How to Maximize Ball Possession

by Philip MacDonald | Last updated

Many teams in North America have developed a bad habit of playing the long ball. From a young age players think that it is acceptable for their first choice of attack, counter attack and defensive clearances to simply kick the ball down the field, battle for the next possession and hope to come out on top. It’s similar to the “dump and chase” style that some hockey teams will play.  Growing up, I played on a couple teams whose coaches taught this style of play. And those that did actually tell us to play this way certainly did not speak against it. This whole style of play needs to change.

There are many great coaches in North America and the game IS improving along with the popularity. However, it is important to note that certain teams and leagues needs to adopt a better style of play in order to truly raise quality of the game here.

One summer day, when I was about twelve years old, I went to a park to play soccer and watched a team of Eastern European players training there. These players were in their late teens and early twenties. It was clear from the outset that these were very talented individuals and played and incredible style of soccer. After watching them train for half an hour I made the decision to look beyond the coaching I was currently receiving and to raise my own level of play. I sought out the best coaches in the city and surrounding area and discovered that first generation immigrants from Eastern Europe who played competitive soccer back home were the most talented and knowledgeable out there. I began attending summer camps put on by these individuals and my entire perception of the game change like night and day.   

When I look at youth soccer today, depending on the area not a whole has changed in terms of the quality of soccer and the coaching youth players are receiving. I watched a youth team train for the better part of an hour where they often stood in line and listened to their coach preach. Trainings need to be a high level of intensity. Players need to be constantly moving and learning, especially at a young age.  

The European style of soccer is the best in the world so instead of trying to create our own style of play it is better to mimic what is currently working. We do not need to re-invent the wheel. With that being said there are many European styles of play but keeping ball possession and not bombing the ball down the field for nothing is universal for all the top European teams.

Young players in North America often don’t know which style of play is the best and thus they look to their coaches. There are many good soccer coaches in North America, however, the reality is despite them having certain credentials if they are not exposed on a first hand basis the style of play that the Europeans play then the credentials can be quickly forgotten.

The best teams in the world play the ball on the ground. In brief and simplistic terms, FC Barcelona keep possession of the ball until their opponents become tired of running and chase the ball around. This ultimately leaves openings for Barcelona to then suddenly attack.

Another style of play that some teams excel in is the counter attack. Manchester United is a team that is notoriously dangerous with the counter attack. It will involve a long ball but it is never the main source of attack. Once again fast ball movement on the ground is their primary means of attack.   

When I played College soccer, each division one team was nationally ranked. I began to look closely at the style of play each team was playing. I asked myself besides having talented players and great coaches, what exactly where they doing on the field or NOT doing for that matter? I noticed that most teams seemed to blend in with one another in terms of their quality and style of play. I noticed the big difference in terms of quality of teams when we played schools that were top twenty five in the nation. Those teams played at least 70% ball possession on the ground before playing any long ball. The better teams obviously had more talent amongst a number of things but the one thing that rang loud and clear was a keeping possession of the ball on the ground and rarely playing a long ball that would ultimately turn into a potential loss of possession.  Watch video of Argentina in the 2006 World Cup vs Serbia and Montenegro how they kept possession, didn’t force any passes and eventually scored a beautiful goal.

The Major League Soccer and Canadian Soccer League’s are relatively young leagues but before they can truly compete at a higher level it must be ingrained in the clubs that playing the ball on the ground in possession game where the ball moves faster than any player can run will help create the best team.  

It’s true that every team in the world, including national teams in the world cup will play the long ball sooner or later in a game. But this style alone will never produce a winning team. This is why teams in North America should not become fixated on this style of play, especially coaches who have seniority at their club or school!

The main point to take away is to only play the long ball style when you are absolutely desperate to get the ball in the opposing team’s end of the field. This could be at the end of the game when down a man or trying to equal the score line. You could also play the long ball is there is an opening in the defensive. It is important to stress that keeping possession of the ball will frustrate your opponents, tire them from chasing the ball and ultimately create opportunities for your team. Not only that it is a much smarter and more fun way of playing the game.

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