The Backbone of Possession
Tuesday, November 20, 2018
I’m a big fan of possession soccer. So big, in fact, that I wrote a book about it. Not surprisingly, I called it Possession – Teaching Your Team to Keep the Darn Ball. After making the NCAA tournament at UGA in 2014 and being rewarded with a pink slip, I had sworn off college coaching. I felt my talents were better suited to year-round sunshine and catching fish in the Gulf of Mexico. But this past July, Widener University, in Chester, PA, just south of Philly, found itself in need of a coach and well, now, here we are.
Widener is a Division III program. The level of talent/athleticism is different than at an SEC program. What’s not different is the players’ dedication to their program and their love of the game. And to be quite honest, these kids love being coached. I mean they just eat it up. They want to learn.
Anyway, on the first day of preseason I told the team we would play 101. When it comes to possession games, 101 is my all-time favorite. We played 8v8 plus a neutral player. It’s a simple game of keep-away. Whatever team has the ball plays keep-away from the opponent. A team scores a point for every one-touch pass it successfully completes. You don’t have to play one-touch; you can take as many touches as you like. But to score a point, you have to complete a one-touch pass. The first team to 101 wins.
The best team I ever coached at keeping the ball was Georgia in 2013. That group could combine possession, speed of play and going forward like only a handful of teams can manage. That 2013 team was the benchmark I wanted my new team to reach, and the go-to exercise for that Georgia team was 101. We played it often, usually right near the beginning of training. The result was hard to argue with, so it made sense to immediately unveil 101 to the Widener team.
Roughly sixty seconds after the exercise began I realized that if we played to 101, we’d be on that field all night and most of the next day, so step one was to rename the drill 51. There were days in Athens when a game of 101 would be over in four and half minutes. That wouldn’t be the case here in Chester, at least not for a while. But we kept at it. We kept playing 51 and a variety of other possession games. We got better at supporting in good seams, playing the way we faced, supporting better than square, playing the higher of two options, saying no to the impossible pass, receiving with the proper foot, etc. And every now and then we’d even put together a brilliant burst of five or six one-touch passes and you could see that the dream wasn’t unreachable. But those moments were the beautiful exception. The little improvements just weren’t moving the needle as much as I had hoped, and it all came back to one indisputable, unbendable, non-negotiable rule:
You can’t keep the ball as a team if you can’t keep it as an individual.
Those spectacular little runs of one-touch passes are like wonderful vacations, but that’s not where most teams live. With very few exceptions, most teams need to grind out their possession, and that’s where we were falling short. We couldn’t keep the ball as individuals when we were under pressure, regardless if that pressure was real (body-to-body contact) or perceived (an opponent shadowing the ball-carrier). Sometimes just the sound of opposing footsteps would sufficiently unnerve us into a giveaway. If we perceived pressure, we wanted to get that ball off our foot, stat. As you can imagine, when you play with that type of panicked mindset, you’re going to donate a lot of balls to the opponent. And until you fix that little hiccup, you’ll never be a team that can keep the ball.
I had started at the end. I was focusing on speed of play in possession, but if your players aren’t comfortable under pressure, speed of play is the least of your worries. Your players will play fast simply to avoid having an opponent take the ball of their foot. The problem is the opponent will be taking the ball somewhere slightly further away. My players were so afraid of losing the ball that they couldn’t get around to keeping it. This topic is addressed in the book Possession:
Possession soccer isn’t always a tidy run of quick passes. Yeah, we all pine for those runs of nine consecutive one-touch passes where we ping combinations around a befuddled opponent, but our teams don’t live in that world; they just visit it occasionally. To get to those moments or to keep one of those passing runs alive, you need players who are going to win their individual battles. You need players who can receive the ball under heavy pressure and find their way out of it. Regardless of how pretty you’d like your team to play, the game is often determined in the trenches where individual battles are fought.
Even if your players completely buy into the idea of playing the simple pass quickly, there are going to be many, many times when that’s just not an option. Eventually there comes a time and place when a player is going to have to solve pressure on her own. She’s going to be under heavy pressure with no immediate support from her teammates, and she’s going to have to get out of that jam all by herself. At times like this, her ability to stay composed and escape pressure on the dribble will determine whether or not your team keeps the ball. As much as you may want to your players to pass, pass, pass, their ability to dribble themselves out of pressure is critical to your team’s possession.
One of my coaching mottos is this: It takes more than one of them to take the ball from one of us. That means my players are expected to be able to protect the ball from a single pressuring opponent. If we habitually turn the ball over to a single opponent, we’re going to lose a lot of games. Players must be able to break this type of pressure on their own, and they do that through a combination of shielding and escaping.
Now considering I wrote that, you’d think I’d understand its importance. You’d think. But turns out, I had underestimated the importance. I was trying to start near the finish line when we needed to start at the beginning.
Our biggest problem was that it didn’t take more than one of them to take the ball from one of us. One of them was all it took. One of them was constantly causing us to donate possession. If we were going to move the needle, this is where we had to start.
We had to go back to the first building block of possession, and that’s one player protecting the ball from a single opponent. That’s the backbone of possession soccer: shielding and escaping. Especially shielding.
We began doing shielding and other back-to-pressure exercises two or three times per week. My players were gonna learn to welcome pressure and to hold the ball under excessive physical duress. We were still going to be a possession team because, let’s face it, I can’t live in a world of direct play, but we were going to sacrifice speed of play for ball security. I was constantly preaching at my players to stay calm and protect the ball, a mantra that quickly morphed into “Stay calm and pass.” We would start with playing securely and graduate to playing quickly.
So, how did it work?
Let me begin by saying that this experience at Widener has been remarkable in a number of ways, not the least of which was the discernible level of improvement from one game to the next, game after game after game, from beginning to end. In my mind, our season looks like a stair case that just kept rising. Each game a new, higher step was added. After our ninth match I thought, ‘That’s the best we’ve played this year,’ then quickly realized that I’d had that exact same thought after every other game. And save for one match, the pattern never truly broke. We got better at keeping the ball game by game. And we also got pretty darn good at running off the ball.
I’m going off topic just a bit here, but I’ve never had a team that moved so well off the ball as we transitioned into attack. Overlaps, wall-passes, third-man runs, up-back-throughs – by the middle of the season we were putting together ridiculous combinations that left me scratching my own head. It’s hard for me to describe the extent at which reality was outdistancing my own expectations.
In one way it was the result of players who weren’t afraid to take the patterns we worked on in training and apply them against live ammunition. God knows it’s nothing I haven’t done with every other team I’ve ever coached. It’s just that these players were more willing to take Friday’s practice patterns and unleash them on Saturday’s game. For decades I’ve been begging center forwards to move away from the ball and clear a seam for a weak-side forward to make a diagonal run. Begging. But it just never happened… until now. Suddenly I’ve got wingers screaming at the center forward to ‘get out!’ The center forward would curl her run away from the ball, drag the center back with her, and the next thing you know, the weak-side winger is running onto a ball behind the entire defense. Just like I’ve been planning it for 25 freaking years.
The understanding of this particular pattern is not super advanced, but the application of it is like sighting a Yetti. For whatever reason, these players just believed it would work and they did what almost none of their predecessors had – they just did it. And suddenly we were lousy with Yetti sightings. There’s no way for me to adequately convey my joy at some of the things we put together because of our off-the-ball movement.
Anyway, the reason I mention all of this off-the-ball movement… it was all the result of our ability to keep the ball, first as individuals, and then as a team. To execute these types of patterns, you need the play to develop, and that only happens when you’re not in a panicked hurry to get the ball off your foot. If you don’t have players composed while receiving the ball under pressure, no one has time to figure out the movements and the spacing and all of those little things that bring these patterns to life. Plus you’ll end up losing the ball anyway, making everything else a moot point. Sacrificing speed of play for ball ownership freed up everything for us going forward. Let me be clear on this… We did not abandon speed of play as a tenet. We just accepted that if we couldn’t actually keep the ball, speed of play didn’t matter. There was a delicate balance we had to navigate between the two principles.
Take a look at the last goal we scored at home this year. It wasn’t our prettiest goal of the year – not in terms of build-up, movement or finish – but it’s a fairly good representation of the things we emphasized, and a microcosm of our evolution into possession soccer: Players receiving the ball under pressure, protecting the ball from an individual opponent, staying calm and finding a teammate. In other words, playing securely and deliberately until we had the chance to play fast. When we finally staked out the opportunity to play fast, the game rewarded us.
I’m sharing this with you because there a million coaches out there willing their teams to play like Barcelona, Bayern or Man City, popping Advil and wondering why it just won’t take. And maybe, just maybe, you’re one of them. Do yourself a favor: Pay attention to how many times your team turns the ball over when 1. Your player isn’t under actual pressure (in other words, the pressuring opponent isn’t a legitimate threat to actually take the ball) and 2. Your player is under pressure from a single opponent. I’ll bet you’ll be surprised by the count.
As much as you want your team to pass, pass, pass, if your players can’t (or won’t) protect the ball from a single opponent, you’re going to send way too many passes to the opposing team. Your players need to be able to protect the ball on an individual level. That’s the backbone of possession soccer.
Stay calm and pass, my friends. Stay calm and pass.
If you enjoyed this article, you may be interested in my book POSSESSION – Teaching Your Team to Keep the Darn Ball.