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Mick McCarthy’s Magic Method
Written by realprojection on Tuesday, 24th Nov 2015 09:04

In the modern football world, most match reports are adorned by a plethora of stats that may (or may not) tell us something extra about the relative performance of each team – eg BBC reports show shots, shots on target, possession and fouls.

Specialist sites like WhoScored.com and Squawka allow those of a nerdy persuasion to delve further and pore over shot directions, pass types, chalk boards and heat maps.

But, with so much data available, it’s difficult to work out what’s really important. As an Ipswich fan, one measure I find particularly confusing (and concerning) is 'pass success' (that is, percentage of completed passes).

Using this measure Ipswich are truly terrible. At the time of writing (22 November 2015) Ipswich sit rock bottom of a Championship table rated on pass success – more than 4% below the next lowest team Rotherham.

Now, we’re just over a third of the way through the season, so it could be an anomaly. But it’s not. It’s entirely consistent with last season (bottom) and the season before (second worst after the relegated Yeovil).

Championship Seasonal Pass Success Rate%
2015/16 (to 22/11/2015)2014/20152013/2014
1Derby80.4B'mouth79.5QPR79.2
2M'brough79.2Derby79.2Derby79.1
3Hull77.5Brighton78.5Brighton78.9
4Brentford77.0Brentford77.6Leicester77.1
5MK Dons77.0Norwich76.9Watford76.7
6Fulham76.8Fulham76.3B'mouth76.4
7Brighton76.2Watford75.8Forest75.6
8Reading76.1Wolves75.8Hud'field74.3
9Charlton74.4M'brough73.8M'brough74.1
10Hud'field74.3Forest72.8Blackburn73.9
11Wolves74.2Leeds72.6Wigan73.7
12Bristol C72.9Bolton72.5D'caster72.7
13Bolton72.5Blackburn71.7Leeds72.4
14Cardiff72.1Wigan71.7Barnsley71.7
15Sheff Wed71.5Reading71.5Bolton71.5
16Leeds71.2Hud'field70.2Sheff Wed69.8
17Blackburn70.4Millwall69.8Burnley69.7
18Burnley70.0Sheff Wed69.5Reading69.7
19Forest69.6Charlton69.4Blackpool69.6
20QPR68.6Cardiff69.3B'ham69.1
21Preston68.2B'ham67.9Charlton68.2
22B'ham67.2R'ham67.4Millwall67.6
23R'ham67.2Blackpool66.2Ipswich67.6
24Ipswich62.9Ipswich64.7Yeovil66.6

Does it matter? Possibly, but probably not. The ability to pass successfully is usually a key component of a successful team. The figures above show that good Championship teams tend to be near the top of the pass success stats – eg Bournemouth, Derby, Middlesbrough over the last few seasons, with Rotherham, Blackpool and Yeovil at the other end. But not always, eg Burnley were promoted in 2013/14 with the 17th best pass completion and they’re 18th this season.

As with most football stats, a team’s pass success depends on many factors – particularly a team’s tactics. The very best teams have high pass completion, Barcelona have pushed 90% in previous seasons and the top Premiership teams manage 85%. This is probably due to having better players (that can pass well). But tactics based on playing many short passes (tiki-taka football) and playing against opponents that are prepared to defend deeply will also drive up pass completion percentage.

But successful passing doesn’t always deliver successful results (the Wigan team that were relegated from the Premier League in 2012/13 are an example of this).

Conversely, teams can do well adopting tactics that lead to low pass completion. This is usually teams that play more direct passes – which are less likely to be successful, but more likely to create a chance (long balls!).

Premier League pass success stats, which go back to 2009, reveal a lot. Constructing a table for all Premier League seasons from 2009/10 to 2014/15 (120 different team finishes) – in order of pass success %, shows the bottom 24 positions as follows:

PositionTeamSeason start yearPass completion %Finishing PositionManager
97Wolves201071.617Mick McCarthy
98Blackburn201171.219Steve Kean
99Leicester201471.114Nigel Pearson
100Bolton201171.118 ROwen Coyle
101Sunderland20107110Steve Bruce
102QPR201470.820 RHarry Redknapp (until 3 February 2014) then Chris Ramsey
103Birmingham201070.618 RAlex McLeish
104Burnley201470.419 RSean Dyche
105Crystal Palace201370.211Tony Pulis (from 23/11/2013) Ian Holloway at start of season
106Stoke201269.913Tony Pulis
107Crystal Palace201469.410Neil Warnock (to 27/12/2014) then Alan Pardew
108Reading201269.219 RBrian McDermott
109Stoke201169.114Tony Pulis
110Burnley200968.718 ROwen Coyle (until 5 January) then Brian Laws
111Wolves200967.315Mick McCarthy
112Birmingham200967.29Alex McLeish
113Hull200966.719 RPhil Brown (to 15/3/2010) then Iain Dowie
114Bolton201066.614Owen Coyle
115Sunderland200965.913Steve Bruce
116Blackburn201064.215Sam Allardyce (to 13/12/2010) then Steve Kean
117Blackburn200963.810Sam Allardyce
118Bolton200963.714Gary Megson (to 30/12/2009) then Owen Coyle
119Stoke201063.413Tony Pulis
120Stoke200962.211Tony Pulis

Interestingly this is an all-British list of managers, and includes all the usual long-ball suspects. Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce have been particularly successful at using low pass completion tactics, although not always as successful at pleasing their team’s fans – which is probably why they don’t tend to stay too long at the same club.

Looking at these figures it’s hardly surprising that team owners tend to look abroad for a manager when they want a change of tactics. But of most relevance here is Mick McCarthy keeping Wolves up in 2009/10 and 2010/11 with typically low pass completion.

However, it’s wrong to believe that Mick adopts the same tactics as these other managers – there’s something more going on. The beguiling thing about Mick McCarthy’s teams is that he consistently achieves near 50% possession despite remarkably low pass completion. For example: 49.5% and 49.4% possession in the last two completed seasons for Ipswich and 50.4% for Wolves in 2010. These are far higher than for other teams with low pass completion.

This seems counter-intuitive because poor pass completion should deliver low possession. What I think is happening is that Mick’s teams manage to reduce opponents’ pass completion too. So passing ability is not a key priority in player selection, but positional understanding and a willingness to follow team orders is. This behaviour seems consistent with Town’s performances over the last three years – but I’m sure there’s much more to it.

So, going back to the question, does low pass completion matter? No, not with Mick McCarthy in charge. Mick’s tactics are unique modern football, which is why opposition managers often seem so disgruntled after losing by the odd goal to a seemingly poor Town team – they just don’t understand what’s going on. It equally explains why Mick remains so calm after a bad defeat – he knows his tactics work in the long run.

Mick McCarthy absolutely knows what he’s doing. He’s consistently delivered over many seasons. The problem is that it’s not always (or often) entertaining. Defeats can seem awful and even victories uninspiring. But, given Town’s current spending power, he is the perfect manager to deliver success.

Could he deliver promotion? It’s tempting to think that the addition of a couple of good passing midfielders will take Town to the next level. But a word of warning, the one Premier League season where Mick’s team achieved a pass completion rate greater than 75% was 2011/12 when Wolves were relegated in 20th place (ultimately under Terry Connor).

Also – the two matches this season where Town achieved their highest pass completion were Reading (a) 71% and Hull (a) 75%, which resulted in 5-1 and 3-0 defeats. I suspect that if we are to progress, Town will need to become even more an embodiment of a Mick McCarthy team, rather than less.

Going back to the pass success stat, it’s not a great indicator of a team’s performance (there are many better, like shots on target) but it’s a brilliant measure to quickly understand a manager’s tactical approach. It’s like the manager’s signature.

As a footnote – the team currently with the lowest pass success in the Premier League are… Leicester City, top of the league.




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MaySixth added 09:13 - Nov 24
Thanks, interesting reading.
1

blueblood66 added 09:29 - Nov 24
Just shows that goals win games,not stats, thanks for this.
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linhdi added 09:59 - Nov 24
Fabulous blog - thank you
1

ipswichben added 11:34 - Nov 24
Very interesting read. As mentioned these stats can often have no bearing on a team being successful. I noticed Leicester City at the time of writing are third from bottom in the Premier League for successful passing and possession stats in games but sit top of the league so there is still hope!
1

Generic added 12:08 - Nov 24
More blogs should be like this!
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Bergholtblue added 13:23 - Nov 24
Very interesting and some fascinating stats there. It does pose a question for me though, and that it "what is a successful pass?".

e.g. is a hoof out of defence by Chambers that skims of the head of Murphy and runs through to the keeper a successful pass?, or does the receiving player need to bring it under control? Similarly, a clip over the top, that a defender has to knock out for a corner or throw in deep in their half presumably would not be a completed pass. Of the two, I know what I would prefer.

The next question of course is how many were attempted. Do we attempt to pass as many times as Derby but are just crap at it or have Derby passed so few times that they have a better completion rate? (At this stage of the season and the comment about Reading and Hull, I think I know the answer to this one.)

Off to look at whoscored.com. God I hope I don't waste too much time, I have work to do!
1

prebbs007 added 13:35 - Nov 24
Pass completion is important but makes no difference if you have the worst goalkeeper and defence in the league. Our goals against column is the problem. Mr stubborn continues to pick the same back 5 who are out of form , out of position and out of ability even though game after game after game they screw up. That is the single stat that matters and for him to say there is not better available is an absolute joke.

Gerken would not get in most league 1 sides. Chambers is the worst RB in the division,Smith has no right foot and panics whenever he has to use it but MM picks him at RCB,and Knudsen is terrible, even his so called long throw is shocking. Keep picking them though Mick and we will continue to struggle.


-1

terryf added 15:38 - Nov 24
Looking at the League tables over this season and last, it is obvious the teams that have done well complete a very high ratio of successful passes during a game.
This confirms what we all know.
Mick McCarthy plays territorial rather than possession football, which is evident from the number of 50/50 balls hit out of defence from Chambers and Co. This results in only temporary respite as the ball usually comes back very quickly putting more pressure on the defence. A vicious circle. O.K. sometimes a long ball is required but not all the time. The management must be aware of all these stats so why don't they sort out the problem in training.
It would be a darn sight easier on the eye for us supporters who supposedly no bugger all about the game and who knows our results may show a dramatic improvement!
0

carsey added 18:31 - Nov 24
Definitely the best blog I've read here for a while and one that shows the only stat that counts are the points accumulated at the end of the season.
I have to side with those who make mention of the poor back 5 particularly Chambers and Gerkin and until this is rectified it doesn't matter how long we keep the ball how accurate our passing is or how many goals we score - we are always liable to concede.
I don't want my team to become more like McCarthy I want much more like Burley used to play

2

TR11BLU added 19:31 - Nov 24
Fascinating read, thanks.
0

realprojection added 22:07 - Nov 24
Thanks for the feedback. I'm intending to do more blogs to highlight some of the quirks of Town's statistics. I've posted the full table of Premiership team finishes since 2009, by pass completion on https://goalprojection.wordpress.com/
This shows that the bottom 30 teams by pass completion were all managed by British managers
0

horsehollerer added 02:51 - Nov 25
Cheers, great blog.
0

DurhamTownFan added 10:06 - Nov 25
What an excellently-research and well-written blog. You should send your date to Henry Winter at the Telegraph, because I know he's currently working on a book about the technical abilities of English sports players and coaches.

Reading your data depends on how you feel about the manager already. You build a case that Mick is a good manager despite not being able to keep the ball as well as rivals, but then I would point to your own argument that the top teams in the division more regularly finish higher in the possession stats. my own recently blogs on the subject argued that Mick needs to change his style if he is going to get us promoted, and I feel our current league position reflects that.
2

beeringo added 16:55 - Nov 25
Wow - truly original thoughts brought to the table. I'll never look at the BBC stats in the same way again. Great stuff!
2

megamoth added 14:58 - Nov 26
Probably the most well-researched and most balanced blog I have read on this site
3

IamSpartacus added 07:22 - Nov 27
Best blog I've seen on here, with great stats and fair analysis.

I guess a stark fact/opinion on the lowest pass success rate in the Prem is that most of the teams in that list were incredibly dull to watch- which, unfortunately, also reflects what I've seen at Portman Road over the last few seasons.

I like MM & I respect what he has done for us by saving the club after the disaster of Jewell. I also believe, given our precarious financial position, he is the best bet for promotion, but hell, the football we play is not pretty, flowing or aesthetically pleasing.

It is a tough balance, but as an entertainment sport, I just wish there was slightly more entertainment....


0

Ryorry added 15:31 - Nov 28
What a truly excellent blog, thank you - interesting, illuminating, thought-provoking and well-written - 10/10
1

BondiBlue added 05:22 - Nov 30
Most interesting blog i've read on here. Great work
0

JohnTy added 09:05 - Nov 30
Excellent blog. It reminds me that we used to have a reputation, gained under Robson, as a "pretty" footballing side. When Joe Royle arrived he said that we could pass the ball anywhere except into the net. So often in those years we played attractive football and lost.
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IpswichT62OldBoy added 19:04 - Dec 1
Thanks Realprojection. Very impressive and thought provoking piece.
Are you a journalist by trade?
0

SWGF added 14:26 - Dec 2
Super stuff. Thanks for posting.
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Edmunds5 added 08:58 - Dec 3
Enjoyed reading that, and the statistic about achieving near 50% possession was interesting to hear. Just shows how other teams struggle to deal with how we play and that there is an actual plan carried out that the players understand, as a pose to everyone thinking we should aimlessly punt forward and run after it.
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