Possession : Importance of who & where?

For me – “Having possession of the ball is important, Territorial possession is more important, Chance creation and execution is the most important”

This blog will elaborate further on the above quote and the ideas behind this thinking.

The problem with possession stats

Possession stats tell you very little about what happened in a game of football. That isn’t to say that possession should not be desired or controlling the ball is not important to winning a game.

Having the ball is not always a decision made by the team in possession, it can also be that the opponent is allowing a team to have negative or ineffective possession inside their own half and amongst the defenders (players furthest away from goal). Jose Mourinho is a coach who has spoken frequently on the subject of “simply having possession should not being mistaken for controlling the game”.

So possession of the ball is one thing, effective and dangerous possession is another.

For possession to be important in the outcome of a football game, the focus must be moved to WHERE on the pitch your team has the ball and WHO in your team is in possession of the ball.

Lastly and most importantly, the OUTCOMES from your possession will determine whether you score and win football matches.

Possession percentages should not be mistaken with controlling the game – Territorial possession and chance create/execution are the key.

As we make progress in football analysis and intelligence, we will begin to see more importance placed on the above areas within media and less on the quick snap shot of which team made the most passes or had the most % of possession. The key analysis should be on which team used their possession to create the biggest goal threat.

These things are often easier to see on the eye and therefore, the best analysis of any football match should be made in viewing the game with your eyes, rather than on a stat spreadsheet.

The xG generation of stats is well and truly up and running, Similar to possession statistics, we should also take xG for what it is…… and what it certainly isn’t in the analysis of football matches.

xG provides an average ranking for the chance of scoring, but doesn’t take into account the individual quality of the player receiving that chance to score (a chance for Cristiano Ronaldo is not the same for a league two player who is playing at a lower level). In short, xG gives an insight on the quality of the chance created rather than the quality of the player, so as a concept it’s a hard sell for a coach who believes that players are everything to the game.

The importance of territorial Possession

It’s my thinking that a good possession based team is one whose forwards have more touches on the ball than the back players. For this to happen, a team must be able to keep possession, but with forward momentum and the ability to receive the ball under high pressure from the opponents.

This is the true value of possession – to play forward and into your attacking players inside the opponents half of the pitch.

My advice, would be to analyse your teams possession in three ways

(1) The amount of possession you have in the game – lets say 50% – how much of that 50% is inside the opponents half of the pitch? – my aim would be for 70% of MY teams possession to be inside the opponents territory – as that possession is in the most effective areas to create chances to score.

(2) The amount of passes received by your attacking players – or – the amount of touches that each player has in your team. Can the least dangerous players in your team have the least amount of touches? a simple format is to have the midfielders on the ball more than your defenders and your attackers on the ball more than your midfielders. This seems a simple process, but when analysing most games of football, you will find that even the elite teams often play possession at the back, rather than from the back and into advanced areas of the pitch. To achieve this style of play, this is a tactical concept that takes a lot of work on the training pitch with your team.

(3) The outcomes of your possession in order of importance – goals, shots on target, shots off target, crosses, set plays gained.

How do you get your most dangerous players on the ball?

The above question should be one that constantly influences your daily training and communication with your team. Some things to consider

  • Clarity inside your team on “who your teams most dangerous players are and why”
  • Movement and rotation to play forwards
  • The areas you want your key players to arrive in or occupy
  • Understanding and awareness of the player passing or receiving the ball
  • The ability to change speed and focus of the attack

How do you keep the opponents “Least” dangerous players on the ball?

Spurs forwards blocking Manchester Citys central midfielders from receiving on the opening weekend of the 2021 PL season.

When defending, some things to consider are

  • Which player(s) in the opponents team are most dangerous to your team?
  • How can you block them from receiving the ball?
  • How can you keep your opponents least dangerous players on the ball?
  • How can you keep your opponents (1) far away from your goal (2) in wider areas of the pitch (3) with reduced time on the ball

Defending linked to how you want to attack?

You should always promote a game plan that gives your team the best chance of winning the game. Over a 38 game league season, or a full 50-60 game season including cup and/or European competitions, you will never always win the same way. You must adjust and make a game plan that enables you to attack your opponents weaknesses in the best way possible.

Does this include having as much possession as possible?, or calculated possession based on space to attack on regaining the ball? or a mixture of both?……….

This is the art of coaching and changes from game to game or even within the different moments of a single game (a goal being scored, the weather, the environment, the moment of the season, the time remaining or player/team in-game fatigue).

Linking defending to how you want to attack and vice versa is therefore a key component of your tactical game plan. An elite example is how both France and Italy won the World Cup and European Championships with a (1) possession based approach (2) linked to being a low block out of possession (3) linked to fast transition both in counter attacking and defending.

Italy defending deep vs Belgium – Euro 2021

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