Secrets of Possession Football – Players or Tactics?

By on 01/10/2013

What is the secret to success in a possession based system? Is it the players they or the tactics they have employed?

Both, and this is a very important point. In Barcelona the system is the star, but without their players the system would be worthless.

First lets understand this point, creating triangles is one of the biggest priorities in the team, Johann Cruyff has said in his books that he has thought long and hard on this and he couldn’t find another geometrical shape better than the triangle for keeping the ball. When players form a triangle they always have an option to pass either on the left or on the right. If your players know this they don’t have to look and think on where their teammates are, they can do one touch quick passes .

Form follows function is a classic architectural phrase, it applies perfectly here. 4-3-3 and 3-4-3 are the best formations to naturally form triangles. Again, this has been thought approved by Johann Cruyff. This might not be at first an intuitive thought, but think about the classic anti possession shape, the 4-4-2. In a classic 4-4-2 (Click on this image to see what i’m talking about you have two midfielders in a line, two advanced wings on each side and two forwards as close to the box as they can. When you see the midfielders and then the forwards, you can see a big gap of space where a player (nay, a triangle) could be, watch any Barcelona match as it starts and you will see how an inverted pyramid shape appears in midfield. Positional work is very important in Barcelona, the players always have to look at their position and think, am I forming a triangle? In case the ball comes to me, where will my teammates be? Who is marking me? Where will I have to run next to be available? All this has to be though in split seconds, it also goes to my next point…

The players themselves have to perfectly lend themselves to this philosophy, think about it. Were any player to step outside the system, it can compromise the triangle, and then the possession, and that’s the entire point of the team. From the clubs motto, Mes que un club, to the attitude (humility) and discipline Guardiola enforced, they all serve to protect the idea that nobody can be above the club and thus, nobody should go around doing crazy Ronaldo like skills and dribbles, unless they serve to advance the clubs purpose (Messi, Iniesta and Alves have limited licenses to be a little selfish). This is just the beginning.

Every single Barcelona player has to have perfect ball control, and I mean everyone, including the keeper and defenders. When you play possession football sometimes players are highly pressed and have to make quick passes to avoid losing the ball, if the teammate that receives the ball has a poor first touch, the ball will bounce off its feet, the player will have to run to get that ball and that puts the team in a precarious position to lose possession and at best case, losing a few seconds to pass. Its amazing how players like Busquets, Messi and Xavi sometimes receive bricks at their feet and they stop the ball at their feet like its nothing, like they had a pillow attached. Its almost slightly unnerving to see a GK who is so good with the ball at his feet like Victor Valdes. Like Van Der Saar, I’m sure he could be a forward in a lesser team. This is a nice Zonal Marking article talking about how distribution starts with the keeper (

It doesn’t stop at this, the players themselves also have to be drilled like crazy to know they have to pass the ball and play a maximum of say, three touches. Johann Cruyff has said how a player that needs only two touches to pass the ball is a great player, and someone that plays in one touch is something else. When Cruyff first arrived in Barcelona as a coach, he turned to the youth players and spotted a young thin teenage boy playing perfect passes in midfield, he immediately promoted that kid to his first team and made him a starter, that boy was Guardiola.

When Barcelona scouts players for La Masia, they target technique above all else, everything else is secondary to that, including height, strength and pace. In La Masia, Barcelona cadets learn to play with 4-3-3, they learn that passing the ball is always better than trying to dribble, outpace or outmuscle their opponent, they learn that playing the Barcelona way comes first and everything second, including winning the game. These aspects are drilled by years of training, but it goes beyond that, players are forced to think on the system, John Van’t Schip, former Dutch international and now coach said: “To play the Ajax system you have to understand it, and especially talk about it alot.” By the time these players turn 18, they can slot in the first team and they immediately know where to position themselves, where they need to move, where their teammates will be and they all have the technique to play the role they need to play. This is why a player of medium quality like Pedro or Tello can slot into the first team and feel like they have done it all their lifes. In most cases they actually have done it for a big chunk of their lifes. La Masia players have pushed out even some of the most accomplished players in the world from the team, I’ll get to this in a second, lets first talk about the last, but not least, important aspect of Barcelona’s philosophy under Guardiola and Vilanova.

Correctly pressing is critical to the function and philosophy of the team. Guardiola has talked about how he understands that this is a game with 22 players and only one ball. Losing possession is unavoidable in a game, one this happens the Barcelona players apply the 6 second rule. The 6 seconds rule consists on heavily pressing the opposition player with the ball by all the players that surround him, the Barcelona players will try to form a “net” and capture that player, at that point they know they don’t have to tackle him in most cases, the player himself will make a mistake and Barcelona will resume possession. If however, the player does not make a mistake and the opposition keeps the ball for more than 6 seconds, the Barcelona team regains their usual shape and defends deep, zonal marking and looking for to intercept the ball, remember Barcelona players are chosen for their ball skills, and most don’t have the physique to out muscle their opponents. This is a nice youtube video detailing their pressing.

Barcelona players have to perfectly understand how this works, again, if one players denies the pressing, or does not know it, it will fail and if it fails the team is now in danger of conceding big amounts of space to the opposition.

There are even more finer points on the Barcelona paradigm, like the fact that defenders have to form a very high defensive line and need to be good at playing the offside trap or how attackers have to be able to play quick first touch passes into space to overcome the opposition from parking the bus, but by now you get my original, gigantic point. Both the tactics and the players are important to play possession football.

WHY can barca keep the ball better than any other team, while there are MANY talented set of players across the world…?

Would you not agree that players like Alves, Villa, Mascherano, Sanchez, Affely, Abidal, are players who came to barca and quickly caught up with “keeping the ball” when in their original teams, they were not trained specifically to “keep the ball”?

How did these newly brought players suddenly grasp the idea of possesssion football and instead being direct, were better at keeping the ball so abruptly??

Look back and think about what I just wrote, it all talks about a very specific way of playing and the training that needs to happen for it to succeed. That training takes years of continuity and learning. Now lets think about Arch Rivals Real Madrid and how they usually work.

Real Madrid, as a philosophy, buys superstars from around the world and slots them into their team. Especially under Perez, the number one priority in a would be Madrid player is, how big of a name and talent is he? Everything else is secondary to this, it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t compliment the team. Real Madrid expect to continuously win, if the coach or players do not deliver instant results, they generally get axed, and new blood comes in. On the subject of their youngsters, it is extremely hard for them to reach the first team. The first team is already filled with world class players of different playing styles and backgrounds, Managers get shuffled all the time. Young players not only would have to adapt to the team tactics and the players in a way that Barcelona youngsters simply do not, they also have to quickly manage their own growning pains. As a result most Madrid youngsters are shipped to Getafe, a place where they can develop and maybe return to the Bernabeu one day.

For a team like Real Madrid to suddenly decide they want to start playing possession football, they would have to hit the reset button HARD and understand that results will have to be built by years of work and continuity, where they will have to re-evaluate several ideas, this of course is not the Madrid, or really any other big team philosophy.

There’s many examples of this, but Luis Enrique’s Roma is one of the best and most current examples. Luis Enrique, a former important Barcelona man, was brought into the new Roma project to create a possession team, great! Luis Enrique had a hard season where Roma fans where dissapointed and the results, the owners quickly axed him, where did it go wrong? Roma is a medium team from a big city like many others in Europe, different owners, managers and players came and went into the club, they all bought their own individual ideas and philosophies on how to play. Luis Enrique did not find a perfectly drilled team in which everyone understood their role and had been trained as kids to perform it, he found a team of different individuals with different skillets. Even if, say, Danielle De Rossi could be as neat and tidy in distribution as Sergio Busquets, he won’t naturally be able to do it without thinking because he has played in a different style all his life. A player like Francessco Totti is never going to stop doing what he’s doing because a coach told him to do so, in fact he famously invented the false 9 position because of this very trait. Roma is not a super rich club where Enrique could simply bring in his own players, and even if he could, who in the world grew up playing the Barcelona way besides La Masia players? Theres also the fact that dropping players like De Rossi and Totti would almost be unthinkable to any new coach.

Now lets go back to Barcelona and their outsiders. You mentioned Alves, Villa, Mascherano, Sanchez, Affely, Abidal but I can also bring in Ibra, Chygrynsky, Yaya Toure and their parade of Left backs. Lets divide them all into different camps.

First comes the one that has undoubtedly succeeded in Barcelona. Daniel Alves. Alves has been such a hit in Barcelona precisely because he is an outsider to the system. Zonal Marking did a big in depth article on this ( The gist of it is that Alves is Barcelona’s one direct player, and as such he brings in something else to the table.

Next would come the players that have played alot and have been relative successes in Barcelona. Players like Mascherano, Abidal. First of all, both of these players are excellent and share the number one thing Barcelona needs, great technique with the ball. Thanks to their hard work they have been able to slot into the defense.

Now comes the intermittent players who have been both good and bad and have been criticized by both fans and press. Players like Villa and Sanchez. Both these attackers have not been able to lock in a first team position, frequently being displaced by La Masia youngsters like Pedro and Tello. It speaks volumes about how simply changing your style and slotting into Barcelona is not easy. Villa has spoken before on how he has been lost in what the coach has asked him to do, and how he mirrors Pedro in those occasions. Sanchez was brought because Barcelona thought his style was similar, so far it hasn’t worked out as smooth as they would like.

Last comes unsuccessful players that did not adapt to Barcelona and were unceremoniously pushed away. Players of incredible talent like Ibra, Toure and Afellay were generally brought in a plans B to bring in something else La Masia players did not, such as Ibras ability to turn something from nothing, Toure’s physicality as well as his technique and Afellay raw pace to go with his cool dribbling skills. They all could not adapt, were benched and grew tired of it.

As far as my “outside XI” that could challenge Barcelona in possession. I’d first have to say that any international all star XI I could muster would not be enough to defeat a world class team that has been trained for literal years like Barcelona. Nevertheless something inferior, but similar could be made. However its 2:41 AM and I will have to leave it for another time.

By Jorge Torres


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