The “Possession Movement” Has Finally Hit American Shores: How Prepared Are You?

Killer_North_Shore_surfThere is a movement towards possession-based soccer in our country – and it’s about time.

The possession-based game, in one manifestation or another, has dominated global football for decades. But unfortunately it has taken an extreme interpretation and execution of possession, in Barcelona/Spain, to awaken us in the United States.

As a result, the word ‘possession’ is now commonplace.

Commonplace in American media, commonplace in the household, and becoming more commonplace on the training grounds.

The gap and challenge, however, is in going from mere use of the word to its understanding, implementation, and execution on the field.

And it’s a challenge that requires not only a big commitment in time and effort, but essentially a complete overhaul – even abandonment – of what’s been traditionally done in soccer at all levels.

As a result, there is a lot of friction by established coaches and others in the community whose expertise does not reside in the possession-based game.

So I was delighted when clubs and coaches started reaching out to 3four3.
It’s a sign that there are organizations and individuals trying to overcome this friction and better align themselves with global football. Which really means, better align themselves with the fundamentals of the game.

Now, what is often cited as an opposing view is that there are many “styles” in soccer, and one is not preferred to another.

Well, leaving the professional game aside for the moment, and focussing on youth player development … this objection has short legs.

You see, a possession-based style taxes a players technical and tactical abilities (the brain) far more than any “route 1″ or direct-based style, or just “letting the youth play”. As such, implementing a possession-based team game is akin to developing players technically and tactically.

In other words; “development”.

And the more technical and tactical a player is, the more malleable they become and able to adapt to any future ‘style’ a coach may want to implement.

At our seminar/clinic(s), we’ve found ourselves with attentive coaches open to learning. Open to a lot of things that may fly in the face of what’s been the traditional American soccer narrative.

Thankfully, we have a library of video which showcases our teams in action, and helps to convince others that it is possible. And we’re willing to share how we’ve done it across age groups, levels, and genders.

We didn’t invent these activities, or this general philosophy. What we’ve done is taken what’s done elsewhere, for instance Barcelona, and been able to adapt it to the American soccer environment. It is in that adaptation, that many struggle, and  where we can help.

Opportunity to join us and a network of ambitious coaches closes tomorrow Friday, December 27.

Find out more here:

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  1. Socalcj says

    I think this post answers a question that has been in the back of my mind while reviewing some of the posts. That question was about players adapting to a new style after they have gone through the ranks of a possession based academy. The main concern in my head was with players that ‘choreography’ that coaches would invariably teach them, and how that works when they move to a different system.

    I guess we see it all the time with La Miasa products that end up plying their trade abroad (like Fabregas) or adapting to a system of a different national team (like Messi).

    But that post hits it. It is through this philosophy that coaches are able to develop technical ability and tactical awareness. Yes, the ‘choreography’ is essential, but it’s the base, and hopefully coaches are also developing players that make a habit of looking up and taking in chunks of the field to make decisions a step ahead of the play.

    Those types of skills will always translate.
    Thanks for that.

    • says

      Thank you.
      “Choreography” is a term I used to help people start to understand what “tactics” are. Because unfortunately the soccer community at large has no idea.

      But in the context of *development …
      the *style, the *tactics, the *choreography, acts as a structural container from which the individuals can operate and express themselves.

      • emily says

        But in the context of *development …
        the *style, the *tactics, the *choreography, acts as a structural container from which the individuals can operate and express themselves.

  2. Steven Anthony says

    This notion of possession is something that is bred in the streets from youth. It is there that the best players appreciate and value the ball and its worth.

    Better late than never.

  3. STL A-B says

    Possession soccer…the definition in itself means something different to most coaches. Possession while playing the ball out of the back? 5 pass combos? Or kickball to the forwards 80% of the time?

    Is following the English football philosophy of “let the game be the teacher” the best way? Or is a truly educated coach the best teacher? Do you follow a country who hasn’t done shit in the World Cup in decades who you follow? EPL teams have how many English players/starters on them? It seems, recently, there is an influx of old school English football vs the new tactical English football.

    Some things to think about…

    • says

      Take a look at ‘The Future Game’, through the English FA, to get upto speed on ‘English’ Football philosophy (Coaching and Playing philosophy are broken out here). The direction and future vision for English football changed officially in 2010, and was hugely influenced by the influx of non-British players and coaches, as well as the organization and composition of English clubs (such as the introduction and wider adoption of technical directors, dietary science, and much more) in the EPL.
      Any English coach working his way through his licenses today is firmly in the possession, play-out-of-the-back mindset. This vision is not a copy of any national or regional model but an adoption of the best of global possession based thinking and fused with the ever present Englishness of hard work, competitiveness and a will to win.

      The battle we have in the US is getting this progressive message across to those that are entrenched in the past and think that possession might well be an 80 yard long ball :-) As I mentioned in a separate thread the US Curriculm is going in the right direction, but it takes time to train modern forward thinking coaches, and even longer to flush out the old and bring in the new.

      • Steven Anthony says

        This is spot on. It’s a difficult mindset to change, and stepping onto any rec league game in your local area will show this but hopefully the next generations down the line will be able to implement this mentality going forward.

    • emily says

      I think the phrase Let the Game be the Teacher has been taken out of context and misunderstood by many for a long time.The game is the tool be it 4v4 or 11v11 it is a knowledgeable insightful coach who uses the tool to teach how to play the game. As Gary pointed out 4v1 full of things it teaches. It is deceivingly simple basic and fundamental. Its about polishing all the basics. over and over and over. Yes there is a lot of fluff out there!

      • says

        It’s true Emily.
        Context seems to always be the crux of it all.

        Two people can read the same book, listen to the same interview, or use the same quote … but have completely different things in mind.

        The originator of the material holds the true context. Some recipients of the message will interpret it well, others won’t.

        The mainstream interpretation of “Let the Game be the Teacher” is an atrocity.

        • emily says

          If I had let the game be the teacher the kids I am working with would still be walloping the ball forward with no clue how to play as a team and how to the keep the ball…a year into it playing better .. but long ways to go.Here in Mexico the grass is not greener!

        • emily says

          The originator of the material holds the true context. Some recipients of the message will interpret it well, others won’t.
          The mainstream interpretation of “Let the Game be the Teacher” is an atrocity.
          Absolutely Gary!

  4. PH says

    “Which really means, better align themselves with the fundamentals of the game.”

    Fundamentals are not fashionable these days. To do the essential, arduous, and ongoing work of mastering and maintaining the building blocks of any skill or discipline is not glamorous or fun. It is usually pretty mundane, but you can only do the innovating and creating once you have the building blocks mastered in a way that provides true insight.

    That’s why we get the fluff about “guided discovery,” letting the game be the teacher, and other child-centered methodologies. These are easy, “fun,” and mainly vacuous techniques that are used by teachers who never mastered the fundamentals and for children who have never been expected to do much of anything in a disciplined and committed way.

    Maybe the only thing harder than putting in work on the fundamentals during the developmental stage is looking back later in life and recognizing the gaps that exist at the most basic level of one’s soccer education. (Where I am now) I’m finding myself less worried about the latest buzz words and more concerned with catching up on everything I didn’t learn when I should have.

      • PH says

        The “cutting edge” is so alluring because our culture values heroic achievement and discovery in a way that distorts the value and necessity of the mundane, but that is probably a post for a different blog.

        • emily says

          PH you are right…
          Excellence is accomplished through deliberate actions, ordinary in themselves, performed consistently and carefully, made into habits, compounded together, added up over time. Since it is mundane, it is within reach of everyone, all the time.” Anson Dorrance

          Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit

          • Anif says

            Gary, Emily – “Choreography” is an excellent description. It’s a simple question coaches should ask themselves. “Is my team choreographed, a unit, organized? If no, why not”? Watch any team of any age of any level of play. A choreographed team speaks volumes to the coach and his player personnel. So too does an un-choreographed, unorganized, undisciplined team of 11 individuals.

            An interesting observation I’ve noticed is that possession-oriented teams who are choreographed, organized, disciplined actually perform their best when they dictate the game and play to their strength. Conversely, kick and chase teams do better the more chaotic it is. I’ve seen kick and chase teams try to physically hurt possession teams, bully them into winning. Because it’s easier to destroy than build, most coaches to varying degrees fall into the “throw out big players and intimidate and destroy” category. Better known clubs play the pretend “we play tiki-taka soccer” marketing gimmick, but play something very different.

            Most teams are un-choreographed, unorganized, undisciplined, don’t have a clue to what system of play they are in. I’m sure if you as a Chivas U14 player, he will know style of play and his role and responsibility. Ask my son’s team (USSDA pre Academy) and you get a lot of blank stares and opinions. But ask them what the club professes is their style of play and they say possession. I can’t make this stuff up. It’s based off of what my son and his teammates talk about.

            I watched the PSG – Madrid friendly and it was very un-choreographed (of course just a friendly). On occasion there was over-dribbling, dangerous passes, lack of effort, sloppy tactics, frantic speed of play with no thinking. When I see most (if not all) youth teams play, I see same.

            While pros have better technique, intelligence, patience, tactics – there is no reason youth teams cannot play in a choreographed, orchestrated manner. Play with an identity. I’ve only seen a handful of teams that played as a choreographed, organized unit and the U14 Chivas team is one. Through a combination of coaching, player id, repetition, player expectation / earning play time based on a playing philosophy (as opposed to other factors such as physical size) – these teams are able to play in a very choreographed manner. Seldom falling back to kick and chase. A style of play becomes their default response in those billions of synapse connections electrifying the Apple computer sitting on their neck. That is a wonderful thing.

          • emily says

            Anif exactly! They know each others dance steps, of course there is room to improvise a bit depending on the player if he is leading the dance.
            Team patterns of play and their instinctual application using correct decision-making are developed by placing players in game scenarios. This style of teaching empowers players in their on-field decision-making as they have experienced the context of the game during training and experimented with options.
            I am experiencing the kick and run method here by other teams in Mexico and teaching our kids yes you get early success by doing that but you don’t learn the game and in the long run there are no short cuts.It is a shame because there is much talent/potential I see here wasted because of no guidance or discipline.I am sure many kids fall through the cracks for various reasons. The cream cannot rise to the top by itself if there is no strong intelligent base to develop kids and for them to be seen.

          • pg 19 says

            I played a ton of pick up football games (American) as a kid where there are no plays and the results are “hopeful” at best. Completely random in nature. Everyone is a receiver, no blockers, random routes that often out juke the quarterback just as much as defender coverage.

            I’ve played pick up basketball games as well where there were no set “plays” or screens and again, the outcome is hopeful at best. Too many people occupying the same space or running to the open area at the same time.

            Soccer for whatever reason has been immune in the thinking that “choreography” and “set plays” are a requirement to have something other than hopeful play emerge in a game. Having been involved in soccer in the US for over 30 years, I’ve seen the skill level improve as well as what I preceived to be tactics in that teams started to intentionally pass to one another compared to early where every kick was a boot forward from every position on the field including the forward to no one ahead of them.

            Interesting that its taken me up until recently to realize that any game (invasion style) can be as random and unorganized as soccer appears to be when no plays are designed and no choreophraphy is created before a performance.

          • Anif says

            Emily & PG19 — Well said! All coaches coach, but few good at choreography. In every situation, each player should know what is expected of them (role & responsibility) and others (total football). Unfortunately, it’s as pg19 describes about pick-up games with people sharing same space, everyone wanting to dribble to goal and so on. Like pg19, it took me until a few years ago to begin realizing it. Then I found 3four3 and it all came together. Now when I watch games, I cringe and feel helpless. Coaching is awful and so many don’t get it. Our pre-Academy USSF coach is classic bait and switch possession soccer. Finding 3four3 opened my eyes, but I sometimes feel I should have remained fat, dumb and happy. Truth hurts!

  5. Socalcj says

    I think you’ve touched on the the lack of the professional mentality that Gary and Brian talk about. It’s all about having fun for most of the parents and kids playing this game in the US–that doesn’t lead the development of world class talent.

    • STL A-B says

      Fun is defined in different ways. Fun in playground goofy stuff vs fun learning a great sport, excelling in it, and usually winning. Rec sport vs club/select sport mentality. A place for both, but on different teams.

      • socalcj says

        That’s the problem though, isn’t it? That too often, we find kids/parents with the Rec sport mentality on club teams? Too often we see kids with some kind of natural ability to just be good at fundamental skills, but not all of these kids have the will/drive/mentality to really work on the fundamental skills to the point that they are mastered.

        It boils down to defining what it is to be “excelling in it.”

        Keep in mind that I agree with you, STL, but I feel like there’s much more to it.

  6. Kana says

    So what prompted this piece? What was the trigger to say [it] “finally hit American shores”? Did a well know DoC, a prominent USSDA club, and MLS team/academy, ODP, or National Team contact you, your brother?

    Just curious. I think the possession waves have been lapping up on our shores for several years, but many ignored it. The waves are cresting higher, more frequency, and hard to close eyes or cover ears and pretend to not notice. I still think it hasn’t hit critical mass to effectively be the dominant philosophy (that’s 5-10 years off in my guess), but it’s surely gaining momentum.

      • Kana says

        My son is U15 in SoCal. I only see a small percentage trying to play possession. Difficult to be absolute, but no more than 20% is a guess. Most teams play direct with limited 3 or more passing sequences. Majority of keepers boot the ball as opposed to rolling it out to a fullback and building from there. Most of attacking plays are not passing and moving and chances, but are long shots from outside the box or someone trying ot create on his own. Attacking player’s mentality is not to score via service, but through directness. Patience and composure are severely lacking. I’ve seen Chivas U14 play and they are quite composed and patient as compared to most other teams.

        • Soccer_Sense says

          Is that really true Kana? How does that jive with the data?

          U13/14 SoCal USSDA
          Team Played W L D Avg GD
          1 Real So Cal 14 11 1 2 2.50 + 30
          2 FC Golden State 15 12 3 0 2.40 + 41
          3 LA Galaxy 14 10 2 2 2.29 +30
          4 LA Futbol Academy 13 9 2 2 2.23 +18
          5 Chivas USA 14 8 0 6 2.14 +17

          The Chivas USA U14 team did have a great fall going undefeated, but they are not the only ones doing well in USSDA. In fact, they would be 5th in a USSDA regional league table right now because of a lot of draws. It looks to me like there are a lot of really good teams in SoCal at the age group. If the others are not playing possession then what is the source of their success?

          • Kana says

            Soccer Sense,
            As I said, I only see a small percent playing possession at the U15 age. Can’t comment knowledgeably on U14 as i’m familiar with only a handful of those teams.

            Not interested in above rankings. Even top European clubs don’t run riot over other lesser clubs at younger ages. I don’t know what the secret to their success is (Real SoCal, etc.), but that is not the point. This site is about the possession philosophy. There are many styles and what works for others, works for them. If you don’t buy into the possession premise / philosophy, so be it . . . this site is not for you.

          • Soccer_Sense says

            Thanks for replying. I am curious how well the USSDA youth teams in particular are evolving to implement the philosophy….if at all. SoCal is a competitive region and seems like an obvious place to look for early changes.

    • says

      Hi Kana,

      There’s lots of answers to your question – many of which are not objective, but simply I’ve reached a level of confidence with the patterns I’ve seen.

      I guess the simplest way I can put it is that it seems pandora’s box has been opened.
      Too much has happened to put the “possession” genie back in the bottle.
      1) Barca/Spain
      2) US Curriculum (authority) validation
      3) Klinsmann (authority) on record
      4) Caleb Porter (authority)
      5) Much mainstream media “scared” of going against the possession rhetoric
      6) Coaches/clubs “scared” of going against the possession rhetoric

      All this of course doesn’t mean actual implementation and execution will happen in mass.
      But those who do, will reap rewards.

  7. Luke Symons says

    From what I can tell, most youth clubs want to play possession – if they’re already one of the better teams and can be confident of winning results. But against stronger teams, most will quickly revert to defending deep and relying on direct play or set pieces. I don’t think it’s only a matter of ability to keep the ball against a strong opponent – I think it’s almost like they’d rather be seen as losing with a “battling” attitude than to be seen as “naive”. Anyone else see this mindset?

    • STL A-B says

      Agree with most of what you say, Luke. There are probably a lot of clubs who practice possession, then game time doesn’t look anything like it for several reasons:
      - “let the kids play,” silent/stoic/trendy coach and result is crap product/development
      -Close game or losing the game and revert to panic soccer of kick/run.
      -coach no clue how to train possession soccer so doesn’t translate in game
      -coach has own definition of possession soccer when reality it’s direct kickball
      -BUT, in St Louis, 80% of teams don’t have a clue how to play possession and believe kick/run is perfectly okay because possession is too much for a U8-U12 kid to deal with…which is BS. Problem becomes when opposing kids catch up to size/speed the team and individual kid now is far behind the true soccer players. Makes me laugh when a parent says, ‘I don’t know what happened. He was really good at U8-U10 and now is middle of the pack.

      I am sure I missed a few above, but the core reason is most coaches don’t have the knowledge or balls to demand possession soccer. It’s that simple.

      Demand the best.

  8. Nancee says

    I have a question. When/where does the philosophy of possession play intersect with direct play in this philosophy or during the training? Does it? Ultimately, isn’t the goal of the game to play direct, dissect the defense with a ‘final’ ball. Is this taught/trained as part of the possession philoposhy . I am working my way through the 3four3 Coaching symposium online and am learning a great deal. I consider myself lucky as I have recently come back to the game after a long hiatus and am generally a new slate. While I may be a bit young and naive regarding the depth of my sophistication and knowledge, I am also clear eyed and have good discernment about this beautiful ‘new’ way of playing the game versus the complete barbarian version I see our kids/MLS teams playing.

    • STL A-B says

      How direct, long or short passing you want is up to you/coach. You can have possession soccer with a lot of long balls..long balls with aim, just not aimless. If, everytime a ball rolls to your back he lines it like a kickball w/ no idea of where it’s going and forwards run vertical 100% of time…jungle ball. You need to review the Member area, watch youtube videos of Biale Orly Cup (U11 Barce v Valencia, etc), MIC Cup, and 3four3. Dissect the when, where, why, how and come up with your own philosophy. Then train your players how you want them to play.

  9. Lost in the Trees says


    You wrote”….come up with your own philosophy. then train your players how you want them to play.”

    I am new to coaching and relatively new to soccer. I’ve been reading this blog for several months and there is a lot of talk about coaching philosophy. Shouldn’t all the “regulars” on this site have a VERY similar philosophy? If not, what are the major differences? Is there a big checklist out there that I can answer YES or NO too and then create my own philosophy. Can some of you regulars share your own personal coaching philosophies with us?


    • Luke Symons says

      Here’s one of mine: Before you even begin talking about possession or any kind of playing philosophy you need to create a team culture where players demand excellence of themselves and each other. Fitness is a good way to weed out those who will drag the team down (I think Gary has mentioned this in one of his posts).
      You can tell a lot about a player from his approach to fitness activities in practice. The psych terms for what can happen in a team situation are “social facilitation” (working harder in a group) or “social loafing” (slacking off). You need to know you have established the former in your group of players before they can make any meaningful progress in any aspect of their game.

      • El Memo says

        I respectfully disagree. First you have to sell individual players on possessing / controlling the ball.
        At the younger ages, you get all sorts of players (athletically and maturity wise). You don’t necessarily get to pick early on. And you certainly don’t know how they will mature. An uncoordinated or retracted 5 year old may turn out quite the player.
        “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”
        If they value possession or control above all else, it will be a thousand times easier to implement team concepts.
        Even at older ages, you have to take other things into account other than excellence mentality and fitness.
        Don’t get me wrong, I agree that excellence mentality, including fitness is very important, just that early on you can’t predict with certainty.
        Maybe as a coach you can win and implement possession style, with an excellence mentality and fitness. But I’m not just interested in the team but also Individuals – how can you create the next Iniesta, Xavi, Bousquets, or, why not Neymar.

        • Kana says

          At young ages, I don’t think you need to sell anyone on possession. They are blank slates and become products of their environment. This is why so many players are kick and chase with big or strong or more aggressive players (it was fused into their DNA at U6). If they learn to play 1-2 touch, moving, thinking — it becomes the way they naturally play. Then as they age, athleticism, speed of play, quickness of feet, mental, tactics, desire, commitment come into play and pushes the cream to the top. it’s simplistic, but is what Barca is doing and now the Kleibans. The problem has always been coaching (not the players). Once we can get a majority of coaches at all ages to develop players in this common model, things will change drastically.

          • El Memo says

            You are assuming they are exposed to good coaching consistently, which is usually not the case. Not to mention parents, who cheer when little Johnny kicks it hard down the field.

        • NoVa Mike says

          I agree with both of you. At the younger ages, instill a love of the game and give them an opportunity to develop their skill first. At the same time you also have the opportunity to mold the way they see the game to fit your philosophy – mostly by what you praise, and what you don’t. As their coach you help define what the “soccer culture” is for your players, especially in their formative early years. Yes, it is also important to develop fitness, agility and coordination, but have a young kid play soccer 10-20 hours/week year round and you will see them develop all 3 without much additional effort.

          At some point though, as they move into the more competitive ages (9-12) it does become important to also develop the things Luke talked about – increased fitness, mental toughness, commitment to excellence, competitive mentality, etc…, and establishing the right culture in your group is critical. Case in point – if any of you have taken the 3four3 coaching clinic, you couldn’t help but notice that the difference in training intensity between Brian’s actual team as compared to the group of kids participating in the Seattle Coaching clinic is like night and day.

          @ Lost-in-the-trees: There is no checklist or any other shortcut. The longer and more deeply you immerse yourself in the game, the more you will learn and the more nuanced and layered your philosophy will become. Hopefully along the way you will continue to refine and improve your capacity to translate that philosophy to your players, and have it reflected in the quality and style of play of your teams as well as the development of individual players.

          Then, after several years of doing this, when you start to feel a little bit comfortable and self-congratulatory about all the success your teams and players are having playing the way you want them to, there will come a moment when you get slapped to your senses and realize just how far you have to go. [@Gary & Brian: Thanks for that slap!

  10. John says

    Let me be a devils advocate for this subject.

    Regarding possession football, can pressure and athleticism can knock off of possession rythim al la Brazil v Spain in the cup final? Don’t get me wrong, Brazil can possess too.

    I wonder if too much systematic possession play could lead to thwarting of individual creativity and flair when the moments call for it that could lead to the punishment of that player? Don’t we squash self expression as Klinsy calles it?

    Don’t get me wrong, I would rather teach possession soccer than what we been doing over the decades. But I like to hear your thoughts.

    • says

      Hi John,

      1) The Devil’s doing fine, he doesn’t need an advocate.

      2) Properly choreographed pressure can disrupt possession, sure. Emphasis on “properly” and “can”. The game at the highest levels is a game of detailed tactical measures and countermeasures. Brazil is a possession-based team. You must understand that “possession” DOES NOT EQUAL Spain/Barcelona.

      3) You have it backwards:
      Possession-based play enables individual creativity.

      *Non possession-based play thwarts creativity.
      Tell me, in the following video which of the two *styles is the better environment for players?

      I think most people really don’t understand “creativity”.

    • Crollaa says

      For me, possession is the vehicle that we use to find a player in an appropriate situation to use their creativity effectively.

      • Soccer_Sense says

        Well said Crollaa! I like thinking about it in that way. It amazes me how strong the resistance is to any system of play or choreography in soccer. The idea that systematic possession must thwart creativity is marrow deep yet it is obviously silly. If you don’t have the ball then you really have no option to be creative.

  11. Rob A says

    I love the way Pep’s Bayern team is playing with Barca’s passing style and ramped up, more athletic pressing in transition (“gegenpressing”?)

    defending is attacking, attacking is defending

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