By Jimmy Shan

Barcelona are most definitely the kings of possession, my two favourite descriptions of this have to be:  Death by a thousand passes and strangulation by triangulation.

Last season Swansea under Brendan Rodgers continued the clubs quest and identity of possession football. This was applauded by all, they displayed an ability to continuously recycle (re build) possession and retain the ball for long periods of times often based upon one and two touch play.

I for one intend to continue to embrace this culture and teach a game style based around possession dominance, however it is important that I (we when teaching) don’t teach the team to retain needlessly or overplay and most defiantly don’t deny creativity / individualism whilst preaching one and two touch passing.

So how do we get the balance right?

For the last 3-4 years I have based possession on 3 P’s (Patient – Probe – Penetrate) and have found this to be a beneficial approach in teaching and maintaining a balance between keeping the ball for keeping sake and keeping the ball as a vehicle to CREATE.

In order to achieve possession dominance requires an ability to be PATIENT. A team must be able to use retention passes, recycle and rebuild possession, test an opponent’s organisation, and under no circumstance force possession, however this should be achieved by ALWAYS having a mindset of playing forwards!

PROBE – An ability to play probing passes in and out of the tight to shift and unbalance opposition and open up new passing lanes (again testing an opponent’s organisation), playing to a maverick that may be able to work a trick or a moment of brilliance in the tight. A great buzz word for this type of pass would be a ‘lend’ pass (bounce pass). The three great uses of this pass enable player / team:

1)      Shift / unbalance opposition

2)      Allow movement ahead, to the side and behind the ball to take place

3)      Allow the original ball carrier to attain a picture

Ultimately it will all amount to nothing if you are unable to PENETRATE! 6 key contributors to dissect an opposition would be the effectiveness and quality of:

1)      Pass

2)      Movement

3)      Runs from deep

4)      Combination play

5)      Individualism

6)      Wide / Flank play

Another good simple alliteration is the use of 3 R’s:

Risk – Retain – Rebuild

Players should have an understanding of when, where, how and why to execute the above decisions.

Remember possession is also a great vehicle to deal with and relieve pressure and momentum building against you, to rest with the ball and the BEST form of defence.

“Barcelona are the only team that defend with the ball; the only team that rests in possession,” Juan Manuel Lillo says (Almeria manager). “They keep the ball so well, they move so collectively, that when you do get it back, you’re tired, out of position and they’re right on top of you.” Lillo knows: his Almería side were defeated 8-0 by Barcelona.

11 thoughts on “Possession

  1. Great post mate.You have addressed the two sides of a possession based game where possession is kept for tactical reasons-i.e” If the opposition dont have the ball they cant hurt us”and when possession is kept for the purpose of “hurting”the opposition.

    Love the mention of the word “maverick” in the article.When the national team is constantly criticised for the lack of creativity I always think of Hudson,Currie,Worthington and Bowles.Proof from an era 30/40 years ago that England can produce technically gifted players.

    One of the sometimes overlooked benefits of a possession game as opposed to the direct style is the fact that playing against a side like Barcelona or the Liverpool side of the 70’s can be mentally and physically shattering.

  2. I think that this is a very important article because I feel that it is vital that in England we must start to develop a game built around possession much more than we have done up to now. Swansea, who have come up through the leagues with players who were considered journeymen types, have proved that it can be done. The old Liverpool team were also a good example as Dave Williams says.
    Our problem is that it seems inherent in our DNA to want to get the ball into the opponents’ penalty area as quickly as possible. In professional football the spectators in the stands often become agitated when their team takes the ‘long’ route, (as they see it), in building their attacks with patience, circulating the ball until a favourable position is achieved and a penetrating pass can be played.
    Walk aound any area of playing fields in the country and you will see 99 times out of 100 that long passes are being launched time after time towards the danger area, with very little, if any, preparation. The Sunday morning amateur plays out the football which the previous day he was screaming out for at his local League ground.
    Whenever I have seen amateur football on local pitches in other countries, it is clear that our foreign counterparts have a deeper appreciation of taking care of ball possession. Even at the humblest levels, the evidence is there that they have a deeper appreciation of retaining the ball and there is more desire to

    stroke the ball from foot to foot. It seems that it is in our

    nature to

    want a battle of strength and power but they want a a battle of skill and wit.

  3. Continuation of above posted comment………
    What i think we must also understand is that, as Jimmy Shan points out,playing a possession game is also a defernsive tactic. Brendan Rodgers, when in charge at Swansea, has made it clear in interviews, that when his Swansea side was promoted to the Premier League ,any lapse into playing a long ball, percentage game, would have seen them on course for a quick return to the championship. He believed that such a policy would have had his players chasing the ball all season in an attempt to get it back. They used possession to deny their opponents the ball. The longer they had the ball, the less chance there was that their opponents could hurt them.
    There is also the additional point that when Barcelona play their ‘tiki taka’, they have only short distances to run when they have to press the ball, on occasions when the opponent does gain possession. It is said that Xavi and Iniesta rarely run more than 10 metres when they press, because they rarely pass the ball in their passing movements further than that distance. It conserves energy and makes a huge difference over a full season. Consequently, when it comes to a World Cup or Euro, they are not ‘burnt out’ like the English players. They have played just as many matches as our players but we are constantly chasing over long distances. We hit so many passes over long distances, possession is lost and then we have to run those long distances in attempts to get the ball back.
    Our natural style, which is in evidence at all levels, does not make any sense and we must change if we want the international success which has eluded us for so long.

  4. Hi Jimmy. An intersting and important post. It is important that when one attempts to do something one should understand why one is doing it. Possession play is obviously about keeping the ball, but one must be fully aware of the main reason for the use of possession football. All the points you make are correct , but the really important points that must be recognized are (a) when a ‘gap’ in the opposing defence has been created. (b) when a player ‘overload’ has been created. From these situations created by possession play, individual players and teams must switch from possession mode to penetrative mode. In so doing, the real significance and benefits of playing possession football can be realized to the full.

  5. Steve Haslam makes a great point about ‘burn-out’ when England come to the big tournaments. It is not only the chasing of the ball that is the issue it is also the constatnt high speed and effort with how we play our game that makes players tired for the summer.

    On the continent, they control the pace of the game; the tempo ebbs and flows as does the game and, sa Stuart Pearce hasa said, they ‘manage’ the game better than England – and he doesn’t mean who is in charge, he means the players’ management of the game.

    I have also recently been told that whilst our football has a consistently higher average speed of play than most of the rest of Europe, their TOP speeds of play (in attacking areas) are actually higher than the English. So management of game tempo is as important as management of the ball.

    I see John picked up on the point of possssion also to be to shift defenders into less than optimum positions and create overloads to exploit unbalanced defences.

  6. Sorry to change the subject but i see that Gareth Southgate has resigned.

    John – any chance of you dusting your CV off and posting it to wembley stadium?

    • Hi Matt. Thanks for for the kind words. However, i think i have made too many ‘waves’ concerning our football hierarchy and they would not see me as someone who would fit the ‘nice chap’ category. The whole situation needs a complete overhaul, but money, egos and ineptitude means that changes will be merely ‘tinkerings’ not a total re-think. Whether Southgate was the right man for the job in the first place is highly questionable.
      I would love to reshape football development here and rekindle individualism that has the ability to combine. If other countries can produce the methodology to produce attactive and effective football,……….why can’t we? That’s what we at Premier Skills have been doing for the last 10 years …HELLO The FA … we’re still here and DOING what needs to be DONE ………. on the grass with players!!!

  7. I wonder if we will find out the reasons for Gareth Southgate’s resignation? This is a blow for everyone who has canvessed for former players to be given prominent positions in the football hierarchy, especially the coaching department. It is normal in Germany,France, Italy and Spain for ex-players to be put in influential positions when they have decided to hang up their boots. Our coaching has stagnated ever since the decision was made to hand the coaching scheme over to physical educationalists, which is about 50 years ago now. It would be interesting to know whether Gareth Southgate found the environment unconducive to the ideas which he wished to promote.Ideas that he had developed over his many years as a professional player , particularly in the time he spent playing under a coach like Terry Venables.
    John Cartwright should surely be the man to get the job, but it is difficult to see the corridors of FA power allowing him to take over when they do not officially recognise the Premier Skills methodology.
    Failing that , the England Manager should be the Director of Coaching, or a similar role with a different title. Roy Hodgson should describe his vision for the England team and the coaching structure and approach must be built around that. John Cartwright has expounded on this point many times and the opportunity is now there if Hodgson takes Southgate’s job. Every English child/player in the country is a potential England player and so by describing his vision and how he proposes to arrive at the finished state, Roy Hodgson would be setting every coach in the country, at all levels, on the same road and travelling in the same direction. And at last we would know where we are heading.

  8. Can’t help but feel disappointed at Southgate’s resignation. Why spend so long advocating huge changes and then not stick around to see it come to fruition?

    Fingers crossed that its purely to do with him wanting to get back into management rather than F.A politics

  9. Japan’s 1-0 victory over Spain in the Olympic Football Tournament may have come as a surprise to many but it shouldn’t have really.
    In my opinion, it provided proof that the Japanese are really working on their game. Last year, the Japanese womens’ team deservedly, and unexpectedly, won the Womens’ World Cup. Japan’s men played in a similar style in their match yesterday against Spain: high pressing, good ball possession and a passing style which we have seen from the Spanish in recent years.Obviously, Spain were handicapped by playing half the match with 10 men, and they showed that all the possession in the world is worthless without penetration, but Japan just as clearly showed that they have enthusiastically taken lessons on board and developed the same playing style in both their mens’ and womens’ teams.
    Looking at the Great Britain Womens’ Team, (which is virtually the England Womens’ Team), as i have said before, it displays a lack of tactical awareness prevalent in the mens’ game and technical deficiencies among the players except, significantly, those who are playing abroad.
    The English malaise, (we have to say British in the Olympic context), goes all the way down the chain and even a country like Japan is putting us in the shadows.

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