Controlling possession is when a team manages to have the ball without any rival being able to interrupt that control and that, within the culture of football, is something that is, depending on how it is used, very attractive and eye-catching for the hobbyist. Normally, in football, a good goal is considered to be a play that had more than 20 consecutive passes from the same team without being touched by the opponent. Although it is somewhat subjective and depends on the footballing tastes of each person, it is something that is usually well considered as well as the teams that usually practice controlling possession.
Why Controlling Possession is Important?
Controlling possession is a strategy that serves both the offensive and defensive aspects of the game and even from the aspect of how the fans and journalists perceive the team. We can start developing this idea by talking about how controlling possession helps a team attack, it has more possibilities to create goal chances because he can control the pace of the game and can choose where to attack based on the free spaces left by the opponent or based on the opponent’s weak points. This dominance of a football game is precisely what makes controlling possession an important defensive tool, starting from the principle that while one team has the ball, the other team does not have it and therefore cannot score goals.
In the case of professional football, controlling possession is usually considered in recent times as a “good” style based on the success Pep Guardiola had with FC Barcelona in 2009 when they managed to win 6 titles in a year, a success unprecedented to which the Spanish manager attributed a lot to the way of playing while maintaining control of ball possession, a strategy that, it is worth mentioning, he has used throughout his managerial career at Bayern Munich and Manchester City. This perception that the football medium has on controlling possession helps to improve the environment and the day-to-day life of a professional football club due to the fact that there is less media pressure, especially when the results do not accompany the team.
Which Formation is Best for Controlling Possession?
Controlling possession is often associated with a 4-3-3 formation because it is the most popular tactical scheme in the Netherlands, which in turn is closely related to Total Football. Actually the control possession style is more of a game idea than a tactical scheme.
In Argentina, a discussion that has more than 3 decades is that of the styles of the national teams that were world champions in 1978 and 1986, led by Cesar Luis Menotti and Carlos Bilardo, respectively. The former is a defender of the philosophy of practicing control possession football with an important offensive tendency while the latter had a more pragmatic style of play. Menotti set a trend that other managers, mainly Argentines, have followed like Ángel Cappa or Marcelo Bielsa. Precisely, the latter has developed his own style of play that in turn has marked many other managers, a style where controlling possession has an extremely offensive connotation that is usually both applauded and criticized.
Returning to the idea of the relationship with Total Football, we find Rinus Michels’ Ajax of the late 60s, who had Johan Cruyff as his flagship player and who was the one who began to popularize a form of game that consisted of monopolizing the control of the ball as well as a versatility of the players to adapt to different positions in the pitch. Michels, along with Cruyff basically being the coach in the pitch, took Total Football to its highest point in the 1974 FIFA World Cup with the Netherlands national team that, ironically, failed to win despite being recognized as the best team in the competition precisely for that so dominant and unique style. Although Michels is often considered the father of Total Football, his idea takes principles from historical teams like the Hungary national team of the 1950s, to name a few.
Cruyff, when starting his career as a manager, took some things from Total Football to form his Dream Team at FC Barcelona, leading him to win his first UEFA Champions League in 1992 with the remembered free kick of Ronald Koeman. That style would begin to form part of the idiosyncrasy of FC Barcelona that has turned to Dutch managers in search of maintaining or retaking that style based on controlling possession, such as the cases of Louis Van Gaal or Frank Rijkaard, leading them to Guardiola or more recently to Setien. Currently, in addition to the names mentioned, another manager who embraces this style of play based on possession is Erik Ten Hag of Ajax.
How to manage Controlling Possession?
There are certain principles that allow a team to achieve high possession of the ball, based on the fact that they are teams with similar levels since commonly, a markedly superior team, perhaps from a much superior league to another, can have the ball for a long time during a game without this being his style of play. Here we will talk about cases where relatively even teams face each other.
The first point refers to the mobility of the players that allows the possible receivers of the ball to be located in the spaces left by the rival and give options to whoever has the ball. The idea is to offer various pass alternatives to the player with the ball so that he can always find a teammate without a mark. Subsequently, the player who receives the ball requires that his teammates position themselves again in the available spaces to repeat the same procedure and in this way extend the time in which possession is controlled.
Additionally, players have to have good technique to be able to pass the ball correctly under pressure and this includes defenders, defensive midfielders and even the goalkeeper. In fact, since the recent popularization of this type of game, goalkeepers have been developing better control of the ball with their feet since they are part of the team’s passing circuit. Hence, there are goalkeepers like Manuel Neuer who, in addition to being very good at shot stopping, is also capable of distributing and playing with his feet almost like any other player on the pitch.
Controlling possession as a game idea is in itself very attractive to the viewer and has several advantages that can improve any team, however it requires considerable training time and having the right players for that style, because if any of these are not he has the technique to put the idea into practice, the entire passing circuit is lost. Another factor to consider is that, beyond the possession of the ball itself, the team must have an objective, a horizon to reach after all passes. Teams and managers who have taken controlling possession to the extreme have lost games having the ball for more than 70% of the game and exceeding the barrier of 1000 completed passes. Hence, the style of play must be oriented to achieve a goal, which in football is the goal.