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Soccer Tactics: Possession vs. Fast Transition Play

Question:

The statistic most blended in during the broadcast of a soccer game is the % possession each team had. Is this a meaningful statistic?

Answer:

Let’s first review what the statistic means.It is defined as the % of elapsed game time each team was in control (possession) of the ball. It must add up to 100%.

The relevance of this statistic highly depends on what it is used for. Below are my opinions (some supported by personal hard research) of what the statistic can and can’t be used for.

Predicting Game Winners

I have conducted a study that definitely proved that a higher possession % does not correlate to wins. Analyzing an entire season –  every single game – of the German Bundesliga a few years ago showed that the teams who had the higher possession, on average, earned less points per game. In other words, possession superiority did not translate to more wins. Arguments have been made that coaches/teams who favour a possession game win more games, citing Spain, Barcelona, Munich, as key examples of teams who hardly lose while dominating possession. It is true that these teams lose very few games but it isn’t because they control possession. They simply have superior talent and would likely win no matter what strategy they used. It gets more interesting when top level teams play each other. Using Munich as an example, they lost the semi-final in each of the last three Champions League campaigns against Spanish clubs, even though they dominated in the possession stat.

Identifying The Better Team

How do you define the better team? The one that won the game? In that case we have already shown that possession does not result in more wins. I would like to define the better team in any particular game this way:

  • Obviously the team that won the game has a good argument for being better that day. And I agree, unless there was some extraordinary luck (other team hitting posts, bad refereeing, etc.) or circumstance involved.
  • If we go back to a very old truth about the purpose of the game of soccer, then the better team is the one that generated more quality scoring chances. If they convert these chances they would also win the game. But it is possible that the team that lost the game actually was the better team on the day.

Executing The Coaching Strategy

If your strategy is to dominate possession and you achieve more than 50% possession in the game, then the statistic validates successful execution of the game plan. If at the same time the opponent had a strategy of fast counterattacking and possession % doesn’t matter, then both teams successfully executed the plan.

In summary, I believe that % possession is only relevant to a team who has possession soccer as their strategy. The coach will have a clear measurement of whether the goal was met. So in order to appreciate the statistic while watching a game on television, one would really need to know the philosophy and specific game strategy of each team. It would be helpful if TV analysts did the research and provided that information in conjunction with possession statistics. Without that context, it is a meaningless discussion.

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