If you watch old Real Madrid games you’ll see Zidane, as the creative leader of the offense, very relaxed in games – almost too relaxed. Which is a good thing. You need examples to see how the game should be played. Zidane was influenced by the guys before him. He copied what he saw, making it his own. Just as Socrates, Zico, Mattheaus, Ronaldinho, Neymar, Messi and others were influenced by players before them. If you’re playing now, you should look back to Zidane – or any number of players – for tips on skill, body language, and confidence. In big games he’s relaxed. You don’t have to be pouncing on your toes, drooling, for big games. Defensively you should have that sort of attitude. But offensively, you should remember you have to approach the game like an artist; you have to be creative; and you have to work with your teammates to reach this state. When the stakes are big being creative can be difficult. This is why practice is so important. You have to reflect the same attitude and approach in practice that you will in a game. Practice is your chance to rehearse everything, and get on the same page with the other players. It’s your time to get in a rhythm together. It’s the coaches time to bring the rhythm, chemistry and over-all game plan together, and everything should be repeated over and again so that it is engrained into everybody’s psyche. You can’t just ask a team out of the blue at half time to improve their half court offense. This would be insane. This should already be worked out in multiple practices. Playing across the field to possess the ball incorporates (or encompasses) so many things. One of which is to go any direction. You don’t always have to go forward. Just going forward is a miserable idea. It’s a terrible idea. You can go backwards, and continue going backwards, and then go forward in an instant. The idea that going backwards (or sideways) is negative soccer is really bad thinking. The best of them including Zidane, Platini, Xaxi and others, often had to admit defeat and go backwards. And often they realized that a simple backwards pass may give their teammate the right moment to hit a through pass for a one-on-one with the goalkeeper. Going forward all the time is just not possible. Going backward creates chances. When you make a backward pass the player receiving the ball has the luxury of seeing the whole field. He does not have his back turned to the field of play. Going any direction on the field will free you up to maintain better chances with keeping possession. If you always force the ball forward you are simply forcing potentially bad situations, where your teammate will be forced to cough up the ball. Think of passing and dribbling in terms of going "any whichever direction" that is best available to you at the moment. Going sideways or backwards will inevitably put you in the best situation to go forward. The right moment will present itself, and you’ll know what it is. Call it possession with purpose. Call it what you want. You first have to possess the ball before possession with purpose can be implemented. And, most importantly, possession with purpose should come naturally, after first possessing the ball. I tried to evaluate all the ways in which proponents of possession with purpose would counter my stance. I think the best way they might win an argument with me is to counter by saying: if you only have possession for possession’s sake then the players will become robotic, missing opportunities to go forward. This argument makes sense. It’s difficult for players, on their own, to be trained to possess the ball non stop, and then be expected to attack when the opportunity presents itself. As a coach (or an observer of the game in the stands or watching on TV), my viewpoint of an opportunity to attack may be different from their viewpoint of an opportunity to attack. When a player is coached, or trained a certain way, this model of the game gets engrained into them. It becomes hard for them to break way from this instruction they’ve received. One good example is the fact that American youth players are raised to avoid dribbling in excess. They are turned into passing robots. The result is their creative side to the game is destroyed. When they become adults they carry these habits with them. It’s similar to Sea Biscuit. In the early days, he would practice against the prize horse and be forced to lose at the last second, so the main horse would gain confidence. After time, and some retraining, Sea Biscuit learned how to win again. The same can be done for players that have been taught passing is the “only” way; they too, can remember how to dribble again. But, as it is today, when they have to dribble they are uncomfortable with it. They create a defensive shell around themselves. Their body language is negative. And you can’t rely on passing alone to win games. So for a proponent of possession with purpose to say possession for possession’s sake is negative I get where they’re coming from. But, they’re just plain wrong. We as Americans haven’t yet conquered possession for possession’s sake. We don’t dribble. We’re rigid. We’re unsure of ourselves. When asked to keep possession with a lead we’re not sure how to do it and enjoy it for long durations. This is probably the key problem with much of American soccer. The idea of enjoying and appreciating possession is not yet something Americans embrace. Americans want goals. They don’t want possession. They want goals and they want them now. They’re used to big scores in football (event though a result might be 2-1 in soccer terms). They’re used to big scores in basketball. They’re used to small, soccer-like, scoring in hockey, but at least in hockey you get to smash some guy against the boards, and you can fight, so they’re content with that. As fans of the game, once Americans get on board with appreciating good possession, soccer will change in big ways for America. Part of winning the game in soccer is two-fold: one, the score, and, two, outplaying the opponent with possession. If you outplay the opponent with possession and you happen to lose the game, this is okay. You can grow on this success for the next game. If you continually outplay the opponent with possession and you lose some games, this is fine. Over time success should come your way. Sometimes the counter attacking team wins a game when they don’t deserve it. That’s just how soccer goes sometimes. Your long-term success will be better if you stick with possession oriented play. If you’re not out-possessing the opponent, and you’re continually trading punches with the opponent, and you’re losing games (which is probably the case), you will continue down this path and you’ll never be a long-term contender. You’re just a good sparing partner for the better teams.
Americans like goals. They like shots on goal. If you have good possession you will undoubtedly improve your quality chances on goal. Quality shots will increase. If you’re rushed, your shot selection will decrease in quality. Bad possession will not lead to good quality shots on goal. I’ve been with plenty of teams that rushed everything and the possession was non-existent. It was always a terrible experience. You’re playing because you have nothing else better to do, but the game is no fun whatsoever. Then when I play with a good team I wonder why this can’t be the same way every time. Whenever a team rushes things the game collapses. When your play is rushed the shots are rushed. If you are poised in possession the shots become more relaxed and confident. It’s just like in life. Studies show that if you treat a kid poorly a majority of them grow up with issues, some ending up going in and out of prison. If you treat a kid with positive reinforcement the majority of them end up living a positive lifestyle. Bad possession and rushing things is just disrespecting the game. It leads to bad, awkward shots. Good possession brings about good results.
Soccer isn’t primetime in the United States, like basketball or football, because the majority of Americans don’t see the U.S. as true contenders yet. They want shots and the quality shots will improve once the possession end is embraced mentally by the players and coaches within the game. Fans can sense the U.S. is the underdog in each game not only by what the pundits are saying but through watching the tentativeness of our team compared with others. Our players, coaches and fans alike have not yet embraced the subtle nuances to the game leaving our players in a place on the field where they cannot confidently own the game in terms of possession as they have been raised in a rushed approach to playing the game. This is not to say that any U.S. player would not be able to fit in with FC Barcelona, or Bayern Munich, and adapt to their system. They can. You can take someone like Dempsey and place him on Barcelona and he’d fit in. Even our least talented U.S. player can fit in, play a role and belong on the field. Obviously, as an individual performer Barcelona might want to select another player, from wherever, but they could fit in nonetheless.
So the question arises: what makes the “other” player Barcelona might select a better player individually? They want someone who is tractable to their system, the passing game, with the knowledge of the game (which the American players lack in comparison to other players from Spain, Germany, Italy). They want someone who can match up offensively and defensively, in one-on-one situations, with any player in the world. Offensively you have to be sound at dribbling the ball, and poised in tight traffic; something most Americans have been raised against doing. The American approach to the game looks down on dribbling, and fears tight traffic possession; Americans want to play in “open spaces” practically all the time, and we spend far too much time idling away on perfecting set pieces. If you’re really good at set pieces, Barcelona doesn’t care. They have someone like Messi or Iniesta who can take a free kick. Set pieces are really not that complicated. Usually somebody draws their foot back, then they kick the ball. On corner kicks the ball is lofted up to a particular point in the box, which the other team is fully anticipating, manly chaos ensues, and typically the defense clears the ball. They want you to be good at playing the game, which accounts for the important majority of the game itself. Defensively, they want someone that can win tackles, handle tight one-on-one encounters, using their body and anticipation to free up loose balls for turnovers. The American teams can do the following: keep games close on the scoreboard. All of the American defenders are good defenders. They’re bad attackers. They’re bad possessors of the ball. Their skill is weak. Their knowledge of the game is weak (partly because their skill prohibits them from exploring wider options offensively). Their offensive confidence is weak because deep down they know their individual skill isn’t where it should be and they’ve been raised to only defend. They have the athletic talent to keep games close but the American team keeps getting outplayed, and the chances of winning a World Cup are very slim. In order to improve on this Americans must eliminate the traditional defenders. One way to accomplish this to replace all central defenders with central midfielders. What do you do for new central midfielders? Find new ones. What about the central defenders? They can go play another game, I guess. Handball. Bocce Ball. Something with a ball. You have to find skillful central midfielders who are above six feet tall, place them in central defense and train them to control the game in possession, and to move forward with the attack as Beckenbauer did. There have to be more options joining the attack, other than just the forwards and midfielders. The way to have defenders join the attack is to start with the defenders setting the tone with possession. If they can’t be the base for keeping possession moving smartly and skillfully, then everything unravels. When things unravel what you have is a competitive team that uses its athletic prowess to keep games close, creating rushed opportunities around the goal, depending on set pieces to get by, and losing will become something this kind of team gets used to doing.
Possession kills the other team’s will. If they don’t have the ball they become defeated mentally. And slowly, they also become defeated physically. Taking away the other team’s will is great. This is what you want to do. When the other team finally gets the ball, they’re so used to chasing it and not having it, that they become rushed and panicked and everything falls apart. When your team gets the ball back, the players should be poised and ready to begin possession again, dismantling the opponent even more. At this point, the other team knows they are being outplayed, they become disappointed and their will dissolves even more, giving you the advantage as the game continues. And this gives your team an advantage for the games in the future as your team knows they have a sound system to rely on, giving them confidence moving ahead.
Possession is probably America’s biggest obstacle to the game. We don’t like it. We get bored with it. We want to avoid it. We want to go forward quickly, all the time. We’re impatient. We want shots “now.” We want to win and go home. We rush things. We eat power lunches. We have restaurant chains that name meals after “home runs” and “grand slams.” Before we avoid possession we have to over use it first, then move on from there.