For a very long time, it has been advocated that the English Premier League is the most exciting league to watch. But what is it that captivates our attention so much?
World-class players, the rivalry between the clubs and fans, historical matchups are some of the pieces that make up the Premier League puzzle. Nevertheless, the observable diversity in the teams’ style of play is one of the main if not the main ingredient that makes the Premier League so thrilling.
The traditional way of assessing one’s style of play is by watching plenty of games. However, with the analysis department taking over the football world by storm, we can delve deep into data and determine the playing styles of the English top division teams.
Going long or going short?
One of the main ways to determine the playing style is to find out how much the team wants to or is capable of preserving the ball. This is where the Premier League’s diverseness in terms of players and managers comes into play.
When it comes to ‘long balls per game’, the obvious standouts here are the newly promoted Sheffield United (76 long balls PG) and Sean Dyche’s Burnley (72 long balls PG). Their willingness to go for a more direct route and/or inability to retain the ball is also clearly reflected in the average ball-possession stats. Burnley possess the second-lowest amount of ball-possession out of 20 teams in the league (43.1%), whereas ‘the Blades’ are third from the bottom (45.1%). Besides that, the Premier League leaders and inevitable champions Liverpool sit 5th regarding the same metric (65 long balls PG) indicating a ‘work-horse’ like midfield offering little creativity.
When it comes to ‘long balls per game’, the standouts are the newly promoted Sheffield United and Sean Dyche’s Burnley.
On the other hand, the teams that are the most reluctant to skip the second phase of build-up are Manchester United (49 long balls PG), Manchester City (51 long balls PG), and Arsenal (53 long balls PG). The current English champions also record the highest ball-possession stats (61.4%) with the average possession time of 24 seconds (highest in the league).
The opposite of ‘long balls’ tactics that are tactics that rest on the short passes. There is no surprise to see Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City topping the board with the highest average number of shorts passes performed per game in the league (630 short passes PG). Liverpool (562 short passes PG) and Chelsea (551 short passes PG) share the 2nd and 3rd places respectively. Another interesting standout is Graham Potter’s Brighton who are ranked 6th for the same metric (456 short passes PG) and also record the 5th highest ball-possession in the Premier League (53.9%). In addition, Daniel Farke’s Norwich City are another team from the bottom echelon who places enough importance on ball-retention. ‘The Canaries’ are ranked 9th for short passes per game (409), also recording the 8th highest ball-possession in the league (50.6%).
It’s not surprising to see Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City topping the board with the highest average number of shorts passes per game.
Unsurprisingly, the teams that try to avoid the ‘tiki-taka’ type of football are the ones who lead the way in the ‘long balls’ metric as we saw earlier. Burnley are undisputed champions in this regard performing on average only 259 shorts passes per game. Newcastle are 2nd from the bottom with only 275 short passes per game. ‘The Geordies’ also record the league’s lowest ball-possession of 40.8%.
The teams’ use of the ball can be further investigated by looking at the touches made in the three-thirds of the field and different types of passes. Starting off with touches in a team’s own defensive third, we can already see some interesting results. The two teams who are the leaders in this metric are Norwich (253 touches in defensive 1/3 PG) and Brighton (238 touches in defensive 1/3 PG). As seen in the previous sections, both clubs like to keep possession of the ball. The most touches performed in the defensive third signal both teams’ reluctance to clear the ball away even under pressure and carry on playing out from the back. Adding to that, it denotes that the opposition is usually more eager to press both Brighton and Norwich higher up the pitch, thus forcing them to start the build-up play from deeper positions. Brighton’s philosophy of playing out from the back is further strengthened by the fact that Potter’s side records the 3rd lowest number of clearances per game (24.3) with only both Manchester clubs ahead of them.
The most touches performed in the defensive third signal both Brighton and Norwich City’s reluctance to clear the ball away even under pressure.
On the other hand, the teams who do not follow the ‘playing out from the back’ philosophy tend to limit the number of touches taken in their defensive third. Burnley (153 touches in defensive 1/3 PG), Southampton (168 touches in defensive 1/3 PG) and Sheffield United (170 touches in defensive 1/3 PG) go into this category. Furthermore, all three teams rank in the top 4 for the highest number of clearances per game. It indicates that they show little intention to try to work their way out of scrappy situations in order to start a clean build-up phase.
The teams who like to have the ball usually tend to dominate the midfield area. There is no exception to this rule this time as well with Manchester City (422 touches in mid. 1/3 PG), Liverpool (392 touches in mid. 1/3 PG), and Chelsea (370 touches in mid. 1/3 PG) all recording the most touches in the midfield third. All three clubs also record the highest average ball-possession in the division. However, the reason why Manchester City and Liverpool make so many touches in midfield could be related to the fact that the opposing teams usually retrieve back to a low-block and do not engage in high-press. Thus, City’s and Liverpool’s build-up phase originates in the midfield third rather than the defensive third as it could be applied to ‘lesser’ teams. Chelsea, on the other hand, are ranked 3rd for the number of touches in the defensive third denoting that they do get pressed by the opposition but still try to play out from the back. Brighton deserve a mentioning once again recording the 8th highest number of touches in the midfield third.
The reason why Manchester City and Liverpool make so many touches in midfield could be due to the opposing teams usually retrieving back to a low-block and and not engaging in high-press.
Conversely, Newcastle (198 touches in mid. 1/3 PG), Burnley (227 touches in mid. 1/3 PG), and Aston Villa (229 touches in mid. 1/3 PG) are the ones who usually bypass the midfield area. Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace record the 6th lowest number of touches in midfield third (246 PG) and are also the worst team in the division for preserving the ball (14 seconds average possession time).
Finally, the most important part of the field that determines the outcome of the game – the final third. Here, we do not see any major surprises. Manchester City (266 touches in att. 1/3 PG), Liverpool (218 touches in att. 1/3 PG), and Chelsea (208 touches in att. 1/3 PG) are the leading figures once again indicating a high number of interchange of ground passes close to the opponent’s goal. Brighton (175 touches in att. 1/3 PG) and Sheffield United (175 touches in att. 1/3 PG) are worth the mention as well. Chris Wilder’s philosophy of using his wingbacks and overlapping centre-backs as attacking assets is widely renown and is subsequently reflected in the attacking sides metric. Only 19% of Sheffield United’s attacks go through the middle of the pitch (lowest in the league), with 42% of attacks emerging down the right flank and 39% down the left.
Chris Wilder’s philosophy of using his wingbacks and overlapping centre-backs as attacking assets means Sheffield United had the least number of attacks go through the middle of the pitch among all teams.
Watch: The secret to Sheffield United’s success
On top of that, Manchester City (25 crosses PG), Liverpool (24 crosses PG) and Sheffield United (24 crosses PG) are the leaders for the number of crosses performed per game. In Liverpool’s and Sheffield United’s case, it is the wingbacks/fullbacks who contribute the most to this metric. Conversely, in City’s case, it is the wide-forwards and Kevin De Bruyne who deliver the most crosses into the box.
The average number of positional attacks per game further supports the previous findings. Liverpool lead the way with 72 positional attacks per game with both City and Chelsea just behind them with 68. In contrast, Newcastle (55 positional attacks PG) and Crystal Palace (56 positional attacks PG) record the lowest number of positional attacks per game. Burnley record a slightly higher number of positional attacks per game (60), but Sean Dyche’s team positional play is rather ineffective with only 4.4 of positional attacks ending up in a shot recording only 7% efficiency. The same three teams (City, Liverpool and Chelsea) also dominate the passing stats. The three mentioned clubs perform on average the most progressive passes, passes into the final third and passes into the opponent’s penalty area. Brighton are again a team that stands out from the bottom half of the league table. They rank 6th for progressive passes, 7th for passes into the final third and 4th for passes into the penalty area. On the other hand, Burnley and Newcastle both share the bottom two positions for all three passing metrics.
Watch: Best Premier League midfielders this season
Set-pieces and counterattacking
The next performance indicators of set-pieces and counterattacks can potentially depict the teams who may not rely on possession-based football that much. According to InStat, Burnley, Crystal Palace, Everton, Leicester, Manchester City and Liverpool record the highest number of set-piece attacks during a game (10). Furthermore, Everton (3.8), City (3.7) and Leicester (3.7) show the best efficiency rate turning the set-piece plays into shots. Southampton (3.3 set-pieces with shots), Chelsea (3.3 set-pieces with shots) and Burnley (3.2 set-pieces with shots) rank slightly below regarding the efficiency of set-piece plays. As it can be seen, only Burnley of the so-called ‘long ball’ teams featured among the possession style teams. This is due to the fact that teams who have more ball-possession are usually fouled more often and shoot more often which result in a higher number of set-pieces including corner-kicks.
Only Burnley of the so-called ‘long ball’ teams featured among the possession style teams.
Additionally, the most counterattacking teams of the Premier League are Burnley, Southampton, and West Ham all recording on average 14 counterattacks per game. However, none of the three teams make use of the counterattacks to the full extent with Burnley creating only 1.48 shot opportunities per game from the counterattacks (second-lowest in the league). Conversely, Liverpool (2.5 shots), Manchester United (2.4 shots), Leicester (2.3 shots), and Manchester City (2.2 shots) all bring more threat to the opponent’s goal when they counterattack.
Watch: Best goals of the Season so far
Pressing and defending
Last but not least, it is vital to examine what the Premier League teams do when they do not have the ball. Pressing is the first and main performance indicator that springs to mind when talking about a team’s dynamics without the ball. The chart below displays the most and least aggressive teams when it comes to applying pressure when the opponent has the ball in its defensive third. The teams who are the least eager to press the opposition in their defensive third are Manchester City (33 pressures PG), Liverpool (44 pressures PG) and Burnley (48 pressures PG). In a case of City and Liverpool, both clubs share the highest ball-possession in the league, therefore there is no surprise that they record the lowest stats for this metric. Burnley have the 2nd lowest ball-possession out of 20 teams but despite that, they do not seem to engage in high press at all. On the other hand, Norwich, Newcastle and Crystal Palace try to prevent other teams from playing out from the back.
However, the picture turns upside down when the team in possession reaches the final third of the pitch. The teams who did not engage in a high press much in the opponent’s defensive third become aggressive and do not allow any time and space in their own defensive third (opponent’s attacking third). The best examples are Liverpool (49 pressures PG), Manchester City (46 pressures PG), and Southampton (49 pressures PG). On the flip side, Crystal Palace and Newcastle are the teams who act in a more reactive than proactive way when the opposing team enters the attacking third.
Overall, if a team does not press that much or presses a lot, it does not necessarily determine the success or failure of pressing. Consequently, the percentage of pressing success is a good indication of whether a team knows when and how to press the opponent. As it turned out, Liverpool (31.7% success), Brighton (30.8% success), Southampton (30.6% success), Leicester (30.6% success) and Manchester City and Chelsea (both 30.4% success) are the teams who apply the pressure in a most efficient way. Contrarily, Newcastle (24.4% success), Burnley (25% success) and Bournemouth (25.6% success) are the least effective in pressuring the opponent.
The standout teams
- Manchester City – possession style
- Liverpool – possession and counterattacking
- Chelsea – possession style
- Brighton – possession style
- Norwich – possession style
- Sheffield United – more direct and down the flanks
- Newcastle – direct
- Burnley – direct and counterattacking
- Crystal Palace – direct and counterattacking
The present analysis investigated the Premier League teams’ styles of play. An interesting discrepancy between the teams’ playing philosophies and league position can be observed. Teams like Brighton and Norwich certainly prefer a possession-based football; however, it has not brought many benefits to both of them so far this season. Both are still heavily involved in the relegation battle with Norwich bottom of the table.
In contrast, the more pragmatic teams like Newcastle, Burnley, and Crystal Palace are safe from relegation despite their reluctance to try and play ‘pretty football’. Nevertheless, the tendency of the big teams to dominate possession is more than obvious now which seems to bring the best results when combined with quality players and top-class managers.
More pragmatic teams like Newcastle, Burnley, and Crystal Palace are safe from relegation despite their reluctance to try and play ‘pretty football’.