Does having more possession increase a team’s chances of winning?

The above question has been posed before, and while previous studies have nullified the significance of having an advantage in possession, we wished to conduct our own study.

For this study, we examined all regular season games of the current MLS season through September 1, a total of 235 games.

It seems very logical that the team that holds the possession advantage has a greater chance of scoring more goals, and thus winning the game. The fact that a team cannot score without having possession of the ball lends itself to this conclusion. However, the numbers suggest something else.

After gathering data for all 235 regular season games (of which 68 were draws), we noticed that more games have actually been won by the team that had less possession. This is true across all margins of victory (victories of 1-4 goals).

We have seen more high-profile examples of this outside of MLS. One popular example is Inter Milan’s championship run in the 2009-2010 UEFA Champions League. They defeated the champions of the English, Spanish and German leagues en route to their trophy. In the final against Bayern Munich, Inter Milan had the ball for only 30 percent of the game, yet still won 2-0. Inter had even less of the ball in their two-leg semifinal against Barcelona (they held the ball for just 21.5 percent of the two matches), yet still managed to win 3-2 on aggregate. While Inter’s Champions League run may be a bit on the extreme side, our study — along with others before it — shows it’s much closer to the norm than one might think.One possible explanation for the above data is that teams that emphasize the counter attack are more successful than their attacking counterparts. However, one cannot assume this to be true for all teams. Teams that simply rely on counter-attacking and not creating their own offensive opportunities cannot be expected to consistently succeed. Every team needs an offense for when they are behind, as well as a defense to hold their lead.

A more likely explanation is that certain teams have more efficient networks than others, which allow them to score more often while having the ball. At Chimu, we aim to map each team’s network, and see exactly how these teams are able to score, and whether their success can be consistently replicated given the right players and the right circumstances.

So rather than having the ball for a majority of the time, it might be more important to have the right pieces in place at the right time. The team’s chances of success would then fall on their ability to reproduce these situations in which they have proven to score most often. And from a defensive standpoint, it becomes easier to defend against a team once you know how, and from where, they are most likely to score.

What do you think explains the lack of correlation between an advantage in possession and winning? Would you like to see a network analysis that would show how teams could be more efficient with the ball? Feel free to comment below.

11 comments on “Does having more possession increase a team’s chances of winning?

  1. Any chance of creating such statistics including only situations when one team had really significant advantage (at least 55-60 percent) in possesion? I’m rather confident that possesion increase chances of winning, however 55-45 ratio can be considered as even game, so it would be hard to find signifance of result of that game.

    1. Our analysis was more macroscopic; we focused on the general trends of possession and its effect on winning.

      However, we did do additional analysis that was not brought into this post. 

      As of September 1st, there were 87 matches in the MLS regular season decided by 1 goal.  Of those 87, 14 (16%) had the winning team have less than 40% possession. Additionally, there were 22 matches (25%) when the winning team had between 40-45% possession. 

      Compare these numbers with teams on the opposite end of the spectrum, those that won a
      one-goal game with more possession.  The winning team had more than 60% possession only in 6 games (7%), and between 55-60% only 8 (9%) times.

      Interestingly, the numbers for teams winning with 45-50% and 50-55% are nearly identical.

      These numbers suggest that possession does not actually increase chances of winning.

      1. Thank You for answer,

        But how does it look in games with more than one-goal winning margin? I can understand that in such close game, teams who have a goal advantage are not so interested in posession, but in the possesion based football the margin of the victory is in most cases bigger and I think it should be included as well.

  2. I think success in football can be described by a teams attacking efficiency. The ability to use possession effectively to create “good” goal scoring opportunities as opposed to just creating an abundance of these chances (evidence of this was seen in World Cups where one of the asian teams outshot Brazil but lost because of the teams attacking efficiency!). Milan evidently created good goal scoring opportunities against Bayern, Man Utd and Barcelona even though they had less possession. Conversely Barcelona did not attack will in the Milan game – for all there possession how many real, goal scoring chances did they create?

    I think the statistical analysis of games must be accompanied by tactical information of how a team defended and there passing patterns in possession, this is perhaps what differentiates between good and great coaches is their attention to detail in preparing their teams to defend and attack effectively.

  3. Well, I have a theory, which is completely observational, I have no data to backup this assertion. Basically, what I have seen is that in close matches, when a team scores the first goal, the team that is behind obviously attempts to equalize, and for that the put more pressure and also increase ball possession. Of course, all that is void when is Barcelona the scorer.

  4. Instead of breaking it down by “more possession/less possession”, I wonder how the data would look for: slightly more possession, moderately more possession, and much more possession. For example:
    – 55/45 or less
    – 55/45 to 60/40
    – 60/40 or better
    Is there a level of possession where the trend switches?

  5. …and one more question…how does this data account for when a team is winning and plays more defensively? In this case the team that is losing tends to have greater possession. Is there data showing possession relating to first goal scored?

  6. How do you determine whether to play more possession type soccer or direct? opposition?
    quality of your own players? based on data?

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