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Through the Looking Glass: Possession with Purpose in Portland

The interesting thing about that title is most seem to feel or think it means that in order to win you must have a majority of possession - that is not the case - at least not in Major League Soccer.

Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Granted if you start looking overseas (and check out the big-time leagues) more possession means more points. Here in the States that is not true - it wasn't true last year and it is not true this year.

So what does this surprising fact mean for the Portland Timbers this year?

I'll try to answer that - or at least offer some thoughts that may make sense.  For me to do that though I think there is value in showing the numbers first...

The takeaway here is that teams who win, on average, do so with lower passing numbers both outside and within/into the attacking final third.  In addition - teams with lower overall passing accuracy (quality), also earn more points than teams with higher passing accuracy.

Is that pear-shaped or what?

The tables, used to support both diagrams, are highlighted in light blue to show what areas have higher quantity or quality given the categories of data.

Additional information:  In looking at the curved lines and numbers in the (dashed) boxes - statistically what this is showing is:

  1. That the overall statistics used to calculate possession with purpose relate to each other - the higher the Coefficient of Determination (R2 number) the better the relationship.
  2. The R2 numbers are incredibly close to each other between winning, losing, and drawing.
  3. When someone offers that there is a fine margin between winning and losing they really mean it - the difference is incredibly small.

In considering the Timbers so far this year; here's a table showing which teams fall into the category of less volume in passing (anywhere).

Now here's a diagram showing who's actually making the most of this approach:

What's this mean for the Timbers this year?

Portland has yet to play San Jose - it is likely when they do the Earthquakes will have pretty much the same style/approach as what we saw with Dallas this past weekend.

We already saw Vancouver take their approach and it's likely all three of those games are similar.

What may be surprising is seeing Sporting KC (3 games below league average) open up with a 'less attempts to get you more approach' - is that shocking given Graham Zusi has been injured?

The same might be said for Real Salt Lake (also 3 games below league average) as well. Is Cassar shaping his team a bit differently than Kreis, now that he's had a full year to settle in?

And how about Kreis? New York City FC don't even show up on either diagram as having attempted more with less - would it be reasonable to expect that when Portland plays New York City it'll take on the same shape and style of how Portland used to have to play against RSL?

What about this coming week against Orlando City?

A couple of things come to mind. Orlando have one win this year, on the road no less, against Houston where they had ~52% possession and 478 passes attempted, almost 80 passes per game over the league average.

On top of that their primary goal scorer is Kaka - while he is still talented it is likely he favors a slower, shorter passing type of game for two reasons: one, he's getting older and needs to conserve energy, and two, he has huge pedigree in playing a possession-based style of soccer in Europe.

Those two things convince me it is likely we see the same approach used against Vancouver and Dallas this coming weekend.

What are your thoughts?

In Closing - here's where Portland compares with the rest of Major League Soccer this year:

It's still early days.

The mixture of teams who trend towards direct attacking versus the possession-based approach, within the top ten, continues to support that PWP is not biased to those teams that are possession-based.

In thinking about the most recent game - a few comments/thoughts:

We saw Jack Jewsbury, instead of Gaston Fernandez, come on for Maxi Urutti Saturday night.  Why was that?

For me I think it comes down to passing accuracy and ball control as a whole - not just the difference between Jack and Gaston.  For me, the rationale of that substitution should also consider the earlier one where Dairon Asprilla came on for Rodney Wallace.

With Rodney going off, and Dairon coming on, Porter was taking a player with a higher average passing accuracy (79%) and replacing him with Asprilla who averages ~69%.  In my view that move offers more risk but perhaps a better short term reward.

When that reward occurs one minute later as Asprilla assisted on the Timbers' second goal of the match, Porter reads the game and makes a defensive substitution by bringing on Jack (84% passing accuracy), in lieu of Gaston (77% passing accuracy) for Maxi (80% passing accuracy).

If Caleb brings on Gaston Fernandez instead of Jack Jewsbury then he's inserting, at a critical time, another player with a lower passing accuracy percentage (69%) in the center of the pitch.  Probably not a good idea.

Note that Gaston eventually comes on - but I'd offer that this substitution is more about 1) time wasting by Porter, and 2) Porter giving George Fochive the chance to get a great round of applause, in game, from a very appreciative home crowd who knows the young lad had a great game.

Best, Chris