Sanchez, Kane, De Bruyne, Salah: Top players must have the ball to lose it
Football has always been about statistics. The concept of a top scorer, for example, has been established for decades and yet is essentially a statistical irrelevance, given it almost always has no bearing upon the destination of a league title. That example, though, proves the statistics debate is nuanced.
It's not about whether or not you use figures, but about what you record and how you interpret the numbers. Even the now-established idea of the assist was only formally defined in the 1990s and reliable records in this area have only been available within the last decade. Advanced metrics are starting to become commonplace, but they're increasingly misused.
An interesting case study in recent weeks has involved Alexis Sanchez. Opta figures suggest that he's conceded possession over twice as frequently as any of his teammates -- 247 times, compared to 143 by Ashley Young and 126 by Romelu Lukaku -- since his switch to Manchester United, with those numbers used as an example of his failings. But while Sanchez has underperformed, these stats are largely irrelevant in terms of demonstrating why he has struggled.
The "conceded possession" concept itself is something of a hybrid, taking into account unsuccessful dribbles and passes, as well as passes played to a player in an offside position, loose touches and even foul throws. (The latter is unlikely to impact anyone's figures significantly, with the honourable exception of Tottenham's Serge Aurier, who managed three in one game recently!)
There's nothing wrong with grouping these factors together but they are considerably different: Losing the ball when attempting to dribble past someone is obviously different from losing it when attempting to play a through pass. Moreover, neither necessarily implies a turnover of possession; after being tackled the ball can run to a teammate or, after an unsuccessful pass is half-intercepted, it might run to a colleague.
The main point is much simpler: Players who concede possession most frequently are perennially the best in a division. In the Premier League this season, Sanchez (582 times, according to Opta) ranks behind Man City's Kevin De Bruyne (664) and Spurs' Christian Eriksen (603), who would surely rank among the best playmakers. More pertinently, the "leader" in Spain is a man named Lionel Messi. Failing, it seems, is a fundamental part of succeeding when you're an attacker.
Examining the aforementioned component parts further emphasises the point. The players who have failed with the most dribbles this season are Riyad Mahrez and Wilfried Zaha, players who have probably been two best attackers outside the top six of England's top flight, on behalf of Leicester and Crystal Palace respectively.
Their presence in joint-first position emphasises the key role they play for their respective sides, which sees them charged with repeatedly taking the game to the opposition, but often double-marked to make that task more difficult. Nevertheless, their overall quality has been undeniable. Watford's Richarlison, as well as Tottenham duo Dele Alli and Harry Kane, also figure highly in the most dribbles failed category.
Losing the ball with an unsuccessful touch is not evidence of a bad player, either. Richarlison and Dele Alli feature high in this section, as does the league's man-of-the-moment, Mohamed Salah of Liverpool. The presence of Salomon Rondon, meanwhile, underlines how often West Brom have hit hopeful passes in his general direction.
The concept of failing also seems to correlate with quality in terms of crossing: Marc Albrighton of Leicester leads the way, ahead of De Bruyne, Huddersfield's Aaron Mooy, Eriksen and Aaron Cresswell of West Ham. The final name aside, all have enjoyed a good season.
And while Sanchez's figures have generally not included unsuccessful shots, that's another area in which the league's best feature highly. Kane leads the way with 52 off-target efforts, followed by Richarlison, Salah, Rondon and Man City's Sergio Aguero. Kane has had the most blocked shots, with Eriksen and Salah also on that podium. In La Liga, the players who have fired in the most off-target shots are Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi.
What becomes clear, then, is that attacking players must be judged primarily upon their positive attacking contributions rather than their bad moments. It follows that Sanchez's poor contribution since his January move is better represented by his simple goals tally, which is a paltry one in 10 matches.
His possession conceded statistics might suggest that he's plenty wrong, but they also show that he's regularly involved, constantly looking for possession and attempting ambitious contributions in the final third. It's unlikely a player of Sanchez's track record will continue to deliver the wrong passes.
With the caveat that players for the top sides will inevitably see more possession than those in equivalent positions at bottom-half clubs, part of the brilliance of those who regularly fail -- Sanchez, De Bruyne, Eriksen, Salah, Messi, Ronaldo, Kane -- is that they're constantly collecting possession.
This might seem like a simple concept but their positional skill remains vital, whether it's Messi receiving the ball between the lines before attempting things that often don't come off, or Kane regularly finding positions from where his shots are often unsuccessful. To fail with your end product, you need to succeed in collecting the ball.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.