A few years ago I ran across a series of articles written by Daniel Finkelstein of the London Times. He authors a column called Fink Tank which looks at soccer through the emotionless eyes of a statistician. The first column, “Identifying top teams more than just a passing fancy“, attempted to discover what differentiates good English Premier League football teams from bad ones. He found that the obvious choices – shots on goal, shots on target, style of play, etc. – did not lead to a definitive conclusion on what separates the men from the boys. The answer was: Passing. As he states, “…the relationship between overall team success and both the total number of passes and the passing success rate turns out to be even stronger than that between shots and success.” In other words, good teams pass more and string more consecutive passes together. They also prevent their opponents from doing likewise. The top teams in the English Premier League (at least between 1999 and 2003, the time of the study) have a pass completion rate of 75-80%, while the bottom teams can only muster around a 66% pass success rate.
Further investigation found that, in particular, “Successful distribution from the goalkeeper to a player from his team is one of the hallmarks of a good side.” This could mean that building the attack from the back is a good thing. Another interesting finding was that good teams do not cross the ball significantly more than bad teams. In fact, at the time of writing, Manchester United was near the top for teams crossing the ball and Arsenal was near the bottom. Yet during this period of the English Premier league, both were perennially at the top of the table and battling for championships.
What’s the take home message for a coach? Clearly, it pays to get your team to pass well, and to be able to maintain possession. This means working on control (2-touch), movement off the ball, spacing, and the proper pace of passes. Lots of possession games are the best tool that a coach can use, in this regard. Of particular importance, especially in the U.S. soccer scene, is to include the goalkeeper in the possession games and work on building out of the back starting from the keeper. In American soccer (club, high school, and college) there is too much emphasis on the goalkeeper booting the ball up field as soon as he or she receives it. This change will, undoubtedly, be difficult and result in some poor turnovers and last-ditch defending, but, in the long run, as the statistics show, it will ultimately lead to success.