One statistic you often see quoted during a soccer game is the percentage of time that each team had possession of the ball. Clearly, having the ball is very important; any coach will tell you that you can’t score without it. But it doesn’t seem to tell the complete story – when Chile lost to Brazil 3-0, the possession was even; in Argentina’s 4-0 loss to Germany, the Argentines had 53% of the play. So why didn’t they win?
Possession in soccer is highly dependent on the score. When teams have the lead against a world-class opponent, they concede possession in order to prevent mistakes. And it’s a strategy that works – teams that scored the first goal in this World Cup scored the second goal 62% of the time. Part of that is due to massive talent differences between some of the teams, but a lot of comes from optimal strategy.
So what statistics should we look at? Soccer is low-scoring, averaging two goals per game in the World Cup, almost three times less than hockey and five times less than baseball. Overall, 52% of World Cup play has been spent tied, and as a result, the single-most important thing a team can do is dominate possession when the score is tied. The more a team has the ball and owns territory in tie games, the more likely they are to score and take a lead that they’ll never relinquish.
It should come as no surprise that Spain has dominated possession while its games were tied, making roughly 70% of total passes. If we weight each pass by how difficult it was to make so that we don’t credit teams for playing with the ball in their own end, Spain comes out even better at 72%. Spain was second only to Argentina in this weighted possession statistic, despite having played one more tough opponent than the Argentines. Germany, who wowed us by scoring early and often, were below 50%, failing to dominate tied play against either Spain or England. In comparison, Holland controlled 64% of possession, fifth among advancing teams behind Argentina, Spain, Brazil and Chile.
I think most people expect Spain to win the World Cup on Sunday. After all, the Spaniards just beat a dominant German team, while Holland’s win over Brazil seemed as much due to Brazil’s collapse as to Holland’s skill, and they couldn’t have had a softer semi-final opponent than Uruguay. Betting lines confirm this view: Holland's odds at the bookmakers are 10-20% below what their passing performance suggests that they should be at (44% underdogs.) It’s not a huge difference, but the Dutch seem to be consistently underestimated in soccer’s narrative.