We are all familiar with the period of world domination enjoyed by the Spanish national side. The trio of Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets clocking up 1000's of passes in a single tournament, winning major international honours for their side and revolutionising modern football in the process. Echoes of Pep Guirdiola's Barcelona team and the Spanish national sides possession approach can currently be seen throughout top flight and international football across the globe.
The challenge we face as a nation of coaches isnt neccessarily in just teaching our players 'how' to keep possession better, but actually getting them to 'enjoy', and aspire to be part of a team that can pass and move with style. Give the ball to any young player and more than likely they want to charge toward the opponents goal as quickly as possible, in defiance of all passing options along the way. Intrinsically our english kids have a desperation, impatience and freneticism in their play. Whilst this positive and individual process has an important place in a young players' development, the demands of the adult and professional game require more craft as opponents defensive capacities improve, and as such players should develop their technical and tactical repertoire to match.
Kick the ball up and over a 9 year old defender and chances are that he will misjudge the bounce, misjudge the flight, hesitate to make contact or be caught completely flat footed. The striker runs through and scores, making it a successful results-based, and potentially match winning decision. However, a few years down the line as the defenders mature physically and positionally, the same performance shortcuts simply won't work against the better teams. If the players are unable to find another way, and build attacks with more craft and control, they could find themselves rendered technically and tactically helpless.
Whether possession football is your Plan A or Plan B, the blend and ability to play in different ways is the natural evolution of the modern game. For any coach wishing to help his young players keep better quality possession, and employ a 'team' rather than 'selfish' mentality to their play, the secret lies in both the technical and psychological needs in each of their players.
culture, character & understanding - can young players keep possession?
Culture - first and foremost players must trust those around. When questioned as to why a player has ignored what seemed obvious as a good passing option, the most common response amongst young player is " he doesn't pass to me, so im not passing to him". Challenging this resentment and mistrust within the team goes a long way to changing toward helping the players let go of their emotional baggage, and play more sensibly and realistically in training and games.
Observe carefully, indentify any emotional obstacles that you may have between your players, and mediate appropriately. It may be that getting players to play together in 2v2s with extra goals rewarded for a good passing build up could be effective. Perhaps just clear the air between the players and remind them in a supportive way that we are all on the same team and they will need each others help to succeed in the long-term.
Character & Understanding - Possession football comes with its benefits and risks. The main benefits being that over time players will develop their relaxation skills, showing greater composure and clarity in decision-making. The more often they are required to 'think' and play, rather than just 'react' and kick, the more it will support the development of vision, turning and creativity. Young english midfielders for example struggle to play through the thirds with their back to goal, this could be attributed to the fact that most young players in this position have to watch their keepers and defenders 'boot it', their wingers just 'run it', and their strikers 'shoot' from the most unlikely of positions.
Coaches should provide stimulating and educational sessions that show players how to 'build' an attack incrementally. Experiment with passing challenges and use of wide channels to encourage more horizontal and vertical play. Asking the kids to play sideways before they go forward will in some way help them resist the temptation to rush the ball forward. Advanced players may even be able to build backwards, through and across from the goalkeeper before scoring goals. The coach should point out to players that this is an exaggeration of build up play, but its simply a matter of doing it the hard way so its easier and rehearsed when required in games.
Asking a team of children to play without fear and demonstrate bravery on the ball is a process that can take many years of hard work and patience on both the part of the players, parents and coach. The kids will lose games when they fail to carry out the system, but won't they also lose games from disrespecting possession of the ball and continually giving it back to the opposition with an excessively-direct playing style? Whilst the result will always be in the balance, one thing that is guaranteed is the understanding, intelligence, composure and character of the young players will accelerate. Read our Systems of Play article to find out how to set up your team to play possession football.
Recommended article: Systems of Play