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.
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.
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