When you talk about the great Managers of the beautiful game, the following names come to mind: Arrigo Sacchi, Helenio Herrera, Rinus Michels, Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho, Vicente Del Bosque and Pep Guardiola. Why are they greats you ask? That’s because they are constantly innovating and trying to come up one strategy that will trump through all and win the ultimate goal which is Titles and Utter Domination! We’ve witnessed the best of Catenaccio, Total Football, Tiki-Taka, Joga Bonito and Park-the-bus all set-up to conquer the football world. For someone like Jose Mourinho, it matters little to him whether he is entertaining or boring you….that bad you say.
However, underneath all these fancy names are essentially two fundamental schools of football strategy- Possession Football and Counter-Attacking Football. While this is no Philosophy class, it is safe to say the above strategies derive their source from either keep the ball approach or park the bus better known as Counter Attack.
TouchlineUI will analyze Possession Football this week and conclude with the Counter Attack next week. Read along!!
“Possession is nine tenth of the law”
It is the simple football philosophy that the best way to defend and attack is to hold the ball. Liverpool Coach Brendan Rodgers has this to say on keeping the ball:
“If you can dominate the game with the ball, you have a 79% chance of winning.” Possession is nine tenth of the ball.
It is seen by Purists as the true form of the game.
PROPONENTS OF POSSESSION FOOTBALL
History has shown that the very best sides have always passed beautifully, dominating opponents with their control of the ball. The first that comes to mind and the very basic form is the one adopted by the all conquering Ajax and Dutch side of the 70s. It was called Total Football. The Total Football allowed every member of the team to contribute in the final third. Ajax, with this formation, would go on to win 3 European Cups on the bounce between 1971-1974 while Netherlands reached two World Cup Finals in 1974 and 1978. Though the Oranges lost both finals, they were an enterprising and all-attacking side led by a certain Johan Cruyff. They have in some quarters been called the “best side never to have won the World Cup”. This Total Football was epitomized in the 1974 World Cup Final where the Dutch scored within a couple of minutes from kickoff.
The Great Brazil side of 82 and 86 based the famous “Joga Bonito”, aka The Beautiful Game, on possession and this brought out the best in the midfield trio of Falcao, Zico and the Great Socrates. Unfortunately for the Selecao, there is no silverware to show for it.
Furthermore, Arsene Wenger is another fan of keeping the ball. His great Arsenal sides were built on that though they also possessed the ability to hit on the break through the likes of Pires, Henry and Wiltord. Arsene Wenger and his side have, in the past, even been accused of attempting to pass the ball into the net. Alex Ferguson’s United side was also a great attacking and dominating side but not excessively obsessed with keeping the ball.
However, when you think of possession football in its purest form, then two teams come to mind; Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona’s side and the Spanish National Team. The two teams employed a totally possession based style famously known as the ‘Tiki Taka’. Barcelona conquered Europe in 2008/09 and 2010 /11 with a tournament high possession average of 60%. Barcelona, at that time, was either a joy or agony to watch depending on what side you belonged. For the Spanish side, they conquered Europe in 2008 thanks to their endless passing which left fans in awe and opponents in disarray. It must however be stated the La Roja in that competition still counter attacked and used the direct approach most notably in their 4-1 Group win over Russia. In 2010, they went a step further and won the World Cup. The pass masters, led by Xavi and Iniesta, would pass the ball in triangles until they found an opening, scored, then lowered the tempo and saw their games out. It is worthy of mention that after that shock opening loss to Switzerland, Del Bosque side won only one match with a margin of two or more (2-0 victory over Honduras).Others either ended 2-1 or 1-0 including the final. In 2012, they will retain the European Championship with a possession average of over 60 percent. They were simply fun to watch. Barca and Spain were less direct when compared to the other great sides compared above but it is fair to say that they enjoyed the greatest success. Bayern Munchen under Pep Guardiola also employs the possession style. The Bavarians under Pep are well placed to win the German Bundesliga and are bookmaker’s favorites for the UEFA Champions League. Compared to his Barca side, this Bayern side can go direct; using the pace of Ribery and Robben, the direct play of Muller and of course the aerial threat of Pole’s Robert Lewandowski as seen in his header at the Etihad Stadium in the 3-2 loss to the Citizens. They could also retain possession and dictate play with the likes of Alonso, Thiago and Gotze.
One question though is how did these sides employ such tactic?
HOW IT OPERATES
It all starts from the goal-kick. Let’s use Pep Barca’s side as a case study. Pep’s sides rarely employ long goal-kicks. Tiki Taka involves every member of the team. Valdes would play the kick short to one of the central defenders who would have moved wide, or to the pivot (Busquets) who drops into the space left by the Central Defenders. The Pivot is extremely important and his awareness level must be top-notch. The Pivot will help to distribute the ball once he receives it from the goalkeeper. By this time, the full-backs are high up the pitch. For example, when Chelsea plays the goal-kick short, Branislav Ivanovic (right back) moves high up the pitch while Azpilicueta (leftback) stays back. It all depends on the Coach’s instruction. Examples of well known Pivots are Sergio Busquets of Barcelona, Xabi Alonso and Philippe Lahm of Bayern Munchen. It’s no surprise that these players have been managed by Pep Guardiola.
Should the ball successfully get to the middle of the park, then the midfield trio would exchange passes in triangles. A Guardiola Barcelona side had the trio of Iniesta, Xavi and Busquets exchange passes in a triangular pattern in order not to only keep the ball but to move towards the final third and find gaps in the opposition defence. The player’s positions are interchangeable but they must maintain that triangular pattern so as to beat any opposing player and expose the space left. Lionel Messi would also drop back to join the triumvirate in keeping the ball but more importantly lure the opposition defence out of their comfort zone and force them to play higher up the pitch. This will eventually create space either on the flanks (because the opposing fullbacks will be fooled into playing narrower and cover the drawn out centre backs) or even down the middle. This strategy is however easier said than done as it requires great amount of trust in teammates to be at the right place at the right time. It also requires telepathic understanding to know where your teammate would go. It also requires constant movement from every member of the team so as to create those little triangles.
This constant movement of the ball will force opposition players to run after it, wastefully expending energy and thus creating openings in the tightest of defences through sheer frustration. It is often said that you cannot get tired when you have the ball. Keeping the ball will eventually wear down the opposition who have to remain compact defensively for the whole game. A great advertisement for keeping the ball was the game between Argentina and Serbia&Montenegro in the 2006 FIFA World Cup Group Game where a 26 pass move by the Albiceleste culminated in one of the best team goals ever seen. Argentina went on to beat the Balkan side 6-0. Also, keeping the ball alleviates the team of the physical and mental strain of defending and it also ensures that the creative players of the ball always have the ball.
SHORTCOMINGS WITH POSSESSION FOOTBALL
Passing the ball in triangles is a means to an end. While looking after the ball well will wear out the opposition, reduce the threat of scoring and helps to dictate the pace and tempo of the match, the end should be towards scoring. In Adrian’s words:
“Quality possession should be aimed at scoring”.
Passing in your half will help boost a team’s possession statistics but it will not help you score goals. Passing should have a purpose. Also, it is not how many passes you make that matter, it is where they are made that counts. Possession in the final third is more valuable than possession in your own half. In the EPL this season, Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal have spent at least 31% of their time on the ball inside the opponent’s half. It is no surprise that these three teams are the most prolific scorers in the EPL.
Furthermore, another shortcoming which is related to the above is the fact that it can be a boring and defensive tactic. A typical example of a side that used this defensive approach was Swansea. The Welsh side in their early days in the EPL typified the confusion that possession figures can cause. Under Laudrup, they were compared to Barcelona primarily because their possession figures rivaled that of the Catalan Giants. However, whereas Barcelona possessed the ball high up the pitch in the opponent’s final third, Swansea’s use of possession was conservative and firmly rooted in their own half of the pitch, often comprising square or backward passes. This was a defensive tactic centered on ball retention to prevent the opposition from scoring. In the 2011/2012 season, Swansea had the third best possession statistic which was used to create 472 chances. On the other hand, Barcelona topped La Liga’s possession charts and created 626 opportunities. At the end season, the Blaugrana finished 2nd while the Swans, as they are fondly called, finished a respectable but a mediocre 11th. One danger of playing the ball aimlessly in ones half is conceding posseession, outnumbered on the break and then conceding a silly goal. Swansea was a victim of this against Manchester United when Ryan Giggs latched on a stray pass and duly converted. United would win 1-0 at the Liberty Stadium. The thought of playing this style against Chelsea with the likes of Diego Costa, Eden Hazard, Willian and Nemanja Matic snarling at your throat is enough reason why teams should avoid being too defensive with the ball. Ball retention is good but is should produce goals.
Also, since Possession Football involves a slow tempo passing style, it allows the opposition to easily regroup and form a defensive line of two and become organized. You must have seen teams have to go back to their goalkeepers after failing to breach the opposition defence. It could be boring!
The biggest danger, however, of playing the keep the ball approach is being caught on the break; COUNTER ATTACK! The opponent retreats and attracts the team with the ball, gets the ball, takes advantage of space, strings two or three passes and the ball is in the net. Arsenal’s loss to Borussia Dortmund last season highlights that danger. As the Gunners, probed trying to score with the match tied at 1-1, the Germans got the ball through Piszczek who passed to Kuba who then fed Robert Lewandowski to stab the Gunners and steal the winner. The string of passes took less than 20 seconds to execute. How cruel! TouchlineUI will next week examine the Counter Attack and also look at whether there’s a gradual shift from Possession to Counter Attack.
To keep the ball or the park the bus, that is the question
What is your answer?
Expect the concluding part of this article next week.