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Is Possession Football Dead?

Hiko Seijuro has a look at the latest trend of forgoing possession as a tactic and whether possession football is dead.

The year 2016 can be seen as somewhat of an underdog year; from Portugal winning the Euros to FC Rostov challenging the Zenit – CSKA Moscow duopoly, to the crowning glory of them all: Leicester City’s title triumph. While the teams in question reveled in their accomplishments, and the footballing world wondered how it was all possible, their successes posed another question: “is possession football dead”?


A team is said to play possession football if their basic tactical set up aims to control the game by controlling the ball; in other words, if a team usually prioritizes possession of the ball, no matter what tactical system they employ, they are playing “possession football”. Examples of such teams include Barcelona, Arsenal, Paris Saint Germain, Juventus, and Bayern Munich among others.

Conventional wisdom in football especially since Pep Guardiola conquered the world with Barcelona has been that possession wins you games, the thinking being that only the team that has the ball can score.

Whoever has the ball, controls the game” – Xavi Hernandez.

However, events in 2016, especially Leicester City winning the Premier League cast serious doubts on this thinking; for context, take a look at this possession table by talkSPORT.COM for the 2015/16 Premier League season:

20. West Brom – Average possession: 36.9%
19. Sunderland – Average possession: 40.6%
18. Leicester City – Average possession: 42.3%
4. Tottenham Hotspur – Average possession: 57.2%
3. Manchester City – Average possession: 57.3%
2. Arsenal – Average possession: 58.2%
1. Manchester United – Average possession: 58.2%

Of the teams in the bottom three places on the possession table, no one was relegated; Leicester City finished eighteenth on the possession table yet they won the league title with 81 points, ten points above second placed Arsenal and 15 points above possession table toppers Manchester United. However, the possession kings in the league found themselves with disappointing campaigns as Manchester United finished fifth outside the Champions league places and Arsenal could only muster a second placed finished on the last match day in what was their most promising season yet in the recent past.

In the spirit of winning without possession, Atletico Madrid edged out Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi finals over two legs. After claiming a one nil victory at the Vicente Calderon, Atletico went on to hold on and go through on away goals despite losing 2:1 on the night, they scored with their first touch inside Bayern’s box in that match while having only 28% of the ball. For all their ball dominance, Bayern still lost, possession wasn’t so important after all; ironically, Atletico themselves went on to lose the final to city rivals Real Madrid despite claiming 54% possession in the match, their increased possession didn’t help them.

This season, Liverpool traveled to newly promoted side Burnley and mustered a staggering 81% possession but still managed to lose 2:0, an unwanted Premier League record by Jurgen Klopp’s men. The recent managerial changes also bear mentioning: Manchester United parted ways with Louis Van Gaal, a manager who prioritizes possession and replaced him with Jose Mourinho the antithesis of the kind of football that LVG stands for. Bayern Munich parted ways with poster boy for possession football Pep Guardiola after Champions League disappointment and replaced him with Carlo Ancelotti another manager who is not so particular about how much of the ball his team has all in the bid to claim Champions League belying their thinking that perhaps possession is not so important to success.

Looking at these facts, we may be tempted to conclude that indeed possession football is dead, but you see, 2016 and all that happened therein were the exception rather than the rule.

First, we must understand that possession is a means to an end not an end in itself and it follows that as long as you have the ball, your opponent can not score, and of course, a team can only score when they have the ball. Generally, teams that prioritize possession have been more successful than teams that don’t; the perfect example being FC Barcelona as they have won a staggering  four Champions League titles in the last ten years. However, they are not the only possession success story, with Bayern Munich making it to the last four of the Champions League for the last five years in a row, while also winning the Bundesliga for the last four seasons and in record time too. Arsenal, despite the disappointment of losing out to Leicester City in the league race also managed to finish second, their highest finish since they last won the league in the 2003/04 season and they did this while finishing joint top of the possession standings with 58.2% possession in the league.

Barcelona have been amazingly dominant in the Spanish League having won it a whopping five times in the last seven years while also topping the charts for possession both at home and in Europe; their arch-rivals Real Madrid however, have had a succession of possession nonchalant coaches and have consequently won the league only once in the same period of time.

Perhaps even more telling is the fact that since Arsenal’s invincible season in 03/04, every Premier League champion has averaged between fifty five to sixty percent possession throughout the season. The highest was achieved by Chelsea in the 2008/09 season under Carlo Ancelotti with a 59.7% average possession over thirty eight games with the lowest also being Chelsea who averaged 55.4% possession in the 2004/05 season.

The year Two Thousand and Sixteen was a freak year in football, and in freak years, freaky things happen, like Leicester City winning the league with the lowest ever possession stats for a Premier League champion in a decade. Of course there are teams who build their success primarily around not having the ball, a la Atletico Madrid however, these successes are mostly one offs and are not replicated with any consistency; they remain the exception rather than the norm in football.

We didn’t want the ball. Because when we have the ball and Barcelona press then we lose our position on the pitch. I never want to lose position on the pitch so we gave the ball away. I told them that the ball could help us defend, that we had to be compact”. – Jose Mourinho after beating Barcelona in 2010.

Teams that prioritize possession of the ball are generally more successful than teams that don’t, maybe not immediately, but definitely in the long run, and their success is usually more sustained than that of teams with an aversion to possession.

Sometimes we forget that there are twenty two players on the pitch, and only one ball” – Pep Guardiola.

So is possession football dead? I’d say not yet.

Hiko Seijuro

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