extraordinary, and misleading”

  1. 63 – 12

    IMHO this is the one stat that ought to be put along side possession.

    63 touches in the opposition box for Arsenal, 12 for Manure.

    63 touches. Just think about the domination.

    Add the shots on goal statistic : 25 to 6

    And what you see is a team that was literally asphixiated.

  2. I have the feeling your table hints at something I’ve been thinking about for quite some time (it’s very likely I’m not the only one, far from it). Even though City are still second, and many don’t believe – and hope they won’t, actually, I’m quite sure the headlines are ready – Arsenal will keep them at bay ’til the end of the season; I think what we’re witnessing right now is a “regime change”, from Pep-Klopp, to ten Hag-Mikel-Howe. There’s been the “Haaland” bias about City’s performance so far, but otherwise, as yesterday’s game is blinding evidence of, getting rid of the possession obsession might well be the new winning (and thrilling, exciting) trend …

  3. @Le Gall,

    same opinion. We are seeing with Arsenal what I believe is a capacity to go straight at the goal instead of passing laterally. This because Saka, Martinelli really relish the one on ones, just don’t hesitate to go against the player in their way. And added to that, we now have at least 4 players capable of the sublime pass trough the line in Odegaard, Xhaka, Partey and Zinchenko.
    The fullbacks are furthermore each capable of passing and scoring.
    And the final touch is a Eddie who owns the box. And each of these players scores.

    So the passing around of the ball happens, but most of the time it serves to either take a step back to go straight or to switch sides or come back to the middle and go straight. Which explains why quite a few games Arsenal won were without the most posession.

    At least this is how I see it.

  4. Another observation concerns the reported number of passes and percentage of accurate passes. I noticed after one match that Mr. Maguire, who was having a rare outing in the Man Utd team, had the highest figures for both.

    Any inference as to the actual significance of these figures therefore has to take proper account of the particular context. This was a situation in which the opposing team all sat deep in their own half and did not bother to press in order to regain possession, so that the majority of passes concerned were safe, backwards or sideways exchanges with other members of back line and keeper.

    So, he’s not actually more skilful or creative than Odegaard!

  5. Surely the media will go with whatever statistics interest their readers? While there are many ways to win a game, possession is to me interesting to know because you can’t generally score unless in possession of the ball. Similarly, with which 1/3rd of the pitch the game is played, irrespetuoso possession, because most goals are scored and conceded in the final third.
    For me, one of the great jobs the modern media does is supply us with data we didn’t have 20 years ago.

  6. I talked about the importance of possession earlier in the month in a couple of articles,




    It is a knotty one. Personally i think possession is important, though probably not as important as some seem to think, as the statistics above show. that being said I would be fairly confident that over the years successful teams generally have more of the ball. But obviously to confirm that I’d have to go back years checking possession and that alas is beyond me.

    But the point being made stands up, as it’s not just about keeping the ball, it’s what you do with it.

    With this in mind, during those debates I did a possession/efficiency comparison between Arsenal and Man City, and this is what I found:

    First off I assumed a match lasts on average 95 minutes.

    Man City average 66.58% possession per match which is about 63 Minutes.

    They average 17.7 shots per match which is a shot every 3.55 Minutes of the possession time.

    Arsenal average 57.00% possession per match which is about 54 Minutes.

    They average 15.8 shots per match which is a shot every 3.40 Minutes of the possession time.

    So Man City keep the ball better than us, but we get more shots away per minute of possession.

    Therefore it’s a mute point as to what is best. Higher efficiency with your amount of shots, as with Arsenal, or more time on the ball to score, as per Man City?

    The fact Man City score more goals than us suggests having more possession is best.

    But if we maintained our efficiency and kept the ball for 10 minutes more, surely we would score more goals?

    It’s also 10 minutes less time the opposition has the ball. Far less opportunity for THEM to score goals.

    it’s also 10 minutes more the opposition are chasing the ball. Tiring them out much more.

    So City not scoring at the rate of possession we do, is not necessarily a negative. Maybe it’s just about keeping the ball?

    As I say it’s a knotty one, and certainly not an exact science

  7. The possession stats in the three upcoming matches against Man. City will tell us more. Gary Neville made an interesting point during the build-up to the Fulham vs. Tottenham bore-fest tonight. He said that Arsenal are combining the best facets of Man. City’s and Liverpool’s games. High possession and fast, incisive movement of the ball.

    Interesting times.

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