Passing is the most basic and essential element in the game of modern soccer. Without passing there are no formations, and the game degenerates back to its ancestral roots of "mob football". Passing begets possession, and whether or not possession, and in turn passing, matters is always a topic of debate in soccer circles.
Ben Jata wrote an article earlier last week on the 50 most accurate passers in Major League soccer. Every team in the MLS is represented on this list with the exception of Chivas USA and the Chicago Fire. Ben Jata's article and the Fire's exclusion from the list reveals a small truism about possession in soccer.
Opta Stats measures possession within a game based on the number of passes a team attempts in a game, so the two statistics are intrinsically linked. Keeping the ball is a matter of passing the ball to one’s teammates, not the opposition; every completed pass opens the opportunity for another, and another. The thought process I’m following is that the higher a team’s completion percentage, the more passes they can attempt which translates into a higher rate of possession. Conversely, a low passing completion rate will translate to a low amount of possession.
This past season, we saw the data unfold with our own eyes - the Fire would lose the possession battle game after game. By the end of the season, the Fire had the majority of possession in less than a third of their games - a total of eight games out of 34. The Fire also put up woeful passing numbers - never once completing more than 80% of their passes in a game throughout the season.
Breaking Down the List
There are positions in soccer where players are going to be more accurate than others based on the nature of the position alone. Centerbacks and defensively-oriented center midfielders are not usually looking to make a dangerous pass to unlock a defense. Instead, these type of players are looking to play safe passes to keep the ball as the team as a whole moves upfield. The list is full of these players, especially in the top 25.
Below is the top 25 player from Jata’s list. The players highlighted in yellow were not on playoff teams and the players in bold-italics are considered to be offensive players.
*NOTE: TomazPP pointed out in the comments that Matteo Ferrari is a centerback and not a midfielder who is known for attacking. He also pointed out that Osorio is an attacking player.
Out of the top 25 players on this list, 18 of them have spent most of their minutes playing centerback or in the central midfield. Very few of the players in the top 25 would be considered attacking players - those players, such as Brad Davis, Darlington Nagbe and Deigo Chara, are exceptions (and exceptional). Most importantly, out of the players in the top 25, only 6 were not on playoff teams.
There is concept in soccer about formations having a "spine". The basics of the concept are that the players down the center of the formation should be strong at controlling the ball and distributing it up to the attacking players. What I think Mr. Jata’s list proves is that the best teams in the league have strong spines and can win the game playing through the middle.
For anyone who has followed the Fire this year, it is not a secret that the Fire struggled to play down the middle of the field. The Fire preferred to utilize the flanks, and if the flanks were shut down, the Fire offense struggled.
Looking at Chicago’s Spine
Since the spine is where the accurate passers are on other teams, let's look at the Fire's spine to see how well they fared this season.
282 passes completed - 383 passes attempted
74% completion rate
Jalil spent the first eleven games of the season at the centerback position. His completion percentage is pretty low, but his completion percentage drops when he moves to the rightback position, where he was asked to get forward and put crosses into the box.
Jalil had his worst game at centerback in the 5th game of the season against the New York Red Bulls. He completed 18 of 34 passes for a 53% completion rate. His best game was against the Columbus Crew where he completed 48 out of 54 pass attempts for an 89% completion rate.
721 passes completed - 924 passes attempted
78% completion rate
Berry’s second season in the league was erratic, and this showed up in his passing stats. For some games he was spot on, completing over 90 percent, and other games he was not so sharp. His worst game was the late-season victory over Sporting Kansas City where he completed 16 of 27 passes for a 59% completion rate. These passing numbers don’t factor in ambition, but between Austin and his centerback partner, Bakary Soumare, Berry is by far the more conservative.
403 passes completed - 565 passes attempted
71% completion rate
Out of all the players looked at for the sake of this assessment, Soumare has the lowest completion percentage. His completion percentage is lower than Berry’s, not necessarily due to bad passing but more due to a habit of attempting high-risk passes. Many of Baky’s passes in Opta are labeled as launches or chips. Below are the two definitions from Opta on these terms.
Chipped pass - a lofted ball where there is a clear intended recipient.
Launch - a long high ball into space or into an area for players to chase or challenge for.
Baky likes to send a handful of passes a game over the midfield completely and get the ball up to one of the forwards or one of the wingers in advanced positions. Examples of this can be see in games like the one against DC United in DC or the game against FC Dallas.
One argument for in favor of Baky doing this is because it could catch opponents off guard and lead to a dangerous scoring opportunity. It also gets the ball out of his backyard. On the flip side, the chances of completing these sorts of passes is fairly low and it is essentially giving the ball back to the other team. Baky might be better off playing the ball on the ground.
926 passes completed - 1217 passes attempted
76% completion rate
Jeff’s completion rate is pretty rough. I’m not terribly familiar with Jeff’s previous roles in New England and Colorado, but I feel that Jeff might have been asked to do more work offensively than he was typically use to and that Jeff might have performed better if his role was more focused on defense.
One of Jeff’s best games of the season came in Dallas when he was paired up with Alex and they played more of a diamond midfield. Alex handled majority of the attack which allowed Jeff to sit back and control the center of the field. Jeff completed 41 passes out of 49 for a completion rate of 83.7% in that game.
346 passes completed - 419 passes attempted
82.6% completion rate
Logan was 2 appearances and 331 pass attempts short of qualifying for this list. He was passing the ball at a rate of 41.7 attempts per 90 minutes, so he would have had to put in roughly another 713 minutes to hit the 750 pass attempt requirement, which would have put him in at 1,617 minutes this season.
If Logan was able to play for 1,617 minutes and he was able to keep at the same completion rate, he would have landed at #34 on Jata’s list. I do not doubt that Logan would have achieved this. If there is one thing Logan is good at, it’s being careful with the ball.
The first thought that might come to the minds of some Fire fans is the perception that he back passes a lot. WIth that said, I’m not sure Logan back passes any more than some of the other defensive midfielders who are on Jata’s list.
284 passes completed - 395 passes attempted
72% completion rate
Out of all the central midfielders on this list, Daniel Paladini is by far the most careless with the ball. Paladini’s 72% completion rate is a little misleading. He doesn’t even crack the 70% mark until his 5th appearance of the season in Montreal, and his average completion percentage per appearance was 68.6%. There were two games this season where Paladini completed more than 90% of his passes that are bringing up his completion percentage.
In the first meeting against Philadelphia, Paladini completed 39 out of 41 pass attempts. Against Houston in July, Paldini completed 28 of 31 pass attempts after being subbed on just before halftime. Remove these two performances, and Paladini’s completion percentage drops to 67%. Between bad passing and some careless fouls, it is pretty easy to see why Paladini only made a few substitute appearances in the last two months of the season.
Egidio Arévalo Rios
322 passes completed - 402 passes attempted
80% completion rate
Since arriving with the Fire, Rios had two games with a completion rate under 70%. Aside from those two games, everything else was 77.7% or higher. Rios takes care of the ball, which is something that you would want to see from a player of his style. He is better at winning the ball back for the team and not giving it away.
I attempted to see if there was any correlation between his possession numbers and the Fire’s possession numbers, but I could not find any. Out of the eight games that the Fire had the majority of possession in, Rios was only on the field for three of them. One of those games was the 3-2 victory over New England where Rios had his lowest completion percentage - 61.5%.
Rios’ biggest contribution for the Fire was winning the ball in the midfield. Unfortunately, winning back the ball only helps so much if a team can’t hang on to it.
484 passes completed - 646 passes attempted
75% completion rate
Alex had an up and down season, but he got better as the season wore on. In his first 15 appearances, Alex completed 72.9% of his passes and only had a completion percentage of higher than 80% once when attempting more than 10 passes. In his final 15 appearances, Ales completed 76.8% of his passes and broke the 80% six time when attempting more than 10 passes.
In that final stretch of 15 appearance, Alex had two pretty awful games against Montreal. In the Fire’s 2-1 victory, Alex completed 55% of his 20 pass attempts. He completed 63% of his 19 pass attempts in the Fire’s 2-2 draw.
Conclusion on the Spine
This post is just a simple run down of all the players an their passing percentages with a few observational comments. There are other other factors that can influence these numbers. When swapping notes about this, Sean wondered about game state. How much did the Fire's passing rates change when they were winning, losing or tied? For me, I wondered if these numbers are more derived from Frank Klopas' tactics or the skill of the players on the field, which is something that is a little less measurable.
Jata's article does not go much deeper into the topic either. The bottom line is that the overall passing percentage of the Fire’s spine was 74.9% while the team as a whole was 71.9% on the season. Considering this information, it appears these numbers follow suit with Jata's list. The spine of the team had the most accurate passers on the Fire's squad, but none of them were good enough to make the list. While I don't think that these numbers are an indictment that everyone needs to play like Barcelona, but they do show that a team needs to win in the midfield to be successful in the MLS.
Addendum: Some other Numbers
Here are a few other facts I could not shoehorn into the article but wanted to share.
- The Fire' opponents broke into the 80th percentile for passing completion 14 times. In all of those games, the Fire did not have a majority of possession. Their record in these games was 5-5-3.
- D.C. United broke the 80% completion mark twice against the Fire. They lost those two games by an aggregate of 5-0. D.C. completed 79% of their passes in the 4-1 loss in July.
- The Fire completed less than 70% of their passes in 6 games. Their record was amazingly 4-1-1. The draw and the win against Sporting Kansas City were two of these games.
- The Fire had less than 40% of the possession in 6 games this season.
- The biggest possession deficit was in the third game of the season against Kansas City. The Fire were out possessed by a ratio of 27:73.