Possession obsession and lack of creativity

I came across the following article on The Guardian website that for me describes a very real concern for youth player development:


The article talks quite a bit about Van Gaal and Manchester United, but let me summarize the following key excerpts to make a broader point about youth player development in the Bay Area (and probably the country):

“For Cruyff, Van Gaal’s version of total football was overly mechanised.”

Johan Cruyff – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johan_Cruyff

“Cruyff wasn’t the only one who found himself unmoved by Van Gaal’s interpretation of total football. Sjaak Swart, who had been a winger in the great Ajax side of the early 70s, was appalled by the way his 90s counterparts, Finidi George and Marc Overmars, would always check back if faced with two defenders. “I never gave the ball back to my defence, never!” Swart told David Winner in Brilliant Orange. “It’s unbelievable! But that was the system with Van Gaal. Many games you are sleeping! On television, they say: ‘Ajax 70% ball possession.’ So what? It’s not football. The creativity is gone.””

Paul Breitner - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Breitner
Paul Breitner – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Breitner

“Paul Breitner expressed similar concerns: “We swapped Bayern’s traditional style for this high-possession game but there was still no flexibility in terms of players’ positions and everyone had to stick rigidly to his own area,” he told Marti Perarnau in Pep Confidential. “In some matches, we ended up with 80% possession but there was no real rhythm or pace. After half an hour, everyone in the Allianz Arena would be yawning at this display of constant passing. Our game was well executed but very, very predictable … the basic idea was sound. What we lacked was speed and regular changes of rhythm.””

Possession is, in itself, a good thing, of course, and it can be beautiful to watch and is very effective when executed by elite teams like Barcelona (http://www.si.com/planet-futbol/2015/02/23/barcelona-tactics-luis-enrique-lionel-messi-champions-league):

Barcelona typically plays 4-3-3 with a single pivot. This shape gives the team easy ability to create triangles of support with short distances between players. Players can overload any area of the field, particularly the middle, with simple off-ball movement. This allows the team keep possession of the ball.

BUT it is absolutely critical that a coach is able to teach possession while also encouraging risk taking and creativity, especially when the players are young. If the primary metric of player evaluation and development is possession then kids will, over time, stop trying clever tricks or movements or dribbling or ‘riskier’ passes. They are likely to play a relatively risk-averse mechanistic passing game and their focus will be on not losing the ball instead of creating opportunities. The team will probably play decent passing soccer but not ‘great’ soccer. They will play a relatively one-dimensional game.

And, most important, individual players that might have developed into creative, exciting players never fulfill their potential. It is also likely that players that do well on a team that uses a relatively mechanistic system won’t succeed on other teams that are not using the same system. The player might not be able to adapt and that would be a big roadblock to their development as they get older. And I am convinced that young players will lose interest sooner if the focus is primarily on ‘quick passing’.

We need to find the right balance to make sure we develop well-rounded creative players that understand the value of ‘team’ and enjoy the game for as long as possible. Importantly, this will make for entertaining games for families to watch. Let’s not underestimate the role of entertainment for the continued growth of soccer in this country.

P.S.: Note that possession in itself is only a weak predictor of success: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/competitions/champions-league/10793482/Do-football-possession-statistics-indicate-which-team-will-win-Not-necessarily.html.

Author: James

Lifelong player and student of the beautiful game in Germany, England, and USA. Volunteer futsal coach and USSF referee.

3 thoughts on “Possession obsession and lack of creativity”

  1. This is a problem and it ultimately boils down to a focus on winning as the only metric of development.
    Quick passing is relatively easy to teach and do…and winning makes parents happy. So what do you get, 10 year olds who can play two touch…
    the problem is you can teach a teenager to play two touch but much harder for a teenager to develop creative skills and playing in tight spaces.


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