Sometimes what doesn’t happen on the pitch has more value than what does happen…

If you watched the Portland Timbers lose to the Seattle Sounders this past weekend some of this analysis might be painful.  If not, and you are simply an interested party in the love of soccer, then this article should get you to really question what statistics have value and where there may be a gap that better defines ‘quality shots’…

For now; if you want some history on my pre-match analysis for the Timbers game yesterday read this report; otherwise please dig in; I think this article and subsequent analysis should stimulate the grey-matter…  😉

Here’s how I ended my pre-match report…

“Sometimes what doesn’t happen on the pitch is more valuable than what does happen…

What didn’t happen is the Timbers didn’t play defense, didn’t close spaces, didn’t close gaps, and didn’t drop back behind the ball when not in possession (i.e. ball watched).

So for this game all those ‘didn’t do things’ are what got Portland in trouble.

Some may believe that the outcome of this game comes as a surprise; although I’d offer, from responses to my tweets throughout the game, the results and the (didn’t happen events) came as no surprise at all.

Why not?

Here’s why.

This is not a one-off for the Timbers (more later), nor… is it against the norm for other teams in Major League Soccer this year.

In all of MLS, this year, teams (when they win) have done so with less than 50% of the possession 47.5% of the time…

Yes, nearly 50% of the time, a team will win with less than 50% of the possession.  And that number creeps up to 48.64% when looking at wins and draws.  We’ll see how that plays out for the Bundesliga and English Premier League later this season.

For now, in the MLS, a team walks away with three points, with less than 50% possession, 76 out of 160 times.

One team has won with 50% possession, and only 83 times has the winning team walked away with an advantage in possession (51.88% of the time).

To be clear – possession is not an indicator that has value when it comes to reinforcing that a team will win (or is more likely to win) – direct play and counter-attacking/quick transition play has almost just as much value as general ‘possession’…

And, at this stage in the season, three of the ten teams currently in a playoff position average less than 50% possession.  Have we forgotten how effective Holland and Costa Rica were in the World Cup already?

A better, general statistic, is passing accuracy across the entire pitch – eight of the current MLS playoff position teams average ~77% or more in passing accuracy; only FC Dallas ~75% and Toronto ~74% average less.

Bottom line here… attaining a passing accuracy of greater than 77% (in MLS) is more likely to better indicate which team has a better chance of winning.  Given that – it’s reasonable that TV pundits offering up analysis should shelve the possession soundbite and instead replace it (in MLS) with the 77% target soundbite.

That number is likely to change for other leagues and we’ll see, in particular, how those numbers play out for the English Premier League and the Bundesliga.

So what really happened in this game?

What really happened is quality again supplanted quantity…

And as much as the greater volume of shots (usually) means the greater the likelihood a team scores just doesn’t get past the fact that, time and space, over volume, remains the most critical (unmeasured) statistic in soccer…

I think a new statistic in soccer should be “number of open shots” – regardless of where; and the build-up statistic to that should be quantifying both the origin and ending location of the pass that created that open shot.

Open shot could be defined as a player having one or two square yards of total space (around the player) that is available to strike the ball, unhindered and an unimpeded by a player who can block the shot before it reaches the keeper.

Any other shot would be considered ‘hindered’…  others may have a different view???

For more on this topic here are two additional articles digging into ‘open shots and open passes’.
New Statistics for soccer.
Portland Timbers finally show up.

If one liked, they could easily develop (Expected Goals) XpG based upon ‘open shots’ versus the general approach used today… I’d offer that XpG would probably be far more accurate than it is now – again – others may have a different view???

Bottom line for yesterday was this… a better team defense won.   So, for me, this isn’t about calling out Will Johnson or Michael Harrington or any other ‘one player’ who appeared to play poorly in defense yesterday – it’s all about calling out the entire team that their defensive posture and positioning, and mentality to go with it, was terrible…

In Closing…

The (more later)…

In all the games the Timbers have played this year (25 of them) the opponent has had less than 50.1% of the possession 14 times – with the sum of goals scored against in those 14 games equaling 21 goals; almost 50% of the goals scored against Portland (21/43).

As for taking points?  The Timbers have taken 20 of their 31 points in games where their opponent possesses the ball less than 50% of the time (66% of their points).

This appears somewhat pear-shaped to me.

While the Timbers have a 66% chance of gaining points in a game, when they possess the ball more, that increase in possession only generates a 50% payback in scoring more goals than the opponent.

In other words, team defense is not winning the Portland Timbers their games; it’s the team attack.

So since Portland are playing Vancouver this weekend what do their team statistics offer up?

Vancouver opponents have had less than 50% of the possession 13 times and they’ve given up 12 of their 31 goals against in those games (~39%).  They’ve won two of those games, lost two, and drawn nine of them for 15 points from 13 games (45% of their points).

In other words, with a 45% chance of taking points it is likely the opponent will score fewer goals 61% of the time (100% – 39%).

Now how about this coming weekend?

Portland like to possess the ball – which means they are likely to try and possess it more than 50% against Vancouver.

So when looking at Vancouver, and when their opponents possess the ball greater than 50.1%, here’s the grist.

Opponents have done that 11 times against Vancouver, with 17 goals scored but… Vancouver have taken 18 of their 33 points from those games (55% chance of Vancouver taking points).

In other words, even when the opponent possesses the ball more against Vancouver, Vancouver have a better chance of taking points even though the opponent has scored 54% of the goals against Vancouver.

Put another way, not pear-shaped…

Reality… if not for the attack of the Portland Timbers (led by Diego Valeri) it is likely this team would be bottom of the Western Conference; given that only Houston and Montreal (the two worst teams in the Eastern Conference) have ceded more goals against this year than the Timbers.

Best, Chris

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