Last weekend brought us yet another instalment of vintage Premier League action. Frantic matches at both ends of the table. A healthy dose of controversy. And a shedload of goals.
But as the dust settles, one debate continues to rage on: time-wasting.
After his side’s 2-0 home defeat to Arsenal, Eddie Howe was clearly unimpressed with the tactics of the away side:
“They managed the game well from their perspective,” he told reporters. “They slowed it down, lots of breaks in play, which was frustrating for us. Naturally, we wanted the ball in play more. Especially when you’re chasing the game.”
Does he have a point?
Elsewhere, on Merseyside – and much to the incredulity of the home fans – Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson was booked for time-wasting against Brentford.
Was it deserved?
Read on to find out what the data says about those two incidents and more.
Play Ball (Or Don’t)
“Managing the situation.”
“Taking the sting out of the game.”
To the losing team, it’s time-wasting. To those leading, it’s smart game management.
Whichever way you spin in, despite being nominally 90 minutes long, football matches never are. Delays, restarts and stoppages always ensure that the ball is never in play for anywhere close to an hour and a half. And that’s fine. Those things are all part of the game. And they always have been.
But there’s one big problem: the amount of time lost to those delays is getting worse.
And now for the first time, we can pinpoint the exact aspects of the game that are responsible for those delays.
The average ball-in-play time in the Premier League this season is 54 minutes and 46 seconds. That’s the lowest it’s ever been in the 11 seasons since records began (2012-13). It is 22 seconds fewer than last season and one minute and 57 seconds lower than the peak of 56:43 back in 2013-14.
Rule changes such as additional substitutions and new technology introductions like VAR have certainly contributed to this. But while the current average of eight minutes of stoppage time per Premier League game is also an all-time high, it’s clearly not enough to compensate for the volume of time lost to stoppages.
At the basic, fundamental level, we are seeing less and less of the product we pay increasingly more and more for.
This is not just a problem in England, either. None of the top five leagues in Europe see the ball in play for over 60% of matches. Fans in Ligue 1 get to see the most action for their wallet, but even then, they are seeing just shy of 56 minutes of football, for a 58.1% slice of the pie.
But what causes these delays?
VAR stoppages for one. They take, on average, about 73 seconds to resolve. Substitutions – especially when you can make up to five – don’t help speed the game along either.
But even something as simple as restarting play can eat into a dramatically long amount of time:
On average, half a minute is lost on every free kick, corner and goal kick in the Premier League this season, while a throw-in takes about 16 seconds off the clock. These are humble match events but, intentionally or not, can add up over the course of a game.
Penalties are a significant time drain. In matches where one has been awarded this season, it takes around two minutes for the spot kick to be taken, such is the typical furore of players surrounding referees and general gamesmanship of delaying the taker.
Oh, and once you’ve scored that penalty that it took so long to take? Add another 72 seconds for the celebration before play restarts, will you?
The Premier League’s Biggest Offenders
Of course, the 55.8% of total time the ball is in play across any given Premier League game is an average. As the table below shows, that proportion of time can vary hugely depending on who’s playing.
Go watch a Manchester City game – a team notorious for a possession-dominant style of play – and you’re likely to see over nine more minutes of action than a Newcastle United game.
And that’s where most pieces of analysis end. Manchester City = pure, Newcastle United = devious.
But two sides play every game. Might it be the case that it’s not just Newcastle who are trying to slow the game down, but their opponents as well? Is that why we scarcely see the ball in play for over 50% of their matches?
With Opta time-keeping data, we can now isolate teams. And here’s where things get really juicy.
The below graphic shows the average time, in seconds, that each team takes over a ‘delay’ in a Premier League match. ‘Delay’ here captures the time between the ball going out of play and play being restarted across corners, free kicks, throw-ins, goal kicks, kick-offs, penalties and drop balls.
We see some familiar names at the top and bottom of this list. Brentford take over 31.4 seconds on average to restart play after a delay. Newcastle are high on the list at 29.5 seconds.
Manchester City (25.8s) and Liverpool (23.6s) are among the quickest two teams in the league at restarting play once it stops. This makes a lot of sense. If you’re the best team on paper, you want to maximise the amount of time you spend actually playing the sport you’re best at. Leicester (25.7s) might want to slow down a bit.
And it turns out that teams have certain tendencies when it comes to the dark arts.
For example, Newcastle United take an average of 36 seconds before they take a goal kick, more than three seconds longer than any other Premier League team. We’ll get onto Howe’s claims against Arsenal shortly, but his team themselves have been criticised for taking their time over restarting play, notably by Mikel Arteta and Erik ten Hag. When you look at the data there does seem to be some validity to their claims.
Goal kicks are a very visible way of slowing down the game. But football is full of opportunities to do so. Take throw-ins, for example (of which there are about 38 every game). Even something as simple as restarting the game when the ball goes out play is a huge time drain.
Particularly when you’re Brentford and Southampton and you take almost 19 seconds to hurl the ball back into play. There’s more than a five-second difference between Brentford, who are the slowest, and Leicester (13.6 seconds) who are the fastest, at every single throw-in.
It’s interesting to see that Liverpool are the third quickest in the league at restarting play from throw-ins this season. This clearly aligns to their strategy – implemented by throw-in coach Thomas Gronnemark – of encouraging the first player to the ball to always look at options to throw it in as quickly as possible.
We can also look at free-kick data. Newcastle (40.9s) and Brentford (40.6s) take the longest time on average to restart play from their own free kicks, while Liverpool (31.3) are the quickest to restart play.
And, lastly, because we know we’re going to get asked about it, here’s that same data for corners this season. Brentford remain high, but Newcastle drop to mid-table on this measure.
The Talking Points
So, back to our two examples from the weekend, and probably why you clicked on this article.
First, let’s address Eddie Howe’s comments.
Newcastle vs. Arsenal saw the ball in play for 51 minutes and eight seconds, which equates to 49.9% of the total ‘match time’ that was played. That’s not great, but it’s not near to being the worst of any game this season. Forty-four separate Premier League matches have seen the ball in play for lower than that 49.9% mark.
However, when we look at Arsenal specifically, Howe’s arguably got a point. Mikel Arteta’s side managed to chew up just over 28 minutes of the clock through delays – their second-highest total in game this season behind their away game at Liverpool (28m 42s) – and Arsenal’s average delay per stoppage was 37.5 seconds. Again, that’s their second-highest mark in a game this season.
Delays at restarting play from free-kicks (12m 7s – 43.7%) and throw-ins (8m 17s – 29.5%) made up the bulk of that time. Both of those totals are the Gunners’ second-highest tallies in a game this season.
So, when you compare Arsenal’s performance against Newcastle to the rest of their games, they did waste a lot of time relative to their usual standards. And ‘relative’ is an important word there, because we can see from the averages earlier on in this article that Arsenal are about mid-table in most categories. Not lightning quick but not laborious either. In fact, 57 different games this season have seen more time taken off the clock by a team than Arsenal did at the weekend at St. James’ Park.
You could argue it’s a little ironic that Howe criticised Arsenal for doing the exact same thing his side did when they visited the Emirates earlier in the season. Newcastle burned almost the exact same total time (27m 26s) in that game as Arsenal did this weekend, while the Magpies average delay of 38.3s per stoppage at Arsenal was actually a shade higher than Arsenal’s 37.5s from a few days ago. In fact, Newcastle have chewed up more clock on five separate occasions this season than Arsenal did when visiting at the weekend.
But therein lies the point. Every side “manages the game” when the opportunity necessitates it. Whether they should be allowed to is a whole different conversation.
Liverpool against Brentford was another game that encapsulates that idea. We know that Brentford take time over their set-pieces. That’s probably one of the elements that makes them so effective from corners, free kicks and even throw-ins. In fact, the Bees hold the record for the longest average delay over restarting the game in a match this season (45.5s per stoppage in their 2-1 away win over Manchester City).
Yet it was Liverpool who were on the receiving end of a yellow card for time-wasting at the weekend as Alisson got booked for taking too long at a goal kick. Was it merited? It’s not really for us to say, but Alisson took an average of 29 seconds per goal kick at the weekend. That’s about the league average, while he’s actually taken longer per goal kick in five different games without seeing a yellow.
For the record, Brentford have only received one yellow card all season (David Raya) for time-wasting. Just two teams (Leicester and Spurs, both zero) have received fewer.
In the game at Anfield, Brentford actually took longer off the clock (27m 44s vs. 26m 13s) and spent longer on average per delay (37.0s vs. 32.1s), while both teams averaged a crazy 52 seconds delay before taking their free-kicks. If anyone was getting booked for time-wasting it should probably have been an outfielder.
The game at Anfield saw the ball in play for just 43 minutes and nine seconds. Only Leeds United vs West Ham (42m 12s) has seen less playing time this season.
We can point fingers and team and players and manager and tactics all we want, but fundamentally there’s something that everyone can agree on: we need more time.