Is the Premier League still resistant to possession football?

Mark Thompson

The Premier League has long had a reputation as a graveyard for possession football, and even though sides such as Swansea City and Liverpool have looked to change that, Aston Villa show a more popular blueprint.

"We get our ProZone stuff every week and I can assure you we pass the ball a lot more. Zonal whoever, good luck to them... the Mark Davies goal against Blackpool was an unbelievable footballing goal. I don't know if Zonal whoever saw that goal..." - Owen Coyle

"We find that a bit wrong saying that. We don't play that way at all. We don't just kick it upfront and hope for the best. We don't have the players to play long balls - we might play a long pass. I think it is detrimental to say things like that and I don't agree with that." - Paul Lambert

It's quite charming that, in 2013, the only thing necessary to begin hostilities between managers is the slightest suggestion that the opposition have been employing direct football, or playing defensively. Regardless of how much truth there is to it, nothing is more guaranteed to get an opposition manager to snap wildly at any bait being offered than suggesting he might have been the type of man to seriously consider getting Carlton Cole in on a free in the summer.

Aston Villa have been labelled as such this year, with Mark Hughes' appointment as Tony Pulis' replacement also attraction derision. There's been a handful of contrasting clubs who've had their styles praised, too, with Swansea City and Wigan Athletic being the most notable among the smaller clubs.

Compared to ten, or even five years ago, the Premier League is far easier on the eye than once it was. England is no country for Gary Megson or Kevin Davies, not anymore. It's easy to overlook that, and so many of the accusations now are exaggerated claims - Paul Lambert's Aston Villa play better football than they did under Martin O'Neill when they were challenging for the top four.

What is notable is that a reputation for attractive football seems to have served few teams very well, Wigan Athletic's FA Cup triumph was glorious, but they were relegated with a very decent squad. Swansea added plenty of talent and quality but failed to improve much other than a fortuitous cup run. Brendan Rodgers has been credited with taking his style to Liverpool, but showed little immediate impact, while their recent successes have owed much to the more individual stylings of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge.

Villa's situation required Lambert to develop his style from the ground up, starting with a complete shambles and eventually discovering such novelties as defending, passing, and shooting. The style and the team are very much his own, and tends to consist of rapid counter-attacking.

The dichotomy now is partly the same one that used to exist between passing teams and hoofing teams - the proactive versus the reactive. The difference is now that the latter instead play it along the ground too, but with greater speed and fluency. With many of the teams in the Premier League adopting such a style, it makes for an inconsistent spectacle - two counter-attacking teams going up against each other will either produce a timid, tame affair or an end-to-end death-or-glory showdown. There seems to be very little in between.

The move has less to do with a desire for more attractive football and merely a result of the increased money in the league. The players possessed by mid-table clubs are now too high quality to be have the ball hoofed over their heads, and this simply represents an improved way of looking to gain results against superior opposition. Judging from Villa's respectable tally gained from an impossible start, it appears to be working.

The downside of all this is the tendency of such teams to cancel each other out. The mid-table sides in the Premier League seem to have become better than ever at surprising the big clubs, but less capable of reliably racking up points against the lower sides. While each game is less and less predictable, it seems that the gulf between the top seven teams and the rest is growing ever wider.

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