Analysing the Possession Loss and Regain rates of sides in the Scottish Premiership

Written By; Jamie Kilday (@FitbaInScotland)

One of the main reasons behind starting Modern Fitba was that as a group we could all use one data source. This would mean that our analysis of Scottish football would be consistent and make things easier for you…the reader, so that you didn’t have to read two articles about the same topic and wonder why the numbers were different.

Fast forward nine months and we are on our 4th data source (5 If you include a brief period where we tried coding/tracking our own data). Hopefully with your generosity we can finally nail down one provider but it would be remiss of me not to say thank you to all of you who have donated so far.

One neat thing about experimenting with data sources is that different providers track different things, and so like a bull to a red rag, I’m drawn to a type of data that we’ve never had before…types of possession regains and losses.

For a little while now I’ve been doing some work on a new way of normalising data using minutes of possession, more on the methodology can be read in my previous articles but here is a quick summary.

Hearts matches having the fewest minutes than any other is no surprise when you consider their reliance on well structured set-piece routines

Here you can see how many minutes the ball is in play on average for each Scottish Premiership side. So, in a 90-minute game you are lucky if the ball is live for more than 50 and that’s not taking into consideration how much possession a side has had. St Mirren are averaging less than 20 mins of possession whilst Celtic are closer to 35…hardly seems sensible to look at both sides stats as ‘per 90’ so that’s how we get to ‘Per Possession’. The stats for this article are all adjusted per possession and so will be reflective of one minute of on ball possession.

Possession Loss

These stats are adjusted per possession for to highlight how frequently sides lose possession when they have it.

Losses are split into the 3 following categories;

  • Possession Loss in play by Duel

  • Possession Loss in play by Interception

  • Possession Loss in play by Other

Let’s address the elephant in the room, sides with low possession stats lose the ball more frequently (an r2 of 0.98 for all you r2 fans), but there’s a little more to it than that. Let’s look at four sides with near identical average minutes of possession Hamilton, Motherwell, Livingston and St. Johnstone.

Less than a minute of possession for separate all four sides and yet whilst Livingston and Hamilton Accies are cosied up with St Mirren, St Johnstone and Motherwell are exhibiting something different. St Johnstone don’t tend to lose the ball as much suggesting that their low possession is more to do with a willingness to allow the opposition to keep the ball rather than an inability to keep it themselves relatively speaking.

Celtic’s possession losses are usually over blown as they are either as a result of playing out from the back and thus in dangerous areas, or they are after a sustained period of pressure where Celtic can be vulnerable to a counter attack. The reality is that their rate of possession loss is much lower than all other sides in the Scottish Premiership.

I wrote in January about how Motherwell are moving away from the long ball football that they have become synonymous for and their position in the graphs above suggest that this is probably for the best. They are losing a lot of their possession to duels rather than through their passing but I’m sure if I revisit this at the end of the season a combination of increased possession and no longer being reliant on winning headers from long balls out from the back would see them move more in line with some of the better sides in the league. A quick look at how their numbers have changed over the last 7 games compared to their prior 22, their average possession loss by passing has dropped from 1.70 to 1.36 per minute of possession.

Possession Regain

These stats are adjusted per possession against to highlight how frequently sides regain possession when the opposition have it.

Regains are split into the 3 following categories;

  • Possession Regain in play by Duel

  • Possession Regain in play by Interception

  • Possession Regain interception GK

These stats are adjusted per possession against to highlight how frequently sides regain possession when the opposition have it.

If we start by looking at the lower end of the scale you can see that St. Johnstone are in the mix with the three relegation candidates. This further suggests either St. Johnstone are happy to sit back and allow sides to play or they are really ineffectual at regaining possession. A duel success rate of 51% is one of the highest in the league, whilst their number of duels per possession against (4.89) is the second lowest in the league which would indicate that the former is more likely.

By comparison a side who have found themselves, somewhat surprisingly, in the battle for a top 6 finish is Livingston. After their 3-1 home win at the weekend only a point currently separates the two sides from opposite ends of the M90 and its pretty clear that their styles differ quite considerably. Livingston don’t concede as much possession and that’s down to their much better regain rates, especially from interceptions. Their high press against St Johnstone this weekend was key to the first phase of the attack that eventually lead to Sibbald’s goal.

A high press forces Joe Shaughnessy into a rash decision that eventually sees him playing a slack pas to Sean Goss which is intercepted by the more alert Keaghan Jacobs who gets the jump on David Wotherspoon

On to the sides at the better end of the scale it, whilst the two Glasgow sides give up similar amounts of possession, it is Rangers who have the best possession regain rate. A figure backed up by their far superior duel regain rate, which much like Livingston, is underpinned by a high press.

Alfredo Morelos spots the pass from Lewis Stevenson and capitalises on some poor decision making. Scott Arfield’s run towards Mark Milligan puts Paul Hanlon off making the pass and he instead decides to try and shield the ball unsuccessfully.

Finally, a look at sides possession regain rate either side of the half way line.

Two sides that stand out to me are Livingston and Motherwell. While I’ve touched on Livingston’s high press earlier in the article there is another aspect of their play that would put them high in the Possession Regain rates in the opponent’s half, propensity to play long ball. For most of the season the two sides have been hitting long balls up to a target man and both look to recover the second ball if they lose initial aerial duel.

Another thing I’ve referenced is Rangers pressing. They are one of the most aggressive sides in the league, as indicated by having the highest total duels per possession (6.96) and the highest possession regain rate in their own half of any club.

Whilst Celtic are not far behind, their numbers show that they look to regain possession more in the opposition’s half. Their possession-based game means that teams tend to sit deep against them so they do spend a lot of time deep into the opposition half, this means that they can often find themselves losing and recovering possession before it even gets to their own half.

A side consistently poor across both metrics is St Mirren. A side who manage to lose possession more frequently than any other side and also have the lowest possession regain rate, it stands to reason that they have the lowest possession for in the league.

Conclusion

There is a tendency when people look at sports data to only use it to rank who is the best/worst and whilst with some metrics this is applicable, a lot of stats get misrepresented in this way. This article has hopefully highlighted that data can be adjusted in ways that better complement tactical analysis while still conforming to the ‘eye test’ that many folks wish to hold analysis to.

As an Englishmen living in England, I can tell you that Scottish football is often thrown under the bus by media outlets south of the border. It’s easily dismissed as being behind the times but it’s a lot more interesting than they think. Stylistically sides in Scotland are a lot more varied than they get credit for, and hopefully that comes across in my Per Possession adjustments.