“Possession with purpose” is a saying that has gained favor in the soccer world over the course of the last few years. An obsession with maintaining ball possession swept the global game in the 2000’s, with one of the most popular statistical metrics for journalists and hard-core fans becoming possession percentage. Lazy analysis about winners and losers of matches and who actually played better began to flow from possession statistics – the team that had more of the ball either deserved its victory or was unlucky not to win. But the analysis has evolved and now those of us who write about the sport have deeper ways to analyze possession.
Today since “possession with purpose” has become more vogue and the analysis of possession more complex we can look at Orlando City’s first two matches in a more critical manner. The Lions dominated possession in Friday’s draw against Chicago keeping the ball 65% of the time, yet created very little from this possession advantage and the man advantage the team held for 58 minutes. The simple reason? Lack of creativity.
Kaká’s absence has forced the Lions to experiment with the playmaker role. In the first match of the MLS season, a 2-2 draw versus Real Salt Lake, Brek Shea played in a number ten role and while he kept the ball moving well, he was unable to create the kind of probing balls for Cyle Larin and Kevin Molino consistently enough to trouble the opposition. Shea’s movement in the number ten role was inconsistent, but considering he was thrown into the position late it was not surprising. Late in the match Adrian Winter played centrally and higher up the pitch than a traditional number 10 and although the Lions scored twice in stoppage time to escape with a draw, both goals were created by playing directly from the back to the attack, bypassing the midfield and playmaker role. Winter scored the equalizer but it was direct ball into the attacking area that created his goal.
In the Chicago match, Antonio Nocerino was started centrally but he was ineffective. A box-to-box midfielder, Nocerino has typically throughout his career relied on the creativity of other players and movement of other players around him. Nocerino hasn’t played in an attacking midfield role very often in his career and he looked a fish completely out of water in the system. Molino was moved centrally at halftime but yet with the Lions enjoying a man advantage and the vast majority of possession, real chances were far and few between. When Pedro Ribeiro came on for Nocerino and slotted centrally, he was unable to create the type of movement and space off-the-dribble for Orlando’s attackers particularly Larin to get good looks at goal. Riberio is considered a creative player and early last season his late game heroics in a similar role netted the Lions several good results.
MLS is a competitive and confusing league that often relies on small margins to decide matches. The Lions inability to break down bunkered sides even when the opposition is down to ten men and to get results at home against teams perceived to be less skilled than Orlando is worrying. Kaká’s return only solves part of the problem. Part of the lack of creativity hasn’t simply been due to the indifferent play of those deployed in the number ten role – it has been due also to the inconsistent movement off the ball and a lack of ideas from those on the pitch.
Orlando’s possession advantage has either led to long spells of pointless midfield ball movement or impatient quick attacks which break down and are easily defended by the opposition. In other words, Orlando isn’t forcing teams to expend as much energy defensively as the possession advantage the team generally holds should. One of the reasons why possession has mattered in the past is the mental energy expended by the opposition in having to defend without the ball a wide pitch where positioning is critical. The Lions have yet to create these sorts of scenarios this season despite the massive possession advantage they have held.
The lack of creativity if not solved will encourage more sides to sit deep and look to pick Orlando off on the counter. While this sort of “anti-football” isn’t easy on the eye, it might be highly effective against the Lions unless Adrian Heath‘s side figures things out. The next test for Orlando comes Friday night in a nationally televised game at New York’s Yankee Stadium against NYCFC. The tight, congested pitch in the Bronx might not lend itself to creativity but has stimulated goal scoring for both the home team and its opposition the last two seasons.