This is a response to a comment left on a previous article about soccer possession. We value every single one of our readers whether they agree or disagree with us – without you guys, we don’t exist!
So Wayne took issue with my statement:
“[with] a synchronized high pressure defense, it will be extremely difficult to hold possession.”
If you look at the no 1 possession team in the world; Barcelona this is not true. If a team tries to play a high pressure defense against them they will be punished because they leave spaces behind them for Xavi, Iniesta, Messi and co to use. But if you play a low defense you give Barcelona too much time and sooner or later they will score, probably later if you also have defenders with patience. Jose Mourinho did both when Inter Milan outmaneuvered Barcelona and he couldn’t care less about possession, because you don’t win games on possession.
Having said that possession football is beautiful to watch but it’s not always the right thing to do.
I agree with his “pick your poison” description of Barcelona. But let’s go deeper…
First off, Wayne cited Barcelona as an exception. Doesn’t this prove the rule?
High Pressure Does Work, but Can You Sustain It?
When you apply high pressure to Barca – which many many opponents have, it usually does work but not throughout the entire 90 minutes. Even teams in the lower half of La Liga have denied them “true” possession for 15, 30, even 60 minutes. The problem is that high pressure is exhausting – especially if you can’t keep the ball when Barca turns it over. Your legs eventually die, and you get punished. This is one of the many values of possession soccer!
When High Pressure Fails
Notice I said “synchronized high pressure defense”. This is an art that not many teams have in their toolkit. Unless every one of your players is intelligent, properly instructed by the coach, and the system is rehearsed into oblivion, your defense will not be synchronized to the necessary level. If just one player loses focus, the whole building crumbles – especially against the greatest possession team in the world.
What Wins Games?
People say “[games] aren’t won on possession”. Well ok, what are they won on? Let me guess: Goals.
While this is a true statement, the logic is far too superficial. How are you going to score your goals? I think the more accurate and enlightening question to ask is: What gives you the greatest chance of winning consistently? I don’t have statistics (maybe that’s a project I’ll take on), only a wealth of experience that tells me if I look at the stats I will surely find that winning is heavily biased towards the team that owns the ball.
One Data Point as Proof?
In this one example, Jose Mourinho “couldn’t care less about possession” NOT because “you don’t win games on possession”, but rather because he knew there was no way in hell he can have it against Barca. He had to find another way! We should all be careful when drawing general conclusions based on one game, or even a handful, in a sea of thousands. We must not only understand context, but also look at the entire data set.
The only time not to attempt dominating possession is when you’re sure you can’t have it! And even then, you can’t give the ball away cheaply.
If anyone has an alternative that is more consistent at achieving results, please let me know. I would love to hear it.