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Loon Dive: Why Minnesota United struggles in possession and how to fix it

Opponents have adjusted to the Loons’ counter-attacking strategy. We have ideas.

Sporting Kansas City v Minnesota United FC - MLS Is Back Tournament Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Is Minnesota United... good?

Every time I’ve watched the Loons take the pitch in 2020, this question has been bouncing around my brain.

Back in the good ol’ days of March, that answer was a relatively unexpected “yes.” Through the two games of the MLS is Back Tournament, it’s been a more of an “I suppose so.”

While the return of MLS has been largely entertaining, fans’ whose viewing experience has been contained to watching Minnesota have seen two pretty bad soccer games.

Nonetheless, United has four points and is, at this writing, essentially guaranteed to advance from the tournament’s most balanced group.

For fans, that’s awesome. Any team that can play poorly and still get results — well, that’s a luxury, to say the least. Still, it’s hard to ignore that the Loons have looked rough at times during the MLS is Back Tournament.

This article is a dive into one area for improvement: possession.

There’s a lot more to possession than a percentage value for each game, so this story’s going to be a bit of a long one. That said, I hope to explain everything in simple terms — no advanced tactical knowledge required here.

A disclaimer: The MLS is Back tournament is not a good indicator of which MLS teams are good or bad. These clubs haven’t played in months, but now must compete in front of no fans in the Florida heat while a pandemic is happening. That, plus a small sample size of games, means analysis requires an asterisk. This is that asterisk.

What we talk about when we talk about possession

Possession is generally talked about as a single-game stat, as in Team A had 57% possession while Team B had 43%. It’s a value that’s given far more weight than it should get, for a couple reasons:

First, possession isn’t always calculated the same. The dueling methods produce similar results and measure similar things, but not the same thing. One technique uses time, counting the minutes each team spends with the ball (and the time the ball is out of play).

Let’s say the ball is in play for 60 minutes (a pretty normal amount of time for a 90-minute game). If Team A has the ball for 36 of those minutes, it’ll have 60% possession in this method. You can do the math on what Team B ends up having.

That’s not how possession is always calculated, though, which is why numbers can vary for one game. Some data companies use passes as a measure. If a game sees 600 passes and Team A makes 360 of those, it’ll again have 60% possession.

You can probably figure out where variation occurs. Some teams make lots of short, quick passes during a game. That could give them a higher possession percentage than the clock method.

TL;DR, possession values aren’t necessarily standard.

Also, possession is an indicator of style, not performance.

There’s one magic statistic that perfectly indicates which team wins a given match. It’s not shots, passes, possession or distance traveled. It’s goals scored.

A team could end up with 10% possession in a game (by either method of calcuation) and use that amount of time to score a lot of goals. Getting 54% possession isn’t necessarily any better or worse than getting 46%.

It’s often reflective of how a team plays. Minnesota likes to sit back and counter-attack (more on this soon), so having the ball for a large chunk of the game isn’t important. Unsurprisingly, the Loons often “lose” the possession battle. There’s a bottom line of how much possession a team needs to create enough chances over the course of a game, but that’s not the discussion here.

Hopefully all of that makes sense, though I regret to inform you that it’s pretty useless to what we’re talking about. We’re talking about possession not in the statistical sense, but in the phase-of-play way of thinking.

There are four big ways I look at how a soccer team plays: on set pieces, in possession, out of possession, and in transition. There are obviously sub-categories there (attacking/defending set pieces, transition after winning/losing the ball), but that’s the general frame for this.

We’re looking primarily at how Minnesota United plays in possession — with the ball.

But to understand that, we have to understand how the Loons play with the ball in transition.

You’ve probably heard that Minnesota is a counter-attacking team. There are a couple ways we can prove and explain this:

Minnesota United allows opponents to possess the ball

This is where that possession stat plays out on the field. The Loons have no problem with their opponents controlling the ball. Through March and the weekend’s MLS is Back games, Minnesota allowed the second-most passes to opponents in the league (562 per game, according to American Soccer Analysis) and had the second-lowest passing differential (-175 per game). United also had the fewest passes of its own per game.

And when the Loons’ opponents have the ball, Minnesota isn’t exactly trying to take it away.

This is Minnesota United (wearing white) in its defensive block. Notice the 4-4-2 (formations change between phases and aren’t always what’s on the graphic!) and how compact it is. That’s a strong and defensive-minded set-up.

Now pay attention to how that 4-4-2 block functions:

There’s no pressure on the opposition back line, which signals that willingness to play without the ball.

An aside on the philosophy here, if that style of play doesn’t make sense: There isn’t much threat to a team passing the ball around its defense. And if Minnesota can maintain a numerical advantage in defense, breaking through or past the block is difficult and often requires opponents to send more players forward, opening themselves up to a counter-attack.

I won’t talk too much about the counter-attacking system itself because this isn’t that story. Basically, counters work quickly and directly with a good amount of wing play. Take this play from back in March as an example of a counter-attack working quite nicely:

Even though Minnesota has still been quite out-possessed in Orlando, you probably noticed that there haven’t been counter-attacks like the one above.

One factor could be the current (lack of) fitness. Fast plays in transition like that certainly rely on, well, speed.

While players being out of shape has definitely been noticeable in the tournament, I’m not so sure it’s the primary reason United haven’t got the counter-attack rolling again.

I’m inclined to think that opponents have caught on.

There was plenty of time for every team in this league to watch the two March matches of every other team, so it makes sense that Minnesota isn’t surprising its competition with this style of play.

The strategy that the Loons’ opponents have largely taken on is interesting, and again, makes a great deal of sense.

Watch that counter-attack goal from above once again. Notice how fast the sequence happens. That’s hard for a defense to stop — there really isn’t time to get more defenders back or do much more than try to keep pace and get in the way.

So how do you stop that? The more the counter-attack gets going, the harder it’s going to be to defend. The solution — a counter-counter tactic, if you will — is to stop it as early as possible.

If you revisit that goal above one more time, you’ll see how important the first pass is. If Ike Opara doesn’t get the ball right to Ethan Finlay on the wing, that sequence doesn’t happen.

Stopping counters before they happen is the key to Jurgen Klopp’s famous gegenpressing: press like mad immediately after losing possession to stop a potential counter-attack.

That’s not quite what teams have done to contain Minnesota, but it’s fairly similar. I’m calling it counter-marking: after losing possession, opposition defenders latch onto a downfield target to restrict United’s ability to play that first pass and get the counter going.

You can see Sporting Kansas City roll it out here:

Real Salt Lake would do that too, sometimes putting pressure on the Minnesota player who recovered the ball and was looking to distribute.

So what happens when Minnesota can’t play the key direct pass to kickstart the counter? They have to possess the ball in a non-transition sense, building out of the back and breaking through the opponent’s defensive block.

The Goals of Possession

We’re 1400 words in and finally onto the focus here — I warned you this was going to be long.

As we talk about possession — now the one-team-holding-the-ball-for-a-period-of-time-to-advance-it kind — let’s establish a few things:

  • The goal of possession is to bring the ball to an advantageous attacking area where a shot can be taken, generally in front of and close to the goal. A secondary goal is to keep the ball from the opponent, but that’s not our topic here.
  • Because this isn’t a transition sequence, the team out of possession will be in their normal defensive block/shape, which means there will be many defenders between the ball and the goal to start.
  • Players are more effective in space, when they have time to make uncontested or unpressured passes, shots, dribbles and runs.
  • Defensive blocks are designed to limit space, making those actions difficult.
  • The task of possession, then, is to break down or break through an opponent’s defensive block.

As you probably saw from Minnesota United’s MLS is Back Tournament games, they’ve been pretty unsuccessful at that. The two goals the Loons scored were rather lucky plays and not the result of good possession.

What does possession look like for United (in gray now)? Take this from the RSL draw:

This is just a snippet of possession, but it’s a good example of what happens. RSL’s defensive block puts a little bit of pressure — mostly pressure of presence — on Minnesota’s back line, but the Loons are able to start building out of the back freely. Once they reach a point of engagement, RSL closes down, using the touchline to restrict United’s attack and force a pass all the way back to the goalkeeper, restarting the possession.

This stifled sequence is an example of a defensive team “winning” the possession by rebuffing it.

It isn’t necessarily bad play from Minnesota. There seems to be a plan here: get the ball to the left flank, then check back slightly toward the center to distribute farther upfield in any direction. We don’t really know if that’s what the strategy was — because it never made it past the “get the ball to the left flank” stage — but based on the runs that were happening and attackers’ positioning, I think that’s a safe guess.

Let’s look at a possession, from the same game, with less of a clear direction:

RSL’s set-up is pretty similar to the last clip, just a little bit higher and with a little bit more pressure — though again, nothing that really restricts building out of the back. This is Minnesota being ineffective.

Nothing happens with this possession. It’s boring and not going to produce anything — recall our much earlier idea that a team passing the ball around its backline isn’t a threat.

So what goes wrong? There are a few things.

Minnesota’s offense is basically organized in two levels: a deeper level that passes the ball here and a more-attacking group positioned to push RSL’s back line.

The first problem for United is that RSL is doing a good job of marking that latter level, so a long ball over the top or through ball aren’t likely to work — at least not early on.

The possession has to start out of the back, then, which is fine. But at some point, the bridge between the two levels has to be crossed, either with a pass or a dribble. As this possession progresses, there isn’t a clear option for either of those to happen.

It’s the role of players in that attacking level, here, to “get open.” Minnesota has some great passers in Jan Gregus and Ozzie Alonso, but they can only do so much in terms of placing a ball. Remember the fundamental idea from a bit ago that players operate better in space.

They could get open by making runs toward the goal, but those are still fairly difficult passes that would be easily tracked by a defender. Let’s introduce another idea:

  • Shorter passes are generally easier to complete than long ones.

Runs from that attacking level don’t have to be toward the opposition’s goal. They could be back toward the ball, setting up a short pass — which could, ideally, be followed by a quick-touch give-and-go to provide the original player on the ball with a better position and more space.

You see very little motion from players off the ball in this sequence, so it’s hard to blame the players with the ball for not doing much. Outside of the ball moving, this sequence just feels slow.

Let’s look at an example of really good possession from an MLS team:

This is art. Look at how much movement there is — players moving with the ball, without the ball, the ball itself moving around a lot. It’s nothing like Minnesota on the ball above there.

Motion, of all those kinds, is good when in possession. An effective way to get through a defensive block is to pull it apart — literally by getting defenders to move out of position and playing through the space created. Movement forces defenders to either follow the motion — whether it’s the ball or a player — or risk staying put and allowing space nonetheless.

And we already established that Minnesota United plays better with speed and movement: Think back to that counter-attack goal. Yes, it wasn’t a true possession phase, but why not try to apply a direct, speedy style to regular ol’ possession?

It’s why I think Kevin Molino has looked so good for the Loons in the tournament. He’s consistently using motion to create space, which creates opportunities. When his teammates aren’t necessarily doing that, it looks even better.

And finally, a clip of a sequence that isn’t quite possession but isn’t quite a counter, but shows how motion can work for Minnesota:

The Loons are almost stalled near the touchline again, but a key field switch to get the ball to the other side opens things up again. That motion of the ball and the movement of players on that side are key to preserving the window of opportunity to attack and leads to the best scoring chance of the game.

So, in the simplest terms of this article, how does Minnesota United create more from possession?

Move, move and move some more.