SUMMARY: Contested possessions are one of the most quoted statistics in AFL, yet there seems to be little rhyme or reason as to why. But do contested possessions really matter? This article explores why contested possessions really DO matter and how to win them.
Ross Lyon is viewed to be one of the best coaches of the modern era.
He took St Kilda to a minor premiership, three grand finals and within a kick of two Premierships at St Kilda – all before he notched up 100 games as a senior coach. He then switched to Fremantle and took them to a minor premiership and grand final a few years later.
His strategy has been no secret – to build contested ball winning sides.
For example, in 2015 when Fremantle won the minor premiership they ranked 3rd for contested possessions and 1st for clearances. Yet during Fremantle’s winless start to the 2016 season they dropped to 14th in contested possessions and 16th in clearances. Coincidence?
Lyon isn’t the only coach who’s built a legacy of success around contested possessions.
Many of the champion teams of the modern era have also been amazing contested ball winning sides. Think the big-bodied Brisbane sides of the early 2000’s, Sydney in the mid-2000’s and 2010’s and Geelong in the late 2000’s.
But are contested possessions really that important? And where should you focus your efforts to win the contested ball?
We explore the answer in this article. But first…
What is a Contested Possession?
According to Champion Data, contested possessions are made up of:
- Hard Ball Get – When a player wins a disputed ball while physically beating an opponent at ground level.
- Loose Ball Get – When a player wins a disputed ball at ground level without physical pressure.
- Contested Knock-on – When a player knocks the ball out of a pack to a teammate’s advantage.
- Gather from Hitout to Advantage – When a player wins the ball from a ruckman’s tap.
- Free Kicks – When a player wins a free kick when contesting a disputed ball.
- Contested Marks – When a player marks the ball against an opponent who had a chance to mark or spoil.
The breakdown of these categories in terms of numbers are as follows (as an average percentage of all contested possessions):
- Hard Ball Get – 34%
- Loose Ball Get – 38%
- Contested Knock-on – 3%
- Gather from Hitout to Advantage – 8%
- Free Kicks – 11%
- Contested Marks – 7%
How Much Is A Contested Possession Worth?
How long is a piece of string?
The value of a contested possession depends on many factors and is difficult to measure.
However, the statistical value is calculated to be worth, on average, 0.6 points per contested possession.
This value is calculated as follows.
- Roughly 10% of a team’s possession chains leads to a goal.
- Possession chains start from contested possessions.
- That means every contested possession has a 10% chance (on average) of finishing in a goal. Ten percent of 6 points (a goal) is 0.6 points.
Obviously there are many factors to consider and the numbers don’t always add up because they are statistical averages only. But you get the picture.
The Undeniable Link Between Contested Possessions and Winning
Statistical analysis shows strong correlation between winning the contested possession count and winning the game. The following chart is from TheRoar.com.au and is based on statistical averages.
As you can see from the above chart, when teams draw the contested possessions the odds of them winning the game are virtually 50/50.
When your team wins the contested the possessions, your chances of victory increases. And the greater the contested possession differential won, the higher your chance of victory.
The opposite is true when teams lose the contested possessions. The greater the contested possession differential lost, the greater the chance of losing.
Of course these are statistical averages only.
A quick glance at the winners and losers in any AFL round for example, regularly shows games where the contested possession winner still lost the game. Just because you win the ball, doesn’t mean it will result in a goal.
There are also other important contributing factors to consider such as 1) where you win the ball, 2) how well you use the ball when you win it, and 3) how accurate you kick on goal.
“Teams who win the contested possession count win the match 71% of the time.”
But the fact is teams who win the contested possession count win the match 71% of the time, making it an important KPI for AFL teams to focus on and track.
So how do you win contested possessions?
Numbers At Contests
It’s no coincidence modern football has moved from one-on-one positional line-ups to flooding players around the ball.
The simple fact is, the more players you have at a contested ball, the greater your chance of winning it. Any footballer with half a brain can understand that logic.
But how much do your odds increase? And is there a point where numbers no longer provide a significant advantage?
The below is a breakdown of statistical averages based on numbers at a contest.
A common strategy in AFL is to simply out number an opponent by one player at a contest. This is the fundamental strategy behind zone defences and floods.
As the numbers demonstrate, a 2 v 1 contest will give the numbers a 66% chance of success. However, the advantage narrows as the pack grows.
When the pack grows to a 9 v 8 contest, the advantage becomes miniscule. In this case, it may be more beneficial to drop a player off the contest and even numbers, then place that player at another contest such as a kick behind or in front of the ball to gain an advantage.
The question of course for coaches is where do they stack the numbers to gain the biggest advantage?
At the AFL level, numbers are often stacked in the midfield corridor, half back line and within the opposition’s forward 50-meter arc when the opposition has the ball (depending on where the ball is on the ground).
At the same time teams often give up less dangerous areas of the ground, such as close to the boundary, in order to add numbers to the more important areas.
As we’ve mentioned, Ross Lyon’s strategy at Fremantle and St Kilda during their dominant years was built around winning contested ball and stoppages.
If his teams couldn’t win a contested ball, they tried to draw them and create a stoppage… then generally win the stoppage.
This article doesn’t intend on exploring the art and science of winning stoppages, rather to reinforce the importance of winning stoppages as part of a contested ball winning game plan.
If you want to learn more about winning stoppages, you can visit here.
Outnumbering an opponent around the ball is a great way to create and win hard ball gets.
Yet there is an argument loose ball gets may be slightly more valuable.
The reasoning is hard ball gets often result in a quick rushed kick forward because of the pressure, whereas loose ball gets allow a player a small moment to regain balance, assess options and hit a target.
Regardless the lesson is players need to develop their ground skills in order to win more contested ball, in particular:
1) picking up ground balls at speed (loose ball sgets)
2) picking up ground balls with physical presence from an opponent (hard ball gets)
Let’s be honest, picking the ball up at speed and/or under physical pressure is a skill that is rarely coached or practiced at the grassroots level.
Just ask yourself, how often do players practice this skill in a typical training session? And how much instruction do they receive from coaches on technique when they do?
Yet picking up the ball is one of the most important skills in the game – especially when you consider roughly 70% of possession chains start from a ground ball, roughly ten times more than contested marking.
It may surprise you to learn there is only an average of 11 contested marks per game.
So in theory, there aren’t enough contested marks, on average, to significantly influence a result.
That may be true as an average. Yet occasionally contested marks are the crucial difference between winning and losing.
Tom Hawkins’ seven contested marks for Geelong against the Pies in the 2011 AFL grand final is one example that springs to mind. His contested marks had a massive influence on the game, forced Collingwood to change their defensive setups and gave his side confidence and momentum to win a tightly fought contest.
Had Hawkins kicked straighter, he may have won the Norm Smith. Had his contested marking not been as dominant, Geelong may have lost.
Once again, contested marks are the least influential category of contested possession because there is only an average of 11 per game.
However, neglect them at your peril because they can make all the difference in tight games, especially finals.
To use a tennis analogy, contested possessions are like a serve in tennis. They give your team first use of the ball.
Imagine a tennis match where one player has ten extra serves. Assuming both players are of equal ability, the player with the extra serves should have a considerable advantage.
The same applies in football. The more contested possessions your team wins, the more possession chains you will have and the greater your chance of winning the game.
That’s why teams who win the contested possessions win the match 71% of the time.
Placing numbers around the ball and developing a strong stoppage team are important coaching strategies to building contested ball winning teams.
When it comes to skills however, mastering the art of picking the ball up from the ground at speed and/or under pressure is perhaps the most crucial, yet most widely neglected.
And while there are only 11 contested marks on average per game, they can be the difference in the big ones.
Build a contested ball winning side who can maintain possession with precise skills, kick straight in front of goal and defend fiercely, and you have the ultimate recipe for success.