The present obsession with ball possession that we see so frequently in our game is due I believe to the mis-applied effect of unrealistic statistics. The real reasons for the use of ‘keep-ball’ tactics in the game of football should not be about the number of passes achieved – but the number of penetrations achieved!
Ball retention in a phase of play must supply two vital playing ingredients: (a) it must deny the opposition the ball and (b) it must create spaces in an opposing defensive system that must be penetrated. During prolonged, passing sequences a team in possession must be fully aware of the tactical reasons already mentioned. Whilst in possession, spaces must be created and recognized in any area of the field in which the ball is retained and all players must be aware of spaces when they become available and importantly, be able to exploit such spaces when they occur.
Because teams’ tend to retain extra defenders at the back as an overload precaution against opposing attackers, it is in back areas that ball possession is easier to use. As the ball is moved towards the opposition’s end tactical numeracy tends to even before turning more advantageously to opposing defences; accordingly, the ability to retain the ball becomes more difficult as space becomes more congested in mid-field and front thirds.
Unfortunately, the game in this country has failed to recognize the opportunities that can be forthcoming in attacking play by developing more skilful players for back positions. The overuse of negative passing or long up-field punts by so many of our back players is directly due to their discomfort on the ball. The biggest spaces that provide the best opportunities for positive possession play is occupied by players incapable of exploiting them! The lack of playing ability of those in back positions creates a negative influence on the playing style of those positioned ahead of them – forcing those in mid-field and up front to become ‘fighters and chasers’ when they should be stylish football artists.
As a result of the poor playing standards of those in back positions, tactical ‘fluidity’ has been suppressed in our game. Rotational movement that would allow forward penetration and improve ball possession is rejected in favour of ‘solid’ systems of play. The over-emphasis on ‘safety first football’ in our game is directly due to skill deficiencies combined with a lack of playing intellect. Passing the ball in a keep-ball sequence looks a ‘painful’ intrusion on the ‘hit and hope’ style of play our players are more used to. There is a reluctance to ‘steady the ship’ and display a creative but ready to strike approach and impatience to get the ball forward too often takes control.
We must teach our players how to breach opposing defensive ‘shields’ in each of the playing thirds. Throughout the length of the field players must be able to switch from preparation play to penetrative surge when situations occur. Possession play must be seen as the ‘casual draw’ that provides the opportunity to ‘strike’. The ability to keep the ball by ‘bringing extra players to the party’ (overloading) must be an important part of player development in the future; but without also underlining the importance of incisive penetrations as the culmination of keep-ball sequences we will continue to allow statistics and not football logic to determine our football future.