Giles Smith’s Thursday Thoughts
column Thu 11 May 2017
As he gives his fan’s-eye view as the season reaches its climax, columnist Giles Smith is doing calculations, weighing up options and deciding whether to play the possession game…
And now, as Frank Sinatra so movingly sang (and also Sid Vicious), the end is near. Three points needed, three games to get them in. As they almost say in ‘Only Fools & Horses,’ ‘This time next week, Rodney…’
You’ll have done your own calculations. We beat West Brom on Friday: bingo. Champions. Or we fail to win at West Brom on Friday, but Spurs lose to Manchester United at the weekend: bingo. Champions again.
Or how about the romantic’s choice: a draw at West Brom and a win for Spurs, setting up the opportunity to bring it all to a noisy conclusion at home to Watford on Monday. Bingo, bingo, bingo: champions, champions, champions.
And I can easily see the romance of that, and fully understand people's desire to throw the party in our own sitting room, as in 2015, with ‘One Step Beyond’ cued up and ready to go, and ‘Blue is the Colour’ straight after it.
But no. Call me a party-pooper, but it’s Option A for me, all the way. And if not Option A, then Option B – winning it while not even on the pitch at the time, which everyone always says is a slightly disappointing way to clinch it, but I can’t see why. I’ve said it before here: the best title chase is a title chase that’s finished.
As for the possibility - which flickered into my mind like some kind of grim nightmare as I left the ground on Monday night - of getting those three points via three separate draws… No, let’s not even think about that right now. Imagine going into the final day, still needing something. I don’t see how I could get through the emotional and physical strain of that without at some point requiring the assistance of the emergency services. In the interests of my general health, then, and of the wonderful but inevitably over-stretched A&E department at the Chelsea & Westminster Hospital, let’s get it done, and let’s get it done quick.
‘Over the last two seasons,’ Arsene Wenger said, in a wide-ranging interview this week, ‘teams who have not [had] big possession have won the league.’
He meant us and Leicester – though, of course, we need, on his behalf, to enter the usual disclaimers at this point: isn’t over yet, still need three points, only three matches in which to get them, no time for complacency, every game a proper contest in this league, won’t rest until it’s time to rest, etc. etc.
However, presumptions aside, Wenger’s central point was that we, like Leicester, are not a ‘big possession’ side – not a team who, in another phrase that the Arsenal manager likes, ‘makes the game.’ Is that right, though? Leicester averaged 42.4 per cent of possession in their title-winning season, which does seem a little low, relatively speaking. Chelsea’s possession this season, by contrast, totalled up so far, stands at 54.6 per cent. Arsenal’s total isn’t that much greater: 58.3 per cent. This season’s current ball-hog kings are Manchester City, with 61.6 per cent.
So, what, if anything, to conclude from these figures? We seem to have had the ball more often than we’ve not had it, for one thing. And we’ve clearly done quite a lot with the ball while we’ve had it, too, as the league table suggests, though the possession figures don’t really get into that. I don’t recall feeling particularly under-entertained at any point, either.
But otherwise… well, with all respect to Arsenal’s manager, I can’t help feeling that the main conclusion to be drawn is this: that possession statistics simply don’t tell us all that much about football – or not much that’s useful. While frequently presented as if they illuminate the game’s deepest mysteries and explain its cruellest injustices, possession stats normally make a statement in which all the key questions (possession where? possession when? possession why?) are begged.
It doesn’t help that, even right across the board, the differences in the numbers don’t seem all that wide. Even the worst team in the league, Sunderland, have had the ball 42 per cent of the time, and looking down the table as a whole, you would have to conclude that, when the majority of teams get together, the possession split is basically 50-50, or as close to it as makes no difference. Up at the top (with the 3.7 per cent that separates Arsenal from Chelsea this year, say, and certainly with the one per cent that puts Spurs fractionally above Manchester United), we’re dealing with the kind of minor differences that would probably be dismissed as a margin for error in many areas of statistical analysis.
The problem is, the picture of football that possession stats allegedly paint is bound to be vulnerable to distortion by other, more crucial things, such as, for instance, the score. There are times in a game – such as, one might say, when you’re 3-0 up against Arsenal – when the ball is bound to be of less urgent interest to you.
And that’s not a dig, by the way. It applies the other way round, too. When we lost 3-0 to Arsenal at the Emirates, in what turned out to be a pivotal moment in our season, back in September (dropping us, by the way, to eighth in the league, eight points off Manchester City at the top; how distant that world now feels), Chelsea had more of the ball - 51 per cent to Arsenal’s 49. But that’s obvious, isn’t it? Arsenal had sewn up the game by half-time and could pretty much spend the second half playing Pictionary and eating popcorn if they chose – as Wenger himself admitted after the game. ‘It [our pressure] was in and out in the second [half], which is understandable.’
That’s possession for you, though: it’s often said to be nine-tenths of the law. But it’s also less than half the story.