OVER THE LAST FEW YEARS, elite teams, ordinary fans and youth coaches have become obsessed with possession style football and the notion of dominating the ball. After the success of teams like Barcelona, Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Spain, it’s understandable that youth coaches would want to implement this style. The big question for me is: do coaches understand what the possession style is and how to coach it?
I’ve had many discussion with coaches, seen many post on forums and other social media platforms where coaches are saying that they are nurturing their team to “pass, pass, pass” all the time. Players are even being told to pass when it’s a detriment to other skills like dribbling or finishing. When some coaches are watching the matches of the aforementioned teams, all they see is passing and don’t know what is actually happening.
With that in mind, what is a possession style of play?
In its fundamental form, possession style is when a team aims to have more possession than the opposition, looking to control the game through retaining the ball and taking charge of their own destiny through attacking and not being reactive.
There are a couple of famous sayings by Johan Cruyff regarding possession, one of which is: “When you have the ball you have one problem, trying to score, but when we have the ball you have two problems, getting the ball and then trying to score.” Now Cruyff is sometimes known for being a complicated genius but this philosophy is almost as simple as it gets. If you don’t have the ball, you can’t score.
So when this is the basis of your philosophy, does that mean you keep possession in any way you can, with the main aim only to see if you can get more ball time than the opposition? Of course not. The teams that play possession keep the ball deliberately and know exactly what they are doing with it. When considered, do you really think about it; do you honestly believe that before a match the Barcelona manager give the tactical instructions, “When you get the ball, just pass it lads.”
“La Intencion es a mover la pelota, sino a mover la oposicion.”
The quote above is from Pep Guardiola and it’s not as well-known as it should be, considering how many coaches are trying to emulate the things he’s achieved in his relative short coaching career, with their youth teams. The quote translates as, “The intention is not to move the ball, rather to move the opposition.”
This is one of the key points behind the possession style of play. Teams like Guardiola’s Barcelona, and now his Bayern Munich, practice not only being comfortable in possession, but specific passing patterns to create space for their tactical plans. So when we’re watching and see the midfielders making short passes to each other back and forth, it’s not just a pass for the sake of it or so they can have a fantastic pass completion ration at the end of the game; they are trying to draw the opposition in or move opposition players in/out of areas of the field to create space. Subsequently, when they see that space, they will attack you at lightening speed.
This space can come from an opposition player switching off and taking up an incorrect supporting position, or from a player getting frustrated and trying to make a tackle at the wrong time. When this happens and the opposition leave a space, it’s exploited to its maximum potential.
Once teams realise they are playing against opponents that are good in possession, they may start trying to get men behind the ball and try to form a narrow block. We have seen this many times with teams playing against Spain and it brings other problems when possession teams carry the ball into the final third.
There are numerous examples of this where the team in possession. Xavi will attack, probe and recycle the ball until they find an opening to shoot or to play a through pass into the box. When we watch this, the ball will move from one side of the pitch to the other until an opportunity for penetration presents itself.
If you want your team to play a possession based style it takes a lot of time, patience and 100% confidence in what you’re doing because there will be difficult times ahead, mistakes made and some goals conceded.
The first thing that’s needed is a high technical ability among the squad – or at least a squad working towards that – so you still need to be working heavily on technical coaching, especially if you’re working with a younger age group. Passing, receiving, movement, support, body shape and communication are all vital skills when coaching your team to play a possession style. You don’t need a lot of different passing patterns, especially with younger teams. Create a few basic patterns and then expand on those.
The first aspect is playing out from the back, and the first trigger point is when your goalkeeper gets the ball. Where do your centre-backs go? Should the goalkeeper look for one player or side in particular to start the build up? What should your team do if they are being pressed aggressively?
The second aspect is the middle third. Believe it or not, I’ve seen a lot of coaches miss this section out when trying to implement a possession style. Some seem to think that if they play out from the back that the midfield sorts itself out, possession will be kept, and they go straight to working on combination play in the final third.
You need movement in midfield to receive the ball and rotations to receive or create space. Do the wide attacking players drop in to be involved or is their movement only to create space for the full-backs to overlap? Is there a player on the opposition that you want to drag out of position to allow you to play into the final third easier? Can we create overloads whenever we have the ball in the middle third?
The final aspect is what you do when you’re in the final third and looking to score. When you’re in possession in the final third you could be playing against blocks of 8, 9 or 10 players between you and the goal. That brings its own problems.
Can your players play in tight spaces? Do you want to get a shot off as soon as you can or will you ask your team to wait for a specific type of opportunity? If you get a chance to cross the ball into the box, will you take it? Will you try to keep possession in the final third until you get an opportunity or play back into the middle third to try and encourage the opposition to come out and leave some space to exploit?
You need to think of all these things, and a lot more, if you want to implement a possession style of play. Once you have considered all of the aforementioned factors, you then need to break them down into bite-sized chunks and create sessions that are applicable to your team and how you want them to play.
It’s important to think about how you will start to technically and tactically break down your sessions progressively in order to keep your players out of their comfort zone; learning and continually progressing toward the style that you want to play. All this has to be done on top of all the other technical and tactical work.
It often harks back to the old adage that you should train like you play – something that well coached teams will be doing anyway – but it’s especially important in developing a possession style of play, because this is where we lay the foundations of these passing patterns and have players getting you to combining with each other.
Before that we need to lay the technical foundations needed to play this style whether now or in the future. A coach must create or adapt sessions to introduce your team to the style and then add simple passing patterns that you want to see in matches.
If you want to introduce players to building up possession and playing through the thirds, maybe you could play a small-sided game or a possession based exercise that has the area split into three zones. After time, your players will begin to see the difference in each zone and the consequences of losing the ball in each zone.
When you start using this style with your team, one thing a coach can do to check progress in matches is to set some targets for your team. You could ask them to try and play out from the back a minimum of five times in the first match. Setting targets challenges players and motivates them to reach the next level.
Other targets that can be set are passing sequences; seeing how many times your team can achieve sequences of over a set number of passes (depending on the age and ability of your squad). Once they execute that consistently perhaps you can put the target up.
Be careful that your team don’t just pass to hit the target. How many times can your team perform a passing pattern that you worked on in training, and if they couldn’t complete it, at what area did it break down? Setting targets can help you as the coach see observe progress when first implementing this style of play.
Of vital importance is to avoid making the common error when coaching this style; playing possession doesn’t mean that we forgo all other options. The same coaches I mentioned at the start with a “pass, pass, pass” mantra are usually the same ones that are telling players not to dribble. If you think of all the teams that implement this philosophy, they all have players that can dribble, commit the opposition and create space.
Even the incredible Barcelona team under Guardiola, known for their flawless distribution, had players like Andrés Iniesta, Dani Alves, Pedro and Lionel Messi that would regularly dribble and attack in 1v1 situations. We still need to coach our players how to dribble, run with the ball and how to attack in 1v1 situations, especially if we are working with youth teams.
One of the worst aspects I’ve seen of this regularly is when a team is trying to play out from the back. The goalkeeper passes to the centre-back and he immediately looks to pass to the defensive midfielder, despite him being 15-20 yards away. The centre-back passes the ball to the midfielder and as the ball is travelling, the opposition close him down and force him to play backwards. After this happens a few times, when the centre-back receives the pass back he looks to play long. In this situation the centre-back should drive forward with the ball and the midfielder can fill into his position.
There is, of course, a time and a place to pass or to dribble and your players should be encouraged to learn which is which, as opposed to doing one over the other all the time. Let them make mistakes; it’s the best way to learn.
In summary, before we can use a possession style with our team, we need to understand what it is and that it certainly isn’t possession for possessions sake. Teams that execute this style do so to dominate the ball and keep it so they can implement their tactical plans or create an opportunity to score. When implementing this style of play, coaches need to understand that it won’t happen overnight and you will need a lot of patience.
As coaches, we also need to continue to coach the technical aspects of play because it’s not only needed to develop this style of play, but also to develop our players to their potential. Think about how you want to play through the thirds of the pitch and develop a few passing patterns, gradually building on them. Baby steps is the way forward with young players and this style.
Train how you would like to play on match day and set some targets for your players in order to see progress. Finally, don’t neglect other technical aspects like dribbling just to focus on passing.
By Kieran Smith. Follow @KieranSmith1