The Possession Game: End of an Era?

Recently, I watched the Europa League game between Fenerbahce and Manchester United on TV. It was an exciting and interesting game. The game ended 2-1 for Fenerbahce. Someone who did not watch the game might have thought that it was a close game. No! Fenerbahce could have won the game, 4-1, if Emmanuel Emenike was less selfish and had a good finishing touch. One would then think that Fenerbahce dominated the game. Well, it depends on your definition of “domination,” Did Fenerbahce “park a bus in front of the penalty area” as some people say? We cannot say that after seeing the chances they missed.

The statistics of the game show that United had the ball possession 70 percent of the time and had nine corners kicks to none for Fenerbahce. Shots on goal/on target were similar. Can one conclude that it is one of those few games in which the team that had less possession time ends up winning the game because they had better finishing touches -- converting shots on target to goals with a very high percentage – or by sheer luck?

Lots of people thought that way when Celtic beat Barcelona in 2012 in an infamous UCL game. The statistics of the game were more interesting. That was the first defeat of Barca that year and they dominated the game in all categories. Barca is the inventor of tiki taka, a fast and short passing version of the possession game. People thought that since Celtic had three shots on goal, all three were on target and they scored two goals, that this was sheer luck. Nobody then thought that something in soccer might be changing against the “possession” game.

One can think that both the Fenerbahce-United and Celtic-Barca games were isolated incidents which are inherent in the beauty of this game and that teams in a long competition will not win the competition without possession play.

Spain -- the best performer of the possession game -- won both Euro 2008 and 2012 as well as the World Cup in 2010 with an excellent performance of the possession game. Germany followed suit in 2014 by winning the world cup with the “possession game." In the WC 2014, 43 games (67 percent) out of 64 were won by teams having the possession of the ball more than 50 percent. Everybody then thought then the way to play and win was through  possession play. Nobody really understood or cared what happened in Euro 2004 when Greece won with a very unimpressive style of defensive play.

But then things started to change. Atletico Madrid won the Liga in 2013-2014 against two strong and possession game playing teams, namely Real Madrid and Barcelona. Since then, Atletico also played twice in the UCL final.  Atletico’s style of play can be very briefly described as very compact defense, a very fast transition game and excellent finishing touches. That season they scored fewer goals (77) than Real (100) and Barca (104) but conceded less (26 versus 33/38) also.  Simeone is now considered the “maestro” of this kind of play.

Then came Leicester City in 2015-2016 with a fairy tale and it won the EPL. It was neither the best attacking team nor the best defensive team. It did not excel in any team statistics, let alone in most it was not in the top three rankings. Coming back to our subject matter of ball possession, the Foxes were ranked 18th with 44.8 percent in the EPL. All the statistics were against Leicester City except one: the number of points earned. One can argue what the statistics indicate. For example, the number of passes includes lateral and backward passes that are not necessarily an indicator of winning play but it definitely contributes to the possession game. One thing is for sure. If possession percentage was an indicator of a winning season then 2015-2016 EPL season would have been won by one of the big six, namely Arsenal, City, United, Spurs, Liverpool or Chelsea, which led the rankings.

Last summer, we watched Euro 2016. The statistics show that only 31 percent of the teams that won had more possession then their opponents. This is a serious drop from the WC 2014: 67 percent. Only four out 15 knockout games were won by the team having more possession. Iceland that had the lowest  percentage (36 percent) moved all the way to the quarter finals, but only one team out of the three teams that had the highest possession play (Germany 63 percent, Spain 61 percent and England 59 percent) made it to the semifinals. In the final, France was ahead in all statistics including the possession except distance covered. As an ex-game official, I can say that Euro 2016’s refereeing was one of the best, but I cannot say the same thing for the quality of play.

In order to play the possession game effectively, you need two types of player to overcome a compact defense: Effective goal scorers and play makers; both are rare and costly. It is not a coincidence that the best possession play teams are also the more valuable ones. You will find neither Atletico Madrid nor Leicester City in the top 10 valuable teams. (You will find Atletico as 15th in the world.) Teams that are valued less will find ways of winning games or championships against higher valued teams. This process might eventually jeopardize the kingdom of possession play. We will soon see whether this is the end of an era for the possession game or not.

Ahmet Guvener ( is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Austin, Texas.
23 comments about "The Possession Game: End of an Era?".
  1. Mark Konty, November 14, 2016 at 8:36 p.m.

    Bravo!! Finally, someone willing to to tell the emperor that the chill wind isn't air conditioning. Possession is great, but it's what you do with it that determines the game's winner. Further, the correlation between possession and winning is a spurious one, better teams will naturally have more possession and are also more likely to win simply because of their quality. But match up two teams with similar skills and will that correlation hold up? The evidence from Atletico and Leicester say not (not to mention Conte's Euro tactics). For the high school-age teams I coach, I insist that we not chase a possession team around the field, if they want to practice passing in their own half, let them! We stay compact and make them play where we want them to play, to open up space behind and take risks to come at us. We respond to "triggers", a term I fist heard from Ranieri, and then apply maximum pressure to turn the ball over and counter. So-called "possession teams" hate playing us. It also allows me to use players with a wider range of talents than simply being able to play keep-away, which means I have a lot more firepower at my disposal. Thank you for having the courage to recognize that this is more than one way to play futbol.

  2. R2 Dad replied, November 14, 2016 at 10:25 p.m.

    Mark, you are correct that mindless possession goes nowhere, and there are teams out there that seem to play that way--usually unsuccessfully. The fewer players out there that can properly implement possession play often lead teams to play what you are describing--parking the bus and countering. This is common. But it's also super boring to watch. No one is paying big bucks to watch high school soccer, but if they were there might be more push-back on that style of play. That is not to say style is more important than substance, since most kids don't enjoy losing and trying to play like Barca without the talent is a recipe for disaster. Also, you might be more likely to get away with your style of play due to officials keeping their cards in their pockets, which happens a lot in high school soccer. These small/quick midfield players often suffer more injuries, and that's always better when it happens to someone else's team. It's more difficult to create than destroy, even though good teams almost always have good defense at their core. Lastly, kids deserve the chance to be successful and happy playing this game, and your strategy usually gives them the best chance of doing so. But this is called the beautiful game, and you'll never convince fans that parking the bus results in the most skillful play. You might win, like Mourinho at Inter, but you'll never thrill. But maybe that's not the primary goal of high school soccer.

  3. Mark Konty replied, November 15, 2016 at 2:44 p.m.

    R2 Dad, I never said anything about parking the bus. Our defense is very active once the opponent chooses to engage us. Also, our counter is not limited to long balls and chasing. We'll work the ball, with skill, in tight spaces even, until we have a good look at a breakout. It may be 4-5 short, quick passes, or 2-3 longer passes that switch the field, and yes we sometimes play long into a channel but only with our head up and a player active in that channel. So this illustrates what I was trying to say, soccer tactics are not dichotomous, either possession or parking, but that seems to be how people perceive it these days. In fact, soccer is multidimensional and tactics should, and in reality do, reflect this. The reason my system (and I claim it only in the sense of hoe I personally coach it) frustrates possession teams isn't because we put numbers behind the ball and stand in front of them, but because we're constantly changing the tempo--we organize, get tight to ach other, then explode out of that forcing a turnover and counterattacking. It most definitely is NOT about parking the bus. As to whether or not our game is "beautiful", well that's in the eye of the beholder isn't it

  4. David V replied, November 15, 2016 at 9:13 p.m.

    Konty, you just described parking the bus.

  5. Mark Konty replied, November 16, 2016 at 10:53 a.m.

    And David V proves my point, some people are only capable of thinking about soccer tactics in two dimensions.

  6. beautiful game, November 15, 2016 at 9:34 a.m.

    Simplicity and efficacy of play rules. Unfortunately, it is overwhelmed by being too tactical, lacking instinctive reaction or not being able to deal with pressure.

  7. Bob Ashpole, November 15, 2016 at 2:33 p.m.

    I think bean counting has little to do with understanding the game. The "Possesion" Style of Play is really a misnomer. A more accurate description of the style of play is "deliberate" or "patient." The hallmark is to make a safe alternative rather than a low percentage one and work for a better chance to score. In contrast killing a game off with possession is making a defensive tactic of possession, but it is not a style of play. While Barca Tiki-Taka is a possesion style of play, I don't consider it a short passing style of play because long passes are critical to their attacking tactics.

  8. David V, November 15, 2016 at 9:14 p.m.

    LOL, Ahmet Guvener doesn't know anything, and you're now agreeing with him?

  9. David V, November 15, 2016 at 9:18 p.m.

    In all honesty, I don't think anyone on here knows how to play possession (by the way, the point of moving the ball and passing is to move the opponent and create chances, it's as simple as that). OK, all you experts who play fifty-fifty balls constantly and give away possession constantly... who can explain where the 4 backs and the holding mid should play on a goal kick? If you can't answer a simple question like that, you don't know enough to critique possession.

  10. Bob Ashpole replied, November 16, 2016 at 2:48 a.m.

    Ah...You are the kind of expert that believes that the secret to coaching is telling players where to stand on the field and that there is only one correct way to play the game.

  11. David V replied, November 16, 2016 at 8:55 a.m.

    Bob, ahhh, I can tell you're the kind of expert who doesn't have a clue what the possession game is... couldn't answer a possession 101 question. No smoke screens Bob.

  12. David V, November 15, 2016 at 9:24 p.m.

    Ahmet Guvener - the end of a writing career? LOL

  13. Bob Ashpole, November 16, 2016 at 3:05 a.m.

    Jake, my belief is that Brazil and Spain's play look similar because both countries' players are influenced by futsal. Just because the youth teams you see are not actually playing an effective possession style doesn't mean that the coaches are incompetent. Playing possession style requires a lot of skill, tactical knowledge, and discipline to pull off--none of which youth have. They need to learn the fundamentals first. They also should learn to play direct first. Teaching youth to play "possession" is a club marketing ploy. Play like the Dutch, like Barca, like Bayern, etc. The names have changed as the years go by, but the short answer is that little kids cannot play like senior players. It actually hurts player development to try to make their games look like adult soccer. Most parents, however, don't know the first thing about coaching or soccer so they wouldn't appreciate a good program if you showed them. They, however, know who Messi and Ronaldo are.

  14. Bob Ashpole replied, November 17, 2016 at 3:54 a.m.

    Jake in my opinion (and I am probably lonely in that) there is a longer development path. I think possession style play is not appropriate for youth. I would start it at college age--U23. For elite players the equivalent would be U18. Before that I would teach the tactical pieces needed to play the style (along with teaching the tactics necessary for every style of play). For instance being able to play direct like in the counterattacking style is one tactical piece of the possession style--it is the finish. The difference between the two tactical styles is that a turnover creates the space for playing direct to goal in counterattacking while in possession style passing creates the space for playing direct to goal. Also possession teams will play direct to goal when a good counterattacking opportunity happens on a turnover. The problem with playing possession style early in development is that possession style is a risk avoidance strategy and discourages players from growing their skills. Growth requires challenging play, not safe play.

  15. David V, November 16, 2016 at 9 a.m.

    Dear Bob, you state the obvious for little kids up until about 12 years old, but by then, if you don't understand that you can teach a possession game, you don't understand possession game... that's 2 Bob! (1 was your lack of know where to position on a goal kick, it ain't rocket science, and 12 year olds get it, but they won't if the adult teaching them don't get it... aka Bob :-)

  16. David V replied, November 16, 2016 at 11:39 a.m.

    Jake, I wasn't stating that 12-year-olds in the USA get it, but that 12 year olds can get it... this assumes all of the developmental freedom at an early age where the kid is developing his technical skills for all the basic stuff you mentioned (not to mention the freedom to make errors, try new things, make his own decisions without formal coaching ALL the time... aka pick-up games, etc.) ... so, if you're doing it right (and hardly anyone is in the USA... which goes to your point about country), 12 year olds can start with very basic stuff... (again, assume all the stuff about basic CORRECT skill development has taken place) and they've already been working rondos for years, they can start learning how to play out of the back, they've already had losing-your-man skills worked on, and they can start some attacking patterns.

  17. David V replied, November 16, 2016 at 11:42 a.m.

    and Jake, please don't read into this that you abandon working the technical skills while you start introducing some very, very basic stuff (that 99% of American coaches have no clue about)... that, the technical, does go on and on and on for many, many years

  18. David V replied, November 16, 2016 at 11:49 a.m.

    I have seen so many foolish things over the past 5 decades... where very good things have been coached out of players... for various reasons which of late include coaches thinking their 10 year old players are going to out pass the other team the way Barca does... to very ignorant coaches who don't understand the psyche of young players or ... they bring and English football mentality to their coaching and ruin players... it is a cardinal sin for a coach to coach out creativity and boldness in a player, and to make that player fearful of failure, and produce survivors not thrivers... SHAME ON THOSE COACHES!!!

  19. Goal Goal, November 16, 2016 at 11:27 a.m.

    I don't want to get into hyperbole but you go to a great number of clubs that have DA teams in this country and creativity by a player with ball challenging other players 1v1 and you will hear the coaches shouting pass the ball. I thought we were through with that in this country. These coaches don't want creativity they just want to get the ball to the goal as fast as they can which usually means the long ball and it is sickening. Creative players are frowned upon over all and it is killing US Soccer.

  20. David V replied, November 16, 2016 at 11:51 a.m.

    Fanfare... you are SPOT ON!!!

  21. David V replied, November 16, 2016 at 11:55 a.m.

    it all goes back to the same old same old... a cultural change needs to take place. American parents think it's about a championship in 6th or 9th grade, or 5th grade... clubs need $. Clubs produce what parents want and sacrifice development (and picking the right kids) for immediate results. Coaches within the club have to show they can win or they don't get the paycheck. Vicious cycle... educate the American parent what the goals are, and then make sure the ignorant coaches know too

  22. cisco martinez, November 16, 2016 at 2:05 p.m.

    The possession style hasn't ended but if anyone cares about statistics, in the EPL is roughly 55% teams win with more possession however, the stat that is really impressive if you look at shots on goal. The winner of SOG is roughly 83% in the first 20 games of the UEFA games and EPL is roughly 73%. The real battles of soccer are guardiola possession, defensive shape of someone, pressing of loop, etc

  23. beautiful game, November 16, 2016 at 7:06 p.m.

    Quality of player(s) determines the speed and possession of play.

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