Brendan Rodgers appointment as Liverpool manager has prompted some fascinating discussions about his overall playing philosophy and how it might be transferred to his new club. Swansea’s impressive passing statistics have been much quoted in this context; only Manchester City attempted and completed more than them last season.
An intriguing aspect of this preference for possession is that it is used as both an offensive and defensive tool. Michael Cox of Zonal Marking previously elaborated on the link between possession and shots attempted per game and showed that in general, teams with more possession had more shots, although there was a large degree of variation around the general trend. However, this only investigates the offensive aspect. The theory behind the defensive aspect is best outlined by the new Liverpool manager:
“Then there’s our defensive organisation…so if it is not going well we have a default mechanism which makes us hard to beat and we can pass our way into the game again. Rest with the ball. Then we’ll build again.”
The inference here is that by having the ball, the opposition can’t score while you simultaneously have increased your own chances of scoring as you need the ball in order to score. So the question is: is this true?
One method of ascertaining how well teams accomplish the twin goals of attempting shots on goal and preventing shots on their own goal is to take the ratio between them. If this ratio is greater than 1, then a team attempts more shots than it concedes. Conversely, if the ratio is less than 1, then a team concedes more shots than it attempts. This is by no means a perfect metric, as not all shots are created equal but it does give us something to begin with.
In order to assess whether this has any relationship with passing, I’ve plotted this ratio against the number of short passes attempted per game by each team in the top leagues in England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France in the figure below. The teams from each league are coloured differently and various teams are highlighted for comparison purposes/interest.
Broadly, teams that attempt more short passes per game tend to attempt more shots than they concede (correlation coefficient of 0.8 if you are that way inclined). Unsurprisingly, the teams at the extreme ends of the number of short passes are Stoke (229 per game) and Barcelona (655 per game). Barcelona are also at the extreme end of the shots attempted:conceded ratio, achieving well above 2 times as many attempted shots compared to those they concede. This is largely driven by their ability to prevent their opponents taking shots, as Barcelona have the lowest number of shots conceded per game (only 7.3 per game). Barcelona’s shots attempted comes in 10th (16.5 per game). Barcelona are adept at “resting with the ball” but you probably already knew that. Many of the teams analysed attempt a below average number of short passes and concede more shots than they attempt. Ajaccio, FC Cologne and Santander posted the lowest shots attempted:conceded ratio, with the latter two being relegated.
Swansea & Liverpool
Swansea are one of the few teams that combined a large number of short passes per game with a well below average shots attempted:conceded ratio. The closest side to Swansea in this sense is Athletic Bilbao, another side who value possession and pressing highly. Clearly Swansea keep the ball well and translated this to a reasonable number of attempted shots per game (12.4, joint 15th highest in the EPL, mid-table across all 5 leagues). Furthermore, Swansea’s patient style of play seeks to create higher quality shooting opportunities; a lower number isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it isn’t artificially inflated by long-range pot-shots that threaten the corner flag rather than the goal.
However, compared to other teams that play an above average number of short passes per game, their shots conceded per game is relatively high (15.7, 7th highest in the EPL). Indeed, of the 11 teams that conceded more shots per game across the five leagues, 8 of them finished in the bottom 4 of their respective leagues (6 were relegated). As mentioned previously, not all shots are created equal but Swansea conceded 59% of these shots within their own penalty area, which was joint 4th highest in the EPL. Without delving further into numbers and analysis, this potentially suggests that Swansea are good at keeping the ball but perhaps were not as good at transitioning to their defensive duties either individually or collectively when they lost it.
Liverpool on average attempted close to 60% more shots than they conceded, with only 8 teams achieving a larger ratio. In Liverpool’s case, this was driven by both being able to execute a large number of shots on their opponent’s goal and combining this with a low number of shots on their own goal. Liverpool ranked 4th for shots attempted in the EPL (6th across all 5 leagues) and 3rd for shots conceded (15th across all 5 leagues). This was combined with the 7th highest number of short passes per game in the EPL. As has been shown many times over the past season, Liverpool’s major problem statistically was their woeful translation of shots to goals.
The way forward for Liverpool
Liverpool under Kenny Dalglish were hardly a team that could be described as a “route one” football team, although the passing style was at times impatient and overly focussed upon crossing to what often seemed like unidentified targets in the penalty area. However, there is a significant difference between the number of short passes played by Swansea (497 per game) compared to Liverpool (440 per game). Next season, Liverpool will presumably move towards and perhaps exceed 500 short passes per game as the influence of Rodgers’ possession orientated playing philosophy takes hold. At the very least, Liverpool should be looking to maintain their shots attempted:conceded ratio from last season to the next. A more patient style of play may help to deliver more players in the final third in order to create and take shooting opportunities. If such patience also delivers some more-composed finishing, then Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers could be very exciting indeed.
All the raw data is taken from WhoScored.com.
The quote from Brendan Rodgers is taken from the excellent analysis by Jed Davies which is linked below.