Fans who watched Sunday’s victory against Aston Villa saw the ball in play for only 43 minutes and six seconds of the entire 90. The win against Everton, in the previous game, was only a fractional improvement, at 45min 16sec.
The two victories in the space of five days hauled Newcastle out of the relegation zone for the first time since the club were bought by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and Eddie Howe was installed as manager.
In fact, statistics shared with i by The Analyst website show that Howe’s first game, a 3-3 draw with Brentford, had only 45min 20sec of ball-in-play time. Those seven points won by Howe’s side, all at St James’ Park, suggest his players are grinding out results with plenty of stoppages. While he is delivering results likely to keep them up – they are four points clear of the bottom three – the team are delivering as little football as possible in pursuit of that target.
Newcastle’s defeat at Aston Villa, before Howe arrived, also makes it into the top 10 (41min 51sec).
As revealed in today’s i, Newcastle are third-bottom of all 20 Premier League teams. Villa are last, delivering only 52.1 per cent of in-play action, while Southampton sit just above them with 53.4 per cent.
Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City are way out in front, delivering an average of 62.7 per cent of football per 90 minutes, followed by Liverpool (58.6 per cent) and Chelsea (58.5 per cent).
Time out: missing minutes and how to get them back
On average, how many minutes of the full 90 do you think the ball has been in play during your team’s matches this season? Go on, have a guess. It might be less than you imagine.
The numbers appear to favour sides who pride themselves on playing football, keeping the ball, passing well. So Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea naturally sit in the top three, in that order, for the most football actually played during a match. Which is really the reason fans are watching, not the frequent breaks in play while ball boys fetch footballs and goalkeepers line up goal kicks.
Brighton are up there, too, in fifth – testament to the impressive coaching of the club’s highly-rated manager, Graham Potter.
But even the ball-in-play time figures of the highest clubs are surprisingly low. At best, the average time the ball is in play during a Manchester City game this season is one hour and 33 seconds. That means for a full 37 per cent of the 90 minutes the ball is out of play. And that’s in games played by a Pep Guardiola side – you rarely find other teams as well-oiled and purring.
At the other end of the scale are Aston Villa. The average time the ball has been in play this season during their games is 51 minutes and 26 seconds. A shade over half. Southampton and Newcastle United are just above Villa, with a little over 52 minutes. Had those games been condensed into only the periods where the ball was in play, everyone could have gone home just after half-time.
It raises this question: would football be better if matches were shortened, but the clock stopped when the ball was not in play? Critics of shortening games often reach for the argument that football is the biggest sport on the planet, that the Premier League is club football’s (and one of England’s) largest brands, and that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
But football is not immune to time’s relentless disruption. Even the best innovators know they must adapt or die. Facebook is desperately trying not to become the next MySpace. One minute Blockbuster is renting DVDs to millions of people a month, the next Netflix is making them available online for a small monthly fee and Blockbuster’s entire business model collapses.
How the average person wants to consume football is totally different today from what it was 10 years ago, even more so than the 1990s when it was considered a fun weekend activity to walk the aisles of a Blockbuster store desperately trying to find a DVD among the thousands everyone would like.
During a recent conversation with Nuria Tarre, Manchester City’s head of marketing and fan experience, she revealed to me, for example, that, increasingly, younger fans are coming to football via the Fifa video game franchise. And Tarre, who has decades of experience at the sharp end of innovation in telecommunications and new technologies, can recall when people were sceptical about the growth of mobile phones. Now it is a rarity to live without one.
“There are a lot more ways to consume the football experience when you see how younger audiences are interacting with online games today, even with Fifa,” she said. “For many fans, the first contact with football is actually through Fifa. That’s a video game experience. They enjoy it, then come to the real game.”
In the Fifa video game, matches last around six minutes per half; and when pros play, games tend to have scorelines familiar in real life. That’s quite a jump from enjoying matches of less than 15 minutes during which most of the time the ball is in play, to an hour-and-a-half when, for almost half the time, the ball is out of it.
At the very least, the technological and cultural changes created by the internet should give the brainstormers at Fifa, who ultimately control the game’s laws, pause for thought. If VAR is the way forward, should we accept that four to five minutes – around 6 per cent – of every game is lost to video referee decision-making, on top of all the other stoppages for goal kicks, throw-ins, corners, free-kicks?
What would happen if every club was forced to match City’s 60 minutes of actual football every match?
And why not explore and borrow from other wildly successful sports? Managers could have a limited number of time-outs to run special plays at crucial times, perhaps chasing a winner or an equaliser with seconds remaining. It could open up a whole new dynamic for the modern tactical masters – Guardiola, Tuchel, Klopp and whoever else joins them.
Look at the Super Bowl: on Sunday night the LA Rams beat Cincinnati Bengals with a touchdown scored with less than two minutes remaining and only prevented the Bengals from coming back with a stoppage in the final seconds. All four of this season’s NFL playoff quarter-finals went down to the wire.
Is it time football had a rethink?