One of the phrases floating about the internet after the LA Galaxy defeated the Colorado Rapids, is that the Rapids had the better match; the Galaxy just finished their chances. My motto, if I were to have such a thing, is that soccer statistics are dirty liars. Specifically pointing to shots on goal as an indicator of production, or possession as an indicator of a well played game. It's one thing to point out that the Galaxy were out possessed on Saturday, more significant is did all that possession for Colorado mean anything.
On the Opta Chalkboard, a player's heat index is a tabulation of every meaningful touch a player has. Now that includes good touches and bad touches, unlike the Castrol Index which tries to calculate who has the most good soccer moves on the pitch in a given week. When it comes to possession, Opta had this to say in a recent interview:
Opta: Of the 213 victories in MLS 2011, only 83 of the teams winning that game managed more possession than their opponent (39 percent). Also important to say that of the 75 sides to manage 60 percent or more possession in an MLS game last season, only 15 of those sides managed to win that game (20 percent).
Possibly because it is a new toy (possession stats weren't always available in MLS) pundits like to throw out possession as an indictor of the strength of a team's performance. Certainly in game, possession stats can show which team has been on the attack over a given fifteen minute period. Watching the match, of course, can also have that affect.
When neither team has scored, the team dominating possession is said to have the run of play. A counterattacking goal is said to come against the run of play. Watch the highlights posted below. Note that despite all the talk about how well Colorado played in the first half, it's the Galaxy with the first two highlight worthy chances in the first thirty minutes.
Both opportunities were quick counterattacks, though the second one involved a foul which allowed the Galaxy to set up a set piece. On the first highlight attempt, Mike Magee finds Landon Donovan alone inside the six yard box but Landon's first shot attempt of the match went wide. Shot on goal, dirty liar, that was a good opportunity that Donovan could convert most of the time.
On the own goal, all the possession in the world means nothing if a team concedes possession with a foul in their defensive half, allowing MLS' best free kick taker to put a dangerous ball into the box. David Beckham is a weapon that takes concession of the ball in the offensive third as a sign of weakness that must be punished.
Three players for Colorado finished with over 100 significant moves on the heat index: Luis Zapata, Kosuke Kimura, and Jeff Larenowitz. The LA Galaxy only had one in Todd Dunivant. The three players for Colorado all had excellent games, with high pass success ratios, and Kimura with five key passes.
Landon Donovan conversely only clocks in at 57 on the head index, but that includes just seven unsuccessful passes out of 34, two shots on target, one off target, and a goal. Between the three Colorado players with heat indexes over 100, only one took a shot and it was off target.
Possession is the potential for chances, but it is not the only way to get chances. Converting on counter attacks and set pieces, as the Galaxy did in the first half in Colorado, if successful is just as significant. The fact that Colorado had about 60% of the possession on the game is a result partly of Colorado playing from behind in the second half with the Galaxy parking the bus a bit, and it also shows sometimes things go better when a team is direct and not holding on to possession trying to figure a way through.
Think of all those games at The Home Depot Center last year where the Galaxy would possess the ball the entire first half and have only one or often no goals to show for it. Again, possession shows trends as the game progresses, post game possession statistics are fairly meaningless. Colorado holding onto the ball didn't make them the better team on Saturday.