The Flawed Psychology Of 'Holding On'

We have seen an extraordinary number of leads slip in the PL this season, with managers allowing their teams to sit deep in the closing stages. Daniel Storey wonders why...

Last Updated: 05/03/13 at 17:12 Post Comment

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The inability to hold onto a lead has been one of the statistical hallmarks of the Premier League this season. Fifteen teams have lost ten or more points from winning positions, whilst Fulham and Reading have both dropped 20. Southampton have allowed 27 points to slip through their grasp. Whilst it is a statement clearly founded in vague projection, those points would leave them third in the table. That's quite an eye-opener.

A comparison with last season also sees a sharp increase. In total, 276 points were dropped from winning positions in 380 PL games last season. So far during this campaign, a total of 257 has already been reached despite 100 games still remaining.

Even more concerning should be the fact that since the start of the year a two-goal lead has been lost on eight occasions (10% of all matches). The adage remains that 2-0 is a dangerous lead but, cliché aside, that should be footballing nonsense. Having got into such a position of dominance, there is surely no excuse to allow the opposition back in the game?

All football fans know the feeling. Your team is 1-0 up with five minutes to go, and nerves are shredded. You are whistling, urging the official to inexplicably signal for the end of the game ahead of his meticulous schedule. The ball is continuously pumped into the penalty area, which acts as a vortex where time slows down as defenders aim to get legs, bodies and heads in the way. Just not hands, anything but hands. "Don't make the referee make a decision."

And then, almost inevitably, it happens. The ball breaks loose and falls to an opposing central defender. He's a lump, but from four yards cannot fail to poke home. He wheels away to celebrate the late equaliser. You traipse away from the stadium, cursing your luck...

Except that it isn't about luck.

Experience dictates that typically, a team that is allowed to dominate possession without pressure high up the field will deliver an increased number of balls into the penalty area. When this occurs, it is clear that more chances will be created, because more players are able to be committed forward. In particular, central defenders can be sent forward (usually the most adept in the air) as they have less defensive duties. Logic dictates that when more chances are created there is an increase in the likelihood of a goal being scored. And yet teams continue to invite pressure, essentially creating a game of attack vs defence. In such a scenario, attack will always eventually succeed.

Part of the reason for sitting back late in the game is the psychology of players. As the target draws near, the desire for victory is greatly increased, demonstrating itself in desperation. This desperation creates a siege mentality in the mind of individuals, who essentially attempt to set up the clichéd mindset of 'thou shalt not pass'.

However, managers are largely guilty of falling for the same trick. All too often we see defensive substitutions and changes in formations towards the end of matches. These are intended to solidify the defensive unit, but instead simply increase the chances of conceding during the latter stages of the game.

Take Everton as an example. Against Oldham in the FA Cup, Everton had more shots, shots on target and possession than their League One opponents going into the last 15 minutes. After 76 minutes the primary creative player, Steven Pienaar, was brought off and, without his inventive outlet, Everton retreated. After 90 minutes they then brought off the remaining forward Nikica Jelavic, introducing defender Shane Duffy. Four minutes later, Oldham equalised.

The following weekend Everton travelled to Carrow Road. Again, after 80 minutes they had more shots, shots on target and possession against a side without a win in nine league games. Once again, after 79 minutes Jelavic was withdrawn, and with five minutes remaining Pienaar was removed as David Moyes tried to hold on to a point. Norwich were buoyed by the extra time they received on the ball with the away side dropping so deep, and the energy seeped into the home crowd, who urged their side forward with renewed belief. Norwich had five attempts on goal in the final ten minutes and scored twice, winning the game 2-1.

Moyes had a moan after the game regarding the amount of stoppage time, but his grievances merely papered over the cracks. Everton allowed an inferior opponent back into the game on consecutive weekends through a lack of belief in their ability to continue to play with the tactics that had proved successful for the majority of the match.

Another example is Chelsea under Rafa Benitez, who have conceded eight goals in the last five minutes of matches since the Spaniard took over as manager, dropping valuable points against Reading, Newcastle and West Ham. The Blues' title bid has effectively been ended by their inability to hold onto leads.

Every weekend managers continue with such an approach, and it just doesn't work. Since the turn of the year, there have been 14 occasions in which teams have given away leads to draw in the Premier League. Nine of these advantages have been ceded during the last 15 minutes and five have been in stoppage time.

But what makes the last 15 minutes any different to the first 15? If you have been able to gain the advantage through superiority of possession and using attacking endeavour, it seems baffling to significantly alter your approach simply due to the proximity of victory. If anything, having dominated possession, the effects of fatigue should allow an advantage to be extended, and a game put to bed. It would at least prevent the opposition pushing players forward at will, with centre-backs being used as makeshift attackers, because such an approach would be tactical suicide.

Perhaps it is simply a case of managers reverting to expectation, allowing their side to invite pressure simply because it is the 'done thing'. But sooner or later a manager will thoroughly investigate the notion that the 'best form of defence is attack'. And my fingernails will be all the better for it.

Daniel Storey - he's on Twitter.

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