San Antonio FC has been part of an interesting trend in modern football in their USL season opening streak, they win matches with less possession.
In fact San Antonio FC actually has better results when they lose the possession battle, the club has only won possession twice this season. Both times San Antonio won possession in 2017 they ended up not winning the match.
That trend is not just one which impacts San Antonio FC but the entire United Soccer League (USL) this season. Prior to last weekend 70 of the 113 league matches where there was a result were won by the team with less possession, 62% of matches with a result.
“The only statistic that matters is the goals column.”Said San Antonio FC head coach Darren Powell when asked about possession “but I know, it’s an interesting point.”
The trend happens to occur beyond USL, we see a trend in the English Premier League of teams winning matches with less possession. That has been a downward trend since 2011 and has become truly noticeable in recent years.
“Possession is often a stat that, if you have all the ball in your own half, is that really a useful stat is really purposeful possession? So the most important stat is purposeful possession.” Said Powell. “In the course of a game, for us, we look at the areas of the field that we want to get in and then you can create the opportunities. That’ll put you in important positions and being able to score goals.”
“The bottom line is the other team wants to do the same. Only one team can dictate that, so the game is going to ebb and flow, and with the ebb and flow of games and if you’re up the other team is going to have a bit more possession.”
This theory shows in how Powell sets up his side, the 4-2-3-1 allowing for great flexibility and gives San Antonio the ability to punch quickly. Moving to a 4-5-1 without the ball forces the opponent to have to be patient to wear San Antonio down, giving them more possession in a way that doesn’t bother Powell. Switching to a 4-3-3 in attack allows San Antonio to score goals with minimal possession, creating this possession disparity which we see in San Antonio FC’s results this year.
“As a modern trend, I think all leagues are different, all teams are different but it’s good to follow. I just like purposeful possession and I like to see the area of the field, where you have possession.”
He is right about that, Australia’s A-League has winning possession almost as a kiss of death, partly due to the style of the Central Coast Mariners who hold the ball around defense but have struggled to get results.
“If you look at different leagues you’ll find different trends right now.” Says Powell, “I think if you look at La Liga they have a different trend than maybe in Germany and England right now, and Italy is probably different again.”
The trend that holds in USL also holds in the United States top division, Major League Soccer, and also in England and Germany. Powell is correct about Spain, which proves to be a rare commodity as a national league where possession actually does matter.
As for what could be used to track ‘meaningful possession’ that answer seems fairly simple, time in attacking third.