Leicester, Tottenham thriving because of their excellence without the ball
With two months of the 2015-16 season remaining, the Premier League title race now seems a straight two-way fight between Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur. In basic terms, Leicester and Tottenham are very different beasts, but there's a similarity between them: Both are most impressive because of what they do without possession.
Their specific approach without the ball is entirely contrasting, with Leicester sitting extremely deep and remaining compact, before closing down aggressively in the final third. Spurs press aggressively further up the pitch in midfield positions; regaining the ball close to the halfway line, while the defence pushes up high to keep opposition strikers away from goal.
Ordinarily, title-winners are defined by their approach with possession. Throughout the past 15 years we've marvelled at Manchester United's width and strike partnerships, Arsenal's intricate combination play, Chelsea's power and pace and Manchester City's individual brilliance in the final third. These sides were all very well organised in the defensive phase of play, particularly Jose Mourinho's Chelsea side of 2004-05, but there was also a sense of control in possession when needed, with Claude Makelele setting the tempo at the base of Chelsea's 4-3-3, the midfield triangle often overrunning opponents still using 4-4-2.
Leicester and Tottenham, though, are flipping this: They're best without the ball. Their central midfielders, for example, are predominantly ball-winners.
Statistics underline this point neatly. In a list of the Premier League's most prolific tacklers this season (per 90 minutes, from those who have appeared in 10 games or more), Leicester's N'Golo Kante is third on the list, while Tottenham's Mousa Dembele is fifth. Kante, incidentally, also makes more interceptions than any other Premier League player.
In terms of passing, however, neither side have any standout players. In a list of the most prolific passers -- led by Cesc Fabregas, Santi Cazorla and Bastian Schweinsteiger, three top-class controlling midfielders -- no Leicester or Spurs player features in the top 30. Danny Drinkwater is 34th on the list, Eric Dier 36th.
These midfields are focused heavily on ball-winning: Leicester, remarkably, have made the highest number of interceptions in the Premier League, but have the lowest pass completion rate.
Their game plan is simple: Win the ball deep before hitting long diagonal passes to Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez. Those two have been undeniably thrilling; watch Vardy's dipping strike against Liverpool or Mahrez's mazy run at Manchester City and you can hardly complain about a lack of entertainment. Drinkwater and Kante are both capable of storming into attack, too. There is, however, a conspicuous lack of guile.
Meanwhile, it might seem peculiar to speak about Tottenham not being particularly gifted with the ball; their average possession is 55 percent, just 1 percent lower than Arsenal, the league leaders in this respect. However, possession share is often considered to be solely about how well a side retains the ball; in reality, it's also about how quickly they regain it.
This is where Tottenham thrive.
The correlation between possession share and pass completion rate in this season's Premier League is very strong -- a scattergraph reveals a very predictable pattern. The two sides bucking the trend, though, are Tottenham and Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool, who have a higher possession share than you'd expect for their pass completion rate. These two, not coincidentally, are the best two pressing sides in the league -- they win the ball quickly.
Both excel at tackling. Liverpool make the most tackles in the league, while Spurs have the best tackle success rate by a considerable distance. The other 19 Premier League sides have success rates between 61.5 percent and 70.9 percent, while Spurs are way out in front with 73.4 percent. In context, it's a massive difference, and evidence of Spurs' ability to push up and pressure opponents quickly.
The peculiar thing, amid all this talk about how Leicester and Tottenham excel without the ball, is that they're actually the joint-top goal scorers in the Premier League, both on 53 goals. Clearly, they're doing lots of very good things with the ball, it's just not coming from traditional possession play as we know it.
Leicester are getting the ball forward quickly, as we know, and are creating plenty of extremely good chances. Their biggest trump card is their shot completion rate, which is the best in the Premier League by a considerable margin. Daniel Altman, who runs North Yard Analytics, presented at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on Saturday, explaining that "the more Leicester pass, the less Leicester score."
Tottenham, meanwhile, are the most prolific shooters in the Premier League (by a small margin) and the most prolific in terms of shots on target (by a large margin). Again, they're way out in front here: 6.8 per game on target, when everyone else in the Premier League manages between 3.0 and 5.7.
Spurs' success in this manner lends itself to the theory put forward by Klopp at Dortmund, who famously described (gegen)pressing as "the best playmaker there is." Tottenham are creating lots of chances, but primarily through regaining the ball quickly and playing neat passes into goal-scoring positions immediately, rather than through traditional possession play.
Many will consider this a positive. The brand of pure possession football popularised by Barcelona and Spain was not universally popular, and English football has traditionally been sceptical of relentless ball retention. Leicester and Spurs are proving there's another way.
The danger, though, is that others will concentrate upon replicating their excellence without the ball, and forget to copy how they smoothly turn defence into attack.
Many inspirational sides, from Helenio Herrera's Inter, to Arrigo Sacchi's Milan, to more modern, less innovative sides like Mourinho's first Chelsea team, had their system copied in a more defensive, negative manner. It would be a great shame if the most exciting Premier League season on record prompted a spell of negative football.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.