What is Possession Style Soccer?

The idea of one team controlling the ball better and more than their opponents is likely what came to mind when you read the title for this article. At the most basic level this is a fair assessment of possession style soccer. It is difficult to score if you do not have possession of the ball, correct?  By controlling the ball, a team controls the game.

I am not entirely comfortable with the notion that a successful possession style of soccer is tied to winning the time of possession battle. I in no way wish to diminish the importance or value of possessing the ball. I am simply saying there must exist a purpose for possessing the ball - to score the ball or to prevent the opponent from scoring the ball.

As soccer is a game about problem solving we can look at possession in those terms as well.  When in possession a team has a singular problem to solve - how to score the ball.  When not in possession a team has a two-fold problem to solve - how to gain possession and then how to score the ball. In my mind I would much prefer solving one problem well than having to devote resources to solving two problems.

Possession can also be viewed in terms of energy expended in playing the game.  Possessing the ball, especially when done with intelligent thought and intent, conserves energy for the team in possession while making the opponent expend large amounts of physical, mental and possibly emotional energy in pursuit of possession of the ball. When ball movement is predicated on player movement a team in possession can force the defending team to chase the ball.  That would be one description of effective possession of the soccer ball.

Obviously the most effective use of possession is to score the soccer ball.  Forcing a team to expend energy chasing the ball while you progress toward scoring the ball might be alternatively described as a by-product of a possession style of soccer. The same could be said of possessing the ball to prevent the opponent from being able to score.

Because we live in a world of opposites, if there exists effective uses of possession it stands to reason there must exist ineffective uses of possession. Teams and maybe more appropriately players who  are constantly creating 50 / 50 balls could certainly be accused of ineffective use of possession. A direct style of play predicated solely on kicking the ball forward for someone to run onto might be ineffective use of possession. That is not a knock on direct play, only a knock on thoughtlessly whacking the ball forward. I like direct play as a versatile part of our teams attack.

To look at direct play as part of possession play requires looking at one simple question, How many passes does it take to score a goal?

If your forward steals the ball from a defender along the top of the opponents penalty area, shoots and scores the answer could be as low as "zero" passes required to score. So, a directly played ball out of the middle third of the field to a teammate who shoots and scores is effective use of possession, is it not? In fact, there have been several studies conducted that suggest a preponderance of goals scored come from 3 or less passes made. The pressing defense system of play so talked about and utilized today has been built around this very idea.  Regained possession immediately in the attacking third to catch the opponents shape in a transitional moment allowing for your team to strike quickly on goal. Makes perfect sense.

In coaching possession soccer with my team this spring I will return to my basketball roots and concentrate on Space and Pace.  If we look at the previous example of a ball won in the midfield leading to one pass from which a goal is scored there was obviously space, negative space to be exact, available in behind the opponents defense to be utilized. One pass was sufficient.

When the opposition presses upon losing possession the attacking team may be required to execute a Safe Pass to secure possession before moving personnel and the ball forward on the attack. Pressing has a two-fold purpose for most teams, 1) Regain possession and / or 2) Allow teammates to get organized behind the ball.  If the attackers are able to successfully execute a safe pass out of the press, then they will likely have to begin a "delayed" attack in the sense the opportunity to quick counter may have been lost.  When this occurs the conventional ideas of possessing the ball come into play.  The attack (forward movement of the ball) will be based around probing the defense, recycling the ball backwards and switching the point of attack in search of a seam to move forward through.

In this sense, possession first becomes about moving the ball to move the opposition.  In moving the opposition - what we call manipulating the defense - the attacking team seeks to create the space they wish to exploit.  Remember in the direct play scenario, the (negative) space to play into already existed. When a defense is set behind the ball, space will likely need to be created by moving the opponents, by manipulating the defense to change from its preferred shape.   Probe, recycle backwards, switch the point of attack all with a watchful eye on developing seams to attack forward through. 

It is critically important to remember the sequence for manipulating a defense is to:

1)  Probe - forward movement of the ball to a target player to get defenders behind him to step forward.

2) Recycle  - drop passes for the purpose of getting defenders to step forward again

3) Switch  - to force a defense to move laterally/

Once a defense is moving backwards and forwards as well as side to side it's preferred shape is in peril and seams to attack the goal through will develop and become exposed for exploitation. There is no set number of passes for when this well occur.  There is no set number of passes that defines "possessing the ball".  A successful possession might require as few as one pass or as many passes as it takes.

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