Monday, September 25, 2023

The Definitive Guide to Premier League Time-Wasting | The Analyst

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“Managing the situation.”

“Being streetwise.”

“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.

Which teams and players are the biggest offenders? How much time is lost to goal kicks, free kicks and throw-ins? What is the average VAR delay?

Strap in. Here’s your definitive guide to Premier League time-wasting.

Play Ball (Or Don’t)

Let’s start at the very top.

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 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.

Comparisons to the World Cup

At the 2022 FIFA World Cup, we witnessed a new era of timekeeping, with more added time in matches than we’d ever seen before at a World Cup tournament.

Pierluigi Collina – FIFA’s chairman of the referees committee – spearheaded FIFA’s bid to get more effective playing time into games:

“If you want more active time, we need to be ready to see this kind of additional time given. Think of a match with three goals scored. A celebration normally takes one, one and a half minutes, so with three goals scored, you lose five or six minutes.”

Ignore the details of his multiplication. The point remains. FIFA introduced measures to increase lost time at the World Cup, with the average match (excluding extra time) in Qatar lasting 100 minutes and 23 seconds. Of that, 57.3% of the time saw the ball in play, with 58 minutes and four seconds of ball-in-play time on average. That average is three minutes and 18 seconds longer than the Premier League 2022-23 average. That’s a long time in football, just ask Sadio Mané, owner of the league’s fastest hat-trick.

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:

Average delay per match event

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 almost nine more minutes of action than a Newcastle United game.

Premier League ball-in-play time by team

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.

Premier League Time-Wasting By Team

We see some familiar names at the top and bottom of this list. Brentford take over 30 seconds on average to restart play after a delay. Newcastle are high on the list at 29.3 seconds.

Manchester City (25.6) and Liverpool (23.7) are 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.

And it turns out that teams have certain tendencies when it comes to the dark arts.

For example, Newcastle United take an average of 36.8 seconds before they take a goal kick, more than three seconds longer than any other Premier League team. Mikel Arteta and Erik ten Hag are among those who have been critical of Newcastle’s tendencies to waste time this season, and when you look at the data there does seem to be some validity to their claims.

Average time taken to take a goal kick Premier League

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 Southampton and you take almost 19 seconds to hurl the ball back into play. There’s more than a five-second difference between Saints, who are the slowest, and Leicester (13.7 seconds) who are the fastest, at every single throw-in.

Average time taken to take a throw in Premier League

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.

The Extremes

So, just how bad can this get?

The ‘shortest’ game of the Premier League season so far was Leeds United’s 2-2 home draw against West Ham in January. The ball was in play for just 42 minutes and 12 seconds of play – or 42.3% of available match time. Spectators at Elland Road didn’t even get to watch one half of football, let alone two.

Conversely, Manchester City’s 4-0 home win over Southampton in October 2022 saw the ball in play for 68 minutes and six seconds, or the equivalent of 71.6% of available time. Fans at the Etihad Stadium would have seen 25 minutes and 54 seconds more football than those in Leeds. Sit back and watch an episode of “Friends” or delight as Manchester City make another 160 passes. The choice is yours.

You genuinely would have had enough time to put the kettle on while watching Everton taking throw-ins against Manchester City on New Year’s Eve. The Toffees took an incredible 51 seconds per throw in their 1-1 draw against Pep Guardiola’s side.

And of teams to take 10 or more goal kicks in a game, Crystal Palace’s Vicente Guaita was obviously out to give Newcastle a taste of their own medicine in January. He took an average of 63 seconds for each of his goal kicks against the Magpies – the highest rate in any Premier League game – and over the course of the entire game spent over 10 minutes taking goal kicks. Those boots aren’t going to de-mud themselves.

That 10-minute figure has only been surpassed three times so far this season, and one of those came recently in Arsenal’s pulsating 3-3 home draw against Southampton last Friday. The home crowd were audibly frustrated at the length of time Gavin Bazunu was taking over his goal kicks. The Irish ‘stopper received multiple warnings for time-wasting but was not booked.

Bazunu took an average of 43.7 seconds before taking each of his 18 goal kicks at the Emirates. Add that together and Southampton were able to burn 13 minutes and 6 seconds of time while taking goal kicks. Only Brentford’s David Raya in the Bees’ 2-0 win against West Ham (13 mins and 29 seconds) had been able to eke away more time in a game from goal kicks this season.

But here’s the thing. Yes, that’s massively frustrating for Arsenal. And yes, there needs to surely be a way to prevent upwards of 13 mins of game time vanishing into thin air (get the yellow cards out straight away, perhaps?). But Arsenal did the exact same thing away to Liverpool. Aaron Ramsdale averaged 57 seconds for each of his goal kicks at Anfield – longer than the time Bazunu took on his – and spent just over 10 minutes of game time restarting play, the sixth-highest total in a game this season.

Every side does it when the opportunity necessitates it.

Whether they should be allowed to is a whole different conversation – one that needs to be had.

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