When Pep Guardiola and his Barcelona team revolutionized how the game was played over ten years ago, it was perhaps one specific quote from the coach himself that made sure coaches did not making mistakes when trying to interpret or replicate it. "I loathe passing for the sake of it," Guardiola said. "All that tika-taka has no purpose. You have to pass the ball with a clear intention, with the aim of making it to the opponent's goal." For me, this quote and the football we see today at the highest level definitely go hand-in-hand. Simply keeping possession of the ball is not enough today and most coaches are very much aware of it. With the rise in data and analysis, we are constantly hearing from the experts that it's not enough to maintain possession of the ball, but instead to use that possession to create chances and opportunities on goal. Coaches like Klopp, Sarri, Bielsa, Pochettino, and Flick have seemed to marry the speed of counter attacking transitions with the structure of attacking organizations as their teams constantly look to break forward at every opportunity.
Putting this into practice with your team is not easy, but can be a really enjoyable process for coaches and players to work towards. In an ideal world, this process involves both structure and freedom. It’s not just as simple as playing forward at every opportunity, but instead more about creating scenarios where players are aware of teammates dropping into pockets, and have the ability and composure to take advantage of those moments. Consecutive, vertical passes have the opportunity to open up key spaces in front of opposition defensive lines, as well as creating overloads in valuable areas. Below is an example from Manchester City where center back Steph Houghton initially had the opportunity to play a vertical pass, but instead chose to play a diagonal pass and the impact that had on the game, which resulted in an attacking overload and an opportunity on goal from Chloe Kelly.
Balancing patience with penetration in possession is a complex process for a coach and is very much a long-term process. Success here cannot be achieved in a session or a week but I wanted to present some ideas on how I would go about working on it. Below is how I would structure a session to challenge and facilitate this theme with a team.
For a warm-up and activation activity, I would look to create an exercise where players must drop into an area and receive on the ‘half-turn’. With only three players working inside a diamond, the onus is on the next player in the chain to 'drop into a pocket' to receive the next pass and then move it quickly at an angle. I would spend around 3-5 minutes here total with 45 seconds sets, simply demonstrating the need for timing and ball speed during the moments of possession. Below is a video animation of the exercise.
Another activation idea would be to change the shape of the diamond and add three more players. With the area now longer, it now opens up different ideas with up-back-and-through solutions. The objective here is to get players comfortable with the quality and speed of the ball required to find advanced players. It also allows people to see that there are different solutions to playing forward rather than individual skill and technique. Players can work together to create combinations that can draw opponents out of position and open high valued passing lanes. Below is an example of this exercise.
Once you start painting the picture of opening up in possession, the next layer of the session for me is facilitating decision making and pass selection. As a coach, I now want to move away from simply maintaining possession of the ball and instead towards challenging them to choose one pass over another, which can be done in this case with some constraints throughout the exercise. The game starts as a 6v6 possession game with vertical and horizontal channels. Initially, I would let the players play without any restrictions so that they can feel the game and get used to the numbers and the spaces. Throughout this exercise, the scoring is simple: five consecutive passes equals one point. After two short rounds of basic possession, I would then begin to layer in the constraints in order to paint the pictures that we want them to see. The first progression would be that the player in possession cannot play in the same horizontal channel. This removes the ‘square pass’ which all coaches are familiar with, and perhaps now takes away that ‘safe’ option for the player. The second and final progression to the exercise is that the player in possession cannot pass in the same horizontal or vertical line. This is where I would look to recreate that picture from the Manchester City clip and challenge players to look diagonally to break pressure and find teammates in advanced areas. Depending on the level, these constraints may provide a high level of difficulty to the players, so coach behavior becomes critical in encouraging them to solve problems and find solutions.
I would then look to progress this into a more conventional game-type exercise but simply using width as a constraint. You can do this in a number of ways. A simple exercise like this below is a 7v7 game in a narrow playing area. Teams play 5v5 (including goalkeepers) with two target players on each end of the pitch. Teams score one point from a 'normal' goal, and then two points if the goal is scored from a target player. The narrow width challenges the players to open up in possession and then create passing opportunities to play forward.
Below is an example of when I used this game with Racing Louisville. You can see that the playing area is very narrow, but the attacking nature of the game brings out a number of different solutions by the players. There is individual skill, creativity, deception, combinations and speed of play that all impact that game in a positive way.
The last part of the exercise would be opening up the space and adding players into specific areas that you think they will face in games. As a coach, the responsibility now is to give them the freedom to see and experience the situations that you may have created earlier in the session. This example below from Racing Louisville is an 8v8 game with limited access to central spaces. You can see midfielder Yuki Nagasato checking her shoulder before dropping into a pocket of space and receiving a pass from the goalkeeper. With her awareness from the work done before receiving the ball, she knows where there is a vertical option to find a teammate in an attacking area. This pass allows a teammate to receive the ball without pressure and then progress the ball into an attacking overload and create a shot on goal.
Again, finding success in coaching verticality in possession takes a long-term approach from a coach. The ability to look at exercises and see if it adds or detracts value can be a tough process for a coach in itself but session design is crucial in painting pictures for your players and allowing them to experience situations where they can see and feel certain scenarios that will appear in a game. Facilitating feedback to players is another layer that can help players get better in this area. Video can be a massive tool for a coach to look back on with a player and get their perspective on whether they can see the same pictures that the staff are seeing within the structure of possession. Personally this is where I use animation tools to engage individual players in the process of feedback and facilitating discussions around specific scenarios that you want to create for your players, both individually and collectively.
If you are a coach who is looking for tactical analysis software, I highly recommend KeyFrame. They are one of the most efficient, effective and affordable solutions for coaches looking to build graphics and animations alongside their analysis work and are perfect for player meetings and remote learning. You can find out more about them here.