Things aren’t going so well for Partick Thistle. Not only are they languishing dangerously close…
Earlier in the season we ran through a recently-published CIES report which carefully pointed out that when compared to most European countries, Scottish teams struggle to pass with the same accuracy and intensity.
Now that we’re slowly but surely venturing towards the conclusion of this current Scottish Premiership season, it seemed like an appropriate time to take a look at how each team passes the ball and whether it has impacted their success in the league table.
The top tier of Scottish football has a number of interesting teams that offer contrasting styles of football. So which one brings more success and is there really a correlation between quick, accurate football and picking up points every weekend?
British football – because Scottish and English football can never be different or unique – has always been characterised as a style of play that prioritised long, direct passing up and down the pitch. Towering central defenders would pick passes out from their back line and target men would pluck balls out of the air. In between both of them was a battlefield of scarred midfielders that enjoyed tackling far more than passing.
Fortunately, things have changed a fair bit in the Scottish Premiership since the prevailing tactics 15-20 years ago. Now possession is valued, passing is heralded as a technique best executed on the ground and short, quick transitions tend to break through a defensive line far more effectively than a simple punt up the pitch.
When we take a look at how each Premiership team passes and compare it to their points won in the league thus far we get a graph like the one shown above. On the vertical axis, we have the percentage of short passes played by any given team and on the horizontal one we have points won.
As we can see from the trendline going from bottom left to top right, there is a broad rule of thumb at play here: the more a team relies on short passes over long passes the more points it tends to pick up in the Premiership.
Naturally, Celtic are well and truly beyond all others in the division and quite frankly in a league of their own when it comes to how many of their passes are short. But as we can see Rangers and Hibs – two teams fighting over second place at the time of writing – also continue the trend.
It’ll probably come as no surprise to most Aberdeen fans to see their side fall behind in short passes, while Steve Clarke’s Kilmarnock side are one of the very worst in the division for it. And are perhaps the most notable outlier from the trend.
Intriguingly, when we get to the bottom six sides in the division we find a notable split between what may be described as the “pragmatic trio” and the more “idealistic trio” in terms of the football they play and how well it has suited them in the league so far this season.
Motherwell and Hamilton Accies have successfully achieved their aims for the season by playing aggressive, dominating football which probably doesn’t lend itself to short passing. Similarly, St Johnstone have managed to sure up a transition year with Tommy Wright’s signature style of playing: not all that pretty on the eyes but effective when played properly.
Alternatively, we have three teams in Ross County, Dundee and Partick Thistle that have prioritised a style of attacking football to the detriment of their season as a whole. The Fir Hill side, in particular, have tried to play expansive football where a more defensive system may have suited them better.
To an extent, we could perhaps go as far as to suggest that while shorter passes certainly lead to more points across the board, it may also prove to be the opposite at the bottom of the table.
When we look at the speed of passing in the Premiership we also find a similar link between each team’s capacity to do so and the points they’ve racked up on the league table. The graph below shows how many passes per minute each Premiership team tends to make in any given game alongside points won.
As we can see, Celtic are once again out in front, with Rangers, Aberdeen and Hibs making up the chasing pack. Rather than remain an outlier here, Kilmarnock – and to a similar extent, Hearts too – slot into the trend to provide a fairly accurate representation of how this season has gone so far. At least in terms of the top six.
However, when we get to the bottom half of the table we see a similar situation to what came before in the previous graph. Here we have Motherwell and St Johnstone racking up identical figures while alongside Hamilton as three sides that make fewer passes but have ultimately won more points in this season’s Premiership. Yet Partick, County and Dundee are once again stuck with fewer points despite playing the more expansive style of football.
So what does this all mean? Well, despite Partick and Dundee’s struggles this season it’s pretty clear that if you want to elbow your way in to the top six teams in the Premiership you have to ensure at least 84% of your passes are short and that your team are making around 6.5 passes per game.
Of course, you can always take a leaf out of Kilmarnock’s book and play a pragmatic, defensive system that concedes concession for accurate counter-attacking football, but you would probably need a coach like Clarke to ensure its success.
Although we’re not sure who will eventually end up getting relegated we do know that St Mirren will be joining the division next season. And as a team that enjoy playing quick, short passes it’ll undoubtedly be intriguing to see just how far it gets them against better opposition.