In any given match one team will have the ball more often than the other. This seems simple. Unlike American sports this number does not relate to winning. Part of this is due to defining the term and the other part is about soccer. With so few goals being scored the key to victory is not captured simply. What possession (whatever the definition) does indicate is a playing style.
Last weekend Real Salt Lake lost to the LA Galaxy despite owning 72% of the possession in that match. This is almost a perfect highlight in differing styles of play. RSL uses their type of diamond and knocks the ball around with short passes.
The Galaxy more often use a bunker-and-counter system. Winning two-nil was not about possession, instead it was an example of victory by style.
Possession defined by Opta is the number of passes completed by a team divided by the total successful passes in a match. Seattle Sounders FC is roughly in middle of the pack by this measure. Others apply the Opta data and come up with possession as a chain of passes becoming a possession. By that measure Sounders FC is good. Neither capture the style of play. According to that last link the Sounders don’t just string passes together better than most teams. They have more passes in their sequences than most teams. The last goal by the team saw 11 passes among seven players.
“That’s what we’ve been working on, when to go direct and when to keep possession,” center midfielder Shalrie Joseph explains the mixed offense. “With Oba and Eddie up top and Ochoa and David coming back it’s going to help us to go a little bit direct, but we’ve also got some guys that are talented on the ball so we need to start playing a little more possession.”
Those choices will define the style of the team. After two months of lineups defined by injuries and call-ups, more clarity should come in the month of May. The soccer smarts of the players when those decision points happen will determine the success of the team. Some games will seem possession dominant. Others will be about long balls and pouncing on a team out of their shape.
“Transition is the name of the game,” head coach Sigi Schmid says. “Soccer is a turnover sport. No team, even Barcelona, can hold the ball forever. The teams that adjust the quickest and the most efficiently from defense to offense and offense to defense are the teams at the end of the day that are best.”
Duels and recoveries won are a large part of that. They force transition. Sounders FC is first in duels won minus duels lost. Having a central midfield led by Osvaldo Alonso and Shalrie Joseph will help that. They pick up loose balls at a better rate than all but six teams. The speed around those two elite defensive midfielders takes what they knock loose and turn it into opportunities.
There’s an area where the club is lacking. They are not getting off as many dangerous shots as their opponents, but in May they will have nearly as many MLS matches as they had in March and April combined. National team calls are on the far horizon, not in the current month. In those matches they will have to excel at decision making.
They will need to take their success at creating transitions and long passing sequences and not turn them into possession numbers, but threats on goal.
“[Winning is] just that team is able to take advantage of those opportunities and those opportunities to counterattack when a team has had a lot of possession and pushes forward,” Schmid explains his philosophy. “So how quickly can you counter and get after them? Then how quickly can you organize and defend when they hold on to the ball? Transition is the key part of the game.”