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Wednesday
Jul272011

Does More Possession=More Wins in the MLS?

In the past couple of blog posts I've looked at two common statistics and shown that they are not as meaningful as most people believe. shots on goal do not predict success very well, and assists favor players on better clubs. In keeping with this theme of misleading statistics in football, I decided to look at possession data. The commonly held notion is that the team that has the ball more (has a possession percent over 50) is more likely to win. This makes sense. A team with the ball more is more likely to score and less likely to concede. But does the data back it up? Does having more possession than your opponent mean you are more likely to win the game? I looked at the possession data from the MLS season so far. What I found goes completely against what most people would think. So far this season in the MLS, the average possession percentage for teams that have won the game is 48.5%. Teams that win actually posses the ball less. This means the average possession percentage for losing teams is 51.5%.

To get even more specific, I broke down the possession data further. Winning home teams average 50.9% possession, and winning away teams average 43.4% possession. On the other side, losing home teams average 56.6% possession and losing away teams average 49.1% possession. The histograms below illustrate these facts. I found that away teams, on average, have a possession percentage of 47.3%, and home teams have a possession percentage of 52.7%.



So what does all this mean? It seems possession percentage in the MLS does not predict success. Teams that possess the ball more don't win more; they actually lose more. Home teams also have a slight advantage in possession percentage compared with away teams.

What about teams that completely dominate possession? You might think that a team that had the ball much more often than their opponent would be much more likely to win. I defined "dominating possession" as having the ball more than 60% of the time. So far this season, teams that have dominated possession have a record of 10 wins, 19 losses, and 18 ties. Domination in possession? Yes. Domination in wins? No.

This analysis calls in to question statements like "the Union had the run of play, they possessed the ball more and deserved the win." It's apparent that in the MLS, possession is not all that important when it comes to winning games. So what's the problem with possession? One reason could be that the best teams do not play possession football. The teams with the most success may play kick and run. Another possibility is that possessing the ball simply doesn't lead to wins. Either way, having the ball more than your opponent does not mean much in the MLS.

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Reader Comments (4)

Hi Ford, I actually wrote a column on this same subject last month. I broke it down team by team, and there does seem to at least a bit of a relationship with winning and possession when you at a team's avg possession per game.

http://www.mlssoccer.com/news/article/2011/08/17/climbing-ladder-truth-behind-possession-game

September 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterscaryice

Good stuff...and makes sense. MLS is an overly-aggressive, "forechecking" league that finds everyone playing for the counter. Possession is simply not valued.

November 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

It might be of interesting: www.2012.de.nu

December 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterГолландский

Thank you for repeatedly emphasizing "in the MLS." It would be completely idiotic to say those things about European Football. Look at Spain. Look at Barcelona.

In fact, while this website is a good idea, I think it's a waste of time to focus so much on the MLS. The look like rec. league compared to European leagues. They get scored on on the counter, because they don't know how to defend against it, and commit too many people forward without getting back on defense. Also, when teams in MLS play possession, they often lose the ball at critical times, rather than losing it out of bounds etc. Makes a huge difference. When Spain, or teams like them, play possession, they rarely make stupid mistakes, letting the other team storm forward without opposition. When they do lose the ball, they have the sense to set up their defense.

September 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMorgan V

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