Welcome to the Premier League's Slow-Mo Era

Or: How Manchester City and West Ham Mastered the New Pace of Play

Pace be damned. The Premier League is slowing down. Whether it’s due to the packed-tight, post-COVID-break schedule, managerial tactics, or a combination of the two, I’m not quite sure, but it’s undeniable that we’ve seen a slightly less frantic version of football since things kicked off in September.

Stats Perform keeps track of what they refer to as “sequences”, or what you might consider to be an uninterrupted possession. They define it as such: “passages of play which belong to one team and are ended by defensive actions, stoppages in play or a shot”. In England, the average number of sequences in a match remained roughly stable from 2016-17 through 2018-19, right around 153-154. Last season, with about a quarter of the season played after a long pause without any fans and with games in quick succession, that number dropped down to 150. And this year, it’s down to 146 per game. Stats Perform has data going back to the 2008-09 season, and the total number of sequences per game is currently lower than it’s ever been.

Fewer sequences suggests that the ball is turning over less frequently than it used to -- perhaps due to a calmer league-wide approach. Within the sequence framework, Stats Perform measures a number of more granular aspects, including what they call “Direct Speed”. The definition: “the number of metres that the ball travels (when measuring directly up-field), divided by the total time of the sequence”. The Direct Speed data puts an even finer point on the pace-of-play trend:

As the Direct Speed definition hints at, there’s also a measurement for how long each sequence lasts. As speed of movement has declined, the length of the average sequence has gone the other way:

The one notable difference between the two charts is that while the speed of sequences has been on a pretty steady decline since 2010, the length of sequences rose up until about 2013-14, and then remained relatively stable up until last season. The easiest explanation? Teams are tired, so they’re not pressing as much; teams are tired, so maybe they’re using possession to recover when they can, too. The league-wide pass completion rate is way higher than it’s ever been before: 81.3 percent, compared to a previous peak of 80. In response to the rise of pressing, players and teams have had to become more skilled at keeping possession under intense pressure from multiple directions. Those skills haven’t disappeared, but the pressing has, and now everyone is completing passes for fun. Back in 2009-10, the league-wide pass completion rate was just 73.1 percent. That wasn’t that long ago!

Given all of the international soccer this summer, followed by a bizarre mid-season World Cup in 2022, maybe this will be the new normal? Maybe players will find a way to recover through various [REDACTED] means? Maybe managers will start to rotate more and finally start subbing more aggressively to regain the more physically ambitious styles of play that dominated the past few seasons? Maybe this creates more room for the players who have since disappeared from the top-tier of the game -- the technically savvy creators who can’t quite run as much as modern managers would like them to, the ones who got got by “No playmaker in the world can be as good as a good gegenpressing”? Or maybe the players who can still maintain the 2019 levels of physical output while everyone else decays around them will become even more valuable? Even if it’s not immediately obvious to the naked eye, the context we’ve become accustomed to watching soccer within has significantly changed -- at least for now -- and that could slightly alter the best paths toward winning, too.

Just take this Premier League season. Who are the two biggest overachievers? West Ham and Manchester City. David Moyes’s side finished five points clear of the relegation zone last year; this year, they’re two points back of the Champions League places. Manchester City, meanwhile, finished 18 points back of Liverpool last season; now, they’re 25 points clear of the defending champs and 14 points beyond second place. 

“The only difference is that we run less — we were running too much,” Pep Guardiola said back in January, referring to his team’s supernova improvement after some early season struggles. “Without the ball you have to run. But with the football you have to walk, or run much less: stay more in position and let the ball run, not you.”

What do City and West Ham have in common? Well, nothing -- and that’s the point. Take a look at this chart, plotting each team’s average sequence time against each team’s direct speed.

The slowest team in the league -- by far? Manchester City. The fastest team in the league: West Ham. Pep Guardiola seems to have fully embraced the new, dialed-back world we’re living in, and Moyes seems to have eked out an edge by picking up the pace as everyone else slows down. The absolute extremes -- the fastest and the slowest -- are working.

Now, the average successful sequence -- which I’m defining as a sequence that creates a shot -- is both faster and shorter when compared to all sequences. Once the previous chart is adjusted to only include successful sequences, you’ll see the baselines rise on the y-axis and shrink on the x-axis, as West Ham (and Burnley) nearly achieve exit velocity and Chelsea scrape toward Manchester City thanks to Thomas Tuchel’s own interpretation of slo-mo COVID-ball:

Most teams maintain roughly similar spots along the spectrum, in comparison to their peers. For the majority of the league, every sequence shares some very general stylistic fingerprint, whether or not it leads to a goal -- except for Liverpool. For all sequences, they’re roughly similar to Chelsea and Arsenal, with the kind of overall measured possession play you’d expect from one of the better teams in the league. But if you only watch Liverpool’s sequences that lead to shots, you’ll see them as more similar with Wolves and Southampton -- two teams in the league’s bottom seven of total xG created this season, per FBref. It makes some sense that Liverpool would be in that bottom right quadrant: winning the ball back with a press and quickly turning it into a shot would get classified as what looks like a “slow and short” attack. In how they produce shots, Liverpool are missing the speed of West Ham and the control of City

While the average time of Liverpool’s sequences has increased in every one of Jurgen Klopp’s seasons in charge, the average time of the sequences that lead to shots has actually declined. In 2020-21, the most patient and possession-heavy Premier League season on record, Klopp’s team is taking its shots more quickly than ever before under their current manager. Now, “bad luck”, both with injuries and with finishing, is still the driving factor behind Liverpool’s drop down the table, but maybe there’s another reason, too: Klopp’s Liverpool played the modern pressing game better than just about anyone, which led to to multiple 97-plus-point seasons, two Champions League finals, one European Cup, and that long-awaited Premier League title. But things are different now. For reasons impossible to foresee, that game has changed.