Possession, possession, possession.
It’s one of the great conundrums in football: you have to have the ball to score, but ball possession can be deceptively seductive. After all, football is a relatively low-scoring sport and possession is seldom split 50-50.
Broadcasters examine it constantly, putting up possession stats mid-match even while their commentators warn, “All of the passes strung together mean nothing if you can’t do anything with the ball in the end, though!”
Across countries, leagues, and cultures, the attitudes toward possession vary. Even in today’s increasingly globalized football scene, the stereotypes are always lurking in both the men’s and women’s games – Brazilian samba, Spanish tiki-taka, English long-ball, and so on.
There are numerous ways coaches ground their tactical approaches in possession, from the tried-and-true 4-4-2 setups with set positions and roles to the total football variations in which movement is the key component to the attack. Others don’t emphasize possession as much, preferring to go with a more counter-attacking setup.
But is possession really all it’s cracked up to be?
My local professional side – Real Salt Lake – serves as a good illustration of both sides of the coin.
Immediately after joining Major League Soccer as an expansion side in 2005, RSL proved to be more or less a dumpster fire on the pitch. Things began to improve in 2007, when striker Jason Kreis abruptly retired to become the team’s head coach and a revenue-generating soccer-specific stadium was under construction.
Kreis, working with then-general manager Garth Lagerwey, brought in a new group of players, from both inside the league and from abroad. He deployed his team in a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield that emphasized possession, with Javier Morales providing the creative spark and Kyle Beckerman the physical bite in the center.
RSL’s fortunes turned around pretty quickly, winning the 2009 MLS Cup and advancing to the finals of the CONCACAF Champions League the following year. Possession became embedded in the team’s identity during these successful years as Kreis’ team largely eschewed long diagonal balls and quick off-the-ball movement in favor of knocking the ball around in a series of short passes. It may have been a methodical approach to possession, but it was generally quite successful at the time.
The problem with this tactic, however, is that it becomes easy for opponents to defend. Teams picked up on that reticence to move the ball too quickly and either overloaded the midfield or put nine defenders behind the ball, denying RSL’s players the chance to take multiple touches on the ball.
Eventually, Kreis moved on from Real Salt Lake and a new coach, Jeff Cassar, took over. Little changed tactically, however; although Cassar would later change formations to a 4-3-3, the key players and the philosophy remained largely the same: keep the ball as much as possible, find outlets through short passes, and be patient.
That tactical intransigence has somewhat come home to roost for RSL recently. The speed of play, off-the-ball movement, transition play, and ability to penetrate defensive setups has been subpar in recent seasons, resulting in an inconsistent attack and defensive vulnerability. While the team can still rack up possession stats, it’s also incredibly vulnerable to counterattacks and runners through the midfield.
The 2016 season ended accordingly, with RSL making a lot of short passes and maintaining possession but struggling to score during the final three months. Creativity was sorely lacking in the face of opposition that was well-prepared tactically, and the few goals scored were primarily the result of deflections or penalty kicks. During the late summer and autumn months, RSL fell from second in the Western Conference standings to sixth, just barely backing into the playoffs thanks to other teams’ losses on the final day of the regular season.
Simply put, play completely stagnated, and the team’s fortunes followed suit. After RSL crashed out of the playoffs unceremoniously to the LA Galaxy yet again, it seemed almost certain that the club would part ways with Cassar, who was nearing the end of his contract.
Management decided to give Cassar another year, however, despite his team’s virtually catatonic end to 2016. Instead, the club released several key veterans, including Morales (whose departure bordered on bizarre, complete with an independent press conference), putting the team in an intriguing position going into next season.
Without Morales pulling the strings in the middle of the attack – and the odds of finding a quality attacking midfielder who can be ready to go by January’s preseason camps rather daunting – there’s a tactical problem that could turn into an opportunity.
Cassar is largely viewed as a manager who’s good with his players, but not so great as a tactician. He’s made a formation change since taking over, but largely kept the methodical, possession-oriented tactics of his predecessor. Now, as that approach has slowly deflated over the past few years, does Cassar have the tactical “chops” to reinvent Real Salt Lake? It’s certainly a challenge, but it could be a tremendous opportunity for him to expand his coaching repertoire.
While some coaches change things too often (ahem, Jurgen Klinsmann), change itself is also inevitable. Just as a player can hold onto the ball too long and ultimately get stripped of it, coaches can hang onto a particular tactical approach too long as well.
After all, the commentators don’t throw out those cliches about possession for no reason.