We out-possessed the team, we out-shot the team, and we still went home empty-handed,” Toronto FC’s head coach Ryan Nelson said to reporters after a defeat against New England back in May. The claim that ball possession equals victories isn’t a new concept, and Ryan Nelson certainly isn’t the only person making it. Commentators on MLSLIVE.com often point out how a team is dominating the ball, yet, they’re still trailing behind as if defying an unwritten rule that having the ball means it will magically wind up in your opponent’s goal more often.
An inspection of the regular season games for 2013 suggests that this statistic isn’t as important for a winning team as many have made it out to be. Since more possession is believed to be equal to more goals, a look at this season’s highest scoring games (greater than three goals scored by a single team) would be the logical place to look.
Now before we get started, there will undoubtedly be arguments that ball possession alone can’t be the sole factor in analyzing goal scoring. This is true. The opposing team’s defensive capability, a competent goal keeper, a team’s ability to put the ball exactly where it needs to be in a critical moment, and of course luck are all important traits to consider. There are many other factors, but ball possession is under the looking glass for the moment and it’s ball possession that most commentators point out during and after a game.
It’s interesting to notice that the Montreal Impact on May 25th and the New England Revolution on June 2nd scored more goals in one game (5 each) than any other game all season, yet, both teams possessed the ball less than or equal to the opposition (53.6% and 39.6% respectively). The other top scoring games show similar results, where the team with four goals often has only a few percentage points more than the other. On May 8th, the Houston Dynamos closed out DC United four to zero when it was United that possessed the ball more. The same story is told on May 11th when the Seattle Sounders closed out the San Jose Earthquakes by again, four to nothing.
An analysis of these high scoring games shows more often than not, the team with more ball possession winds up as the defeated–often badly so. In the game on June 2nd, where the New England Revolution decimated LA Galaxy five to zero, the Revolution had a dismal ball possession of less than forty percent.
Through this perspective, it seems as though possession percentage isn’t all that important. Of course a team has to possess the ball in order to score; it doesn’t have to possess it all the time to do so. Then why is ball possession pointed out as often as it is? Perhaps it’s because the losing team needs to point out something positive about their performance in a defeated game. “We may have lost,” a player might say, “but we out-possessed the other team. That means there’s hope for us yet.”
One last observation to make: ball possession may be touched upon often by players, coaches, and commentators but it’s interesting to note that possession percentage isn’t one of the eleven stats shown in the statistics section of www.mlssoccer.com. Only on an individual game basis will you find that number. It goes to show that having the ball isn’t as important as knowing what to do with it.