Grassroots Coaching

Time of Possession in football – does it equal success?

Barcelona have a lot to answer for! They are by far, the number one team in the world for Time of Possession (TOP). They also happen to be far and away the best and most successful team in World football. Because they have the most TOP, they create the most chances from that possession, score the most goals. So the coaching argument goes, if your team could also have the most time TOP, it naturally follows that you too will win more games!

As a result, one of the modern trends in football coaching is to encourage our players and teams to keep possession. “Keep it, Keep it” you hear coaches shout from the sidelines. Only last Sunday, in the Premier League game between Leicester and Aston Villa, with Villa leading 2 – 1, the Villa manager Tim Sherwood could be heard shouting exactly this. The Villa players tried to keep possession. Leicester, knowing they needed to get back in the game pressed hard and high, resulting in a turnover at a crucial moment around the halfway line, when a loose square pass put Carlos Sanchez in trouble, from which Leicester equalised.

The point being, there are times in games when TOP is important, but there are also times in games when the need for TOP can be counter effective to winning or closing the game out. It can’t just be about TOP, there has to be a reason for TOP.

In fact, statistically speaking, in many games, the team that has the most TOP fail to win the game.

Why? There are a number of reasons for this:

A team might use TOP as a defensive tactic. The longer they have the ball, the less chance the opposition have it to score. Particularly when the TOP is based upon possession in your own half. Using the GK as a sweeper / keeper and on not committing too many players forward when in possession, so that when the ball is lost there is less chance of the opposition counter attacking and creating an overload counter attack. Typically a team like Swansea, who regularly have more TOP than the opposition, use TOP as a tactic to deny the opposition possession and thus the argument goes, fewer attacking opportunities.

In the Watford v Swansea, the statistics of this particular match make interesting reading.


  • Watford 39% – Swansea 61%


  • Watford 17 – Swansea 8

Shots on target

  • Watford 6 – Swansea 3


  • Watford 1- Swansea 0

Whilst this is only one game and football coaches would argue that Swansea’s style of football and their philosophy of TOP based football is a better, more attractive way of playing and that coaches should work with and encourage their players to be comfortable in possession, keep possession and play their way out from the back. It isn’t the only way and not every team should try and emulate it.

Another reason why TOP isn’t always such an important winning factor is if one team employ a tactic where they are happy for the opposition to have TOP. They will sit back and deep, let the opposition have the ball in areas that aren’t dangerous, wait for them to attack, try and win the ball when the opposition have committed players forward and then try counter attack quickly. We have all seen games where one team have the vast majority TOP, but get beat with 1 or 2 quick, effective counter attacks.

The Manager or Coach’s philosophy on the game and the players he has available will also be a major reason. Jose Mourinho, despite having some fantastic players at his disposal, has, in big, tight games, pretty much employed a conservative attacking TOP philosophy. He can be quite happy to concede TOP, sit back and try and play a counter attacking game. Last season Arsenal did the same thing when playing away at Man City. On the other hand Tony Pulis at Stoke, Crystal Palace and at WBA didn’t have the quality of players to play a game based on TOP. He also looked closely at the statistics of when a team are in most danger of conceding a goal and the statistics said, the biggest danger of conceding a goal, outside of set pieces and penalties, was when the team lost possession of the ball in their own half and the opposition quickly counter attacked. The reasons this situation is so dangerous are that the time the team that win the ball have to counter attack is very quick because the distance involved is short. Conversely, the team that has lost possession have very little time to recover and defend the quick, short counter attack. So quite simply, his philosophy was that his players would rarely take risks whilst in possession in their own half, they would look to play the ball forward, into the opposition half, so that this time and distance danger in transition was minimised.

So what has all this got to do with coaching players at Grassroots level?

The English FA, have a philosophy of encouraging coaches to coach their players, at all standards of football, including Grassroots, of playing patiently through the thirds, of developing possession based players and a TOP based game. If you watch any England age group team, you will see this happening. The GK rarely kicks the ball long, the defenders always split and they try and play patiently through the thirds, looking to gain TOP and be patient.

As a result, many coaching sessions, even at Grassroots levels are based upon doing exactly that. For players and teams to keep possession, to have TOP. But as a result, there is a danger that coaches aren’t preparing players properly for actually playing games and for making decisions for themselves about, how, when and where to keep possession against how, when and where to take risks in possession and to try and create a goal scoring opportunity. There are too many possession based training sessions that don’t have any other focus other than to retain possession. The result of this is that too often many players then come into a game and aren’t able or don’t think about passing forward in the direction of the opposition goal. For example, in a game, the ball might be passed to a left footed, left back near the touch line. As a coach, you would hope that if they could, they would open up, get the ball on their left foot and be looking forward towards the opposition goal and thus be able to make decisions about whether to pass forward positively or maybe attack space and run with the ball as a first thought, with keeping possession as the second thought.

But no, too often, their first thought and instinct  is to turn back, to look to pass back to their supporting centre half and keep possession. Now, who is to blame? The player who has spent countless coach led training sessions working on retaining possession and who has been praised in these sessions for retaining possession. Where many of these possession based sessions have given them no idea, geographically, of which way is forward towards the opposition goal, because there are no goals. Or, is the coach to blame?

As a coach, how can you change that? Very simply, by playing more games that have goals! Within the game you can reward a team with a goal through the number of passes they can achieve, which will encourage possession based football, but they can also actually score a goal in the traditional manner, by putting the ball past the GK and through the white posts, which will encourage good and positive decision making and help them become more game orientated players, who think for themselves.

If coaches also plan and think about what they want to focus on during the game, then they can consider implementing a number of factors or conditions into the game, that would keep it as a game with goals, but also provide game elements that would encourage relevant TOP as well as improving players game related decisions.

These might include:

  • When playing a 5 v 5 – 9 v 9 games, make the pitch bigger than normal and condition the GK not to kick the ball out of their hands. This would result in chances being harder to create and encourage / force players to have to pass and work the ball up the pitch, which would mean more passes and more TOP to get closer to the opposition goal.
  • Reward the team in possession a goal if they manage to make an agreed number of passes, as well as being able to score in the conventional manner. The opposition will have to consider pressing the ball when the pass count gets close to the agreed target, resulting in decision time for the team in possession, to keep the ball or to try and exploit the space created by the pressing team.
  • Put in a floating or golden player who plays for whatever team have possession. This golden player would be conditioned to not be able to score and be restricted to a maximum of 2 or 3 touches. The team in possession would then always have an extra player, which would help them achieve, if they wanted to do it, TOP.

In summary, TOP is and should be one way of playing football. Of course coaching sessions that focus on ball retention and TOP should form part of the players education. But if we are truly going to develop players who are not only technically proficient at TOP, but also good game related decision makers, at some point training sessions need to include games, with goals. TOP on its own, should not be the God of our coaching focus or philosophy!

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