“Possession” is a big buzzword these days in the soccer world. It seems everyone wants to be the “next Barcelona” and dominate possession of the ball by passing it around. In some cases, we have seen positive effects from this, such as an increase in the number of teams playing short from their goalkeepers and building from the back.
However, there have been many negative effects. In fact, there have been so many, that I am about ready to call possession the “anti-development model.”
Please allow me to explain: Ultimately, at the highest level (i.e. the real Barcelona), a possession-based style of play is excellent. In fact, I personally prefer it. It allows a team to control their destiny and create real scoring chances instead of relying on luck or technical mistakes by the opposition.
Did you pick up the key phrase? I’ll highlight it again:
At the highest level.
U8 soccer is not the highest level. Neither is U10, or U15, or even college soccer. The professional game, and the professional game alone, is the highest level. Everything else is the developmental stage.
This is not to say that teams at the collegiate or U15 levels cannot play a possession-based style. However, they most certainly cannot play possession-based until they are able to play the “try to dribble and do moves, get to the goal as soon as possible” style. Yet many coaches try to do this with their teams anyway.
We skip over all the stages that are necessary for the foundation of a truly effective possession-based game. What are the necessary stages?
Here are a few of them:
1. Technical proficiency (hint: your current team is not yet proficient enough. I promise.)
2. Confidence and a willingness to take risks exuding from players’ pores
3. A desire to score on every touch of the ball
4. Basic decision making practices (when to shoot, dribble, or pass – yes, in that order)
5. Creativity and problem solving ability
These all must be present in your team before they can properly master and have real success in a possession-based style of play.
How do we develop these?
Yes, you read that right. Dribbling. Technical players can dribble. Technical players love to dribble (and try moves). Technical players who dribble have confidence to beat people and do anything on the field. These players also love to score. Once you have these kinds of players, they must be taught to think. When they know how to think, they will realize that it is not always the best decision to dribble. However, when it is the best decision, they can – and they will!
The vast majority of our coaches are teaching players to pass way too soon. We see the finished product, we hear everyone saying “possession, possession, possession,” so we start repeating it to our kids and tell them to pass. If kids start passing too early, they will never be complete players or be able to get themselves out of danger. If they are taught to pass too soon, they learn to get rid of the ball, and they never become confident or composed with the ball under pressure. Their answer to any situation is always to get rid of it.
Basically, you can take a player who loves to dribble, and teach him to pass; but you cannot take a player who loves to pass and teach him to dribble. And players at the highest level need to be able to do both. Even a guy like Per Mertesacker is very technical and can dribble the ball quite well (compared to your average professional, let alone average person).
In fact, if any professional player had the choice, he or she would dribble it all the way up to the goal every time. The only reason they don’t is because they realize it is not the best chance for the team to score. But when it is the best chance, they do it. Look at Lionel Messi: he is on Barcelona. The possession kings themselves. And what do you see when you look at a highlight reel? Dribbling. Loads of it. (For you skeptics, here's a video of DM Busquets - loads of moves/dribbling)
I promise, it takes no time at all to teach players how to play a possession-based style. If and when they have the right foundation, you can have a team dominating possession in a matter of weeks.
So when you go back to planning out what you are going to work on with your youth teams, don’t be too eager to work on possession. Let them experiment and keep getting better technically – even if that means taking a step “backward” from what they have been learning so far. Teach them to think, and their problem solving skills will kick in. When they start to play more possession-oriented on their own – yet still love to (and can!) take people on when appropriate – then they might be ready to play a possession-based style.
Still disagree? Feel free to leave your thoughts. Or read the follow-up to this post here.