Placing greater value on possessing the ball not only produces the fundamental skills required in the game, it may even keep players enjoying and staying in the game.
“Football is a game of opinions” as people like to say. Our soccer community is no different than any other in that regard. There is certainly no shortage of opinions on a wide range of topics. At what age should we tier players? Should we allow players to play up an age? Is it important to play against the best players? Is winning important at the youth level? The topics are endless, as are the points of view. But one opinion is shared by just about every soccer enthusiast in Canada: the desire for the game to improve in this country. We want to see more players participating and enjoying the game at all levels. We want to see more players advance to play at the professional level, and ultimately we want to see Canada succeed on the world stage. Our men’s national team has not qualified for the World Cup in over 30 years. Very few Canadian men are playing in the top leagues around the world. While the women have seen more success internationally, much of that success has been attributable to the infancy of the female game around the world. Quite simply, there were few countries investing in the female game over the last 30 years. Thankfully that is changing dramatically now as Canada finds itself up against stiffer competition from countries who barely registered as viable opponents 20 years ago. That’s not to take away from the great accomplishments of the Canadian National Women’s team, but the difficulty of succeeding on the men’s side internationally is beyond daunting. On virtually every corner of the globe, there is a boy kicking a ball in the streets, dreaming of stardom.
MEASURING THE GAME
So how do we measure our success in the game? One way is to simply measure how many players in a particular region are being developed for the national team and, from there, how many succeed on the international stage. The problem, however, is that those type of results take many years to manifest. They don’t provide the coach today with any gauge as to whether he/she is approaching the game in the correct way. Furthermore, developing national team players and/or professional players is not, nor should be, the goal for the vast majority of coaches. How does any coach or parent at any level know that the players are evolving and succeeding? For that matter, how do even the players themselves know?
Some would argue that winning is the best measurement. The standard thinking is this: if my team is winning then the majority of players on my team must be turning into better soccer players than those on the losing teams. It’s understandable to have that view since the score seems to be the only measurement that we track at the youth and amateur levels. But in reality, the score doesn’t tell us much about the fabric of the game on the pitch. It doesn’t tell us if the participants are developing any type of meaningful soccer ability. In theory, there could be two teams competing, all of whom have literally never kicked a ball in their lives, and yet at the end of the game, there will still be a score with a winner and a loser.
“...in reality, the score doesn’t tell us much about the fabric of the game on the pitch. It doesn’t tell us if the participants are developing any type of meaningful soccer ability."
In the game of baseball, many competitive leagues start tracking various statistics at age 14 in this country. They track numbers such as base hits, runs batted in, individual batting averages, infield assists, and so on. As a result, there’s a greater ability to measure the overall efficacy of teams and individual players. Billy Beane, the manager of the Oakland A’s, was made famous by the book Moneyball for his ability to delve deeper into the statistics of individual players, allowing him to buy quality players overlooked by the big clubs. Now understandably, soccer is a very different game and much harder to gather statistics because it’s constantly in motion. But we don’t seem to be making any attempt to find additional measurements of success at the youth and amateur levels.
With that said, it’s also foolish to suggest that the score is immaterial or that it doesn’t tell us anything in the game of soccer. It obviously does. At the professional level in particular, the teams that win the most tend to be the teams with the most ability. But at the youth and amateur levels, it’s much less clear. Many teams can be winning simply because of superior athleticism and raw determination. This tends to be the case when neither team is exhibiting much skill or when both teams approach the game by continuously and thoughtlessly kicking the ball forward.
PASSING THE BALL
There is one measurement that exists which can tell us a great deal more than the score: how much the ball is being passed. Why is that? Because for one, no player will be able to play at the highest level without a superior ability to keep the ball. This is clearly evident in the top leagues around the world. From a sampling of games in the men’s English Premier league (see Table B), we can see that the average number of completed passes falls in the range of 733.5 per game or 379 per team. This works out to 8.2 completed passes per minute between both teams. The most accomplished teams like Manchester City can pass the ball over 600 times against lesser opponents in the league. When FC Barcelona was at their nadir in 2011, they once passed the ball 988 times in a single league game. This is all the more challenging given the defensive speed of the opposition at that level.
It’s the same on the women’s side at the top level (see Table A). The FA Women’s Super League averages 733.5 completed passes per game or 366.8 per team. The NWSL averages 760.6 completed passes per game or 380.3 per team. It’s indisputable that players at the very highest level of the game must have the ability to pass the ball under great pressure. As a comparison, a sampling of games was also analyzed from the Canadian Premier League (CPL), NCAA Big Ten Tournament, and the U17 Cnd. Nationals. This was done on both the male and female side of the game (see tables A and B).
"Possession is related to success, not because of specific strategies related to what the score in the game was, but because of teams’ relative skill levels. Possession is about ability…”
Secondly, and most importantly at the youth and amateur levels, passing the ball effectively exercises just about every component required in the game. When passing from point A to point B, the pass itself can often be the least challenging part of the process. What’s challenging is all the pre-requisites that enable that pass to connect. For one, the player in possession will require evasive dribbling skills if the first defender is bearing down, preventing any immediate pass from being made. He/she will also require good decision-making under pressure to find the right passing option. The receiving player, in turn, will require vision and awareness, an understanding of supporting angles, proper body positioning, and, above all, a good first touch under pressure. As a team, the players will require a good understanding of their positional structure in different scenarios such as passing out from the goalkeeper or maintaining possession in the attacking half of the pitch.
These are just some of the components that get exercised when passing the ball in the game. Kicking the ball aimlessly exercises none of those components. In other words, a pass is much more than a pass. In many ways, it’s both an exercise in ability and ultimately a measurement of ability. This was echoed in the book, The Numbers Game, in which the authors underwent a full exploration of the game through statistical analysis. When it came to passing the ball, they wrote: “Possession is related to success, not because of specific strategies related to what the score in the game was, but because of teams’ relative skill levels. Possession is about ability…and that means, over the course of the season, those teams that cherish the ball - and know how to treat it - will win out.”
It’s important to note that “possession” is the broad term for keeping the ball. This can be done by a combination of dribbling and passing. Often players will have to dribble in order to find a pass. These are both key skills which ultimately enable teams to maintain possession. In other words, passing and dribbling are not two solitudes. They are inextricably linked. Teams that can dribble evasively and escape pressure tend to achieve higher numbers of completed passes.
TRACKING THE NUMBERS
Given the importance of passing the ball and how it can measure so many components of the game, it makes sense to start tracking these numbers. This is particularly valuable for the higher levels of youth and amateur adult. Even greater insight can be had by measuring the direction of passes, as well as their location on the pitch (ie. defensive half vs offensive half). Passing stats can also be done for individual players. The difficulty, however, is that the greater the detail, the more challenging it becomes to track these statistics. Services are available online such as InStats and Vidswap that provide an amazing array of detail. But that requires video footage of games. It can all end up being costly for most youth teams. As a start, simply tracking the number completed passes by both teams goes a long way in highlighting other important aspects of the game. It also encourages players to value keeping the ball which can only help their development.
For regular youth teams, tracking can be done by a coach or team manager with 2 inventory hand counters - easily purchased at any office supply store. The numbers can be shared internally with the players/parents. For higher level youth and amateur adult leagues, games can be filmed and tracked through a 3rd party service. Alternatively, a 4th official can be hired for every game to track the completed passes in real time. The passing numbers can then be published in addition to the score. Other statistics can also be included such as shots on goals, corners, etc., depending on the numbers available.
With a greater emphasis on keeping the ball, the game not only improves across the board, but it becomes more enjoyable to play. Declining enrolment in the game has caused much consternation with our governing bodies, and understandably so. Studies have been conducted to determine the reasons behind this decline. While those reasons can be varied and complex, there is an argument to be made that players can drop out of the game simply because the game itself is not enjoyable. Few players take pleasure in fighting for 50-50 balls for 90 minutes. Ask any player who plays for a team that values keeping the ball and you will undoubtedly find players who derive more satisfaction from the game than those who play for teams that don’t. This applies to all levels of the game whether recreational or competitive.
"Ask any player who plays for a team that values keeping the ball and you will undoubtedly find players who derive more satisfaction from the game than those who play for teams that don’t.”
With a new focus on keeping the ball, things may start to shift in the soccer community. Coaches may start focusing on the skills required to maintain possession. Players themselves may start to see the game differently and value aspects of the game previously undervalued. This does not necessitate a negative effect on playing an attacking brand of soccer. Passing the ball and scoring goals are not mutually exclusive. This has long been the straw man argument for those downplaying the value of possession. Watch the game at the highest level and you’ll see that the top teams do both. Possessing the ball with great efficiency and frequency is an attacking strategy and has been for the last 30 years in the modern professional game. It’s indisputable. There’s little reason for us not to focus on the skills that enable players to emulate what takes place at the highest levels of the game.
Another welcomed change may be the tempering of opinions as they relate to the game. By capturing passing statistics, there becomes greater transparency on what’s taking place on the pitch other than just the score. It’s also important to note that having a low number of completed passes does not necessarily mean that the team in question is undervaluing that aspect of the game. It could simply mean that the opponent had a greater efficiency in this area. Capturing the numbers can also help the coach and team better recognize areas of deficiency in their game and understand that scoring goals and winning games is a process. If that process gets bypassed, there may indeed be more wins in the short term, but the long term effect can often be negative for the players. It can be negative because ultimately it's the process that enriches them, and that approach only undermines the one opinion we all ostensibly share, which is the desire for the game to improve in this country.
Brendan Quarry is the operations director and co-owner of TSS Football Club and Total Soccer. He has been coaching on the female side of the game for the last 20 years and helped countless players progress to the collegiate level.
TABLE A: Source of Data
FA WSL (UK) - all 6 league games from Nov 17 (InStats)
NWSL (US) - final 7 games of the season (InStats)
Big Ten NCAA - quarters, semis, final (InStats)
U17 Youth (CDN) - final 7 games of tournament (Vidswap)
TABLE B: Source of Data EPL (UK) - all 10 league games from Nov 8-10 (InStats) CPL (CDN) - final 7 games of the season (InStats) Big Ten NCAA - quarters, semis, final (InStats) U17 Youth (CDN) - final 7 games of tournament (Vidswap)