Recently, I watched the Europa League game between Fenerbahce and Manchester United on TV. It was an exciting and interesting game. The game ended 2-1 for Fenerbahce. Someone who did not watch the
game might have thought that it was a close game. No! Fenerbahce could have won the game, 4-1, if Emmanuel Emenike
was less selfish and had a good finishing touch. One would then think that
Fenerbahce dominated the game. Well, it depends on your definition of “domination,” Did Fenerbahce “park a bus in front of the penalty area” as some people say? We cannot say
that after seeing the chances they missed.
The statistics of the game show
that United had the ball possession 70 percent of the
time and had nine corners kicks to none for Fenerbahce. Shots on goal/on target were similar. Can one conclude that it is one of those few games in which the team that had less possession time ends up
winning the game because they had better finishing touches -- converting shots on target to goals with a very high percentage – or by sheer luck?
Lots of people thought that way
when Celtic beat Barcelona in 2012 in an infamous UCL game. The statistics of the game were more interesting
. That was the first defeat of
Barca that year and they dominated the game in all categories. Barca is the inventor of tiki taka, a fast and short passing version of the possession game. People thought that since Celtic had three
shots on goal, all three were on target and they scored two goals, that this was sheer luck. Nobody then thought that something in soccer might be changing against the “possession”
One can think that both the Fenerbahce-United and Celtic-Barca games were isolated incidents which are inherent in the beauty of this game and that teams in a long competition will
not win the competition without possession play.
Spain -- the best performer of the possession game -- won both Euro 2008 and 2012 as well as the World Cup in 2010 with an excellent
performance of the possession game. Germany followed suit in 2014 by winning the world cup with the “possession game." In the WC 2014, 43 games (67 percent) out of 64 were won by teams having the possession of the ball
than 50 percent. Everybody then thought then the way to play and win was through possession play. Nobody really understood or cared what happened in Euro 2004 when Greece won with a very
unimpressive style of defensive play.
But then things started to change. Atletico Madrid won the Liga in 2013-2014 against two strong and possession game playing teams, namely Real Madrid
and Barcelona. Since then, Atletico also played twice in the UCL final. Atletico’s style of play can be very briefly described as very compact defense, a very fast transition game and
excellent finishing touches. That season they scored fewer goals (77) than Real (100) and Barca (104) but conceded less (26 versus 33/38) also. Simeone is now considered the
“maestro” of this kind of play.
Then came Leicester City in 2015-2016 with a fairy tale and it won the EPL. It was neither the best attacking team nor the best defensive team
. It did not excel in any team statistics, let alone in most it was
not in the top three rankings
. Coming back to our subject matter of ball possession, the Foxes were ranked 18th
with 44.8 percent in the EPL. All the statistics
were against Leicester City except one: the number of points earned. One can argue what the statistics indicate. For example, the number of passes includes lateral and backward passes that are not
necessarily an indicator of winning play but it definitely contributes to the possession game. One thing is for sure. If possession percentage was an indicator of a winning season then 2015-2016 EPL
season would have been won by one of the big six, namely Arsenal, City, United, Spurs, Liverpool or Chelsea, which led the rankings.
Last summer, we watched Euro 2016. The statistics show
that only 31 percent of the teams that won had more possession then
their opponents. This is a serious drop from the WC 2014: 67 percent. Only four out 15 knockout games were won by the team having more possession. Iceland that had the lowest percentage (36
percent) moved all the way to the quarter finals, but only one team out of the three teams that had the highest possession play (Germany 63 percent, Spain 61 percent and England 59 percent) made it to
the semifinals. In the final, France was ahead in all statistics including the possession except distance covered. As an ex-game official, I can say that Euro 2016’s refereeing was one of the
best, but I cannot say the same thing for the quality of play.
In order to play the possession game effectively, you need two types of player to overcome a compact defense: Effective goal
scorers and play makers; both are rare and costly. It is not a coincidence that the best possession play teams are also the more valuable ones
You will find neither Atletico Madrid nor Leicester City in the top 10 valuable teams. (You will find Atletico as 15th in the world.) Teams that are valued less will find ways of winning games or
championships against higher valued teams. This process might eventually jeopardize the kingdom of possession play. We will soon see whether this is the end of an era for the possession game or
not. Ahmet Guvener (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of Turkish FA.
He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in