March 23, 2017

Bundesliga Ball Possession: a Primer

What else can we know except that Bayern possesses over 60% every time?

Currently, the pop understanding of ball possession in football is pretty impoverished. Some TV pundits mostly repeat bromides about fallow possession statistics, e.g.: “Ball possession doesn’t mean anything, because X team possessed the ball a ton, but still lost.” It’s as if, post-Barça tiki-taka, we want to downplay that ball possession means anything, after we seemingly fell prey (in a pop sense) to the reductive idea that “high possession rates = success” following Spain’s 2010 World Cup crown and peak-Guardiola Barça.

So our reaction has been a sharp counter-reaction, in which we’re suddenly not sure if ball possession really means anything at all.

Bundesliga ball possession rates through Matchday 21. Source: WhoScored.com.

In the Bundesliga, we’re really no better off. We all know that Bayern has been possessing gobs of the ball, since Louis van Gaal rolled into Munich in 2009. And we know that Tuchel’s Dortmund possesses about 60% of the ball. But what about the other clubs? Or, most crucially, what are the various factors and dynamics operating within ball possession?

My goal in this piece is to enrich our understanding of ball possession by contextualizing simple ball possession rates with other types of ball possession data. Thanks to data from InStatSport, we can parse out Bundesliga ball possession data in some fascinating ways, for example: ball possession occurrences, ball possession duration, losing and winning ball possession, and ball possession leading to shots.

Since I was 11 years old in 1994, catching glimpses of the 1994 World Cup on TV, I’ve always thought that ball possession was the most miraculous element of football. As I discovered in the backyard, coordinating ball movement with one’s feet between other human beings is brutally difficult. So ball possession has always fascinated me. To this day, I’m mostly enthralled by how sides move the ball around a pitch when I’m watching a match. In philosophical talk, kicking a ball is an “unnecessary obstacle” proscribed by the game’s rules. Yet such obstacles give this sport its magic, and provide me an impetus to unpack one of my favorite elements of football in this article.

Let’s jump in. It’s time you were aware of more than simple ball possession rates.

Ball Possession Occurrences

Beyond the basic ball possession rate (“X team possesses the ball 54%”), there are other ways of quantifying possession. Let’s start with Matchday 21. Can you guess which side had the most occurrences of possessing the ball?

Not Bayern Munich.

The answer is Borussia Monchengladbach, who possessed the ball on 124 occasions during its 1-2 loss to RB Leipzig (who possessed the ball 118 times). Eintracht Frankfurt also possessed the ball 124 times in its 0-2 loss to Ingolstadt.

Matchday 21 “Ballbesitz,” or ball possession. The column with red numbers lists total ball possessions. The next column lists possessions crossing the center circle. And the next two columns list possessions reaching the final quarter and the penalty area respectively. (Source: InStatSport.com)

See? See? the pundits might counter, more possession doesn’t mean anything. Sure, but we’re only talking about the raw quantity of possession occurrences, which is different than how long a side actually holds onto the ball, or where and how a side wins possession, or what results at the possession’s end.

By the way, the average (“durchschnitt”) Bundesliga side possessed the ball 112 times on Matchday 21. Again, Gladbach and Eintracht possessed the ball the most (124 times), while Darmstadt and VfL Wolfsburg possessed the ball the least (96 and 90 times). Finally, possession occurrences ranged from 124 to 90 with a difference of 34 possessions between most and least. On the surface, this range doesn’t seem to have too much disparity.

Diving Deeper into Ball Possession Occurrences

However, interesting things emerge when you break these raw quantities down. For instance, both Bayern and Hoffenheim penetrated the opponent’s half of the pitch on 76% of their possessions (!). Dortmund did his on 74% of its possessions. Conversely, Werder Bremen was worst, doing this only 44% of the time.

Going even further down the pitch (the final quarter), Bayern still managed to reach it a staggering 50% of the time (!) and BVB 49% — who also led the league in reaching the penalty box 25% of the time. Woah. And what on earth was VfL Wolfsburg doing defensively on MD 21? Meanwhile, Hoffenheim’s effectiveness dropped off somewhat, as TSG reached the final quarter 40% of the time. Finally, poor Wolfsburg, who only reached BVB’s final defensive quarter only 20% of the time.

Now we can start hypothesizing.

What’s the best explanation for why Gladbach had the highest number of ball possession occurrences? Well, a couple possible answers come to mind. First, Gladbahc doesn’t play a patient build up game, meaning more riskier passes and dribbles are attempted by the Foals contrasted with other clubs. Second, Gladbach’s opponent RB Leipzig had one of the league’s shortest possession duration rates on MD 21, meaning RBL didn’t hold onto the ball very long in general, especially without Yussuf Poulson playing, who’s a common target aerially in attack. RB Leipzig possessed the ball on 118 occasions (7th most on MD 21), crossing into Gladbach territory 56% of the time, crossing into the final quarter 31% of the time, and penetrating into the Foals’ penalty box 8% of the time. Most of the action happened in the broad center circle band, which became the match’s battle zone. In other words, RB Leipzig seemed to play along with the Foals’ pacy pressing — a style that suits the Bundesliga newcomers very well.

For the entire season, Ingolstadt leads the league in total possession occurrences (122 per match). HSV (116 per match) and Leverkusen (114 per match) are next. Bayern and Dortmund both average 112 occurrences per match. Additionally, Köln (108), Darmstadt (105), and Hertha (105) have the fewest possession occurrences per match this season. Finally, Darmstadt and Hertha also reach the opponent’s penalty box the fewest times (10%), while Bayern (21%) and Dortmund (18%) reach the opponent’s penalty most the most times.

Season-long ball possession occurrences in the Bundesliga through MD 21. The two red boxes highlight Bayern and Dortmund’s ability to reach the opponent’s penalty box. Source: InStatSport.com

Ball Possession Duration

Bayern’s Bundesliga dominance begins to emerge when you look at possession duration numbers from Matchday 21. While Bayern and Dortmund don’t have the highest ball possession occurrences, they are able consistently to hold onto the ball longer and reach the most dangerous areas of the pitch with more consistency. It helps to have all that talent, huh?

We all know that Bayern consistently leads the Bundesliga in possession rate (Bayern possesses the ball 65% of the time), but what does this look like quantitatively?

Well, on Matchday 21 Bayern had the ball for 41 minutes and 53 seconds against Hertha, which was highest rate in the league on MD 21:

Bayern and Dortmund held onto the ball for longest amount of time on Matchday 21. No surprises here. However, the differences between Bayern and Dortmund on top and their opponents, VfL Wolfsburg and Hertha Berlin on the bottom, are pretty stark. As you can see, on MD 21 both VfL and BSC had the ball much less than usual (look at the “Durchschnitt” column). Source: InStatSport.com.

Remember that Gladbach led the league 124 total ball possessions on MD 21? Well, notice in the table above that these possessions resulted in “only” about 28 minutes of actual time on the ball — just a tad under the Foals’ season average. Obviously, the average Gladbach possession was shorter than the average Bayern possession on MD 21.

If you’re surprised by how small even Bayern’s number looks, try to imagine all the dead ball time, or transitions, or chaotic touches on the ball that occur during a football match. Yes, even for Europe’s most dominant possession team, the ball is at its feet for only 42 minutes. Of course, even with all that possession, you’ll recall that Bayern were lucky to escape with a 1-1 draw against Hertha. What happened? Well, after Hertha scored its goal, Bayern doubled down on possession for about 35 minutes, while Hertha was content with defensive patience:

After Hertha scored, Bayern grabbed even more ball possession time. Source: WhoScored.com.

In this context, Hertha’s 19 minutes of ball possession isn’t surprising. Hertha needed to protect the lead and Bayern needed an equalizer, which means that Bayern pressed Hertha high up the pitch and work through their usual ball-hogging build up play once the Bavarians won the ball back. Perhaps a truism is applicable here: possession duration is linked to game states. In this sense, possession duration is latticed upon a match’s narrative, inasmuch as dramatic events, such as conceding an opening, propel a match’s “plot line” forward.

Diving Deeper into Ball Possession Duration

The data gets even more granular when you look at different types of possession length. Take Bayern Munich, for example. Bayern averaged about 21 seconds per possession on MD 21. Out of 119 total occurrences, the most common type of Bayern possession lasted 15-45 seconds (53 times), while 12 Bayern possessions were longer than 45 seconds (!). Finally, only 20 Bayern possessions were 5 seconds long or shorter, while 34 possessions ranged between 5-15 seconds.

Let’s contrast Bayern with the league average on MD 21. The average club had 112 total occurrences of possession, holding onto the ball (listed in descending order): 5-15 seconds the most (44 times), 15-45 seconds (33 times), 5 seconds of shorter (31 times), and longer than 45 seconds (4 times).

However, thanks to a dreadful Wolfsburg, Dortmund had longest average possession on MD 21 (22 seconds). Get this, Dortmund had 16 (!) possessions longer than 45 seconds, 31 possessions between 15-45 seconds, 34 possessions between 5-15 seconds, and 21 possessions 5 seconds or shorter. Come on, Wolfies. Pathetic.

Matchday 21 ball possession duration divided by time segments. Source: InStatSport.com.

By contrast, on MD 21 Gladbach’s average possession was only 13.5 seconds long. And the shortest duration was RB Leipzig, who averaged only 11 seconds per possession — and looked great against Gladbach while doing so. Indeed, Leipzig had only 1 possession longer 45 seconds during the entire match. These short bursts of possession seem ideally suited to Ralph Hasenhüttl’s intense pressing scheme, which transforms into quick, long passes in RB Leipzig’s transitional attacks. However, RB Leipzig’s average possession length is usually longer — about 14 seconds this season (averaging 26 minutes of possession per match), and, like many other clubs, its most common type of possession is between 5-15 seconds.

Curiously, and unsurprisingly, Hertha didn’t have a single possession longer than 45 seconds against Bayern. (I’d be curious to see how infrequently clubs achieve this possession length against Bayern in general.) In fact, over two-thirds of Hertha’s possessions were 15 seconds or shorter. Typically, Hertha averages much more possession time (about 27 minutes per match, 6th most in the Bundesliga). For example, Hertha averages 6 possessions longer than 45 seconds per match. Bayern will do this to you. Not even Dortmund can escape with more than 45% of the ball against Bayern.

For the entire season, the average Bundesliga club has possessed the ball for just under 27 minutes per match. Bayern (38:40), Dortmund (33:38), and Leverkusen (30:26) enjoy the most possession time, while Ingolstadt (23:10), HSV (22:39), and Darmstadt (18:48!) enjoy the least amount of time on the ball. The season average for all 18 sides are in this table:

While Ingolstadt lead the Bundesliga in ball possessions occurrences, it certainly doesn’t for time on the ball in season. Source: InStatSport.com

Ingolstadt. Recall that this same club currently has the Bundesliga’s most ball possession occurrences per match (122), but only possesses the ball for just over 23 minutes per match for an average possession length of 11.4 seconds. Indeed, Ingolstadt lead the league in possessions 5 seconds or shorter (41 per match) and in possessions 5-15 seconds in length (52 per match). Indicative numbers.

Where Ball Possession is Lost

As we expand our contextual understanding of ball possession, another factor we can look at is where teams lose and gain the ball. Starting with ball losses, Eintracht Frankfurt led the league in ball losses on MD 21 with 105 total, 21 of which were lost in the Eagles’ own half (105/21). Next on the list is HSV with 105/20, Gladbach with 105/20. Recall that all three of these clubs were among the MD leaders for total ball possession occurrences.

This table lists a club’s total ball losses / ball losses in own half from MD 21. Source: InStatSport.com.

Conversely, Darmstadt (83/22), Wolfsburg (74/11), and BVB (71/8) lost the ball the least amount; however, Darmstadt’s losses were dangerous with a quarter of them occurring in die Lillien‘s own half. This sort of number is the stuff relegation candidates are made of. Amazingly, Werder Bremen did even worse in this category, losing the ball 28 times in its own half (!).

In the table above, “distanz” refers to how far from the opponent’s goal the team lost the ball on average. Mainz did the best in this category, losing the ball on average 34 meters from the opponent’s goal. Dortmund and Bayern did next best in this category.

Here are the season averages for ball losses. A familiar name tops this lost:

Season totals for ball losses / ball losses in own half. Source: InStatSport.com.

If you’ve been paying attention, you shouldn’t be surprised to see Ingolstadt top this list. Remember: this is the same side who leads the league in total ball possession occurrences and in short ball possessions. Turns out, this data is correlated with many ball losses in Ingolstadt’s case.

However, Gladbach is leading the pack with ball losses in its own half per match this season. Although the range between Gladbach’s 22 ball losses and Bayern’s 15 might not look like too much, I’d wager that 7 more of these ball losses piles on another magnitude of technical pressure and stress for the former’s defenders rather the latter’s. Speaking of Bayern, the giants lose the ball the furthest up the pitch on average (37.2 meters), an average that triangulates nicely with Bayern’s other data demonstrating their obvious ability to penetrate the furthest up the pitch the longest in the Bundesliga. Dominance.

Where Ball Possession Is Gained

On the other hand, we can also see how often and where Bundesliga sides are winning the ball. Again, an old friend tops this list:

Matchday 21 totals for ball wins / ball wins in opponent’s half. Source: InStatSport.com

These numbers gesture toward stylistics. For example, imagine the aggressiveness by which Ingolstadt, Augsburg, HSV, Schalke, and Mainz played on MD 21. Oddly, our ball possession occurrence-heavy team, Gladbach, didn’t seem compelled to win back the ball — perhaps its Leipzig opponent did some of this work for the Foals through higher-risk ball possession? Anyhow, Bayern’s 16 ball wins in the opponent’s half contrast startlingly with Wolfburg’s abject 2 ball wins. Speaking of the Wolves, their performance against BVB appears more hideous with each new number we see.

To a large extent, MD 21 was a reflection of the season’s total ball winning numbers:

Season totals for ball wins / ball wins in the opponent’s half. Source: InStatSport.com.

Again, Ingolstadt top the list, followed by the familiar HSV and Mainz. Meanwhile, clubs like Darmstadt, Wolfsburg, BVB, and Gladbach are again in the bottom half. Notice the purple highlight squares: RB Leipzig win the ball in the opponent’s half on average more often than on MD 21, while Bayern again win the most balls in the opponent’s half, furthest up the pitch. Dominance, again. I think!

Ball Possessions Leading to Shots

Finally, it’s time to introduce my last ball possession-related data. Let’s peek at ball possessions leading to shots. A sort of serum test for ball possession, right? Here is the data for ball possession leading to shots from MD 21:

Matchday 21 ball possessions leading to shots. Source: InStatSport.com.

And our winner is BVB against putrid Wolfsburg. (I swear that I when I started writing this piece, I didn’t intend to find a way to mock VfL every other paragraph. I swear!) 20 shots. 3 goals. A shot 21% of the time when possessing the ball. The next best shot% rate is Leverkusen, who, from what I recall, seemed to in Augsburg’s final 3rd every other minute last Friday. As for the worst on MD 21, it’s HSV with 6%. At least the Hamburgers earned a 2-2 draw against Freiburg. In this match, it was a case of quality (and some luck!), not quantity giving the Der Dino a helping hand.

Speaking of HSV, guess who’s been the Bundesliga’s worst side at creating shots this season? Yup. These guys, who only create shots 8% of the time. Looking for a scapegoat? Or in this case, surely, one of the scapegoats? Coughcoughcough, Filip Kostic.

More positively, I bet you can guess who leads the Bundesliga is shot creation per possession:

Season totals for ball possessions leading to shots. Source: InStatSport.com.

Yup. The Bavarians, who also average 2.2 goals in their average match, in terms of ball possessions and shots. Dortmund isn’t too far behind with 2 goals. However, after Bayern, TSG Hoffenheim is generating the next most shots per possession (13%).

Aside from HSV, other poor shot producers are Darmstadt (9%), then a whole raft of 10%ers: Ingolstadt, Eintracht, Gladbach, and Hertha, who are all just below the league average.

Anyhow, these shot rates help contextualize the raw ball possession occurrences. Moreover, occurrences are instances of “count stats,” which, in my experience, are meaningless in a vacuum and need rates stats to thicken contextual understanding. In a sense, a bare ball possession rate (e.g. “Bayern possesses the ball 65% of the time”) is akin to a count stat in this sense and, ironically perhaps, needs contextualizing with other count stats or rate stats, such as possession duration counts or shots produced rate.

I could go on.

My hope is that by this point you’re awareness of what’s at stake in ball possession has been enriched. Ball possession is ball movement, which is an incredibly complex activity, involving both space and time and teleology. That is, ball possession is always already goal-oriented.

It’s not my place in this article to run regression analyses (nor could I!) about statistical correlations between these elements of ball possession. Others are already doing this sort of work. Instead, my task has been to gesture from one element of ball possession to another, as these elements flow one out of the another. And thanks to data-tracking tools, we can finally start appreciating the complexity that makes up ball possession.

(Special thanks to Instatfootball.com for providing The Bundesliga Fanatic with data for this piece.)

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and coaching the U6s are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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