Talking Tactics

Season trends: Patient passing produces record figures

By Adrian Clarke 3 Jun 2021
James Ward-Prowse

Adrian Clarke looks at the use of possession in 2020/21 and how it has affected counter-attacks

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Adrian Clarke identifies tactical trends from the 2020/21 Premier League season. 

Keeping the ball for longer

There was a noticeable rise in patient build-ups this term.

Why? Possibly because there was no pressure from supporters in the stands to get the ball forward earlier.  

Across the league there was a 16.6 per cent increase in sequences of 10 or more passes when compared with the previous campaign.

Incredible Newcastle passing goal

The biggest climbers were Southampton (51.9 per cent increase), Aston Villa (51.4 per cent), Everton (43.6 per cent), West Ham United (30.7 per cent) and Arsenal (30.4 per cent), all of whom looked after the ball for sustained periods significantly more often this season.

Only two of the 17 Premier League sides who also featured in 2019/20 saw a drop-off in the frequency of these longer passing sequences. They were Manchester City and Crystal Palace.

There is no doubt an increasing number of teams are confident at keeping the ball for prolonged spells.

But it will be fascinating to see if this trend reverses when grounds are full with fans.

Passing stats compared by season
Season Passes/match Pass accuracy %
2016/17 881.7 78.8
2017/18 906.4 78.9
2018/19 917.5 79.6
2019/20 915.2 80.0
2020/21 945.2 81.5

This season there were a record number of passes per match, with an average of 945 per 90 minutes, 197 more than the average from 2003/04.

Passing accuracy is also at an all-time high.

Burnley ended with the lowest pass success rate at 71.6 per cent, but that figure exceeded the league’s average in both 2003/04 and 2006/07.

Managers at both ends of the table now expect their players to distribute the ball with greater assurance.

Counter-attacks less potent

Out of possession, it appeared that Premier League managers became more alert to the threat of counter-attacks this season.

There was no increased emphasis on pressing, with turnovers in the final third staying at very similar levels to the previous campaign.

Many managers opted to sit off and close down with more hostility in the middle third. In doing so they made themselves less susceptible to breakaways.

Counter-attacks compared
  2019/20 2020/21
Shots from fast breaks 402 296
Goals from fast breaks 74 55

A number of teams started to follow Pep Guardiola’s lead by moving their full-backs inside when in possession, in order to protect the centre of the pitch as an extra midfielder.

Arsenal, West Ham, Leeds United and Brighton & Hove Albion all did this on occasion.

This increased tactical awareness and cautious mindset led to a significant dip in shots and goals from fast breaks.

The likes of Newcastle United and Aston Villa, who injected extra pace up front, were far more potent on counter-attacks than before. But across the league there was less focus on this aspect of the game than in previous years.

Instead, sensible possession football was the driving force in 2020/21.

Also in this series

Part 2: Headed goals back in fashion
Part 3: Free-kicks fall and penalties rise
Part 4: Away success rises as top sides falter
Part 5: Busy schedule not reflected in rotation
Part 6: Season trends: Managers changing shape more often

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