It used to seem as if possession meant everything in football at one point. If your team lost or even if you lost on FIFA or Football Manager, you could at least point to the possession stat and say that you were unlucky to lose; some team and fans still do this. Many still try and use it to make a point that their team, the better team since they had more possession, lost. Nowadays though, possession is rarely a reflection of which team was most dominant in the match.
Some who didn’t realise this shift came to realise it when Leicester bucked the trend with their unexpected Premier League title win in the 2015/16 season. Their game plan throughout the entire season was to play on the counter-attack and it worked. There were so many games where Leicester had less possession but they were the clear and deserved winners. No fan sat there and complained that Leicester were outplayed all season and still somehow managed to win the league.
At the moment, I would say Liverpool, Manchester City and Barcelona are the three teams I think of where their possession stats usually do reflect the nature of the game they play. Manchester City, for the last two seasons, have almost always had more possession of the ball than their opponents and ended up winning, often by a handsome margin which is something Barcelona have been doing for years; it is no coincidence that Barcelona began to adopt this style with Pep Guardiola, who is now the Manchester City manager, who has done the same for his current club. For these three teams, dominance in possession can often lead to an onslaught.
On the other hand, you have a team like Chelsea. A team set up by Maurizio Sarri to control possession for a team in the past have often mixed up their playing style to good effect. In the Abramovich era at Chelsea, under the different managers, most have set up the team to get the best result for the match ahead. Against lower league opposition, Chelsea would have plenty of possession and against higher calibre opponents, Chelsea might surrender possession as part of their game plan to play more direct and counter-attacking football. Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea had a knack of often seeming like they were in control of matches even if the opponents enjoyed more of the ball.
The problem for Chelsea now is they are finding out what many of their opponents found out; possession isn’t everything in football. Unlike Manchester City and others, Chelsea have become a team who keep possession of the ball for the sake of keeping possession. While it’s true Chelsea have been lacking a goal scorer, there is simply an unwillingness from the players to try and mix up their game, to play more direct, to take a risk with a pass forward for fear of losing possession; a striker can’t score if the ball never gets crossed into the box. Instead, it seems the ball has to be delicately weaved through to a forward who even then might look for another pass.
Sarri’s Napoli team were high scorers and having a striker who scored goals must have helped but it’s hard to imagine his Napoli team played the exact same way Chelsea do and achieved so many goals. There was evidence of Sarri-ball working earlier in the season when Chelsea would often come up against stubborn opponents, eventually break them down and then the goals would flow but recently Chelsea have stopped creating chances for forwards to miss in the first place. Chelsea and their fans are quickly finding out that there is a difference between possession football and attacking football; something that years ago seemed to go hand in hand. A team like Tottenham play attacking football regardless of their possession stats.
The major figurehead for Chelsea and this style of play, which also makes him the biggest target, is Jorginho, the summer signing brought in to dictate the play for Chelsea. There is no doubt Jorginho is a neat and tidy footballer who can make passes, as summed up by his 2000 plus passes so far this season. The worrying thing is that none of those passes had led to a goal. When Jorginho was brought in and Chelsea believed he would dictate the midfield, fans believed he would spray passes all over the pitch to mix up the play. The idea being sometimes he would play it safe and keep Chelsea calm but other times, he would pick out the runs of the forwards from deep and create an attack out of nothing. Instead, his passes rarely stretch to beyond ten yards up the pitch, something any competent midfielder would be able to do.
Chelsea have often been accused of being a boring team, setting out a plan against each team to play direct, take the lead and shut up shop afterwards. That may have been boring to others but to Chelsea fans, it was a winning formula that made the fans happy. Now Chelsea have not only lost the winning formula but the change in style seems to have made Chelsea more boring and predictable than before. The promise of Sarri-ball was that Chelsea would play stylish football presumably at the expense of conceding more goals which fans wouldn’t have been used to but at least they would have more entertainment. Instead Chelsea are a hybrid; the only time they concede many goals is when they are outplayed and don’t respond with goals of their own while at other times, they might eventually break down stubborn teams and get a victory by a one-goal margin. The wins don’t feel as satisfying and the losses feel more like a beating than Chelsea are used to.
Chelsea are now a club who know what it’s like to be on both sides of the possession game and so far, it seems that Chelsea were better off without a possession obsession. However, there is hope for them with the current top two in the Premier League, Manchester City and Liverpool showing that possession can still be translated into dominance but Chelsea look a long way from joining them in bringing possession back into prominence.