Compromised numbers: Why the statistic you see may not be actual possession

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One of the amazing statistics to come out of last Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League match was the possession number. Barcelona was reported by UEFA was having held the ball 72 percent of the time, an amazing figure against a club of Chelsea’s caliber. For those who have tried to find significance to correlations between possession and victories, the number must have been both remarkable and beguiling. After all, Barcelona lost, giving more credence to the hypothesis’ main qualm: What if one team doesn’t care about holding the ball?

The next day, the possession story got even more confusing. Supreme stat overlords Opta reported that Chelsea had only managed 20 percent of the ball. What? Even less time in possession? How freakish is this data point going to get?

That, however, is not the story. At least, it’s the story in light of what Graham MacAree notes at Chelsea fan site We Ain’t Got No History. As he’s found out, Opta seems to be miscalculating possession; or, better put, Opta is not reporting a number consistent with the normal expectation for a possession stat.

The normal expectation: When one team has the ball, they’re in possession. I think we can all agree on this, right? This still leaves a lot of gray area. For example, who gets credit for possession when midfield chaos leaves neither side in control? Does one team get possession on a goal kick, when most goal kicks lead to 50-50 midfield challenges? And more broadly, what happens when play is dead but the game clock is running?

I’ve always assumed this is like a chess clock. When one team controls the ball, you hit a button that sends their dials turning. When the other fully regains possession, you hit a button. One clock stops. The other starts running. Those in between moments? They’re governed by one rule: Until possession changes, don’t touch anything.

That, apparently has nothing to do with Opta’s calculations. In fact, Graham’s research suggests Opta doesn’t even run a clock, which may be why they never report possession in terms of time. Instead, the relation between reported possession and total passes suggests Opta just uses passes. As Graham found out, if you take a team’s pass attempts a divide it by the game’s total attempted passes, you have Opta’s possession stat.

What does this mean? Let’s take a totally fake scenario. Barcelona plays three quick passes before trying a through ball that rolls to Petr Cech. It all takes four seconds, while Petr Cech keeps the ball at his feet for eight seconds before picking it up, holding it for five seconds, then putting it out for a throw in, which takes eight more seconds to put back into play.

Despite Barcelona having possession for only four of those 25 fake seconds, they’d have 80 percent of Opta’s possession (three good passes plus one bad, while Chelsea had only Cech’s unsuccessful pass). A logical expectation of a zero-sum possession figure would have that as either 16 percent or (if you credit the time out of play as Barça’s, since they’d have the ensuing throw) 48 percent Barcelona’s. Or, if you do a three-stage model (that’s sometimes reported in Serie A matches), you’d have 16 percent Barcelona, 52 percent Chelsea, and 32 percent limbo/irrelevant.

Of the three methods of reporting possession, Opta’s bares the least resemblance to reality; or, it’s the one that deviates furthest from what we expect from a possession stat.

Ironies being a thing these days, there are two here. First, Opta is the unquestioned leader in soccer data management. How could this happen?

Second, Opta isn’t trying to hide their methods. In fact, they’ve published a post on their site detailing not only their practices but their motivations and research, an investigation that found their approach “came up with exactly the same figures (as time-based methods) on almost every occasion.”

You would think two curmudgeons like Graham and myself would have found this, right? Graham had a reader point it out to him, while a representative from Opta magnanimously pointed me to the piece without the seemingly necessarily indignation of explaining how a Google search works. After all Graham’s work and head scratching – after my lack of work and similar head-scratching – we could have just gone to Opta’s site.

“We try to be as transparent as possible with this stuff,” Opta said when I asked them about it. Certainly, they should be commended being so up front about their methods. After all, they’re a business that makes money off their work. They don’t need to give away their secrets.

But that’s a secondary issue. The main one: Why is a data house like Opta, reputed as the industry standard, taking this short cut? Or, why haven’t they renamed their measure? Granted, the perception that it is a shortcut may have more to do with our expectations than their intent, though based on their defense in the post, it’s clear they do see this as an accurate way of describing possession.

Still, the number they publish is completely redundant to the raw passing numbers also distributed. Why put the measure out at all if not to check a “possession stat” box on a list of deliverables?

Opta’s possession stat shouldn’t be cited in reporting, and if it is, the word “possession” shouldn’t be used to describe it. Reader expectations for anything labeled “possession” are drastically different than what Opta’s producing. The number is confusing to the point of being misleading. It’s becoming counter-information because of its poor packaging.

Even though Opta’s post on the topic is 14 months old, most will be surprised to hear this “news.” It’s disconcerting for anybody who is hoping a SABR-esque revolution’s on the horizon. Almost all of the huge volume of data to which we have access has been useful, but where people are expecting something akin to linear weights to be published tomorrow, we can’t even agree on the terms (let alone the significance of them).

Graham probably puts it better:

I’m completely fine with keeping track of passing volume – I’ve done it before myself. What’s frustrating, from an analyst’s point of view, is that we’re being sold a dud. A statistic that ostensibly measures possession measures something that is not possession, and gets repeated as authoritative anyway.

And people wonder why football statistics don’t get taken very seriously.

FA Cup fourth round live! Scores, how to watch live, predictions

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The FA Cup always delivers shocks and plenty of Premier League clubs had tricky tasks facing them in the fourth round. One still has one, in fact.

After Aston Villa, Newcastle, Nottingham Forest, and Bournemouth were all knocked out by lower league opponents in round three, plus Everton, Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Arsenal, and Brentford knocked out by fellow Premier League sides, there were only 10 top-flight teams left in the competition.

[ LIVE: Follow FA Cup scores, updates ]

Arsenal lost narrowly at Manchester City in a heavyweight clash, while Brighton won late on against Liverpool, and Manchester United beat Reading easily. West Ham will be on upset alert as they face a tough trip to third-tier Derby County.

And then there’s Wrexham AFC, who nearly sprung a big upset of Sheffield United but will have to settle for a replay.

Read on for FA Cup stream info, fixtures, and predictions.


FA Cup live scores, schedule, dates, how to watch

Dates: Fourth round (January 27-30)
Times: Below
Online: Live updates via NBCSports.com
How to watch: ESPN+


FA Cup fourth round schedule

All games 10am ET unless otherwise stated

Monday
Derby County vs West Ham – 2:45pm ET

Results

Friday
Man City 1-0 Arsenal – Recap/video highlights

Saturday
Accrington Stanley 1-3 Leeds United
Walsall 0-1 Leicester City
Fulham 1-1 Sunderland
Bristol City 3-0 West Brom
Sheffield Wednesday 1-1 Fleetwood Town
Blackburn Rovers 2-2 Birmingham City
Luton Town 2-2 Grimsby Town
Ipswich Town 0-0 Burnley
Southampton 2-1 Blackpool
Preston North End 0-3 Tottenham Hotspur
Manchester United 3-1 Reading

Sunday
Brighton 2-1 Liverpool
Stoke City 3-1 Stevenage
Wrexham 3-3 Sheffield United


FA Cup fourth round predictions – By Joe Prince-Wright

Friday
Man City 2-1 Arsenal

Saturday
Accrington Stanley 1-3 Leeds United
Walsall 1-2 Leicester City
Fulham 1-2 Sunderland
Bristol City 1-2 West Brom
Sheffield Wednesday 2-1 Fleetwood Town
Blackburn Rovers 1-1 Birmingham City
Luton Town 3-1 Grimsby Town
Ipswich Town 1-3 Burnley
Southampton 2-0 Blackpool
Preston North End 1-4 Tottenham Hotspur
Manchester United 2-1 Reading

Sunday
Brighton 2-2 Liverpool
Stoke City 2-1 Stevenage
Wrexham 1-2 Sheffield United

Monday
Derby County 1-1 West Ham


FA Cup third round replays

Tuesday 

Swansea City 1-2 (AET) Bristol City
Forest Green Rovers 1-2 Birmingham City (original tie postponed due to waterlogged pitch)
Wigan 1-2 Luton
Wolves 0-1 Liverpool
West Brom 4-0 Chesterfield

Wednesday

Leeds United 5-2 Cardiff City

Tuesday, January 24

Accrington Stanley vs Boreham Wood


FA Cup third round results

Friday

Manchester United 3-1 Everton

Saturday

Preston North End 3-1 Huddersfield Town
Reading 2-0 Watford
Tottenham 1-0 Portsmouth
Gillingham 0-1 Leicester City
Forest Green Rovers vs Birmingham City — PPD
Crystal Palace 1-2 Southampton
Hull City 0-2 Fulham
Middlesbrough 1-5 Brighton
Fleetwood Town 2-1 QPR
Ipswich Town 4-1 Rotherham
Bournemouth 2-4 Burnley
Blackpool 4-1 Nottingham Forest
Chesterfield 3-3 West Brom
Millwall 0-2 Sheffield United
Boreham Wood 1-1 Accrington Stanley
Shrewsbury Town 1-2 Sunderland
Brentford 0-1 West Ham
Coventry City 3-4 Wrexham
Luton Town 1-1 Wigan
Grimsby Town 1-0 Burton Albion
Sheffield Wednesday 2-1 Newcastle
Liverpool 2-2 Wolves

Sunday

Bristol City 1-1 Swansea City
Derby County 3-0 Barnsley
Cardiff City 2-2 Leeds
Stockport 1-2 Walsall
Hartlepool 0-3 Stoke City
Norwich 0-1 Blackpool
Aston Villa 1-2 Stevenage
Man City 4-0 Chelsea

Monday

Oxford United 0-3 Arsenal


Anthony Gordon sold to Newcastle by Everton for $49.5 million

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NEWCASTLE, England (AP) Newcastle signed Anthony Gordon from Everton reportedly for an initial 40 million pounds ($49.5 million) on Sunday after the 21-year-old winger submitted a formal transfer request.

Newcastle said Gordon has signed a long-term deal as the team bolsters its squad for its tilt at qualifying for the Champions League. It is currently in third place in the Premier League.

“I think the fan base and the city really suits me as a person, the way the team are playing under the (manager Eddie Howe) at the minute really suits me, and the club just look like they’re heading in the right direction,” Gordon said.

[ MORE: Complete list of Premier League transfers ]

“I feel like it’s a really big step. People haven’t seen what I’m capable of yet.”

Gordon joined Everton’s academy at the age of 11 and made his senior debut as a 16-year-old in a Europa League match in December 2017.

Everton announced the departure of Gordon in a brief statement.

Howe described Gordon as a “top, top talent.”

“I’m really excited to work with him, to develop him, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do in a Newcastle shirt,” Howe added.

Premier League transfer news, live! Complete list of January transfers so far

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The January transfer window is again seeing big-name imports into the Premier League, and the final hours of the window are seeing a flurry of deals take place.

Chelsea’s signed Benoit Badiashile and Andrey Santos, Newcastle’s formally welcomed Garang Kuol, and Liverpool’s reinforced its forward ranks with Cody Gakpo joining the Anfield set.

[ TRANSFER NEWS: Liverpool | Chelsea | Tottenham | Man City | Man United | Arsenal ]

There’s plenty of discussion about Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur making additions to deepen their squads’ top-four pushes, but nothing complete yet for either big name side.

The same is true for title-fighters Arsenal and Manchester City, though their top-end footing is a lot more stable.


Latest transfer deals developing – January 29

Weston McKennie to Leeds United is a developing deal as the American midfielder is set to join on loan until the end of the season, with Leeds having an option to buy him for $36 million.

Arsenal are pushing hard to sign Moises Caicedo, with the Ecuadorian midfielder not playing for Brighton in the FA Cup against Liverpool amid a reported new $86 million bid from the Gunners. Anthony Gordon has signed for Newcastle from Everton for a fee believed to be around $60 million.


AFC Bournemouth

In
Dango Ouattara (Lorient)
Darren Randolph (West Ham)
Antoine Semenyo (Bristol City)

Out
Ferdinand Okoh (Dorchester) Loan
James Hill (Hearts) Loan
Will Dennis (Slough) Loan
Noa Boutin (Gosport) Loan


Arsenal

In
Leandro Trossard (Brighton)
Jakub Kiwior (Spezia Calcio)

Out
Brooke Norton-Cuffy (Coventry) Loan
Miguel Azeez (Wigan) Loan
Arthur Okonkwo (Sturm Graz) Loan
Ovie Ejeheri (SJK Seinajoki) Loan
Harry Clarke (Ipswich Town)


Aston Villa

In
Aaron Ramsey (loan recall)
Tyreik Wright (loan recall)
Alex Moreno (Real Betis)
Jhon Duran (Chicago Fire)

Out
Cameron Archer (Middlesbrough) Loan
Tyreik Wright (Plymouth Argyle)
Frederic Guilbert (RC Strasbourg)
Indiana Vassilev (St. Louis City SC)
Danny Ings (West Ham)
Jan Bednarek (loan recall)
Morgan Sanson (Strasbourg) Loan


Brentford

In
Byron Wilson (Coventry)
Conor McManus (Bray Wanderers)
Fin Stevens (loan recall)
Mads Bech (loan recall)
Beaux Booth (Dorking)
Kevin Schade (Freiburg) Loan
Paris Maghoma (loan recall)
Romeo Beckham (Inter Miami) Loan
Nathan Young-Coombes (loan recall)

Out
Myles Peart-Harris (Forest Green Rovers) Loan extension
Aaron Pressley (Accrington) Loan
Lachlan Brook (Crewe) Loan extension
Edon Pruti (Hartlepool)
Mads Bech (Groningen) Loan
Ellery Balcombe (Bristol Rovers) Loan
Tariqe Fosu (Rotherham) Loan
Paris Maghoma (MK Dons) Loan
Charlie Goode (Blackpool) Loan


Brighton & Hove Albion

In
Facundo Buonanotte (Rosario Central)
Jamie Mullins (Bohemians)
Mark O’Mahony (Cork)

Out
Aaron Connolly (Hull) Loan
Reda Khadra (Birmingham)
Ed Turns (Leyton Orient) Loan
James Beadle (Crewe Alexandra) Loan
Leandro Trossard (Arsenal)


Chelsea

In
David Datro Fofana (Molde)
Benoit Badiashile (Monaco)
Andrey Santos (Vasco da Gama)
Joao Felix (Atletico Madrid) Loan
Mykhailo Mudryk (Shakhtar Donetsk)
Noni Madueke (PSV Eindhoven)
Malo Gusto (Lyon)

Out
Bashir Humphreys (Paderborn) Loan
Malo Gusto (Lyon) Loan

Chelsea transfer news
Benoit Badiashile (Photo by Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

Crystal Palace

Out
Killian Phillips (Shrewsbury) Loan
Jack Butland (Man Utd) Loan
John-Kymani Gordon (Carlise) Loan
Malcolm Ebiowei (Hull) Loan
Ryan Bartley (Eastbourne Borough) Loan
David Boateng (Dover) Loan


Everton

In
Ellis Simms (loan recall)
Nathan Broadhead (loan recall)
Niels Nkounkou (loan recall)

Out
Salomon Rondon (released)
Nathan Broadhead (Ipswich)
Tom Cannon (Preston) Loan
Niels Nkounkou (Saint-Etienne) Loan
Sebastian Quirk (Accrington Stanley)
Tyler Onyango (Forest Green) Loan
Anthony Gordon (Newcastle)


Fulham

In
Anthony Knockaert (loan recall)

Out
Idris Odutayo (Maidenhead) Loan extension
Anthony Knockaert (Huddersfield) Loan
Ibane Bowat (Den Bosch) Loan


Leeds United

In
Max Wober (RB Salzburg)
Georginio Rutter (Hoffenheim)

Out
Mateusz Klich (MLS pending)
Alfie McCalmont (Carlisle) Loan
Leo Hjelde (Rotherham) Loan
Max Dean (MK Dons)
Cody Drameh (Luton) Loan
Joe Gelhardt (Sunderland) Loan


Leicester City

In
George Hirst (loan recall)
Victor Kristiansen (Copenhagen)
Tete (Lyon)

Out
George Hirst (Ipswich) Loan
Ben Nelson (Doncaster) Loan
Jakub Stolarczyk (Hartlepool) Loan


Liverpool

In
Cody Gakpo (PSV)
Billy Koumetio (Austria Vienna) Loan recall
Max Woltman (loan recall)
Jakub Ojrzynski (loan recall)
James Balagizi (loan recall)
Fidel O’Rourke (loan recall)
Rhys Williams (loan recall)

Out
Jake Cain (Swindon Town)
Jarell Quansah (Bristol Rovers) Loan

Liverpool transfer news
Cody Gakpo photo vis twitter.com/LFC

Manchester City

In
Liam Delap (loan recall)
Maximo Perrone (Velez Sarsfield)

Out
Josh Wilson-Esbrand (Coventry) Loan
Liam Delap (Preston) Loan
Kayky (Bahia) Loan


Manchester United

In
Jack Butland (Crystal Palace) Loan
Wout Weghorst (Burnley) Loan

Out
Martin Dubravka (loan recall)
Shola Shoretire Loan (Bolton Wanderers)
Charlie Savage (Forest Green) Loan


Newcastle United

In
Amadou Diallo (free) 
Garang Kuol (Central Coast Mariners)
Martin Dubravka (loan recall)
Anthony Gordon (Everton)

Out
Garang Kuol (Hearts) Loan
Chris Wood (Nott’m Forest) Loan
Dylan Stephenson (Hamilton) Loan


Nottingham Forest

In
Gustavo Scarpa (Palmeiras)
Danilo (Palmeiras)
Alex Mighten (loan recall)
Chris Wood (Newcastle United) Loan

Out
Loic Bade (loan recall)
Dale Taylor (Burton Albion) Loan
Aaron Donnelly (Port Vale) Loan


Southampton

In
Mislav Orsic (Dinamo Zagreb)
Carlos Alcaraz (Racing Club)
Jan Bednarek (loan recall)
James Bree (Luton)

Out
Dynel Simeu (Morecambe) Loan
Dan Nlundulu (Bolton) Loan
Nico Lawrence (Torquay) Loan


Tottenham

In
Arnaut Danjuma (Villarreal) Loan


West Ham United

In
Luizao (Sao Paulo)
Armstrong Okoflex (loan recall)
Danny Ings (Aston Villa)

Out
Thierry Nevers (Bradford) Loan
Craig Dawson (Wolves)
Pierre Ekwah (Sunderland)
Darren Randolph (AFC Bournemouth)
Will Greenidge (Colchester) Loan


Wolverhampton Wanderers

In
Matheus Cunha (Atletico Madrid) Loan
Joe Young (loan recall)
Louie Moulden (loan recall)
Theo Corbeanu (loan recall)
Christian Marques (loan recall)
Lewis Richards (loan recall)
Mario Lemina (Nice)
Pablo Sarabia (Paris Saint-Germain)
Craig Dawson (West Ham)
Dan Bentley (Bristol City)
Ki-Jana Hoever (loan recall)

Out
Leo Bonatini (released)
Joe Young (Telford) Loan
Goncalo Guedes (Benfica) Loan
Theo Corbeanu (Arminia Bielefeld) Loan
Leonardo Campana (Inter Miami)
Connor Ronan (Colorado Rapids)
Fabio Silva (PSV) Loan
Matija Sarkic (Stoke) Loan
Ki-Jana Hoever (Stoke) Loan
Jackson Smith (Walsall) Loan

Premier League transfers
Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Matheus Cunha  (Photo by David Davies/PA Images via Getty Images)

Transfer Deadline Day, live! Join our show, send questions, analysis

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Transfer deadline day is almost here for January 2023, as the winter window shuts at 6pm ET on Jan. 31 for Premier League clubs.

[ LIVE: Every Premier League transfer deal as it happens ]

The clock is ticking late in the window and we will have all angles covered for you here at Pro Soccer Talk.

[ TRANSFER NEWS: Liverpool | Chelsea | Tottenham | Man City | Man United | Arsenal ]

From clicking on the links above to read the latest reports and analysis, having Sky Sports News live on Peacock all day long and to our own Pro Soccer Talk live deadline day show which starts at 5:30pm ET on Jan. 31, you won’t miss a thing.

WATCH: Sky Sports News live on Transfer deadline day on Peacock

Click on the video below to send in your questions for the PST crew for our deadline day chat where we will round up all of the deals happening late in the window, dish out grades to Premier League teams based on their business and give our analysis on the best signings of the January window.