It’s a central philosophy question when it comes to discussion about soccer: possession or transitional play? In this article we explore the properties and differences between these two approaches.
Possession play is a strategy in soccer that is based on just that – keeping possession of the ball and opening areas of the pitch for methodical attacks through a constant passing game. The primary objective is therefore not necessarily to get the ball into the opposing goal as quickly as possible, but rather to use practiced variants and effective coordination successfully.
In transitional play it’s about taking advantage of spaces that are created by the opponent’s disorganization just after losing possession. A team must transition quickly and win the ball as soon as possible, in the direction of the opposing goal and doing so by using passing and running plays. If this quick transition is successful, spaces open up in the opposing half, or behind the defense, into which the attacking players can advance through fast sprints.
In the 1970s Dutch teams began using this style of play. It is Pep Guardiola, however, who is credited for developing possession play in its extreme form during his time at Barcelona. With a team of incredibly talented and exceptional players like Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry, and Gérard Piqué, Guardiola was enormously successful with “his” possession play, winning 14 trophies from 2008 to 2012. After that, he continued to rely heavily on possession and control of the game in his time at Bayern Munich, while this is still something that he uses to good effect at Manchester City.
The requirements for using possession play successfully are extremely challenging. The players must be in excellent technical (passing, trapping, dribbling), tactical (positioning, anticipation, orientation) and psychological (patience, mental endurance, calmness under pressure) condition.
A crucial aspect of possession play is being able to take advantage of open spaces, however small they may be. The first step is to achieve maximum depth and width in order to pull apart the opposing defense. If the ball is passed to a certain position, teammates must do some intense running in order to outnumber the opposition where possession can currently be found. This way, the ball can be defended and there is always a teammate nearby to receive a pass. All players operate out of their positions with several automatic movements, to then take advantage of gaps in the opposing defense.
There are several different possibilities for how to do this successfully. For example, using ball rotation and switching positions, players can try to bring a talented teammate into promising one-on-one situations (in Barcelona’s case, often Lionel Messi), or try to open up spaces in the opposing defense by luring the defenders away from their positions. Then, attackers can advance into the spaces created.
Besides the perfect example of Barcelona’s focus on possession, there are several other teams who successfully use this strategy including Bayern Munich, Arsenal under Arsène Wenger, and Swansea City under Roberto Martínez.
A great example of fast transitional play (together with high intensity pressing) can be seen in Borussia Dortmund’s tactics starting around 2012 with Jürgen Klopp and continuing with Thomas Tuchel. With extremely fast players such as Lucas Pisczek, Marco Reus, Henrich Mkhitaryan, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and the dangerous striker Robert Lewandowski, the team had exactly the right players needed for quick transitions. Aggressive defensive tactics with intense pressing, subsequently provided opportunities to steal the ball and enabled powerful counter attacks.
José Mourinho is another coach who relies on a strong defense and quick counter attacks. He was often accused of having a deconstructive approach, but he was nevertheless successful in his endeavors, especially in his time at Chelsea. In his style of play the center forward and “target man” Didier Drogba was incredibly important for attacking, as he could handle and make use of both high and low passes, while also being very successful in one-on-one situations.
Transitional play, too, has specific and challenging requirements. First of all, a team has to have the skills to defend well, meaning not to allow many scoring opportunities for the opponent. Part of this stable defense is self-confidence, especially when allowing the opposition to have possession. In order to then be able to steal and use possession successfully, a team has to be able to use different sorts of pressing, especially in midfield. Midfield pressing offers the best balance between risk and reward while transitioning., For example, pressing far back in the defense, leaves a long distance to be travelled to the opponent’s goal after gaining possession.
For successful transitional plays, the timing and speed of plays is very important. Running paths must be well coordinated, which requires frequent practice. Another important factor is the ability of the players to anticipate. If a team can recognize when there is a good opportunity for a counter attack, in which it is worth the risk of a tackling situation, they can react and possibly change their running paths.
Variable adaptations for these styles of play
Strong teams with well-trained players are able to use both of these styles of play. A team can start by focusing on possession play, in order to make the opponent chase the ball and subsequently tire them out. If the players are able to score a goal, they can then adjust their focus to transitioning and a stable defense. This could be the plan of a coach, the reaction to the opponent’s style of play, or to the current score.
In possession play the technical and tactical fundaments can be purposefully worked out in training. The use of good passing techniques, intelligent trapping, and good orientation can be easily coached in small-sided games. These skills require a high level of perception and good decision-making abilities by the player, as all of these actions take place in small spaces under a lot of pressure from the opposition. This means that technical fundamentals, such as passing, and first-touch control should already be well-controlled when adding new techniques. The tactical arrangement of possession plays in 11 v. 11 and your own system of play can be trained in larger team forms (at least 8 v. 8), and possibly in exercises for certain tactical progressions. Here the focus is on positional play in general (how certain areas are covered and fundamental actions of certain players), as well as the behavior of certain groups.
With transitional play it’s useful to regularly confront your players with situations of transition and work out actions and possible solutions. Here team training is just as important, in order to cover the basic points of how the players should react and make decisions. This is done most effectively in larger-sided games with a defensive (coaching) team and an offensive (sparring) team. The offensive team has the responsibility of carrying out attacks, which then provides the groundwork for creating transitional situations. For example, the offensive team should build up in a wide position, so that the defensive team must steer towards the center, in order to be able to steal the ball.