By Bob Pearce and Mihail Vladimirov.
Executed by the feet.
One of the few statistics TV commentators are comfortable quoting is the percentage of possession each team has had. This gives the impression that this is inherently a good thing. You have made it clear that there are two points of view about possession. Proactive teams see possession as something valuable and try to have as much of it as they can, while reactive teams value protection much higher and and can be very economical with possession. Usually the TV co-commentator then ‘wisely’ reminds us that the only important statistic is the score. While it is true that possession does not guarantee goals, I’ve never actually heard them attempt to explain each team’s use of possession. Is possession domination?
Yes, in short possession means domination. But not total domination. There is a difference between possession dominance and tactical dominance. Tactical dominance means two things:
a) your attacking patterns are working (you don’t necessarily need much possession to create adequate attacks – for example direct, counter-attacking football will do with 20-40% possession and could still score goals) which means you are outplaying the opposition and their defensive strategy is not working; and
b) your defensive patterns are working – means you are nullifying your opposition and their attacking patterns are not working.
Combine these two elements and this means you are tactically totally dominating your opposition.
So having possession is not necessarily having the initiative. As you’ve said before, reactive teams will ‘gift you possession’ in your cold and warm zones for the benefit of the vulnerable space you may leave exposed. For the reactive team, controlling space is central to their game. Aren’t they getting the same benefits that proactive teams get from possession through controlling the space?
Yes, the benefits are identical even if they are actually gathered in a different way. When defending, the reactive team’s main defensive strategy will be to try to control the space in their defensive third. The proactive team will try to defend mainly by trying to just pass the ball around in their defensive third (or to use the modern term “rest with the ball”). Both styles are doing similar things – preventing the opposition from having what they need most to hurt you.
For reactive teams it’s the space that’s the most harmful thing. So if they can deny their opposition space they would be happy to let them have the ball. As every reactive team focuses on their shape (i.e. space), gifting the ball back is not really a concern for them if their shape is well constructed and does not allow easy free space.
Meanwhile, for proactive teams possession (i.e. time) is the most valuable asset. As everything is based around possession for them (in both the defensive and attacking phase), their biggest fear is when the opposition has the ball. This is because their defensive strategy is not based on shape (like the reactive teams) but on the ball (i.e. to go and press to regain it as quickly as possible).
Guardiola once said that Barcelona are a horrible team without the ball, so whenever they lost it they aim to quickly get it back. Indirectly Guardiola admitted that without the ball their shape is really poor (and it is!), so the only way to minimise the risk this creates is to quickly regain the ball. Otherwise they would be hit on the break and concede goals. This effect was brutally exposed by Mourinho’s Real Madrid and others like Valencia, Sevilla, and Sociedad last season. So what every proactive team fears most are the moments when the opposition has the ball. So to defend they either “rest with it” or try to press as hard as hell.
This is one problem Liverpool have seen in their first season under Rodgers. They are really awful without the ball in terms of structure. But they were doubly awful as they were not pressing. This is the double killer for any possession-oriented team.
So possession football means you set out to ‘own’ the ball and try to mitigate the risk of being exposed by ‘stealing’ it back again quickly. Possession must always be coupled with pressing. But needing both means that if you are not doing both to a high enough standard you will destabilise your whole approach and the risks will outweigh the rewards. What should a team do while they are not yet at a high enough standard of both retaining and regaining possession? Should they practice one style in training and play another style in matches? Or do they accept poor results are the price of their learning?
There isn’t a rule that every possession team must press. It’s more of an indirect consequence of the fact they are hugely possession-oriented. To be hugely possession-oriented you would need the framework to allow you several passing angles and the smoothest way of transitioning between the phases which allows for the many passing angles. So your structure will be completely different from the structure of a reactive team. The proactive team structure is hugely spread-out both vertically and horizontally in order to allow for so many passing angles. This means acres of space will be open in the defensive third. Or in other words – the defensive shape is horrible as it’s not covering the defensive third so well. It’s a question of shifted balance – the increased numbers of passing angles and attacking capability comes with decreased ability to defend the defensive third. Hence when you can’t defend in terms of shape your other real variant is to defend by pressing. If you do neither of these you will be horrible exposed – as Liverpool so many times this season.
What should a team do if they are not yet good at defensive shape or pressing? Choose whether to defend with the structure or defend by pressing, and try to develop it. In theory both strategies require no more than a couple of months to be set to a decent enough level to be able to handle the requirements during the season. Then with time they will only be perfected. Setting a defence based on shape is easier and requires around a month. Setting up good pressing lines and behaviour is a little bit more sophisticated as the whole process is based on two phases – pressing and covering. That’s why it requires one month more.
So one team may try to dominate the time on the ball, and another team may try to dominate where the ball can be used. The possession stats only measure one team’s approach. It would be more balanced if they also measured what the reactive team values, the controlling of space.
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