Gaining Territory v. Possession: Part I (Book Review: Inverting the Pyramid)

There exist in soccer talking circles and coaching philosophy a tug of war between maintaining possession with short, grounded passing versus gaining territory with long, lofted kicks up the field.  Debate has raged beginning in the 1860s when the Scots used a passing approach to get around the heavier English players, through the 20th century (Reep’s English kick and rush versus Hogan-Meisl-Lobanovsky-Cruyff’s possession).  In youth soccer, the kick and rush approach, referred to as “lumping” the ball up the field,  predominates. 


In the book Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics (Orion, 2008) Jonathan Wilson details the evolution of soccer formations, offside theories, attacking theories (and defensive), as well as rule changes effecting those tactics.  In the first international, he notes England played a 1-2-7 while the more diminutive Scots played a 2-2-6.  Of course, we are most accustomed to 4-4-2 (although 4-5-1 becoming increasingly common).  Player sizes were more relevant to the press than skill.  Because the Scots were smaller, they employed a passing game to get around the larger Brits.  The press was more interested in size of the players than their skill.  The Scots’ offside rule, last defender plus no offsides unless beyond 15 yard line, encouraged the development of a passing style. While it was generally rejected by the English, many of the early coaches who espoused the passing game had their beginning in Scotland.


In England, the advanced coaches of the day were ignored.  That is why Jimmy Hogan, considered “the most influential coach there has ever been” had to travel outside of England to find work.  He was the first to incorporate use of the ball during training — prior to him, training was focused on running distance and sprints.  “Give a player a ball during the week, ran the reasoning, and he would not be so hungry for it on Saturday.”  (Inverting, p.27).  Hogan, on the other hand, felt the key to success was ball control.  The only way to acquire ball control was to practice with the ball.  


Hogan’s views were spread through Continental Europe through coaching stints in Holland and Austria. In Austria, hired by Meisl in 1912, Hogan taught “that swift combinations of passes were preferable to dribbling, and that individual technique was crucial.”  (Inverting, p. 30).  “Hogan was also keen to express the value of the long pass to unsettle opposing defenses, provided it were well-directed and not an aimless upfield punt…He was not an evangelist for the passing game through any quixotic notion of what was right; he simply believed that the best way to win matches was to retain possession.”  (Inverting, p. 30).  Meisl used Hogan’s ideas to develop the Austrian Wunderteam.  Valerie Lobanovsky used science to develop a system of interchanging players at Dynamo Kyiv.


In Holland, TOTAL football emerged in the late 60s and early 70s at Ajax.  The term “total football” came later and symbolized an understanding of the relationship of all the players to each other.  TOTAL football developed with systemic interchanging of positions in the course of attack.  Attack, though, was at its core.  “Attack is and remains, the best form of defense.”  Vic Buckingham, the Ajax coach prior to Michaels, stated:

Possession football is the thing, no kick and rush. Long ball football is too risky. Most of the time what pays off is educated skills. If you’ve got the ball, keep it. The other side cannot score.  Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, David Winner, 2000, p. 11.

The staple of the Ajax system was fluid player movement, allowing everyone the right of attack, combined with an aggressive offside trap (making the field smaller while on defense) and pressing on defense. 


As the possession game blossomed in Continental Europe, England lagged behind with “fast, spirited attacks.”  Meisl noted that their passing was “swift and high” and lacking in precision.  (Inverting, 63). Meisl’s ideas were transferred to Hungary and formed the basis of their 1950s domination, including the 1953 6-3 defeat of England in London that demoralized the English fans.  For once, the English started to realize the limits of their system of play.  


Nevertheless, England won the World Cup in 1966 utilizing a kick and rush system that relished the counter attack.  Some say it was that victory that set England back decades.  Two of the most influential English minds on “territory football” were Stan Cullis, manager at Wolverhampton, and Charles Reep.  They turned the Hungary defeat on its head to develop the core of the English footballing philosophy persisted into the mid-1990s (and still exists in areas today).  The basic principle of territory football is set out by Stan Cullis in this statement:

The number of scoring chances which will arrive during the course of a match is in direct proportion to the amount of time the ball spends in front of the goal. If the defenders in the Wolves team delay their clearances, the ball will be in front of our goal for too long a period and the scoring chances will go to the other side. If too much time is spent in building up our own attacks, the ball will spend less time in the other team’s penalty area and, of course, we shall score fewer goals.  Inverting, p. 138.

He concluded that long passes into the other team’s penalty area is the quickest way to move the ball there, thus improving the odds of scoring a goal (based on the theory above).  Reeps coupled that with the notion that, according to a crude statistical survey he conducted, 91.5% of moves in a soccer game are done in 3 passes or less, and, correspondingly, 80% of all goals are scored with 3 passes or less.  He then concludes that it is inefficient to make more than 3 passes to obtain a goal, hence the emphasis on long balls (what I call gaining territory).  


His theories were accepted throughout England. The 1966 World Cup victory justified their acceptance. Reeps played a major role in the F.A. and determining the training and philosophy of the national team.  It wasn’t until years later, as noted in Inverting, was actual science applied to his theories.  For example, if 91.5 % of all moves are done in 3 passes or less, and if 80% of all goals are scored in 3 passes or less, then there is evidence that passing 3 or more times is more efficient at producing goals, not less.  Since only 8.5% of moves are done in 3 passes or more, 8.5% of the soccer moves are producing 20% of the goals.  Wilson concludes:

It is, frankly, horrifying that a philosophy founded on such a basic misinterpretation of figures could have been allowed to become a cornerstone of English coaching. Anti-intellectualism is one thing, but faith in wrong-headed pseudo-intellectualism is far worse. Inverting, p. 141.

So, therein lies the rub.  Do you opt for more territory via long passing, or do you set up your scoring opportunities with short passes, mainly on the ground.  Having coached youth for a while, one of the hardest things to control are the parents.  While I may be emphasizing short passing and control, parents are telling their kid to boot it up the field.  In a playoff game, after repeatedly losing possession off of goal kicks, I instructed my keeper to play the ball short to a handler who moved it up the field.  I received an earful from an “informed” parent — the same parent that wanted every kickoff to be booted as far down the field as possible.  In Part II, the discussion will continue with a look at how these competing philosophies play out in youth soccer (the Reeps model seems to be the most prevalent here).  Cheers.   

"Go on son, take him on"

As I noted in a prior post, I think over-emphasizing the pass at young ages can restrict development of a soccer player.  Kids at young ages need to have time with the ball.  Opportunities to create must be allowed.  If we over-emphasize the pass, kids will lose the opportunities and time to create with the ball, especially in “competitive” formats (i.e., games) that are necessary to build confidence with the ball.  

At the same time, I am in love with the possession game and encourage my players to make shorter passes with the ball on the ground rather than longer balls.  However, even then, I am working hard to allow the boys time on the ball and not to stifle their creativity.  

Former US Youth technical director, Claudio Reyna, says we focus too much on the result of weekly games — that they are “do or die.”  He continued, 

At Barcelona, they are about educating players, and winning takes care of itself. I believe it makes an impact when players can develop in a calm and proper environment, not being judged on whether you win games all the time. They are just looking for players with soccer brains. 

When I reviewed the curriculum for the new US Youth Coaching Paradigm, it started de-emphasizing dribbling at age 7.  That is too young.   I included this quote from a trainer at La Masia, Barcelona’s renown youth training academy:  

“Their (Barcelona) Academy coach Carlos Rexach reveals … ‘Above all what we are after is a boy who is good with the ball and then we hope he becomes strong physically. Other academies tend to look for athletes they can turn into footballers. Most coaches, when they see a kid who dribbles a lot they tell him to stop and pass the ball.  Here (Barcelona) they do the opposite. We tell them to continue so that they get even better at dribbling.  It’s only when the kid develops that we start teaching them the passing game.'”  (Arsenal: The Making of a Modern Superclub, Page 68).

One of the, if not the, most successful youth academy in England is near Newcastle.  The Wallsend junior football club has produced 67 professional players, five of whom have represented their country.  The current club president, Peter Kirkley, who has been with the program for 40 years, noted that the junior club was not formed to create professional players but to “give local lads and lasses a game of football, help them grow and love the sport.”    The club emphasizes punctuality, politeness, and discipline.  And, what they teach has been referred to as the Wallsend Way — love of the ball.

Rather than focus on kick and rush, the club emphasizes adventure and skill.  Kirkley had this to say about the current teaching model at other academies: 

“I was involved in Newcastle’s youth set-up for years, and I don’t think any kid they signed at eight has ever made it through to 16, never mind the first team. I go to academy matches and all I hear from the coaches is ‘pass, pass, pass’. I long to hear someone say: ‘go on son, take him on.’

My worry is that academies are producing automatons. That’s why they come here and get our lads later. They need players who are still in love with the game. Who have a bit of imagination. That’s what we do.  We don’t manufacture pros. We help people love the game.”

I love his comments about helping kids love the game.  I think the early ages, up to early teens, are the best times for kids to learn to “love the ball.”  They pick up things quickly at that age.  I am now having to go back and re-focus on dribbling with a son who I overemphasized passing.  I can now see the beauty of the US Youth setup – 3v3, then 4v4, then 6v6…11v11.  The idea is to give kids touches on the ball.  But, training and games are not enough.

With some kids, I have to remind them to take the 1v1 opportunities.  Whatever quality that a player can make on a pass in front of the defense is magnified if that player, rather than passing at the first sign of pressure, beats a defender and then serves a ball to the teammate.  By that time, covering defenders are required to move to the attacker creating gaps in the defensive line.  I had the luxury of coaching a girl (Macy Chilton) that excelled at 1v1 match-ups and, as a result, lead our squad in assists.  While many people see her obvious talent at goal scoring, her ability to beat defenders opens defenses creating opportunities for her teammates to score with less pressure.  

Just imagine:  Attacker with ball makes pass in front of defensive line.  The quality (depth, pace, angle, height) of the pass must be perfect.  Contrast that scenario with one where the attacker beats the marking defender, getting behind the defense, then delivers a pass.  The danger to the defending team in the latter example is heightened; the quality of the service by the attacker usually requires less precision (as it did before the defensive line) as openings have been created by the defense to cover the beat defender.  Keith Barrow, Nederland HS girls soccer  coach, reminded me that “soccer is all about the 1v1 situations.”  It is math – if your player beats their player, that is one less defender in front of the goal.

So, while we teach and encourage players to play short, keep the ball on the ground, use 2v1 passing, etc., let’s also remember to tell players to “go on son (or daughter), take him on.”  

Quotes form Kirkley taken from The Daily Telegraph,  26 Oct. 2011,  No End in Sight for Wallsend Production Line.  Quotes from Claudio Reyna were taken from The New York Times, May 26, 2011, La Masia, a Model for Cultivating Soccer Players.

It’s Not the Trainer’s Fault (Book Review: Soccernomics)

One of the last conversations that I had with Jan van Beveren was about misplaced expectations.  A parent approached him regarding their child who was training at SSSC where Jan was Director of Training.  Jan was asked what he was going to do to get this talented 9 year old a college scholarship.  Of course, Jan being Jan, he likely avoided telling the parent that two training sessions per week will not get your child to college, the MLS, the national team, etc.  I am sure he smiled, encouraged the parent and saved the head scratching for later.  


The training model that we have in our country is a paid-for service.  As soccer becomes more and more popular, I would anticipate that our Academies become more European where players, even at a young age, are seen as assets, not customers.  Once the demand raise to justify that sort of position, then training will not be a paid for service, but a service for youth who fit the training models (asset-based).  MLS teams have been doing this with Pre-Academy and Academy teams.  


In England, a player’s acceptance into a training club is skill based (at the professional clubs).  If you are good enough, then they will train you.  If you are not, you are out.  There is no cost to you.  In any event, it is not the training sessions per se that make great players.  Here, because parents are required to pay large sums of money to have their child “professionally trained,” the assumption seems to be that if we spend enough, then our kids will become stars.  


But soccer is a muscle memory activity.  The only way to master soccer is to put the appropriate amount of time training your brain to communicate with your muscles in the soccer-appropriate manner.  In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell cites a report from a neurologist that expertise in an event requires ten thousand hours of practice.  Since his book, this is referred to as the “10,000 Hour Rule.”  Citing the neologists report, he states:

The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert–in anything.  In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Of course, this doesn’t address why some people get more out of their practice time than others do. But no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all this it needs to know to achieve true mastery.  Outliers, M. Gladwell 2008 (page 40)(with emphasis).  

Gladwell also cites a study by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson at Berlin’s elite Academy of Music.    In comparing amateur pianists to professional pianists, they found that the amateurs never practiced more than about three hours per week over the course of their childhood, and “by the age of twenty had totaled two thousand hours of practice. The professionals, on the other hand, steadily increased their practice time every year…”  Outliers, page 38-39.  In the study, they were unable to identify even one musician who floated to the top on natural ability.  “Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguished one performer from another is how hard he or she works.”   Id.

The same rules apply to soccer players.  In Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski cite Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule” and apply it to professional soccer players. They state:

In soccer, it is the poorest European boys who are most likely to reach the ten-thousand-hour mark. They tend to live in small apartments, which forces them to spend time outdoors. There they meet a ready supply of local boys equally keen to get out of their apartments and play soccer. Their parents are less likely than middle-class parents to force them to waste precious time doing their homework. And they have less money for leisure pursuits. A constant in soccer players’ ghost written autobiographies is the monomaniacal childhood spent playing nonstop soccer and, in a classic story, sleeping with a ball.  Soccernomics, S. Kuper & S. Szymanski (2009), page 272.  

Now, it may be that world-class mastery is not what you desire for your child.  But, the ten-thousand-hour rule portends to prove also that the more time spent practicing an activity, the better you will be.  Maybe you are interested in the five thousand hour rule.  In any case, two ninety-minute sessions per week is not enough to develop the type of mastery that will result in a level of competency required by college scouts.  So, we should encourage our children to touch the ball more often — on days they are not training — if they want to.  Don’t ask the trainers what they are going to do to get your kid to college, a starting spot on the local varsity team, etc.; rather, ask yourself, “how am I going to give my child the opportunities to develop the mastery necessary to succeed.”  


It should be noted that Gladwell says as much.  In addition to luck, month of birth date (in league play, it is August; for ODP, January), access to instruction (again, luck), timing (again, luck), as well as parents willing to support, encourage, and assist in the accumulation of hours.  He notes:

The other thing about that ten thousand hours, of course, is that ten thousand hours is an enormous amount of time.  It’s all but impossible to reach that number all by yourself by the time you’re an adult. You have to have parents who encourage and support you…”  Outliers, p. 42.  



Finally, and probably more important that the number of hours practicing, the kid must desire the greatness.  At young ages, my philosophy is that children lack the ability to choose whether or not they like a sport.  How can a 7 YO decide she does not like tennis if she has not learned to hit a ball over the net.  But, at some age, the athlete must have their own desire, apart from the parent, to excel.  Today on The Football Show (11-11-11) hosted by Giorgio Chinaglia and Charlie Stillitano and they added these additional ingredients for great players:  (1) some god-given talent, (2)  opportunity, and (3) desire to be great.  While parents may desire their children to be great soccer players, at some point the youth needs to desire it too. 


So, it’s not the trainer’s fault.  Rather than criticize trainers, let’s facilitate mastery over the ball by giving our kids more time with it to create and play.