Thursday, 17 October 2013

What is possession football?

Over the last few years, elite terams, fans and youth coaches have become obsessed with possession style football and dominating possession.After the success of teams like Barcelona, Swansea, Villarreal, Wigan, Malaga and Spain it's very understandable that all youth coaches would want to play this way. The big question for me is, Do coaches understand what the possessions style is and how to coach it?

I have had many discussion with coaches, seen many post on forums and other social media where coaches are saying that they are coaching 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 running with the ball and dribbiling. I think when some coaches are watching the matches of the teams mentioned above, all they see is passing and don't know what is actually happening.

What is a possession style of play

The possession style is when a team aims to have more possession than the opposition, look to control the game through retaining possession and taking charge of your 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 we have the ball you don't, so you can't score.

So when this is the basis of your philosophy does that mean you keep possessions in any way you can, with the main aim only to see if you can get more possession than the opposition? Of course not. The teams that play a possession style keep the ball deliberately and know exactly what they are doing in possession. If you think about it, 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 no 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 done with Barcelona, with their youth teams. The quote translates to "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 practice not only being comfortable in possession but specific passing patterns to create space for their tactical plans. So when we are watching and we see the Bacelona midfielders making short passes to each other back and forthm 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, and when they see that space they will attack you at lightening pace. 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, and when this happens and the opposition leave a space it it exploited to it's maximum potential.

Once teams realise they are playing against a team that are good in possession, they may start trying to get men behind the ball, when you are in possession, and try to form a block. We have seen this many times with teams playing against Barcelona and Spain and it brings another problems when possession teams carry the ball into the final third. There are numerous examples of this and the team in possessions will attack, probe and recycle possession until they find an opening to short or to play a through pass into the box. When we watch this, the ball will move from the left side of the pitch, through the middle and over to the other side of the field and back again until an opportunity can be found or created.

Implementing a possession style of play

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 conceaded. The first thing that's needed is a high technical ability so you still need to be working heavily in all technical aspects, especially if you're working with a younger age group. Passing, receiveing, 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, esoecaillly with younger teams. Creae a few basic patterns and then build or expand on those.

The first aspect is playing out from the bacl and the firt signal/trigger is what happens when your goalkeeper gets the ball. Where do your centre backs go? Should the goalkeeper look for one player or side in particularto start the build up? What should your team do if they are being pressed aggressively?

The second aspect is the middle third or middle third and beleive 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, when/where, rotations to receive or create space, do the wide attacking players drop in to be involved or is their movement onle to create space for the full backs to overlap? Is there a player on the opposition that you want to drag out of postion 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 8/9/10 players between you and the goal, and 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 encourge the opposition to come out and leave some space to exploit?

You need to think of all these things, and a lot more, when you want to implement a possession style of play. Once you thave thought of all these aspects, you then need to break them down into bite sized chunks and create sessions that applicable to your team and how you want them to play. You need to think about how you will start to techincially and tactically periodize 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.

Train like you play

This is something that all teams should 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. You need to 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 and SSG or a possession based exercise that has the area split into 3 zones and they will begin to see the difference in each zone and the consequences of losing the ball in each zone. There's an example below

Setting Targets

When you start using this style with your team, one thing you 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 5 times in the first match. Tell them you would like them to try and play out from the back whenever they can but, or whenever they feel comfortable but let them know the target. Other targets that can be set are passing sequences, so seeing how many times your team can achieve sequences of over 5 passes and once they can do that consistently perhaps you can put the target up. Be careful that you your team don't just pass to hit the target. Also, how many times your team can 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 see some progress when first implementing this style of play.

Passing instead of dribbling and /or running with the ball

OK, Using a possession style doesn't mean that we pass over all other options. The same coaches I mentioned at the start with this "pass, pass, pass" mantra are usually trhesame ones that are telling players not to dribble. If you think of all the teams that use this style of play, they all have players that can dribble, commit players and create space in other ways to passing. Even the incedible Barcelona team under Guardiola, known for their amazing passing ability, had players like Iniesta, Alves, Pedro and a some guy called 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 15-20yrds 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. When this happens a few times, when the centreback 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 in at 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.


So 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 "pass, pass, pass" or possession for possession sake. Teams that use this style do so to dominate the possession and keep the ball until they can implement their tactical plans or create and opportunity to score. When implementing this style of play, you need to understand that it won't happen overnight and you will need a lot of patience. We also need to continue to caoch 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 and build on them rather than 10/15 different patterns. Train how you would like to play on match day and set some targets for your player in order to see progress and motivate your players. Finally, don't neglect other technical aspects like dribbling just to focus on passing because not only is dribbling still important in this style of play, but you will be short changing your players.

I thinbk thepossession style is great to watch and can help develop players the way we need to, so I hope this was useful and you can take at least one thing away from it and that it will help towards your journey towards replication the standard of Guardiola's unbelieveable Barcelona team, and maybe in time everyone will be trying replicate your style.

La intencion es no a mover la pelota, sino a mover la oposicion

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Honesty as a coach

Honesty is regarded as an excellent quality in all walks of life but as coaches I think one of the most important things we can do is be honest with ourselves. When we talk about coaches in the UK/US, in particular, we hear a lot of horror stories about guys that are more concerned about winning than developing youth players, or teams are not playing the game the"right way". There are some excellent coaches in these countries and not everything is negative, but I believe even the best of us are not being honest with oursleves in a lot of ways.

I have put a list together of things that I believe we, as coaches, need to be honest with ourselves about in order to improve not only our coaching but the experience our players have in the game we all love. This is not me having a go at a set of coaches because I have been guilty of some these things myself in the past, and only once somebody pointed out to me did I realise that I wasn't doing these things. The list is in no particular order.

Style of play

This is one of the biggest things that I hear coaches complain about when talking about other teams, because they played long ball or physically against them. I can honestly say that in the last 8-10 years, I have never met a coach, whether is be face to face, on a forum or on Twitter that has told me they play long ball or direct football. Every single coach, to a man, has told me that they play "nice passing football", they play out from the back everytime and they try to play like Barcelona/Arsenal etc. The problem is that every weekend we see more teams than not playing the long ball, direct physical game and while I dont' think there is a "right way" to play, I wonder if these coaches still think that they are playing "passing football"despite the evidence.

Be honest about how you play and if you want to change how you play, it will take time, but coaches need to get the knowledge of how to play other ways because playing this kind of style in youth football in not condusive to developing the players of the future.

Sessions - Adapting, Planning & Reviewing

Nowadays there are some fantastic resources for us coaches. We have sites like, and most of all Twitter. I love Twitter and there are some fantastic sessions/resources posted on there, but I believe that a lot of coaches are taking these sessions and using them in a cookie cutter fashion. What I mean by that is just taking an exercise/session plan done by another coach or worse by an professional and just running the session as it is. We can have a million resources but if we don't adapt them to the age group, ability, style of play or our own team, they are almost useless. If you take a session from anywhere please look at it and adapt it to the needs of your team and after a while you won't need resources as you will be able to design your exercises for your team.

Planning your sessions is an important of aspect of being a coach, not just so that you can minimise the downtime for your players, but also planning weeks/months topics in advance. Putting together a calender of what you want to work on across the season is something that every coach should have. This can be broken down into weekly/monthly cycles and allows your players to cover all the aspects they need to across the season. If you work on the same things over and over, your players are the ones that will suffer. Make sure your giving your players a chance to learn all aspects of the game and not just what you fancy doing tonight.

Reviewing your sessions afterwards is an important aspect that I believe a lot of coaches don't do that often. I never used to review my sessions and I kept having the same issues during my sessions, and only after I started to review them and make notes how what went well or poorly did I see more coaching level improve quickly. It also helps us work out our stregnths and weaknesses/areas to work on in order to get better as a coach. I believe after every session a coach should look at his sessions plan, look at the outcomes you wanted to get fromt he session and write notes as to whether they were achieved and what needs to be worked on by the palyers and the coach.


Qualifications are great. We get to go on courses and learn some new drills, talk with new coaches and exchange ideas, but the thing is there isn't a substitute for expereience on the field actually coaching. I am not saying coaches shouldn't go on courses, what I am saying is that I see a lot of coaches fly through courses collecting pieces of paper but where they are lacking is in the application of the knowledge they are supposed to have picked up on the courses. Coaching is a journey and you will learn a lot more on the field putting things into practice. Going on courses at the right time is also a factor. Just because you have passed your level 2 doesn't mean you're ready for your UEFA B. Same goes from UEFA B to UEFA A. Maybe you are but a lot of coaches apply for the next course before they are ready and come away with a negative experience that has cost a pretty penny.

Extra Learning

Every coach has to go on the coaching courses in their country but that doesn't mean that you can't look elsewhere to learn. I don't think this is something enough coaches do. If you want to work at academy level, you should speak to a professional club about watching sessions, or if you want to learn more about how Germany play, then make an effort to go to that country or speak to coaches from there to find out their opinions on things. I think a lot of coaches think because they downloaded this or that presentation or booklet that they have learned a lot. When you go to watch sessions of a higher level, or in a topic which you are not as strong, you can learn so much more. How the coach sets up the sessions, the language used, the problems the players had with the information. I would tell every coach to watch sessions of other coaches as often as possible and use that as your learning. I would also say that you should try to visit other countries and see how they're doing things. If everyone does the same courses and doesn't stretch themselves then we will all be the same. If you want to excel as a coach you need to push yourself and your learning everytime you can.

These are just a few things that if we are all honest about and actually done, we would improve as coaches and in turn hopefully provide a better learning environment for our players.

Look forward to hearing the thoughts.

About me and this blog

My name is Kieran Smith and I am a UEFA A Licenced coach, currently based in Spain. I have been coaching for around 10 years and I have worked for numerous professional and semi professional clubs in both England and Scotland.

The reason I am starting this blog is because I wanted a voice for my opinions and somewhere to keep the sessions and analysis I do/have done. I love getting involved on debates and conversations on Twitter but sometimes 140 characters is not enough for me to get my point across.

I am hoping to post sessions, analysis or articles at least once a month and I will have some guest posts from other top coaches to voice their opinions on things in order to help other coaches. Everything is open to comment and discussions and I hope everything posted helps or at least gets you thinking.

Looking forward to getting things started!