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Backpass: Possession isn’t everything

Playing keep-away from your opponent and dictating the tempo of the game is a pretty effective way to win games. But not always.

MLS: Sporting KC at Colorado Rapids
Vermes likes to have the ball. Pablo doesn’t. Fight!
Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

There is a famous movie exchange in the 1991 Billy Crystal cowboy film ‘City Slickers’ where Jack Palance, playing Curly, the grizzled cowboy, shares with the wise cracking Crystal the secret to life.

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?

[holds up one finger] This.

Mitch: Your finger?

Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don't mean s***.

Mitch: But, what is the "one thing?"

Curly: That's what you have to find out.

Some folks live their life like Curly - there’s just one theory to it. “I’m gonna be brave.” “I’m gonna be rich.” “I’m gonna have the most fun and damn the consequences.” “I’m going to love and care for others.” Others have a theory of life that is more measured: they draw equally from a variety of philosophies and embrace a holistic system of a life lived in balance. Still a third way to live is the completely unexamined life: there is only the moment-to-moment of living different ways, there is no grand plan or reflection. Do what feels good until it doesn’t, then do something else.

Football coaches are the same way. Some have a deeply held philosophy that guides their overall approach, while others are more adaptive. Everyone knows that Jurgen Klopp’s philosophy is to counter-press - when the opponent takes the ball from you in their final third, win it back as fast as you can with everything you’ve got. Jose Mourinho plays ‘negative football’ - kill the game with oppressive midfield pressure and numbers, get your one goal, and hang on. Pep Guardiola plays (invented? perfected?) the tiki-taka style: a fast-passing blitzkrieg up the field that resembles a game of rondo (also called ‘5 v 2’) on steroids. Many EPL teams in the 90s preferred crossing football: use your wingers in the 4-4-2 to get the ball into the final third, and then launch crosses at a big beefy forward’s head. Those are all examples of the ‘one thing’ approach. Other managers, like Arsene Wenger and Alan Pardew are more adaptive with their approaches, mixing and matching as the situation dictates.

Sporting Kansas City’s manager, Peter Vermes, is favoring so-called ‘possession football’ this season, and in a big way. Here’s a list of every match SKC has had this season, along with their possession in that match and the result.

Sporting Kansas City Possession Stats 2017

Date Possession % Score
Date Possession % Score
03-04-17 61 0-0
3-12-17 69 0-0
3-19-17 47 2-1
3-31-17 41 0-0
4-9-17 58 3-1
4-16-17 49 1-0
4-23-17 61 0-1
4-30-17 50 3-0
05-03-17 55 2-0
05-07-17 66 0-2
5-13-17 62 2-2
5-17-17 61 3-0
5-20-17 58 0-2
5-28-17 73 0-1
Record as of May 30, 2017; 6-4-4 (WTL), 22 points Rapids Rabbi

There are few things you see here of note. First, SKC are good - they lead the Western Conference with 22 points. Also, their overall average of possession is 57.9% - that certainly indicates they have a style and want to employ it every match. That tells you that Vermes’ ‘possession football’ works, at least this season. And finally, you’ll notice a funny thing, which is that the amount of possession is lower when SKC wins, and higher when they lose.

In fact, the average time of possession for Kansas City when they lose is 64.5%. When they win, it is 53.3%. The sample sizes are small, but the difference is still significant enough that it tells us something. The likely reason for the discrepancy is this: when SKC take a lead, the other team fights much harder to retake possession, since you can’t score if you don’t have the ball. But when SKC are behind, they play their game and possess, possess, possess. Some of their opponents are more ok with this than others.

Saturday evening in Commerce City, we saw the most extreme version of this due to the state of the game. Because Colorado got their early goal from Kortne Ford in just the 11th minute, they could concede possession completely and just bunker down for the next 69 minutes. This is also the result of, well, needing a result. A desperate, relegation zone Rapids went into this game looking to win, even if it was in the most dire, soul-crushing, Mourinho-esque manner possible. As I mentioned in my game recap, it was back to the future for Pablo Mastroeni. No talk of offensive football and increased shot creation. This was hard-scrabble, grind-it-out, hard-man defensive football, even if it was played in a typically more fluid 4-4-2 formation. AKA the 2016 Colorado Rapids.

SKC wanted possession, the Rapids were happy to let SKC have the ball and try to score while they focused their attention on defending. I saw a few Rapids fans commenting on this site and on twitter that the Rapids failed to control the ball in midfield and were wasteful in possession. I don’t agree: I saw the Rapids kicking it long, kicking it out, and being content to dribble into the midfield with just two players and turn it over, then put everybody but Badji behind the ball. In short, they didn’t want the ball, and they didn’t really try that hard to hold on to it. And they really didn’t want to kick it around the backline and risk disaster. So they booted it medium and booted it long.

It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.

This loss for SKC doesn’t mean that possession football is a failure. It’s just one game, and Sporting are still the best team in the West. Nor was did this win really establish a pattern the Rapids can build off of. Colorado may stick with a fluid y-midfield 4-4-2 that balances offense and defense, or it may go back to the extremely well named ‘Mastronaccio’ - two deep-sitting defensive lines of four, with little daylight between them. Or the Rapids may employ an either/or strategy. A plan to fit each game. Just win baby.


Since I’m not doing gifs this week (really, nothing was really worth gif-ing, and the story of this game was about possession) here’s all the highlights. That Feilhaber shot at 80’ might have tied it, but Bobby Burling blocked it.

Quick Hits

Kortne Ford got his first MLS goal! At home! With his mom in the stands! And it won the game! That’s really as good as it gets.

It isn’t that big a surprise: Ford had 5 goals last season for the University of Denver. I got to witness one of them, and it was... a set piece header. The Rapids haven’t had a center back with a nose for goal since Drew Moor left - he had 3 goals in 2012 and 3 goals in 2013 (Axel Sjoberg had 2 goals last year, none the year prior). If Gashi-to-Ford can become a recurring trend, it could really help the Rapids to establish an edge over their foes. The Rapids currently have 2 set piece goals on the 2017 season, while the league-leading Houston Dynamo have 7 set piece goals. The Rapids have lost five matches this season by one goal - convert a set piece in each of those games, and the team has 5 more points in the table, and would only sit a point or two below the redline, instead of their current 7 points out of the playoffs.