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Whitecaps: Efficient in Possession

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The 2012 Vancouver Whitecaps are proving that you don't always need to have the edge in possession in order to come out ahead in the wins column. (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
The 2012 Vancouver Whitecaps are proving that you don't always need to have the edge in possession in order to come out ahead in the wins column. (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
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So I'm lapping up the last of my pint as the last of the day's Euro action winds down, and at the table beside me I catch the conversation turning to the ubiquitous topic of "possession". Two youth coaches are going toe to toe on the merits, or foibles as the case may be, on the issue.

The olive-skinned guy with about three days' worth of stubble and a curly Chiumiento-esque mop of dark hair says the value put on possession is greatly exaggerated, and that you can hold the ball all day if you want, but if you're not able to break down your opponent or capable of exploiting their mistakes, possession's not worth a damn. He's not against the idea - just convinced that it's highly overrated as a key performance indicator.

His counterpart, Mr. thinning salt and pepper with glasses and a typical English herringbone flat cap extols the virtues of making the other guys chase all match, and on denying the opponents the chance to score by denying them the ball in the first place.

Round about the time I catch "I'll...(unintelligible)...and kick your sorry ass," I can feel an article starting to take shape.

Barcelona's tiki-taka high-precentage short passing is highly alluring, I'll admit. But at the same time I'm cognizant of the fact that we're talking about Barca - a side so revered and successful that if their pre-match routine involved everyone stepping in dog crap, there'd be a global run on St. Bernards and Great Danes. In a world where imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Barcelona has no shortage of admirers.

With the talent pool the Spanish side has at its disposal, it becomes difficult to determine with certainty whether the club's success is down to their system or philosophy, or whether it's the result of the amazing individual talents that make up the squad. So, let's apply some sigma theory and filter out the "noise" of the outliers at the ends of our bell curve - this removes the Barcas, the Bayerns, and Man Cities at the one end of our bell curve, while thankfully also ridding us of the Toronto FCs, the Doncasters, and the Neuchatels.

We're left with the roughly 68% of all clubs that are "gloriously mid-table", as Ben Massey termed the Vancouver Whitecaps a few weeks back, when they were at the start of their current ascendency from the ashes of the 2011 season. And in keeping with the Whitecaps theme, let's take a closer look at the role that possession has played throughout the season thus far.

Through 14 matches, the Caps sit at 7-3-4, at 25 points - good enough for third spot in the Western Conference. Let's take a look at some of the overall, broader findings before moving to a more granular view:

  • Average possession per match: 46.6%
  • Matches above 50% possession: 4
  • Average possession per victory: 43.4%
  • Average possession per loss: 51.9%

At first glance, the figures might seem counter-intuitive with the Caps enjoying a greater share of possession in their three losses. One would think that possession is a good thing: "The more often you control the ball, the greater your chance of putting it in the net."

But that's an overly simplistic view that doesn't take into account an opponent who's leading by a couple, and simply hunkering down to secure the win by setting up a brick wall from the top of the box in. And that's exactly what we see when we look at the top two matches in terms of Whitecaps possession.

The blue/brown-and-white posted 56.5% versus New England in a 4-1 rout that saw Eric Hassli open the scoring at the 5' mark, Lee Nguyen tie it only a minute later, and the Whitecaps totally collapse from that point onward. The Caps managed 56.0% possession in another loss, this time falling 3-1 to Sporting Kansas City at B.C. Place.

Interestingly, the two matches with the lowest share of possession (35.4% vs Chivas, and 36.5% versus Columbus) came in close-fought 1-0 victories, both of which featured late 2nd half goals from defenders DeMerit and Lee.

On home soil, where the Whitecaps have been a stellar 5-1-2, there doesn't seem to be a boost in possession as a result of home-field support. In fact, only once in the five wins did the team crack 50% possession.

It would appear, at least, that the Vancouver Whitecaps have found success in doing more with less. The possssion stats wouldn't be so surprising if they were regularly holding down 2-goal leads, but they've only been in that position twice this season. So efficiency has been the hallmark thus far, and with the emergence of speedster Darren Mattocks, the steadily improving supply from Davide Chiumiento, and the arrival of Barry Robson maybe the Whitecaps will demonstrate over the course of a full season that, contrary to currently accepted dogma, having an edge in possession need not be the alpha and omega of soccer success.