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The Data Behind Garnerball

It is far from a secret that Ben Garner’s Swindon side try and play a distinctive brand of football with a heavy emphasis on retaining possession, but how does this show up in the data?

Data from WhoScored.com backs up the eye test in this instance, with Swindon dominating not just the ball but the possession leader boards.

Town have comfortable leads in possession, total passes per game, and short passes per game, demonstrating that their play style is demonstrably different to the more direct football that is associated with the English lower leagues.

Swindon average 495 total passes every game, with the next best team being Rochdale with 439.7, and almost 200 passes more every game on average than Sutton United, who rank last, with 309.

They are clearly not a team that likes to play long, ranking second last for long balls attempted per game, with 70, Crawley lead the league is this department, averaging 25 more per game.

Ed Walker, co-host of the D3D4 podcast, said: “I'd say they're the most, maybe not possession heavy, but progressive side in the league.

“It's certainly different. There's still the stereotype that League Two is just a hoof ball League, just get it up to striker as quick as you can.

“It is not completely unheard of, I remember a couple of seasons back you had Crewe Alexandra under David Artel, and Plymouth Argyle under Ryan Lowe.

“Ryan Lowe's team, utilised a 352. That really worked the ball from the back into midfield up to a pair of strikers who were normally on the end of the chances, much like Swindon in the first half of the season.”

However, the criticism that is often levied at Garner’s team is that they often pass for passes sake and go backwards in possession, but the data would not back up this assessment of the former Bristol Rovers manager’s tactics.

WhoScored.com do not record expected goal data for League Two, making it more difficult to assess the quality of chances that every team is creating.

So, as to not include pot-shots from distance where no real chance has been created, the type that Joe Tomlinson takes on with such alacrity, the quality of opportunities that each team produces will be judged by their number of shots taken from inside the opposition penalty area per game.

Whilst Swindon are not slicing teams open with their surgical possession football as often as some, they do still place sixth for shots taken in the box per game, attempting 7.1 every time they take the field.

This total is only one shot behind the top two in this category, Newport and Forest Green, both with 8.1.

Therefore, in terms of raw numbers Swindon are still creating a good number of high quality chances whilst playing their possession style.

However, when plotting shots inside the box against short passes, Town come out below the trend line for the whole division, showing that when compared to other League Two sides the number of shots they attempt inside the box is lower than would be expected based on the number of short passes they are playing.

Matt Watts, Chief Analyst at The Near Post, said: “Russell Martin's Swansea City are the only side who can boast a higher percentage for average possession, despite the cast having to change throughout the season, 'Garnerball' has remained.

“The next step for Swindon and Garner is to consistently turn their domination of possession into goals and wins - especially at home.”

And Walker added that attempting to compromise their style to become more direct and create chances that way would likely be fruitless.

He said: “They're not built to just hit the front players as quick as they can, they want to work the ball through midfield.

“In the FA Cup game with Manchester City, that was probably was the time to go direct. But again, it just would have given possession back to Manchester anyway because they're just not built for it.”

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