Armchair Analyst: Opta and the paradox of possession
A year ago around this time, Sigi Schmid threw out an offhand remark that MLS was "a counterattack league."
After a bit of huffing and puffing, and some pointed remarks via Utah and Harrison, most everyone took a good, solid look in the mirror and came to the same conclusion: Sigi's pretty much right.
Schmid's observation jabbed at the psyche of North American fans, largely because we, as Thierry Henry said upon his arrival in MLS, have a complex about our soccer.
Our fans, we worry, are not loud enough. Or don't sing the right songs. Or sing the right songs, but sing them in the wrong language. Our stadiums are not big enough. Our teams lack proper names. Or have names that are too proper. Our players are too old or too young, and the ones that choose to play here are too soft.
Pareja preaches possession in Colorado
And most assuredly, we do not love the ball as we should. Nobody writes verse about how Americans and Canadians cherish the ball, dance with it, keep it on a string and torment determined but ultimately hapless foes. It seems outside our national character – a view that applies on both sides of the 48th parallel.
A few days after Schmid's observation, the LA Galaxy happily went out and played the black hat, countering a very stylish Seattle side to death in Week 1 of what ultimately ended up being a spectacular MLS season. "You're all welcome to your complex," Bruce Arena's team seemed to be saying. "We'll help ourselves to the points."
Eight months and 318 matches later, the 2011 MLS regular season and playoff slate were complete. It ended the way it started, with the Galaxy taking the points from a comprehensively professional 1-0 outing.
This time, though, we had Opta with us to track every touch, every pass, every counterattack and every moment of possession. And we can ask: Does the math bear Sigi's observations out?
Me: What percentage of games did the team with the most possession win?
Opta: Of the 213 victories in MLS 2011, only 83 of the teams winning that game managed more possession than their opponent (39 percent). Also important to say that of the 75 sides to manage 60 percent or more possession in an MLS game last season, only 15 of those sides managed to win that game (20 percent).
What this means: Pretty much everyone is happy protecting a lead. And most teams are happy protecting a tie – MLS has an inordinate amount of ties. That's partially due to parity, partially due to jet lag. I expect the number of draws to decrease this season, and the number of wins by the team with more possession to increase.
I don't expect the number of games where a team tops 60 percent to increase, however. The bulk of those were teams protecting a result – either on the road or a man down – and that's not really subject to changing variables unless we see a sudden spate of red cards.
Me: What was the median possession percentage of winning teams?
Opta: 48.15 percent
Me: What was the mean possession percentage of winning teams?
Opta: 48.05 percent
What this means: That Sigi's not as right as he probably was in 2010 (which was an insanely counter-heavy season – and no, I don't have the stats to back that up). Teams weren't playing catenaccio out there in 2011, they were simply choosing their spots better. If this was down around 44 or 45 percent, it would have been a concern. But 48 percent vs. 52 percent? That's one team holding onto a 2-1 lead for the final 10 minutes.
Me: What was the median number of passes for winning teams?
Me: What was the mean number of passes for winning teams?
Me: How often did a team complete 500+ passes?
Opta: On 42 occasions in MLS 2011 did a side manage to make 500 or more passes.
Me: What was the winning percentage for teams that completed 500+ passes?
Opta: Only seven of those 42 sides (to make 500+ passes) won the game – 16.7 percent.
What this means: MLS is still a pretty direct league.
Obviously nobody's expecting Barcelona – they routinely string 750 or more passes together per game, regardless of opposition. But even compared to England, 370 per game is a bit on the direct side.
And the "500+" number speaks for itself. When MLS teams get a lead, they protect it – and that usually doesn't mean long build-ups.
Me: What was the median passing accuracy for winning teams?
Opta: 75.1 percent (76.0 percent for losing side)
Me: What was the mean passing accuracy for winning teams?
Opta: 74.8 percent (75.4 percent for losing side)
What this means: This is the really interesting one simply because we have easy access to the numbers for the five biggest European leagues (at right). MLS places at the bottom, but not egregiously so.
Me: Over the last 3 months of the season, was the team with better possession more likely to win than over the first 3 months of the season?
Opta: In between March 15 and June 15, 30 of the 127 sides to manage more than 50 percent possession went on to win the game (23.6 percent), while between August 20 and Nov. 20, 28 of the 100 sides to manage more than 50 percent possession went on to win (28 percent).
What this means: Too early to say, precisely.
However, it does point at this number, which is probably my favorite: In the MLS Cup Playoffs, the team controlling possession won six of 13 contests.
As the wheat is separated from the chaff, in other words, teams that build cohesion, familiarity and – ultimately – possession have a better and better chance of winning. So Schmid's probably right that during the regular season, MLS is (was?) a counterattacking league.
But in the playoffs? Not so much.
The one club to flout convention were Arena's Galaxy, of course. They played four postseason games and didn't win the possession battle once.
Leave the complex for the rest of us. Bruce will take the points.
Matthew Doyle writes the Armchair Analyst column for MLSsoccer.com.