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A statistical analysis of the Union midfield

Photo: Earl Gardner

The Union midfield has been called one of the weaker parts of the team this season. What does the data suggest though? Specifically, I wanted to answer two questions about the midfield: How does the midfield fare in terms of passing percentages? And are better midfield passing percentages associated with Union wins? The charts below, which contain data from the MLS chalkboard feature, represents season averages in games played through to the away game in Seattle on October 8.

Midfield passing numbers

An average of 132 passes per game is a solid number for a team’s midfield.

To put this number in context, the LA Galaxy midfield with Beckham and Juninho average exactly the same number of passes per game. In no way are the Union midfield struggling to make passes. In addition, the Galaxy midfield and Union midfield both average a passing percentage rate of 74 percent. In other words, the Union midfield completes, on average, 74 percent of their passes in a game. These are in no way worrying percentages, especially if we know they are on pace with the top team in the MLS.

Simply measuring successful passes and passing percentages can sometimes be deceiving, however. For example, teams can rack up a lot of successful passes by just passing the ball around in their own half. If such passing numbers do not translate into attacking play these passes are useless for a realistic overall sense of how successful a midfield may be.

Two statistics that are more indicative of the strength of play from the midfield are successful passes in the final third and passing percentage in the final third. Passes made in the attacking third of the field are more related to scoring and harder to complete. Therefore, we expect better teams to have better passing percentages and more successful passes in the final third of the field.

On average, the Union midfield completes 24 passes in the final third per game. Additionally, their final third passing accuracy percentage is 65 percent. The drop in completion rate from passing percentages over the entire field is expected—passes are harder to complete in the final third of the field. To place the Union’s numbers in context once again, the LA midfield completes an average of 29 passes in the final third and have a completion percentage of 62 percent. So, while the LA midfield completes more passes, they complete a lower percentage of them.

So, in answer to my first question—How does the midfield fare in terms of passing percentages?— in no way does the Union midfield struggle in their passing statistics. When we compare them to the strong LA midfield, the Union midfield hold their own.

Midfield numbers in relation to wins and losses

After I looked at these numbers, I still wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to know if the Union win and score more when their midfield plays better. In other words, do the passing numbers of the Union midfield affect the team’s ability to win games? Do the Union depend on their midfield to win games?

The first angle I took to analyze this question was to look at the passing percentage and final third passing percentage of the Union midfield in wins versus in losses. If the Union depended on their midfield to win, we would expect these percentages to be higher in wins than in losses. In actuality, the opposite has been true this season of overall passing percentage: the midfield completes 73 percent of their passes in wins, and 76 percent in losses.

These numbers seem to be counterintuitive. But the final third passing percentages tell a different story. The Union midfield completes 67 percent of their passes in the final third in wins, and only 65 percent of their passes in the final third in losses. This tells us that the Union midfield passes more efficiently in the final third in wins. Looking at passing as a whole, the midfield’s completion percentage does not seem to matter.

Midfield numbers in relation to goals scored

Next I looked at the Union midfield’s passing percentage and final third passing percentage when the team scores zero, one and two goals. Again, we would expect higher passing completion rates in games when the Union scores more goals. As was the case above, the Union midfield’s total passing percentage has no relation to scoring more goals. When the team is shutout, the midfield averages a pass completion rate of 77 percent. When one goal is scored, it drops to 73 percent. When two goals are scored, it increases back up to 76 percent.

Overall, there does not seem to be much of a relation between wins and the midfield’s overall passing percentage. However, if we look at passing percentage in the final third, a relationship begins to emerge. When the Union fails to score, the midfield completes 69 percent of their passes in the final third. When one goal is scored, they complete 62 percent of their passes. And when two goals are scored, they complete a whopping 74 percent of their passes in the final third.

Conclusion

Overall, what did we learn?

First, the Union midfield in no way struggles with passing from a statistical context and compares favorably to the talented LA midfield in many regards. Second, the overall passing percentage of the Union midfield has little relation to winning games. However, a higher passing percentage in the final third by the midfield is associated with winning more games and scoring more goals.

It may seem pretty obvious, but a key to the success of the Union has been efficient play by the midfielders in the final third.

Follow me on Twitter for more fun soccer data analysis: @SoccerStatistic

7 Comments

  1. In order for the Union to do well they need to posses the ball and take more shots GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO UNNNNNNNNNIONNNNNNNNNN

  2. If the midfield are statistically just as good in losses as in wins (and a 2-3% difference really is negligable), and they’re statistically on par with the league leaders, then what the data rather disappointingly illustrates is that team success all comes down to finishing chances. I know that’s not exactly breaking news, but I say it’s disappointing because you’d like to think success is a result of coordinated team performance, not simply proficiency at one position.

    Alternatively, it might indicate that the Union are a truly elite team on par with the league leaders in every way EXCEPT finishing. But that doesn’t pass inspection when you watch the games — I love them, but they’re not always the best team on the field.

    I’d like to see comparisons with other teams besides Galaxy in order to judge what kind of correlation exists between midfield pass completion and team success.

  3. Fantastic article. Just great, great stuff. And the LA comparison is perfect. We want to find out if the Supporter’s Shield winners are doing something we aren’t (besides winning more games, I mean).

  4. Great stats and article thank you.

    Here’s another and I believe wholly accurate assessment of the stats comparison provided.

    Based on the information given we know that on average the Union end up attempting about 37 passes in the attacking third, while the Galaxy end up attempting about 46 passes in the attacking third. As whole numbers the difference doesn’t seem that great, but it means on average the Galaxy attempt 25% more passes per game in the attacking third.

    what does this equate to . . . it equates to one of 2 things

    1) the Union do not get in the attacking third nearly enough
    2) the Union midfielders in the attacking third are more likely to dribble than pass

    #1 directly correlates to something many Union fans have complained about time and again . . . The Union midfield is not offensive enough! Since the Union and Galaxy make the same total amount of passes a game, but 9 less are in the final 3rd that means that more of the Union midfield passes are either neutral (ie play from side to side) or negative (backpasses). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve yelled at my screen when Mapp or Carrol turn around and play the ball back instead of attacking forward. The Seattle game was a perfect example where on at least 4 occasions the defense got the ball out of heavy pressure on the right to Mapp in the middle and GFarfan/Nakazawa made wide-open runs up the left with nothing but space in front but instead of passing it up field Mapp decided to either turn and hold the ball or turn it back into the trouble where it came from. Infuriating!!!

    The stats seem to justify that the Union need to be much more counter attacking as opposed to stop and build up. In addition to getting in the attacking third more and leading to more scoring chances, this would also relieve pressure on the DBS and give them more time to catch their breath after holding off an attack from the opposition. In conclusion, get the frickin ball and push up field!

    #2 could mean two things, one we have a lot selfish ball hogging midfielders which I do not think anyone would agree with or two they don’t know where or have nowhere to pass the ball once they get it. As mentioned above, Mapp seems indecisive many times with where to pass it, the same is true for Okugo. Carrol’s first pass is almost always back, I think this may be more from design but it needs to stop. The only “ball hog” would be Torres, but at least his is of the offensive nature. he may lose the ball 30% of the time but at least it’s in the attacking half and moving forward with purpose as opposed to Nakazawa/Mapp/Okugo/Migs who when they hold it lose the ball in their own end. This is why I like the addition of Adu, he’ll get the ball (when it doesn’t bounce off him backwards) and attack. Same for Daniel. And I think they’ve proven that the guys up top are making runs during the game, but they just generally don’t have anyone giving them the ball.

    Bottom line. Passive build up football is great and all, and quite necessary when you have a late lead . . . but attacking football is what wins in this League by creating more chances and keeping your own defense fresh and out of pressure.

  5. Maurice Hébert says:

    A bit of a tangent to this subject but I would like to know how the Union compares with the MLS in set play scoring. I’d like to see a breakout of corner kicks and long service free kicks that require head touches in the box. I think this comparison might reveal an aerial issue with the Union.

    • Ford Bohrmann says:

      Interesting question to look at, Maurice. I’ll be doing more statistical articles like this one, and ideas for more articles are always appreciated. There are also stats kept on aerial duels and which teams win them, if you’re interested in open play aerial problems too. Set play scoring is obviously a huge part of the game, and teams that struggle with it often struggle in the long run winning games.

  6. Pingback: The Philly Soccer Page » Match preview: Union vs Toronto FC

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