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.