Possession Stats: What the Numbers Tell Us About Europe's Top Clubs

Joe KrishnanContributor IJanuary 7, 2013

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 06:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona (L) and Dani Alves of FC Barcelona reacts during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and RCD Espanyol at Camp Nou on January 6, 2013 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
David Ramos/Getty Images

You only have to travel to Spain to see where the best football in the world is played, although for any of our American readers, we realise that's quite a journey.

Nevertheless, you're rarely disappointed when you visit the Camp Nou in Barcelona, where the likes of Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi ply their trade. FC Barcelona are rarely without the ball, and most importantly, they take their chances when they do have the ball at their feet. In terms of possession, they represent the idea that football is won with a greater percentage of the ball.

The odd Chelsea fan, though, will point to the fact that when the Catalan giants came to Stamford Bridge, the team who were then managed by Pep Guardiola played 754 passes in comparison to Chelsea's 158 (via the FourFourTwo "StatsZone" App on Zonal Marking). Despite this, Chelsea rode their luck and Didier Drogba scored the only goal of the game, as the Blues fought their way to a 1-0 victory.

The case was similar in the second leg, but yet again, Chelsea came out unbeaten and went through to the Champions League Final. The point? Possession does not always equal victory.  

But thanks to statistics provided by WhoScored, it's easy for us to make the comparison between success and possession this season.

Barcelona, who have won 17 of their 18 games in La Liga under Tito Vilanova, have had an astonishing average of 69 percent of possession in La Liga this season, and in comparison to their nearest rivals Real Madrid, who have secured just 57 percent, the figures highlight how having the ball can help increase confidence.

However, playing neat and intricate football is all fine and good to entertain the fans, but what about winning? Arsenal are the prime example of a team who enjoy much possession in a game, but their profligacy in front of goal means they can never fully take advantage of their domination of possession. As a result, they haven't won a trophy since 2005, which is a long period for a club with such a colorful history.

The Gunners have achieved an average of 58-percent possession in their 21 Premier League games this season, the third-highest in the Premier League, but find themselves down in sixth position, with Arsene Wenger's side a massive 18 points behind leaders Manchester United.

And Sir Alex Ferguson's resillient Red Devils display just how insignificant a statistic possession can be; with the same figure as Arsenal, they've had less shots per game than the rest of their Premier League rivals, but have been prolific in front of goal, scoring 54 goals this season, 13 more than their closest rivals Manchester City.

On the contrary, possession totals in the Italian Serie A are of a predictable nature, with reigning champions Juventus (59 percent) ahead of their rivals AC Milan (58 percent) in the battle to be the country's most dominant side.

That doesn't tell the whole story, though, with Massimiliano Allegri's side currently underachieving down in seventh place in Serie A. Without the likes of Clarence Seedorf or Alberto Aquilani, the Rossoneri have struggled in the middle of the park and are very much going through a transitional phase this season.

Compare that to their rivals Juventus, managed by Antonio Conte, who have Arturo Vidal, Claudio Marchisio and the world-class Andrea Pirlo among their ranks in midfield.

In Germany, again the domination of possession is reflected by the leaders in the table, especially by the rampant Bayern Munich, who have stormed nine points clear in the Bundesliga. They average 63-percent possession, which means that with clubs struggling to get the ball from the Bavarian outfit, plus their ability to score and defend, the Champions League finalists are almost unbeatable at present.

Their closest rivals in possession terms are Dortmund, but with Jurgen Klopp's men a further two points back in third place—and with 56-percent possession, a whole seven percent less than their major rivals—they are falling behind in their quest for a third consecutive title.

And finally, we look at the French Ligue 1 possession stats. It's never easy to say who will win the Ligue 1 title—there have been four different winners in the last four seasons—after a period of dominance from Lyon between 2001-2008, where they incredibly won the league seven times in a row.

And it's certainly the case again this season, with Paris Saint-Germain, Lyon and Marseille all tied on 38 points at the halfway stage. Yet surprisingly, eighth-placed 2011 champions Lille have had 59-percent possession—the most in the league, closely followed by Lyon—but find themselves struggling under Rudi Garcia after the departure of star midfielder Eden Hazard.

So, after reviewing all of the possession stats, what conclusions can we draw from the top teams?

Well, there's no general rule of thumb. Different sides in different leagues have different ways of winning; Chelsea won the Champions League using a counterattacking method, which subsequently worked against Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

But nine times out 10, having more possession gives players the confidence and belief that they'll soon create a chance. Barcelona often do, and they score a lot. In which case, possession is a tool which can be abused if the players aren't of a sufficient quality.

But if like Barcelona or Bayern Munich, your team does have the quality, it is the most important statistic to have in your favor. Dominating possession is the likeliest way to win, and that's why it's an important part of football.