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

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