Kick and chase vs passing: which style wins football games?
Euro2012 - England's Wayne Rooney - can they get past Italy in the quarters? (AFP)
As another season of amateur football draws to a close here in NSW, most players, teams and clubs are glaring at their division points tables to see what needs to be done to the numbers to ensure a finals spot, or to avoid relegation.
As they do, I can’t help but feel these numbers give rise to a very ugly and very useless style of football: the “Kick and Chase” game. Worse yet, I see clubs proudly parading teams that employ this style if it achieves the desired result.
I contend that this style of football not only has no effect in determining a team’s table ranking, but that it has no long term worth in football. Let’s look at some real numbers to see why.
First though, let’s define the only two styles of football that are played in the amateur leagues: kick and chase, and passing.
The kick and chase style can be seen as an unrefined version of a counterattacking style (e.g. Italy), while the passing style can be seen as an unrefined version of the Tiki-taka style (e.g. Spain).
Regardless of any other stylistic quirks, it is clear that the major characteristic of both styles is the percentage of possession employed by each. Tiki-taka aims for maximum possession, while counterattacking purposefully employs a low percentage of possession.
Proponents of either style would claim the validity of that style based on the results of their team. However, I suggest that only the passing style can claim their results reflect the value of their team, and that the results of the kick and chase team only reflect the value of their opponents.
Greater possession equals greater results
Let’s take an extreme example to look at the connection between possession and results. If you have 0% possession during an entire game, you would of course have a 0% chance of winning, but you may lose.
If you maintain 100% possession during a game, you would have a 0% chance of losing, but you may win. At the very least, we can say that as possession increases (from 0% to 100%) the chances of a more favourable result increase (from definitely not winning to definitely not losing).
Now, I am aware that the chances of a favourable result may not increase linearly. That is to say, if you have 20% possession during a game then you do not necessarily have a 20% chance of a favourable result, just as having 80% possession does not necessarily mean you have an 80% chance of a favourable result.
The only numbers we can be certain about are 0% and 100%, neither of which is likely to ever occur in football.
So why then should we bother to maintain possession? Well, to win a match you must score at least one goal. To score a goal you must have at least some possession. Let’s say that any team has a percentage chance to score a goal each minute they retain possession. We don’t know what this chance is, but it’s fair to a make a general claim that they do have some chance.
If this is the case, then the longer any team retains possession the more likely it is that they will score a goal.
Let’s say a team has a 50% chance to score every minute they retain possession. In the first minute, you have a 50% to have scored at least one goal. In the second you have a 75% chance to have scored at least one goal. The third, an 87.5% chance.
While it may not be possible to determine what percentage chance a team actually has to score while in possession, we can at least say with certainty that the more possession a team has, the more likely they are to have scored a goal.
So now we know two things about possession. The more you have, the less likely you are to lose a match and the more likely you are to score a goal. These seem like good things for any football team, but how do they specifically relate to passing and counterattacking football styles?
Controlling your own destiny
We’ve talked a lot about possession, but how does a team actually acquire it? It might be too hard to determine how a team specifically wins possession, but we can say that in the strictest sense, a team has possession when the opposing team loses it.
Now consider what teams do with possession. When a kick and chase team obtains possession, they immediately and intentionally give it up by kicking the ball as close as possible to their opponents goal, hoping it will be regained by their team.
When a passing team obtains possession, they actively work to retain it through further passing. Given that possession is only gained by a team when it is lost by their opponent, a passing team effectively dictates its level of possession while a kick and chase team has its level of possession dictated by its opposition.
We have already established that possession directly affects the likelihood of scoring and the chances of a more favourable result.
We have also established that passing teams dictate their level of possession while kick and chase teams have theirs dictated by their opponents. Given this information, we can say by extension that passing teams dictate their chances of scoring and obtaining a more favourable result while teams that play kick and chase do not.
In short, passing teams control their destiny, while kick and chase teams leave their results to fate.
The illusion of results
But wait, why do so many teams play kick and chase and seem to get good results? How often do we seen teams in professional or amateur league resort to kick and chase football to try and stave off relegation? There must be some effectiveness to this strategy right?
The short answer is no, the effectiveness is a complete illusion, but let’s take a more detailed look at why with the following example:
- A competition is played with 10 teams
- Team A plays passing football very well such that they win 99.9% of their games
- Team B plays passing football very poorly such they win 10% of their games
- Team C plays kick and chase. Their possession, and therefore their results, are dictated by their opposition
- All other teams are listed as X and we have no data on how they play or how good they are
At the end of the season, the points table is as follows:
Team A has come first, team C has obtained a finals spot by finishing in the top four and team B has finished last. Given the styles of play, and the impact of possession on results what can we say about how each team has performed?
Team A has directly controlled their results and won 99.9% of their games through possession. They are a quality team and deserve to be in first.
If you were to guess how they might perform against a random team, you could reasonably guess that they would win. Team B has directly controlled their results but has lost the majority of their games because they are bad at retaining possession. If you were to guess how they might perform against a random team, you could reasonably guess they would lose.
About Team C, most interestingly, we can say absolutely nothing, because their results are entirely dictated by their opponents. If you were to guess how they might perform against a random team, you would have no idea as it would be dependent on the team.
You might think that coming fourth is a decent result, but lets consider how this result was achieved.
Team C played against team A who has a 99.9% chance of winning, and of course lost. They played against team B, who has a 10% chance of winning, and of course won. They also played against all other teams, and on average came fourth.
So whereas team A can say they came first because they are the best team, team C can only say they came fourth because on average all other teams won and lost such that team C was ranked fourth.
Imagine now, that team C has to play team A in the finals of this competition. When team C plays matches against the whole competition they average out as a fourth place team. However the final is just a one off game, and as team C’s chances of winning are dictated by their opposition they have only a %0.01 chance to win the final.
In other words, they will never beat team A.
So in the strictest sense, when winning the competition is the only result that matters, we can say that team B did no worse then team C. However, there is one major difference between the teams.
If team B improves its ability to retain possession through practice, it will have a better chance to win the competition. However, team C, playing the kick and chase style cannot influence its chances to win the competition at all.
So let’s do a quick recap:
- Possession directly influences the chances of a favourable result
- Possession directly influences the chances of scoring
- Passing football actively works to increase possession
- Passing football dictates a team’s quality
- The quality of a kick and chase team is dictated by its opposition
Once we know all of this, we know the futility of playing kick and chase football. If it looks like playing kick and chase football has saved your team from relegation, or has earned you a finals spot, look again. You will see that all that has happened is that enough teams in your competition have failed to play with the quality required to relegate you or prevent you from making the finals. If you want to play kick and chase, you may as well be playing the football lottery.
If you want to play to win, you better start playing a passing style.
Isn’t it a lot more fun to play anyway?