In the football world, it seems to be a generally accepted the fact that there are different sports cultures in each country. In Spain, coaches and fans claim that the commitment to having possession of the ball and the combination game define football played by the best teams. In England, direct play and the intensity of the confrontations seem to explain what happens on the pitch. In Italy, the value of the defence and the players’ tactical discipline define their competitiveness. But is it actually true that those football cultures exist? Are there different behaviours and actions on the each turf?
Research has analysed the differences between the English Premier League (EPL) and the Spanish Liga (La Liga) with three game variables: the type of ball recovery, the location of such recovery and the duration of the possession and how all these affect the result of the possession. For that, they analysed 4971 possessions in 10 matches of the EPL and La Liga during the 2017-2018 season. These matches included 18 of the 20 teams of the EPL and 17 of the 20 teams that played in La Liga. The location of the ball at the moment of recovery was obtained by dividing the football field in 12 areas: left, centre and right aisles for defensive, pre-defensive, pre-attack, and attack zones. Ball recovery was classified in 5 categories: interception, tackle, goalkeeper’s save, set piece and loss. The duration of the possession was organised in 3 categories: less than 5 seconds, between 5 and 12 seconds and more than 12 seconds. Finally, the result of the possession was classified in 15 categories (goal, shot at goal, shot outside, blocked shot, free kick, penalty kick, corner kick, offside, loss of the ball due to bad control or pass, clearance, foul, interception, tackle, clearance by the defence, goalkeeper catches the ball).
The results of the review suggest some very relevant conclusions:
- Both in the EPL and La Liga, teams usually recover the ball in the defensive area (32.4% and 31.8% of the total number of possessions, respectively), but manage to score and make more kicks when they recover the ball in the offensive area.
- EPL teams have more possessions with a duration between 5 and 12 seconds (38.8% of the total number of possessions), while in La Liga, possessions that last more than 12 seconds happen more frequently (37.3% of the total number).
- EPL teams are more effective to score or create a situation during possessions that last less than 5 seconds, while La Liga teams are more prone to score a goal or attempt one when the possessions last longer than 12 seconds.
- The most common ball recovery in the EPL happens during interception (30.8%), while in La Liga this happens during set-piece situations (29.3%).
- La Liga teams score more goals when they gain possession of the ball back through a tackle (2.5% of tackles end up in a goal). EPL teams score more goals and make more kicks after the opposing team loses the ball (2.0% of losses end up in a goal, and 14.6% end up in a kick).
In conclusion, it seems possible to identify different playing styles in the EPL and La Liga that could be a consequence of each country’s football culture. However, it would be interesting to see if these same differences are present when comparing the best teams of both leagues. There may not be many differences, and the winning teams may share their view of the game. This could be a consequence of globalisation, the process driven by the increase in cross-border flows of goods, services, money, people, information and culture1, has dramatically affected western societies in recent decades. Football is indeed not isolated from this phenomenon. The players’ and coaches’ freedom of movement has increased substantially in the last few years, which could lead to transferring to other countries the formulas for success demonstrated by the winning teams in their national competitions. We already know that winning teams end up being trend-setters of playing styles for other teams.
Carlos Lago Peñas
1 Cooper, D. y Pulling, C. (2020). The impact of ball recovery, location of the ball and duration of possession on the outcomes of possession in the English Premier League and the Spanish La Liga. Science and Medicine in Football, in press.