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!!