LONDON: Barcelona, Bayern Munich and the Spanish football team might dominate the beautiful game, but new research has quashed the myth they tire the opposition by keeping the ball.

For years, coaches, pundits and fans believed teams should “let the ball do the work” because the other team will have to run further to regain possession. This is believed to enable world class players to tire their opponents out and help them conserve their energy.

However, research from the University of Sunderland shows they cover the same distances whether teams have the ball or not. This research is to be published in the Journal of Sports Sciences.

Academics looked at 810 English Premier League players in 54 matches with an equal amount of players from home and away sides, with the data taken from the computerised tracking system. Each individual player’s physical and technical performance was recorded, including how far they ran, the varying levels of intensity and how many passes they made.

The research, The effect of high and low percentage ball possession on physical and technical profiles in English FA Premier League soccer matches**, claims to quash the myth that if you pass the ball more often than the opposition then you would conserve energy and tiring them out while doing so.


They found that no differences were observed for total distance covered by football teams with low percentage of ball possession and those who had the ball more often. This trend continued when it came to high intensity running and sprinting.

This research also comes at the end of the season when Glasgow Celtic famously beat the Champions League favourites Barcelona despite only having approximately 16 per cent of ball possession.

Research showed running with the ball at a high-intensity was 31 per cent more by teams with a high percentage of possession than those with a low percentage. In contrast, those teams with a high percentage of possession ran 22 per cent less at a high-intensity than those with a low percentage when they did not have the ball.


Dr Paul Bradley, a senior lecturer in sport and exercise science at the University of Sunderland, said: “We didn’t find any statistical difference in their physical exertions during the game. However, as expected the technical indicators did show superior differences between those that keep the ball, and those that don’t. The myth is that if you cover a large amount of distance then you tend to have a lower percentage of possession, but these findings show it isn’t the case at all.

“We always thought that there was truth in the old adage of ‘let the ball do the work’ and let the other team chase after it, but it’s quite clearly not backed up by the facts. There’s less than one per cent difference between high and low percentage of possession football teams. They’re obviously superior in terms of how many passes they make, but not in distance.”

The research from the University of Sunderland is published in the Journal of Sports Sciences and is the first to examine the effects of high percentage of ball possession and a low percentage on physical and technical profiles during elite football matches. The research also looked at each different position from each group to compare.


The report said: “Other real world applications of the current findings are that teams playing against possession-based opposition should not expect a more physically demanding match given the similarities in high-intensity running and low possession ball playing teams, but be instructed to be prepared for all eventualities, particularly plenty of high-intensity running to regain the ball.”

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Zita Balogh, Marketing Manager, Journals