Whenever people discuss our game the single most mentioned criticism of it is our inability to retain ball possession. Throughout all playing levels we see the ball given away with disturbing regularity. Keeping the ball seems an aspect of the game we are prepared to ignore in the fast and furious game-style preferred here. Ball possession is a fundamental quality in the playing of attractive and effective football. The timidity of coaches and players to satisfy the impatient football crudity demanded by fans, has created an ugly playing style allied to a safety-first attitude to our game. The result has been a game-style reflecting the military attrition of WW1 trench warfare. The casualties in our football ‘war’ have been, the ‘beautiful game’, and the millions of youngsters who have floundered in the ‘mud’ of football mediocrity.
Keeping the ball must become a priority requirement if our game is to establish itself at the highest level of world football. Both individuals and teams’ in which they play must be taught the importance of ball retention; how to achieve it, and how to exploit it successfully.
What are the important issues involved in successful ball retention ?
1. Quality passing of the ball. – a: accuracy: b: passing distance: c: appropriate passing ball-speed.
2. Movement to support play – a: to receive the ball; b: to support the receiver.
3. Decisions by the receiver – a: to keep the ball or to pass it early.
All of these playing aspects must be consistently applied for the ball to be retained and team movement to develop in a positive fashion.
Let’s go through the list; —
- Quality passing of the ball.
In games played here in the UK, passing is accepted as an important skill but is rarely performed with skilful regard. More often than not, a pass, be it long or short, is ‘hit’ towards a player or into a space with scant regard for either its suitability for the situation or ease of receipt; as long as the general direction of a pass is ok it will suffice, seems to be an ever-pervading attitude at all levels.
The distance between passer and receiver in our game is often far too long. Forward passes over 20 metres are usually readable and able to be intercepted by opposing defenders. Our back and mid-field players resort to using long, forward passes with boring regularity with neither disguise nor subtlety attached to them. Long ball ‘artillery’ is ‘hurled’ forward into ‘fight’ situations requiring brawn not brains on the part of the receiver. To eliminate criticism of poor possession in our game, passing the ball backwards or sideways has become a regular and over-used part of our game. Passing ‘the buck’ around these ‘simplistic angles’ has become an obsession of the mediocre players littering our game. The artful and damaging forward pass is rarely played with the care and imagination necessary to produce any damage to opposing teams and usually ends with possession being given away. The passing of the football must be recognized as a caring and cultured skill that assimilates required amounts of softness or strength dependent on the situation at the time. Ball speeds are an essential part of passing quality; in conjunction with accuracy and passing distance, they form the foundation of good ball possession.
Passing accuracy, is not just ‘hitting the target’ as so often happens within our domestic game, it is about correct placement of the ball to satisfy the situation at hand. In Golf, a player uses various clubs to direct the ball from Tee to Cup; the golf ball must be played with a suitable strength and length to place it in position for the next shot to be played without difficulty. The passing of the football around the field must be seen in a similar way by our players. Good passing is therefore, a combination of three subtle requirements: suitability for the situation; judged placement of the ball; and calculated passing speed.
2. Movement to support play.
As the game progresses through various playing levels, time and space in which to perform is reduced. At the highest echelons of the game, tight marking reduces decision-making time to a minimum. But before players reach senior standards they must, from their earliest years, be gradually taught to overcome time and space restrictions. ‘Earning space’ is something every player must understand and be prepared to use in games. To receive the best of passes whilst under severe pressure from an opponent must make the loss of the ball only a rare occurrence and not a regularity during attacking play. An important initial ingredient towards good decision-making in general and improving ball possession in particular, is being able to see as much of the surrounding playing area as possible. Players adopting a ‘half-turned’ positional shape is vital and
allows decisions to be made by ‘knowing not guessing’ To assist in retaining ball possession a receiving player must ‘earn’ the space in which to receive the ball. This can be done by a receiving player first making a ‘dummy run’ to take the opponent 2 or 3 metres away from a space in which he wants to receive the ball. In this way, ‘Dummy runs’ can be used to achieve space to receive the ball either to feet, or in behind an opponent.
Usually in life, ‘it’s the simple things that make the difficult things happen.’ One of the disappearing arts of the game is, TALKING ! In the above examples of passing and receiving both the passer and receiver can assist each other by shouting simple information. When wanting the ball to his feet a receiving player should call ‘FEET’ to the passer of the ball. Should the receiving player control the ball in sufficient space, the passer or any colleague in close proximity to the receiver can call out to him, ‘HOLD’ or ‘TURN’. Similarly, should the receiving player check back into the space behind his marker, he can shout to the player on the ball, ‘SPACE’ for the ball to be delivered as and where required.
It is said that, ‘timing is everything in life.’ It certainly is in the game of football. Poor timing, involving on and off the ball situations in football, can mean winning or losing – making the grade or failure. Support off the ball is the second important aspect in good team movement and ball possession.
In all areas of the field, players must be prepared, at all times, to support colleagues in possession of the ball. Unfortunately, this is not the case in so much of the game in these islands. A particularly weak area is the limited support offered by back players, both to other players at the back and those in more advanced positions. The least supportive of our back players tends to be those playing in central defensive positions. In many cases these players show little interest in supporting play and make no attempt to create positions off the ball to assist in ball possession. When either wide, back players or mid-field players are on the ball, supporting movement provided by central defenders, tends to be too deep or non-existant. This tendency towards a safety-first attitude provokes more reliance on long, forward passes from the back which lessens good ball retention opportunities. Our back players must be prepared to step forward and support attacking play much closer, much quicker and more often in games.
But it’s not just at the back where we have trouble supporting attacking play. In mid-field and at the front, linkage is often too slow and too stretched to cause problems for opposing teams. A ‘wait and see’ attitude exists amongst many of our players. Instead of finding early support positions, players hold back and fail to exploit opportunities that are often available. In most instances the blame for slow support can be laid directly on the players inability to read play quickly enough, however, distances to support within many of the tactical systems we adhere so passionately to here are much too stretched between groups and need super-human effort to fill. Playing systems need to be re-examined and new tactical ideas introduced into our game to create quicker, effective linkage between players in all areas of the field.
. 3.Decisions by the receiver .
‘Playing in the future’ is not space science, It’s about recognizing situations early. By ‘reading’ the game quickly, talented players are able to exploit advantages they see before the opposition can recover. When about to receive the ball, a player should be fully aware of the situation close around him as well as further
afield. Poor players make decisions on receipt of the ball —- it’s too late. The constant stream of information, or ‘pictures’ of play, that a player receives throughout a game, stimulates the decisions and subsequent actions taken by him or her. Early recognition of situations allows for decision-making to occur before space and time can be denied to the player by the opposition; — ‘ the earlier the decision, the quicker the reaction, the better the player, the more successful the team.’
Positive ball possession is not easy to achieve, but is made to seem far more difficult to produce when watching games in this country! From day one in the production of our young players, the importance of good ball possession, both the individual ability as well as team combination play, must be important factors in the coaching programmes our youngsters are involved in. The ‘crash-bang-wallop’ football that permeates through all levels of the game needs brave thinking to eradicate it. Our National Association, supposedly the teacher of the game here, has failed to supply satisfactory coach education programmes to the game. As the years have rolled by, mediocrity not magnificence is the result of their visionless approach to coaching and development.
It’s time for change. English FA coaching and development methods have not produced high standards in individualism, nor a game-style that provides a platform for quality team performances. Their ‘Decision Makers’ have simply made too many incorrect decisions over many decades resulting in low playing standards not excellence. Until a clear vision of the future playing content of our game is defined and our coaches learn how to teach the players under their control how to play it, English football will continue to provide its, ‘give-the ball-away – fight to get it back’ version of ‘the beautiful game,’