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!

Soccer - World Cup Italia 90 - Group F - England v Holland

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.

11 thoughts on “Penetration!

  1. I find that when coaching players in ‘play arounds’, they are more iikely to do this in midfield or even at the back, than further forward in the final third. Having got into the final third, many English players, at all levels, are conditioned to think that the ball must be hit into the danger area as quickly as possible, and so consequently our games become dominated by crosses. The players must be coached to probe for openings, to slip penetrative passes through into space for sudden darts of quick forwards, or for the player on the ball to break through himself with the ball, having spotted the gap.
    We must develop back players with much higher degrees of technical skill, who are comfortable pushing forward into midfield and beyond, to join attacks. It is noticeable that in their pre-match planning,many teams decide not to pressure the central defender when he has possession of the ball, but instead mark quickly all the other players around him. He does not have the ability to hurt the opposisition when in possession by advancing forward with the ball to create an over-load, but looks to pass it at the earliest opportunity. The other team, having planned for this in their pre-match preparation, press all opponents likely to receive a pass from this central defender in order to regain possession. The limited central defender of this type becomes a liability that the other team can take advantage of.

    • Hi Steve. The lack of both preparation play and unnecessary crossing in our game stems directly from poor development methods introduced to our players. Irrespective of the availability of space and time or of the support or positioning of colleagues. passes and crosses are delivered without sufficient thought, thus the ‘slap-dash’ playing style that ‘infects’ our game.
      There is a general lack of undersanding throughout the game on how to keep the ball and how to exploit the advantages that occur in all areas of the field. Playing the game of football well is not something that can be achieved overnight. Correct, progressive work must be done through all age groups to supply high playing qualities for the senior game.
      We are not supplying our players with that work nor a game infrastructure that can or will produce top quality performance.

    • exactly right Steve…as you know yourself my boys have played a whole season now without a striker and the opposition centre backs still don’t want the ball. We actually love it when the oppo centre back has the ball because we know the next pass is coming to us….In contrast our own centre backs are getting bolder by the game and are always making runs into midfield.
      I am particually pleased with the patience we are now developing in the final third. Getting the ball out from the back is now something the lads do with their eyes shut…..the movements and patterns are second nature but the patience and the desire to play the penetrating pass in the final third are really pleasing. Looking forward to seeing you soon…we have a cup semi on sat week and will probably get the 3g pitch so it should be fun

  2. John Cartwright wrote:

    We must teach our players how to breach opposing defensive ‘shields’
    in each of the playing thirds.

    I agree – coaches should help players learn how to read and manipulate defenders, especially in the final third.

    But I am growing tired of hearing coaches complain about what needs to be done
    rather than discuss what SHOULD be done. Is it possible here to discuss two ¨how-to-coach it¨ questions about penetrationing an organized defense:

    – What specific BALL movement patterns do you want players to learn
    to open space behind the FIRST line of defenders?

    – What specific PLAYER movement patterns do you want players to learn
    to open spaces in front of the LAST line of defenders?

    Until a coach can break down the problem and answer these questions (or similar substitutes), he cannot design purposeful training activities to improve player decision-making.

  3. Hi Steve. Everbody must agree with what we’ve said —no replies! Does this mean that everyone belieives our game is as poor as we say it is? If so, it’s about time something was said and done about it.

  4. To much of our game is centred around playing in straight lines whereby the lack of imagination, the lack of cleverness, the lack of probing, is evidenced as the ball is directed vertically forward,

    ‘Play rounds’ are non-existent, as is the concept coming back to go forward, and changing angles is anathema. Balls into the front are poorly placed and paced, and combined movement is invisible; given that a front player might ‘show’ for a ball on the rare occasion that he is not rushing towards the other goal – disappearing up his own a***..

    Even though the back players have the greatest space and combine across the pitch with each other – when unopposed – they have neither the wit or the craft to weight balls into teammates and fail to join in when opportunities present themselves to overload.

    And the final ball is inevitably a high cross.

    Welcome to British football…apologies to Paisley, Greenwood, Lyall, Cloughie, Cartwright and the like. The man in the street would in the words of Jorge Valdano watch ‘shit on a stick’ – and normally does and even pays good money to do so!

  5. Hi Brazil94.
    You provide a succinct, if depressing, summation, of the present state of British football. It has been repeated time and time again on this blog, that the neglect in a proper coaching and development structure for our young players is costing us dear as we continue to meander on in the international wilderness. Qualification for the 2014 World Cup is far from certain and, personally, I fear the worse and i can see England ending up with a very tricky play-off match. And even if we qualify for Brazil, nobody but an extreme optimist could foresee England progressing much further than the group stage.
    But not only are we failing in our development of young players, but we continue also to fail to produce imaginative and innovative coaches to lead the English game out of the doldrums. Where are the bright, young English coach/managers? We are importing foreign coaches, in the same way as we are importing foreign players, to bring success and excellence to the club game. Here I must give credit to the Scottish contribution of Ferguson, Moyes, Lambert (in spite of current problems), Clark, and also credit to Neil Lennon for two very effective performances earlier in the season against Barcelona.Whether their success is due largely to strong man-management, rather than tactical expertise, is a debateable point but at least they are making an impression.
    This state of affairs places the focus on the inadequacies of our coach education, which of course, is the responibilioy of The Football Association. We are regularly told that The FA’s coaching courses and qualifications are the most coveted in the world, but the present state of affairs does not back up this claim.
    Take the recent case of Southampton FC. A few weeks ago they sacked manager Nigel Adkins and there was a lot of sympathy for him. This seemed justifiable sympathy because Adkins had led The Saints to two successive promotions into the Premier League and after an understandably uncertain start to the season in the top division, Southampton had started putting some results together. So when the axe fell on Adkins and an Argentinian, Mauricio Pottitino, who was an unknown name to many people inside and outside the game, there was considerable criticism of Southampton’s actions, at what was seen as unfair treatmen of an English coach.
    The criticism seemed jutified at the time. However, in my opinion, the performances of Southampton in just three matches have cast a different light on the situation. Admittedly, I am basing my assessmnt purely on TV highlights, but it seems to me that Pottitino’s effect has been immediate. Their performance against Manchester United at Old Trafford last week was remarkable,in the way they continually got players forward in numbers to threaten the league leaders’ goal, as a result of their effective and intelligent pressing. Sir Alex Ferguson was open and honest in declaring how lucky United had been to get all three points. This approach was again in evidence in their away match at Wigan last Saturday.
    Nigel Adkins was doing a sound job at Southampon, but just as the spark and flair is missing from English players in comparison to their foreign counterparts, so the innovation and imaginative approach of English coaches is missing when compared to that of their colleagues on the continent.
    The Football Association Coaching Scheme must take responsibility for this It is no use extolling its virtues and how all the world’s leading coaches apply to take the FA’s top qualifications, when coaches like Mourinho, Benetez, Ancellotti, Wenger and now Pottitino, come over and take the top jobs.
    With regard to Southampon, it is very early days yet, but if Pottitino maintains and builds on his very promising start, then he could emerge as a leading coach in the game. Why can we not have an Englishman with similar potential? Is the material not there, or, as with our young players, are we just not developing it?

  6. You make some great points Steve. Managers like players are led to believe that the Premier league is the best in the world, so want to get their as quick as possible, but surely our coaches have to go abroad, learn new languages, different styles of play and coaching methods before they try to get success at one of the toughest leagues in the world.

  7. It’s tough to disagree with any of the comments made in the above statement(s). I just finished a book called Inverting The Pyramid by John Wilson, and some very interesting history seems to be evidenced in the games development. One of the most interesting pieces of history that Wilson touches, is the places and atmospheres which have held the different platforms for conversation and critical thinking in footballs progression or lack of. If I remember correctly, it seems that the British game has mainly been discussed in bars and pubs as this is where fans and critics watch games together. The development of these conversations in many other places around the world happened in coffee houses. I think there is a stark contrast between the two atmospheres that allow these conversations to develop.

    Now I don’t know if this is relevant to the game of today, as I am referring to an era close to 60 to 70 years ago, but its hard to deny that coffee may create a conversation that is more creative and flexible then a few too many pints. I would also venture to say a creative platform allows for more skilled foundations to develop, versus the aggressive, fear of failure “fight ball” which is so often discussed in these conversations.

    Maybe Im crazy?

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