When Manchester City travelled to Newcastle before Christmas, the difference in approaches from both teams was stark.
Fearing humiliation from the runaway leaders, Rafa Benitez sent his team out to sit deep and defend, with next to no attacking intention of their own.
At half-time, City had over 82 percent possession – a Premier League record. (They later finished the match on 78 percent, just short of the all-time best).
As the teams prepare for the reverse fixture this Saturday, is dominating possession the be-all and end-all for teams?
While City controlled the ball for the majority of the match, they were only able to score once, and when Newcastle did choose to attack late on, Dwight Gayle came within inches of heading an unlikely equaliser in the final few minutes.
We’ve done the research, and looking at the Premier League’s possession table this season, we’re almost certain to see a similar approach from Benitez at the Etihad on Saturday.
City sit top of the charts for the highest average possession per match – their mark of 70.43 percent is a staggering 8.34 percent higher than the team in second place, Tottenham.
Conversely, Newcastle sit bottom of the table, with just 41.35 percent of the ball in each game they’ve played so far.
While they haven’t had much of the ball, this hasn’t seen them cut adrift at the foot of the Premier League itself. The Magpies currently sit in 15th spot – a position Newcastle fans will surely snap your hand off to finish in at the end of the season.
When looking through the table, having plenty of possession doesn’t necessarily translate to picking up points.
While City are well clear in both tables, second and third placed Tottenham and Arsenal both currently sit outside the top four in the actual Premier League standings.
Manchester United have been the most efficient team of the top six, sitting in sixth position in the possession table, but second in the league table itself.
United’s approach is interesting to note, with the Red Devils’ average of 53.48 percent possession sitting an incredible 16.95 a match behind their Manchester rivals City.
Lower down the table, however, and it seems hoarding the ball is not the way forward. Southampton and Swansea sit 7th and 10th in the possession ranks, but 17th and 20th in the league table proper – and are amongst the lowest scorers in the division.
Contrast that to Burnley’s overachievement given their time on the ball (the Clarets are in 17th in the possession table, but 7th in the league itself), and it’s clear that possession definitely isn’t nine tenths of the law when it comes to the Premier League.
Southampton and Swansea’s toothless approach can certainly be seen in the four Premier League matches that have seen one team enjoy over 80 percent possession, with only one of those sides converting that much of the ball into a victory.
That the only team to do so – Manchester City in the final game of the 2011/12 season against QPR – famously scored twice in stoppage time to win (and claim the Premier League title), shows how possession itself isn’t enough when a team sits so deep and defends so resolutely.
In fact, Burnley (v Liverpool in 2016/17) and West Brom (v Man United in 2014/15) both claimed unlikely victories with 19 and 20 percent possession respectively – showing the perils having so much of the ball can be when being hit on the counter attack.
While they were defeated playing in such a manner at St James’ Park last month, perhaps such an approach could pay dividends for Benitez and Newcastle at the Etihad on Saturday.
Throughout his career, Pep Guardiola has always favoured dominating the ball, with his tiki-taka tactics at Barcelona and Bayern Munich heralding a possession-hungry style that has revolutionised the way many look at football.
While many have tried similar, few have with anywhere near the success of Guardiola, picking up three titles apiece in Spain and Germany, and seemingly marching towards the Premier League trophy this season.
However, while Guardiola seemed to have reached the peak of what was possible at Barca and Bayern, his performance this season has topped even that.
Despite defeat at Anfield last weekend, his win percentage of 86.96 percent is comfortably the best he’s managed so far, with this season’s goals scored per game average of 2.91 sitting just behind the 3.00 notched at Barcelona during the 2011/12 campaign.
It is looking at his possession stats that you get to see just how Guardiola has been able to implement his patient style better this year than any other.
City’s 70.43 percent average so far outranks any of the league campaigns in his career – remarkable considering his Barcelona team in particular are considered by many to be perhaps the greatest club team of all time.
That City are able to outperform even the legendary side of Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta speaks volumes – especially given Guardiola’s struggles in his first year in England.
The Spaniard found it difficult adapting to the more physical and competitive English league last season, but having made a few tweaks, has now created possibly the most dominant team in Premier League history.
City are just 23 games into this season, but if they are able to keep up their performance so far (and make an impact in Europe), it may not be long until they are thought of as Guardiola’s greatest ever team.