Control v Mayhem: Possession talk was the wrong debate all along.
Possession, or counter-attack? Control, or chaos? Energetic football, or positional advantage? A lot of those questions have turned around the possession v non-possession debate — What if they debate the wrong debate all along? What if possession talk was senseless, what if Football Twitter missed the *actual* debate — that is exactly this newsletter’s topic — the last of the year.
Possession, for long, has been directly linked to game domination per many people. As had Pep Guardiola used possession as a tool to assert dominance against his opponents, many fans understood it as a necessity, as the number one priority. Recent football history has however debunked the theorem that possession only could be used to assert dominance — not anymore in the year 2021, at least. New stats like Field Tilt appeared as shown below, to attempt to calculate game dominance instead of simple possession % calculation.
Dominating possession is meaningless if one does not dominate territory. Each pass, each carry, each movement should aim towards higher zone domination, either by overloading a certain area, or by occupying more areas. Domination, in most cases, is preceded by control. Control can be performed on and off the ball, but modern elite teams like the likes of Manchester City or Bayern Münich tend to insist on control on the ball.
Subjugating control to possession-only is impossible. Having the ball is essential, but it is not self-sufficient. It is a tool, not an entire mechanism. It is part of a greater entirety, that of establishing positional attack. The ability to unlock the right vertical pass at its best moment will determine a team’s real domination and use of space in relation to the balance used per momentum.
Fans mistake certain actions, i.e going forward, driving with the ball, as a certain category. Many attempt to categorize, class certain actions without acknowledging its context. Though there are interesting research paper around the usage of EPV and xT, they fail to usually acknowledge context. Why is that carry, pass happening? What about that off the ball run? What is its intent? Those questions are open questions that are situational: They cannot be generalized. That’s, of course, the main issue with stats: Trends can be studied, perceived, noted, but certain actions should be treated individually in their own realm.
Progression should be best measured with Voronoi plots. As seen below, the idea behind the visualization is to show the reader how players occupy space, important to understand overload or any movement by players, on and off the ball.
Though it should be noted that this study also shows the 4–3–3 formation as the most effective and the 5–4–1 as the worst in terms of space occupation, those are two extreme examples and are another topic. Notice how those spaces (blue or red) would change depending on the player’s movement. A manager can give a certain set of instructions, but it’s up to the players, individually, to understand what to do — to dribble or to pass, to advance or to slow play down, to attract or to unleash: These are choices that determine the next 3–5 actions.
There are generally two schools of thoughts around space occupation. One is pro-active, the other is reactive. The first method suggests suffocating the opponent but that requires patient build-up and a constant evolution. The second school of thought prefers to hit on the counter, i.e to take advantage of that space as a result of the opponent team being more advanced. One school of thought is not necessarily better than the other, as it all depends upon the players. Not all player are adapted to the same style of football: The opponent, too, varies. It cannot and should not be generalized.
It can be however noted that the notion of control is important. Player should feel comfortable in the manager’s game plan. So it is important the players know how to control themselves, and that goes with their action. Does the player look for the first vertical pass possible or does that player wait until his teammates are in position? The best assertion of control and dominance will never be individualized, but will always cause players to be dependent on their teammates, whilst keeping their own liberty.
As a sense of clarity is established, control will depend upon the player’s abilities. It is often a matter of details, to attract pressure and how to move away from it, to decide the sideways or the line-breaking pass. Control is not only a matter of physical/technical skills, but that of psychology. Players should feel calm. Players like Busquets, Kroos or Rodri know how to eliminate players through orientation, or how passes can eliminate entire blocks. It is always about a healthy mix.
That is precisely the reason why stats, data or numbers fail to envision ball progression and positional advantages on a regular basis. It cannot be generalized whether Riyad Mahrez, Leroy Sané or Ousmane Dembélé should remain wide or should cut in. Constant movement off the ball can hardly be tracked, but they nonetheless contribute to the team’s balance: When Frenkie De Jong moves deeper to make himself available, he helps progress play: That is the case for many players. Those little decisions around the team’s stability are needed to help players set-up, both on the ball but also movements off the ball. Some of them drag defenders out, freeing other paths in the process: As such, those movements do not necessarily depend upon raw possession %, but are contextual.
At last, I would like to thank every follower and reader of this newsletter. This blog was started as a way to express thoughts that were too long for the Twitter format, where I could dwell long around random thoughts about the game. We’re now over 7,000 on Twitter and 100 on medium. Both are big, big numbers, and there’s a lot planned for 2022 — I just want to say thank you for your support, your encouraging messages, your time to interact with me. Extremely grateful, forever. Wishing everyone a Happy New Year — let’s smash it!