Mick McCarthy’s Magic Method

In the modern football world, most match reports are adorned by a plethora of stats that may (or may not) tell us something extra about the relative performance of each team – e.g. BBC reports show shots, shots on target, possession and fouls. Specialist sites like whoscored.com and Squawka allow those of a nerdy persuasion to delve further and pore over shot directions, pass types, chalk boards and heat maps.

But, with so much data available, it’s difficult to work out what’s really important. As an Ipswich fan, one measure I find particularly confusing (and concerning) is “Pass Success” (that is, percentage of completed passes). Using this measure Ipswich are truly terrible. At the time of writing (22 November 2015) Ipswich sit rock bottom of a Championship table rated on pass success – more than 4% below the next lowest team Rotherham. Now, we’re just over a third of the way through the season, so it could be an anomaly. But it’s not. It’s entirely consistent with last season (bottom) and the season before (second worst after the relegated Yeovil).

Champ 2015/16 to 22/22/2015 Pass Success % Champ 2014/2015 season Pass Success % Champ 2013/2014 Season Pass Success %
1 Derby 80.4 B’mouth 79.5 QPR 79.2
2 M’brough 79.2 Derby 79.2 Derby 79.1
3 Hull 77.5 Brighton 78.5 Brighton 78.9
4 Brentford 77.0 Brentford 77.6 Leicester 77.1
5 MK Dons 77.0 Norwich 76.9 Watford 76.7
6 Fulham 76.8 Fulham 76.3 B’mouth 76.4
7 Brighton 76.2 Watford 75.8 Forest 75.6
8 Reading 76.1 Wolves 75.8 Hud’field 74.3
9 Charlton 74.4 M’brough 73.8 M’brough 74.1
10 Hud’field 74.3 Forest 72.8 Blackburn 73.9
11 Wolves 74.2 Leeds 72.6 Wigan 73.7
12 Bristol C 72.9 Bolton 72.5 D’caster 72.7
13 Bolton 72.5 Blackburn 71.7 Leeds 72.4
14 Cardiff 72.1 Wigan 71.7 Barnsley 71.7
15 Sheff Wed 71.5 Reading 71.5 Bolton 71.5
16 Leeds 71.2 Hud’field 70.2 Sheff Wed 69.8
17 Blackburn 70.4 Millwall 69.8 Burnley 69.7
18 Burnley 70.0 Sheff Wed 69.5 Reading 69.7
19 Forest 69.6 Charlton 69.4 Blackpool 69.6
20 QPR 68.6 Cardiff 69.3 B’ham 69.1
21 Preston 68.2 B’ham 67.9 Charlton 68.2
22 B’ham 67.2 R’ham 67.4 Millwall 67.6
23 R’ham 67.2 Blackpool 66.2 Ipswich 67.6
24 Ipswich 62.9 Ipswich 64.7 Yeovil 66.6


Does it matter? Possibly, but probably not. The ability to pass successfully is usually a key component of a successful team. The figures above show that good Championship teams tend to be near the top of the pass Success stats – e.g. Bournemouth, Derby, Middlesbrough over the last few seasons, with Rotherham, Blackpool and Yeovil at the other end. But not always, e.g. Burnley were promoted in 2013/14 with the 17th best pass completion and they’re 18th this season.

As with most football stats, a team’s Pass Success depends on many factors – particularly a team’s tactics. The very best teams have high pass completion, Barcelona have pushed 90% in previous seasons and the top Premiership teams manage 85%. This is probably due to having better players (that can pass well). But tactics based on playing many short passes (tiki-taka football) and playing against opponents that are prepared to defend deeply will also drive up pass completion percentage.

But successful passing doesn’t always deliver successful results (the Wigan team that were relegated from the Premier League in 2012/13 are an example of this). Conversely – teams can do well adopting tactics that lead to low pass completion. This is usually teams that play more direct passes – which are less likely to be successful, but more likely to create a chance (long-balls!).

Premier league pass success stats, which go back to 2009, reveal a lot. Constructing a table for all Premier League seasons from 2009/10 to 2014/15 (120 different team finishes) – in order of pass success %, shows the bottom 24 positions as follows:

Position Team Season start year Pass completion % Finishing Position Manager
97 Wolves 2010 71.6 17 Mick McCarthy
98 Blackburn 2011 71.2 19 Steve Kean
99 Leicester 2014 71.1 14 Nigel Pearson
100 Bolton 2011 71.1 18 R Owen Coyle
101 Sunderland 2010 71 10 Steve Bruce
102 QPR 2014 70.8 20 R Harry Redknapp (until 3 February 2014) then Chris Ramsey
103 Birmingham 2010 70.6 18 R Alex McLeish
104 Burnley 2014 70.4 19 R Sean Dyche
105 Crystal Palace 2013 70.2 11 Tony Pulis (from 23/11/2013) Ian Holloway at start of season
106 Stoke 2012 69.9 13 Tony Pulis
107 Crystal Palace 2014 69.4 10 Neil Warnock (to 27/12/2014) then Alan Pardew
108 Reading 2012 69.2 19 R Brian McDermott
109 Stoke 2011 69.1 14 Tony Pulis
110 Burnley 2009 68.7 18 R Owen Coyle (until 5 January) then Brian Laws
111 Wolves 2009 67.3 15 Mick McCarthy
112 Birmingham 2009 67.2 9 Alex McLeish
113 Hull 2009 66.7 19 R Phil Brown (to 15/3/2010) then Iain Dowie
114 Bolton 2010 66.6 14 Owen Coyle
115 Sunderland 2009 65.9 13 Steve Bruce
116 Blackburn 2010 64.2 15 Sam Allardyce (to 13/12/2010) then Steve Kean
117 Blackburn 2009 63.8 10 Sam Allardyce
118 Bolton 2009 63.7 14 Gary Megson (to 30/12/2009) then Owen Coyle
119 Stoke 2010 63.4 13 Tony Pulis
120 Stoke 2009 62.2 11 Tony Pulis


Interestingly this is an all British list of managers, and includes all the usual long-ball suspects. Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce have been particularly successful at using low pass completion tactics, although not always as successful at pleasing their team’s fans – which is probably why they don’t tend to stay too long at the same club. Looking at these figures it’s hardly surprising that team owners tend to look abroad for a manager when they want a change of tactics. But of most relevance here is Mick McCarthy keeping Wolves up in 2009/10 and 2010/11 with typically low pass completion.

However, it’s wrong to believe that Mick adopts the same tactics as these other managers – there’s something more going on. The beguiling thing about Mick McCarthy’s teams is that he consistently achieves near 50% possession despite remarkably low pass completion. For example: 49.5% and 49.4% Possession in the last 2 completed seasons for Ipswich and 50.4% for Wolves in 2010. These are far higher than for other teams with low pass completion.

This seems counterintuitive because poor pass completion should deliver low possession. What I think is happening is that Mick’s teams manage to reduce opponents’ pass completion too. So passing ability is not a key priority in player selection, but positional understanding and a willingness to follow team orders is. This behaviour seems consistent with Town’s performances over the last 3 years – but I’m sure there’s much more to it.

So, going back to the question, does low pass completion matter? No, not with Mick McCarthy in charge. Mick’s tactics are unique modern football, which is why opposition managers often seem so disgruntled after losing by the odd goal to a seemingly poor Town team – they just don’t understand what’s going on. It equally explains why Mick remains so calm after a bad defeat – he knows his tactics work in the long run.

Mick McCarthy absolutely knows what he’s doing. He’s consistently delivered over many seasons. The problem is that it’s not always (or often) entertaining. Defeats can seem awful and even victories uninspiring. But, given Town’s current spending power, he is the perfect manager to deliver success.

Could he deliver promotion? It’s tempting to think that the addition of a couple of good passing midfielders will take Town to the next level. But a word of warning, the one Premier League season where Mick’s team achieved a pass completion rate greater than 75% was 2011/12 when Wolves were relegated in 20th place (ultimately under Terry Conner). Also – the two matches this season where Town achieved their highest pass completion were Reading (a) 71% and Hull (a) 75%, which resulted in 5-1 and 3-0 defeats. I suspect that if we are to progress, Town will need to become even more an embodiment of a Mick McCarthy team, rather than less.

Going back to the Pass Success stat, it’s not a great indicator of a team’s performance (there are many better, like shots on target) but it’s a brilliant measure to quickly understand a manager’s tactical approach. It’s like the manager’s signature.

As a footnote – the team currently with the lowest Pass Success in the Premier League are…Leicester City, top of the league.

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