possession – Touching the Ball – 2

WUHS.BSFormation.In-Possession-DM

according to data from Opta, over the course of a single Premier League season, all players together touch the ball about half a million times, give or take.
That’s about 1,300 times in the average match – 650 per team, or a little under 60 per player per match.
They key word is ‘touch’.

To see how much more touching than actually possessing the ball there is in football, let us tell you about a clever little study.
Chris Carling, an English sports scientist who lives and works in France, has one of the best jobs in football.
He is performance analyst for Lille OSC, the 2011 Ligue 1 champions.
One of his chief concerns is how best to manage players’ work-rates and levels of fatigue, both during a match and over the course of a long season.
For several years Carling has been investigating what are termed the physical activity profiles of professional footballers: measuring what it is that football players do on the pitch, for how long, how fast and to what effect.

In one study Carling was interested in measuring precisely how much time individual players actually spend with the ball, how much running they do with it, and at what speeds.
Using a multi-camera tracking system, Carling collected data from thirty Ligue 1 matches that mapped the movements of each player on the pitch.
Carling found that the vast majority of what players do doesn’t actually involve the ball at all.
And when we say ‘vast majority’, we mean it.
When he isolated how often and for how long players actually touched or were in possession of the ball, the numbers were surprisingly low: on average, players had the ball for a total of 53.4 seconds and ran 191 metres with it during the course of a match.

To put these numbers in perspective, the time – less than a minute – that the average player spent with the ball made up only about 1 per cent of the time he spent on the pitch.
The numbers are also striking if you consider that the total distance covered by the average player in a match is around eleven kilometres – so running with the ball made up about 1.5 per cent of the total distance each one covered.
When players did have the ball, the average number of touches per possession was two, and the duration of each possession was a mere 1.1 seconds.

While the amount of possession Carling recorded varied by position, the critical part of the story is that players did very little that actually involved the ball – 99 per cent of the time they didn’t touch it, and 98.5 per cent of the time they ran without it.
When they eventually did touch the ball, it was gone in an instant.
Carling’s study is important for understanding what happens to the ball on the pitch.
It demonstrates how little football players actually play, if by ‘football’ we mean running with or touching the ball.
If, however, we consider ‘football’ to be very short individual possessions with frequent but only fleeting touches to try to move it to a teammate or away from the other side, then there is lots of football.
This suggests that football is not about having the ball so much as it is about managing what seem like a succession of inevitable turnovers.
This means what we call ‘possession’ in football consists of two things: first, to touch the ball, and second, to keep touching it.
And when it comes to the latter, it’s a question of how much and a question of how well.

That means there are two qualities to possession: how many times a team gets the opportunity to move the ball, and the length of time teams end up having the opportunity to move the ball.
These are not the same thing.
Theoretically, having more opportunities to touch the ball doesn’t have to be a good thing.
Surely a team’s ultimate dream would be to have just one opportunity to move the ball, straight from kick-off, and would then keep it for the rest of the half and score in the final second.
That is unrealistic.
Practically speaking, to play possession football, we need our team to lose the ball less often, and to keep it away from their opponent for longer spells.

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