English teams don't run more than everyone else, possession doesn't automatically win the Champions League - and here are the stats to prove it

Goal.com has taken and analysed data from the group stage of Europe's elite tournament, and used it to put many commonly-held beliefs to the test
ANALYSIS
By Clark Whitney | German Football Editor

There are many cliches commonly accepted in football: that effort begets success, that passing can minimise a team's need to run, that possession wins games, that English clubs play harder and more aggressively than any other. But how many of these principles are indeed true?

Goal.com has reviewed the Champions League group stage games, revealing the most industrious players from Europe's most elite competition, and analysing the relationship between distance run, possession, and overall success. Read on for our conclusions.

'Let the ball do the work' is a fallacy

DORTMUND RUNNING STATS*
VS MARSEILLE, HOME
DISTANCE COVERED
MAX DISTANCE
MIN DISTANCE
AVG DISTANCE PER POSITION
POSSESSION
122.9km
13.2km
11.0km
12.3km
53%
 AGGREGATE AVERAGE
DISTANCE COVERED PER GAME
AVG DISTANCE PER POSITION
POSSESSION
117.0km
11.7km
52%
*Outfielders only
With the rise of Barcelona as Europe's most formidable club, the phrase 'let the ball do the work' has emerged as part of coaching dogma. And to this ideology there is some merit: the Catalans have managed to achieve success again and again while playing a relatively slow-paced game, primarily confined to one half of the pitch. During the group stage, Barcelona averaged a whopping 68 per cent possession. Pedro was their hardest worker, averaging 11.5km per game, while Xavi ranked second at a modest 11.3. Lionel Messi put in an shockingly low 8.2km for each 90 minutes played, but this was according to Pep Guardiola's game plan: though he ran very little, the Argentine was joint-top scorer in the group stage.

Some statistics further back the notion that more running correlates with less possession. For example, three of the top 10 hardest workers in the group stage came from teams that averaged 42% of the ball or less.

However, seven of the top 10 runners came from teams that managed at least a 50-50 split. They could hardly be considered as chasing the ball.

The fact is, there are many ways to win a football game, some more physically demanding than others. Some teams are forced to run hard in order to win the ball; for others, extra effort is by design as they look to press their opponents high up the pitch.

The best example of the latter can be found in the most industrious 90-minute shift from any team in the group stage. In Dortmund's 3-2 loss to Marseille in matchday six, the German side, goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller excluded, covered a remarkable 122.946 kilometres: this means that on average, an outfielder (including those in typically less-demanding positions like centre-back and centre forward) ran 12.3km. And yet, they won 53% of the possession.

Dortmund are not the only example of a hard-working team that averaged more than a 50% share of the ball. Chelsea had two players (Raul Meireles and Juan Mata) average over 12km per 90 minutes, but managed an aggregate 51% of the possession and finished first in Group E.

Sometimes players are forced to run more to get a touch on the ball. And sometimes teams allow the ball to do the running. But the stats show there is no general correlation: it is a myth that the hardest-working teams are also those with the least possession.

EPL teams cover less ground than reputation suggests

EPL TOP RUNNERS (KM/90 CL MINS)
ARSENAL CHELSEA
M. Arteta
R. v Persie
11.8
11.0
R. Meireles
J. Mata
12.6
12.0
 MAN CITY  MAN UTD
Y. Toure
G. Barry
11.5
11.5
M. Carrick
W. Rooney
12.1
10.7
The first thing that many think of when considering the Premier League is power and pace. England's top flight certainly has a reputation for heavily emphasising physicality. And while it is true that some of the fastest runners come from the island, the commonly held notion that this also means their players cover more ground is simply false.

Of the top 10 runners in the group stage, only one - Raul Meireles, of Chelsea - came from England. And only three players from the Premier League's four represented teams averaged 12km or more per 90 minutes.

For a number of reasons, the quickest runners could never be the most industrious players overall. Faster runs are more anaerobically demanding on the body, and the leg muscles in sprinters have a higher per cent composition of the more powerful but easily fatigued fast-twitch muscles than others. But this should not apply to players not built in the mould of Theo Walcott.

While it is easy to assume that the pace of the English game means that players from the island run more than most others, the statistics say otherwise. Long passes will indeed see the ball move quickly, but a couple of forwards counter-attacking will not cover the same amount of ground as a full team moving as a unit quickly from end to end.

Truth be told, there is no strong link between the industry of individuals and the success of their clubs. Out of the top 10 hardest runners during the group stage, exactly half played for teams that qualified for the round of 16.

Five were among the ranks of sides that finished at the bottom of their respective groups (Otelul Galati and Dortmund). But two represented sides that finished atop their groups (Chelsea and APOEL). All the remaining three played for teams that finished runners-up.

TOP RUNNERS | The hardest-working players in the group stage
Player
Team
Distance per 90 mins (km)*
Max distance (km)
Ioan Filip
Otelul Galati
13.353 13.866
Sven Bender Dortmund 13.047 13.574
Yoann Gourcuff Lyon 12.672 13.078
Shinji Kagawa Dortmund 12.636 12.605
Gabriel Giurgiu Otelul Galati 12.625 12.986
Raul Meireles Chelsea 12.615 13.118
Kevin Grosskreutz Dortmund 12.613 12.455
Viktor Fayzulin Zenit 12.593 13.302
Helio Pinto APOEL 12.584 13.433
Lars Bender Leverkusen 12.516 13.097
*Minimum 270 minutes played

Italian teams succeed with minimal running and possession

SERIE A TEAMS IN THE CL
INTER AVERAGE POSSESSION: 48%
TOP RUNNER*: NAGATOMO (11.4)
MILAN AVERAGE POSSESSION: 50%
TOP RUNNER: NOCERINO (11.4)
NAPOLI AVERAGE POSSESSION: 43%
TOP RUNNER: INLER (11.6)
*(km/90 mins)
No domestic league sent more teams to the last 16 than Serie A. After Udinese were eliminated in the play-offs, all three remaining squads - Inter, Milan, and Napoli - moved on to the next round.

The three Italian sides are proof that the only statistic that matters is goals scored. All were among the least industrious in the tournament in terms of ground covered, and it is not as though they let the ball do the running for them: only Milan managed an even split of the possession, and barely at that.

Despite not pressing very high up the pitch, Napoli managed to defend deep, surrendering possession but saving energy to hit opponents - especially Manchester City - on the counter-attack.

Inter rode their luck on more than one occasion, but managed to edge CSKA Moscow for top spot in Group B. Experience proved to be a big factor for the 2010 Champions League winners, who had the practical know-how and finesse to grind down their opponents.

The stats will show that Milan had an even share of the ball, but their figures are deflated somewhat given that one third of their matches were against ball-retaining wizards Barcelona. In the other four games, at least, the defending Serie A champions controlled the tempo, keeping play at a slow pace. In the end it worked fine: even if opponents were not gasping for breath, Milan finished comfortably above Viktoria Plzen and advanced to the round of 16.

Teams with more possession are just as likely to be eliminated

POSSESSION VS SUCCESS
LAST-16 TEAMS POSSESSION
BARCELONA
MARSEILLE
BAYERN MUNICH
REAL MADRID
BASEL
ARSENAL
CHELSEA
ZENIT
LYON
MILAN
BENFICA
LEVERKUSEN
CSKA MOSCOW
INTER
NAPOLI

APOEL
68%
56%
56%
55%
53%
51%
51%
50%
50%
50%
48%
48%
48%
48%
43%
42%
TOP FIVE (POSSESSION)
QUALIFIED?
BARCELONA (68%)
VALENCIA (60%)
MAN UTD (59%)
MAN CITY (57%)
MARSEILLE (56%)

X
X
X

Further supporting the point of there being many different ways to win a football game, the results of the group stage prove that teams that earned less than half of the possession are almost equally likely to progress as those that earned more than half.

In the group phase, 15 teams averaged greater than half the possession; of these, seven qualified for the round of 16.

On the other hand, 14 sides earned less than a 50% share of the ball, yet nearly the same (six) advanced. The remaining three teams had an even split of the possession on average, and all qualified.

Barcelona, with their silky-smooth passing game, enjoyed the most time on the ball of all teams in the group stage, and had no trouble qualifying. But the next three teams in terms of possession, Valencia, Manchester United and Manchester City, failed to advance.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Viktoria Plzen enjoyed just 39% of the ball and did not progress. But counterattacking sides APOEL and Napoli, who at 42% and 43% respectively only had slightly more possession, indeed managed to advance.

And so the philosophical battle of possession vs counterattack rages on. Two years ago, Inter willingly surrendered the ball to Bayern Munich, and won the final. Last year, pass masters Barcelona triumphed in the final against the speedy Manchester United. And this year? We'll soon find out, but heading into the round of 16, neither ideology has an edge.

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