Central Winger: Does winning aerial balls translate into possession, winning games?

Aurelien Collin and Djimi Traore (Central Winger)

Photo Credit: 
USA Today Sports

Even without the help of modern soccer technology, soccer coaches – especially in my experience growing up in the American soccer system – had a passing interest in statistics. On multiple occasions, while sidelined with an injury, I was stuck tallying how many times my team won and lost "50/50" balls as well as the "second balls" that immediately followed.

My first observation was just how difficult it was to collect this information in real time. My second observation was just how much these measurements varied depending on who was collecting the stats. Luckily, with Opta's analysts and event definitions, we can get a much stronger grasp on these statistics which have such a bias in the trenches of youth soccer.

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During the 2012 MLS season, there were 5772 aerial 50/50 duels that were directly followed by an attempted pass – that's nearly 18 per game. Each duel is won by the player that reached the ball first, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the duel winner's team immediately regained possession of the ball; or rather, the second ball.

The team that wins an aerial duel gains possession of the ball directly afterwards 91.9 percent of the time. This is a smidgen higher than the Barclays Premier League in 2012 – where the overall retention rate was 89.9 percent. And, as expected, some MLS teams are better than others at this.

This is the aerial victory retention rates for MLS in 2012:

Team Gain Possession Retained Aerials
Montreal Impact 0.9612 198 206
Real Salt Lake 0.9517 138 145
Chivas USA 0.9474 162 171
New England Revolution 0.9387 245 261
Seattle Sounders FC 0.9381 273 291
Houston Dynamo 0.9367 222 237
FC Dallas 0.9331 237 254
Chicago Fire 0.9306 201 216
San Jose Earthquakes 0.9271 229 247
Vancouver Whitecaps 0.9234 205 222
Colorado Rapids 0.9160 229 250
Sporting Kansas City 0.9196 263 286
Toronto FC 0.9145 246 269
Portland Timbers 0.9129 241 264
New York Red Bulls 0.9087 189 208
Philadelphia Union 0.8988 151 168
Columbus Crew 0.8953 265 296
D.C. United 0.8868 188 212
LA Galaxy 0.8579 169 197

Montreal were particularly effective last year, only conceding possession on eight of their 206 aerial victories. On the other hand, the MLS Cup champion LA Galaxy struggled badly in second-ball retention, failing to secure possession in more than 14 percent of their aerial victories.

While retaining your own aerial victories is important, it's also quite useful to pickpocket the victories of your opponents.

Here is the aerial loss retention rates for MLS in 2012:

Team Gain Possession Retained Aerials
Columbus Crew 0.1012 26 257
D.C. United 0.098 24 245
Seattle Sounders FC 0.0945 26 275
Sporting Kansas City 0.0936 35 374
Toronto FC 0.0896 18 201
FC Dallas 0.0876 22 251
Chicago Fire 0.0846 17 201
Colorado Rapids 0.0778 21 270
New England Revolution 0.0773 16 207
New York Red Bulls 0.0752 20 266
Vancouver Whitecaps 0.0747 13 174
Houston Dynamo 0.0745 19 255
San Jose Earthquakes 0.0745 21 282
Portland Timbers 0.069 16 232
Montreal Impact 0.0642 12 187
Philadelphia Union 0.0632 11 174
Chivas USA 0.0601 11 183
LA Galaxy 0.057 13 228
Real Salt Lake 0.0506 8 158

Columbus led the way, stealing possession of an impressive 10.1 percent of their team's 257 aerial losses. LA again struggled, nabbing possession on only 5.7 percent of aerials won by their opponents and was only undercut by Salt Lake's 5.1 percent

While these statistics are interesting – and likely an outgrowth of the particular playing styles of specific teams – the lack of correlation between retention rates and team standings is fascinating. The Galaxy struggled on both of these metrics – but clearly managed to win plenty of games. Maybe youth coaches should start picking new contrived statistics to tally?