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Soccer: Mourinho on Ball Possession

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In the comments on my World Cup final piece, someone mentioned Mourinho's comments on ball possession. After a ridiculous pair of games where Mourinho's Inter beat Barcelona on aggregate 3:2, he told reporters:

"We didn't want the ball because when Barcelona press and win the ball back, we lose our position - I never want to lose position on the pitch so I didn't want us to have the ball, we gave it away. I told my players that we could let the ball help us win and that we had to be compact, closing spaces."

Inter definitely acted like it didn't want the ball, controlling just 29% and an unbelievable 14% in the two games. But Inter's strategy was decidedly different in the two games. First, in the April 20 fixture, where they came back from one down to win 3-1. When the game was tied, Inter controlled the ball roughly 30% of the time, and during the opening minutes of the game, before Barcelona scored the first goal, they controlled 33% of the play. This is not significantly different from what Uruguay did in its World Cup victories. And when they were down a goal to Barcelona, they pressed (well, for them), controlling over 40% of possession:

Barca Minutes Pass F/90 Weighted Pass A/90 Weighted % Passes % Weighted
Up 1 10.6 586 111 382 82 61 57
Tied 38.3 543 128 235 49 70 72
Down 1 13.1 508 106 110 36 82 75
Down 2 33.5 604 161 94 19 87 89

When you have the lead against a good team like Barcelona, they are going to dominate possession. There's no question that the optimal style of play involves letting them have the ball and sitting back to prevent mistakes. A weaker team's only hope against Barca is to hang on to their leg and let them drag you around the field.

What about the second game, where Inter had only 14% of the play? That's ugly:

Barca Minutes Pass F/90 Weighted Pass A/90 Weighted % of Passes % Weighted
Tied, 11-11 27.3 773 194 116 25 87 89
Tied, 11-10 58.0 641 193 68 15 90 93
Up 1, 11-10 10.9 702 245 17 3 98 99

Before Thiago Motta was sent off in the 28th minute, Inter certainly conceded possession to Barcelona, and it got even worse once they were a man down. But we expect that - a team with 10 men needs to play more conservatively if they don't want to give up chances. And, of course, Mourinho was never even playing for the win - all he needed to do was lose by less than two goals. So his goal was suppressing offense, and he did - Barcelona outshot Inter 15-1; shooting percentages are in the 10% range, so Inter had 50/50 odds of giving up fewer than two goals. Inter got a bit lucky in the first game of the series, but in the second game, the outcome is roughly what we'd expect.