Ball Possession “Mania”!

By John Cartwright

Over the past few years, Spanish football has sent a clear message around the world – keep the ball!  Their games’ lesson concerning the importance of ball possession has made a huge impact on all football personnel. From Pundits, Press, and Public alike, the need for better ball retention in the game has become increasingly discussed. However, what we see too often in games’ that attempt to emulate a ‘keep-ball’ style of play is a mediocre copy attempted by inadequately skilled players.  It must be understood that the Spanish playing style, and Barcelona’s in particular, is the culmination of many years of dedicated practice. Their players have been schooled in the skills and tactical requirements of possession football, but even with the long history of developing a game-style based high playing standards they are experiencing problems when opposed by more defensive-minded teams’.

The challenge for teams’ playing a game based on ball retention is obvious – penetration must not be neglected! The Pass-Pass-Pass ‘mania’ we see more frequently has become a disturbing feature as it often fails to exploit penetrative opportunities against defensive ‘shields’ through the field of play. Back players, who are usually the weakest in terms of individual skill, are finding they are in possession of the ball far more often but lack creativity and ability to play positively from rear areas. Their increased time on the ball is too often used in a negative fashion with passes going back and forth across the back when more positive forward play is possible. This over-reliance on negative keep-ball is a ‘disease’ that is not exclusive to back players, for sideways and backwards passing has also become an overused part of the game in more advanced playing areas.

I am a passionate believer of possession football, but unless the reason for possession is understood by coaches and players this type of game-style can quickly become boring to watch and a ‘camouflage’ for poor playing quality. Periods of ball possession must be integrated with penetration opportunities with either passes or, equally important, with players able to breach gaps in opposing defences by running the ball through them. In conjunction with the decline of individual runs with the ball, there is also a lack of variation in passing both in lengths and angles. Even the great Barcelona team are in need of an ‘injection’ of variations to their game-style to overcome the problem of ‘bus parking’!

At Premier Skills we have always been aware of the importance of ball possession allied to penetration opportunities that this type of game-style creates. The importance of space awareness is of paramount importance in the development of young players and we have introduced this aspect of the game and the decisions and skills that players require from the very beginning of our coaching programmes. It is vitally important that young players are developed with the ability to play a positive brand of possession football that includes ball retention with penetration as a required sequel. The present possession ‘mania’ that is infecting our game must be seen for what it is – a negative ‘camouflage’ for poor playing standards!!

21 thoughts on “Ball Possession “Mania”!

  1. Great read John and I totally agree. I always look for the ‘fine detail’ when watching players such as iniesta. For instance, I watch closely how he takes care of the man and the ball. Furthermore, how he often takes a player out of the game with his first touch by getting his body across them. Without the ‘fine detail’ players will not learn how to hurt the opposition. When I set up possession games they always have goals so players have direction.

    I recently observed coaches from Portugal and they explained that English players are taught by many coaches to look for space or for a pass before receiving the ball. However, in Portugal players are coached to look at the goal first of all to see if there is an opportunity to shoot or penetrate. By looking at the goal before receiving the players would naturally open their body and be positive in possession.

    I have just been given a position at an academy as head coach of the Under 11’s and I often read your blog posts to gain ideas. I have much to learn and I must thank you for sharing your knowledge. Hopefully, when I have some time I can travel up to watch you coach or attend a Premier Skills course.

  2. Great post! I totally agree.
    Although being 18 years of age I have found, in my relatively short time playing, players often go from one extreme to another when playing the game. They at first play with high amounts of fear (and from my experience literally kick the ball ANYWHERE when in their defensive third for example), but when challenged/ questioned about their style some begin to think to pass the ball at the back thinking that is the RIGHT way to play without actually thinking about ‘progressing’ towards the goal. So it is very much pass the ball for no reason at the back and then KICK the ball long which they were previously doing. Many people think ‘possession football’ is a phase that they have to go through during a game but I believe it is a powerful TOOL in order to dominate a football game, postively ofcourse.

  3. Hi John, running with the ball, dribbling is coached extensively but the problem lies in the fear of losing the ball, but little is said when a player hits a short pass to the wrong side or a over hit cross. Fear is the problem with coaches and they pass that down to our youngsters. The following is a genuine question from a coach on a forum, I would be interested in hearing your opinion on what he has asked.

    “OK, last year my U11 boys won their league so this season we had moved up to the highest level possible for our U12 league. We were told we probably would only win 2-3 games this season but low and behold after 8 games we are 1 point away from first place, having beaten the first place team already 2-0. You’d figure id be happy and in a way i am however, the boys still aren’t playing the type of soccer i want them to play. I love the style of soccer where you form triangles for support, knock the ball around, take what the opponents give you, play wide, cross the ball in or send through balls. Our boys however not always, but often, resort to kick and chase, overly long balls and way too much carrying of the ball when it would be easier and nicer/smarter for them to just connect with a wall pass or play a quick one tow. I’m all for creativity and letting them understand there is more than one way to play this game. However, at times i just want to stop them and tell them to play 2-3 touch soccer, move the ball around, get into space, keep it simple etc! How can i get them to play the style of soccer i want them to play without making them robots, and killing their creativity and individuality?”

    Is it me or does the above give you the feeling that everything is about passing, don’t take risks dribbling, although I do admire him for wanting his players to play better, is he likely to make the same mistakes as everyone else?

    • Hi David. The coach in question is confronted with English football’s biggest dilemma; how to WIN playing ATTRACTIVE football! At Premier Skills we decided to include a secondary title to the Company’s name: PRACTICE PLAYING. Too much of the work provided to our young players is unconnected to the realistic requirements of the competitive game. If one practices unrealistically the work is a wasteful use of important development time. The whole development ‘journey must be seen as a carefully constructed learning process. The work done at 6/7 years of age is preparation for performance at 20+ years of age.
      To achieve a playing vision that one deems as the ‘way to play’, the players must follow the route towards that vision over time with each step being the foundation for the next. Coaching’s not easy and i have tried to make the point that learning and playing must coincide — practice what you play; play what you’ve practiced. The competitive game should be more carefully introduced to young players. A ‘cut-down’ version of the senior game is NOT the best way to introduce it to young players.
      There is a saying that strikes home when discussing development issues, it is– ‘the last thig learned is the first thing forgotten when under pressure’. The competitive element to development has not been considered in depth by those in charge of here. There has been ‘tinkering’ with ideas but insufficient radical changes have been made to provide an improved structure in development methods. Not until we recognize that practice and playing must be carefully ‘fused’ together will we begin to produce improved playing standards.

  4. Hi John, you have exposed the weakness in the our great game. Negative possession football is so boring that it causes us to cringe. There are lots of coaches out there that promote this kind of game however from a entertainment value I am afraid I give it 1 out of 10.
    So what do we do about the situation.
    Change our coaching methods by promoting the concept of the first option for all young players is to run with the ball rather than passing.
    I personally coach my players in 15 x15 meters area with up to10 players working at minimum 5 touch football. I have come under a lot of pressure with my methods as the results are long term not rather than short term.

  5. Hi Colin. I admire your enthusiasm and your concern for both the players you are involved with and for the game in general. Be careful about placing restrictions in practices as the important feature of good practice is decisions making for realistic situations as they present themself to the player. Practice should be as near to playing as possible so that players are exposed in practice to the same situations as occur in a competive game. Time and space adjustments plus the careful inclusion of opposition during practice time will provide the realism for players as they progress up the development ladder and prepare them more efficently for the senior game.

  6. Over this tournament it is being highlighted that those teams with higher possession rates, have gone out of the competition or lost a game. I was arguing well before I came across Premier Skills how important dribbling is, the ability to run and find those spaces is the difference between Barcelona and Spain. Spain pass the ball and keep possession well, but they do not have that Messi type of player, infact apart from Argentina how many countries are producing these types of players now?

    • Hi David. Yes! yes! yes! you have ‘hit the nail on the head’ The game’s about quality individuals who can combine team play with solo ability. We have not recognized this fact in the development of our young players — oh, that is only Premier Skills have noted this important ingredient of quality performance and continue with creating individualism that understands how and when to combine with others in the game throughout all levels of the coaching programmes.

      • Good points although some people now seem to imply that the only way to succeed is with a Messi? It is a pointless exercise considering him in the tactical set up. He is a complete one-off who has lifted them to new unchartered heights. He is a fantasy we may never see again… It is insulting to the likes of Iniesta, Pedro and Fabregas to keep salivating about the argentine. They are extreme individual talents who revel playing in tight space. They are part of the reason for Barca’s ongoing success. It is these ‘street’ skills(so deficient in England) which John and his acolytes are seeking to re-create.
        Apart from you John, many have ignored the other aspect of Barcelona’s play – the high pressing line but defensive rock of Sergio Busquets. Guardiola played a fantastic “off diamond” enabling Alves to push on since Fabregas came in… wonderful! What are you thoughts on the style of Marcelo Bielsa…?
        Finally, is Del Bosque being too negative having two defensive midfielders or is this just the standard for international football now?!

  7. I have been waiting for someone to talk about the Germans; as I do think that they are a potential prototype in terms of marrying up possession football with penetration.

    To make a chance EVERY TIME in possession if possible – although ‘keep ball’ has its pluses at certain times – is obviously the aim of every team, and to do so ‘penetration’ needs to occur. The problem is; of having ‘excessive possession’- as Spain do – and playing up against two banks – where there is little space to penetrate with ‘the ball in’ and the ‘penetrating forward run’. Therefore, it might be cute for Spain/Barcelona to sometimes actually deliberately NOT PRESS but invite the opposition to attack, so ‘space’ is left behind to attack into. I think it is as much a rhythm for the defence to get into shape to defend against the incessantly passing – in front- as they get into the groove of doing that well.

    As we all know much of this site has been about waiting for Barcelona/Spain to start supplying attacking variations. Spain do have the like of LLorente and Torres to change things – even if Del Bosque seems to be very focusing on securing more possession than normal with the inclusion of Fabregas.

    Possession should not be an end in itself, but the real basis for creating a wide variety of chances.

    The Spanish need to always score first – they do! – AND SCORE EARLY – to force the hand of the opposition to come out and give them the space to attack behind. Crucially, the winner against France was a penetrative ball, run, cross and header.

    However, and the rider is this; the Spanish do win by ‘playing around’ in front of the opposition – and when they do penetrate around the penalty area they do it with the type of craft other teams are not capable of performing.

    Time though to add variations, and maybe once this EURO is over extend the winning reign.

  8. I can’t ever remember disagreeing with JC about anything but I must say that I wish there was an outbreak of ball possession mania in England. I had to turn off the banal discussion on Radio 5 just now on the England Italy game and the drooling over Pirlo ( ye ye ye we knew about Pirlo years ago and now the English public have just discoverde him?). I agree with Mark. Messi is unique.
    Of course we want to see penetration…but we are SOOO far behind in this country that we have to do a Swansea and say ….before we get into the penetration phase we need to establish control of the tempo.
    John Barnes argued this point against Brooking recently on a Radio 5 prog…and I think he was right. Barnes said that in England kids need to pass back and sideways MORE. Brooking talked about playing between the lines but COME ON!!!! England could not string 3 /4 passes together in the later stages of last nights game. Even the “worlds greatest left back” was trying to force play down the line …..not a thought of going back to Hart with a play around. John!!…England can not achieve play arounds in the 1st phase let alone around the 18 yard box and we are critisizing Spain??
    In the first 5 mins v Ukraine Lescott literally panicked when Hart gave him the ball. We need a period of ball possession mania. John….I coach at grass roots…..believe me there is definitley NOT an outbreak of ball possession mania…oh if only!

  9. I do not feel that del Bosque, Spains team manager, totally applies the Barcelona ideology because if he did he would have Valdes in goal in place of Cassilles. Cassilles is a great keeper in all aspects except the the role of goalPLAYER as opposed to goalKEEPER. This is where Valdes excels and why Barcelona so often appear to play with an extra player in many of their matches. It was significant that when Swansea were promoted to the Premier League their manager, Brendan Rodgers, made it a priority to get Vorm from Holland to play in goal because he knew how good he was at playing FROM GOAL as opposed to simply playing IN GOAL.
    I think that del Bosque is submitting to the demands of the Real Madrid supporters and Spanish press in keeping Cassilles in goal.

  10. I don’t agree with Steve because Del Bosque is applying the ‘Time Immemorial’ philosophy of picking the best keeper and as he cannot guarantee a 3 or 4 goal winning margin as Barcelona can, he goes with the safe option of Casilles, which is totally understandable. One could argue that without Casillas the Spanish would be out of the EUROS.

  11. Best thing..although the group is not strong enough. One has to say too many teams and therefore far too diluted. Resulting in overall lack of quality; which is where ironically – the inventors of the game – England come in. Sad the inventor has lost the patent and can’t play. No doubt same old same old and they taught the game to the world – pathetic.

  12. hi Brazil94….It could be argued that Barcelona “guarantee a three or four goal winning margin” because of Valdes’s goalplayer role in the team.

    • I have done quantitative research on possession soccer. The results of a full season of German Bundesliga analysis are:

      The final results are in after compiling statistics from 306 games from the Germans Bundesliga’s 2011/2012 season.

      The teams with the majority of posession:
      •averaged 56% possession
      •averaged 6.0 scoring chances per game
      •averaged 1.33 points per game (win=3, tie=1, loss=0)
      The teams that had less possession:
      •averaged 44% possession
      •averaged 4.7 scoring chances
      •averaged 1.41 points per game

      The non-statistical observation was that two teams, Munich and Dortmund, had over 60% possession in many of their games and won. We suggest the same would be true with high possession teams like Barcelona. These teams are so good that it doesn’t matter what style they play, they will win.

      What the analysis suggests is that dominating possession is no guarantee for winning games. Quite the contrary,the number of scoring chances generated and conversion to goal effectiveness matter.

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