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How to build a possession philosophy without copying Barcelona or Spain

Football fanatics, people who truly understand football, know that by trying to copy the Barcelona or Spain model you are unlikely to succeed or even be on a path conducive to long term development. However, Barcelona’s philosophy (possession-based control) is something that clubs can and do strive towards.

This article will attempt to detail just how Premier League teams currently build upon their possession-based philosophy through tactical solutions. For the purposes of trying to find general principles, this article will consider the opposition to play with a traditional 4-4-2; in reality, many Premier League teams still defend in variations of either a 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 defensive block, regardless of their attacking solutions. This article has considered the tactical solutions of Arsenal, Swansea, Wigan (Roberto Martinez) and Liverpool  – all of which look to dominate football matches through possession as a primary objective.

In all cases, the ‘secret’ to possession football is two fold: the ability to create overloads on the field and the ability of the players to play under pressure. Many of the teams mentioned above look to achieve possession football through an adaption of the Barcelona method (less attacking) and they achieve this through their positional systems. Brendan Rodgers (Liverpool), Swansea Football Club and Arsène Wenger (Arsenal) all look to play through their own club-unique 4-3-2-1 formations (when out of possession),  they then look to overload central areas to facilitate building up from the back and through the thirds. All three teams are therefore outnumbered in the final third when the opposition is prepared, this then means that each team looks to play in between the lines in the final third and that the remainder of the team should look to break forward to support. An attacking solution that is only made possible because of the quality of their players to get back into position when required. On the other hand, Roberto Martinez’s philosophy is one that focuses on two aspects of football: overloads and 1 vs. 1 specialists.

In all cases, the emphasis is very much placed on positioning.


“There is so much depth to this philosophy and I am starting to realise that it is all about ‘the system’ as they call it. It is not about passing. It is not about pressing. It is not about possession. It is all about positioning!”

Jon Collins, Reading Coach


Jon Collins is a Reading FC coach who has studied alongside Eusebio Sacristán (Celta Vigo) and Carlos Hugo Garcia Bayón (now Barcelona B) during his PhD in Spanish Training Methodology with the assistance of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao, Malaga and others.

It wasn’t until I spoke to Tim Lees of Wigan Athletic that I truly understood the importance of Jon Collins’ quote. I’m sure that many reading this will understand the importance of ‘triangles’ on a football field as the pundits on MOTD will highlight (and then say no more on), I fail to understand how this detail alone can offer players any real understanding as to how they should be creating overloads on the greater scale of a football match. What is more valuable information however, is the more general detail that can be offered to players in how to create consistent overloads on a football field through formations.

Tim Lees, who has worked closely with Roberto Martinez in the past and was sent out to study the work of Paco Jémez of Rayo Vallecano in recent years, explained how the overloading details are a result of both the coach’s instructions and the player’s ability to create unique overloads during the football match. Overloads are far more complex than ‘the overlapping of a full-back to create a 2 vs. 1 situation in wide areas’, there are instead two different types of overloads.

1. Through the manager’s tactical solutions: the formation/system 

This type of overload has been made visually clear in the following two diagrams. I have kept Roberto Martinez’s solution separate from the solutions of the other three teams as I believe Martinez’s solution has a different approach all together in how the team should attack in the final third.

1 in-possession-form-WIGAN 2 in-possession-343

In both solutions you are able to build up play from the back due to favourable overloads and this build up is often from central areas. Cruyff always emphasised the importance of building up from central areas through his use of a libero (Rijkaard) and this was because of his positional advantage of being able to pass to the left, right or centrally further afield. If the full-back is used to build up play, you eliminate the possibility of playing to the other side, as the switch is often time consuming and allows the opposition to simply shuffle across the field (remaining in their defensive shape). The 1-4-3-2-1 (1-3-4-3) teams manage to achieve this by instructing their ‘controller’ (deep lying midfielder) to drop into the central defensive space and the two central defenders pushing wide as the full-backs push on into midfield.

Martinez has always possessed players who are considered 1 vs. 1 specialists (Callum McManaman, Antonio Valencia, Victor Moses etc.) and his attacking third approach is therefore one that looks to isolate the opposition’s defence into 1 vs. 1 scenarios. Liverpool, Arsenal and Swansea however differ in their approach to the attacking third due to their lack of numbers against the opposition’s defence.

In the 1-3-4-3 solution, the dynamic movement of the front three is essential to help create overloads in the middle third. While this can also be achieved by the defensive midfielder pushing on forward, it is often more effective to find that long flat ball along the ground into one of the front three – because of the amount of space they will have around them. This was also the solution of Guus Hiddink for his South Korea team back in the 2002 World Cup – where South Korea impressed and finished in fourth position. The ability of the front three is relied upon to help create danger in the final third and this is perhaps an area of the field that Liverpool (in particular) will look to further improve on next season.

In the Martinez attacking shape, you may have come to the conclusion that they have simply ‘ignored’ the roles of the opposition wingers. It is extremely rare that both wing-backs will push on into these attacking positions at the same time and more common that one will accelerate on into a more attacking position than the other. This therefore leaves one full-back in a slightly more defensive position to cover the space on the flank should the opposition attempt to counter-attack through one of their wingers.

2. Through the player’s tactical intelligence

It is for this reason (the team’s collective tactical intelligence) that it often takes many months for teams to adjust to this particular playing style. It is essential that the players within the team are able to create unpredictable overloads all over the pitch through their own movement (away from the desired tactical shape).

Take the example where your full-back in possession and he is being pressed by the opponent’s winger. The 2 vs. 1 scenario can be created in a number of different ways: (1) your winger can look to drop back and offer an angle away from the pressing player, (2) your deep lying playmaker can break free and offer a pass inside or (3) your central defender may take up a deep position directly in behind the full-back offering support in this deeper position. This type of solution to creating overloads comes with the understanding built between a playing squad and the player’s ability to find space where there is seemingly none. In England we do not create enough players who can take the ball (while closely marked) in tight spaces and draw the opposition into a particular space to make space for another. We cannot therefore consistently think about ‘the second or third pass’ while in possession.

In the Premier League, it is essential that the ball circulation form accounts for the movement of players should they lose the ball and need to get back into their defensive shape. The defensive solution needs to be as considered as the attacking shape and has to relate to how you wish to keep the ball. There is a very good reason that Wigan Athletic’s players take up five of the top ten ‘interceptions per minute’ table (as pointed out by @Kopology) and that reason is simply down to the defensive overloads in key defensive areas.

top10 mins per interception
*Those who have played >270 minutes (3 games)

1 out-of-possession-WIGAN 2 out-of-possession-433

Roberto Martinez’s Wigan overloads allowed for the Wigan midfield trio and central defensive trio to have two players man-marking and one player looking to zonal mark (i.e. breaking free of the unit to intercept the play). The top-10 table however, shows that this system in place was far from static and it appears that the players involved in the entire team’s set up would look to cover another player’s movement should he look to leave his man unmarked.

In the Liverpool, Arsenal and Swansea defensive set up, the team are set up to defend 1 vs. 1 scenario’s in their defensive third. In the middle and attacking third however, the team’s look to press when appropriate and they do this with a collective effort. The movement from the defensive block to an aggressive press is made through the understanding that the zonal marking player (no. 6) will take up the best space possible to allow you to leave your man and go forward to press the opposition. While I will not demonstrate in this article (as it is covered well in my upcoming book) it is possible that three players can press five opponents effectively to recover possession and eliminate the opponent’s passing options. It is this proposal that leads Brendan Rodgers to the conclusion that the pressing game is the most appropriate solution to recovering possession, rather than Martinez’s more patient and defensive overloading solution.

Much of this article’s content has been discussed and analysed through interviews with many possession-based favouring coaches in the Premier League and La Liga. I do however believe that it is possible, through an effective coaching programme, for more English teams to look to play the game with a possession-based control philosophy.

So what is the secret to Spain and Barcelona’s success? Well there isn’t any one secret, but it certainly isn’t all down to the playing ability of their players alone. The tactical understanding of coaches in this country and the implementation process are just as important. That is to say if the coaching qualifications run by the English FA to not allow for a Manchester United coach to use his preferred 3-5-2 formation during his A License prep course and then being instructed he had to use a 4-4-2 formation, then unfortunately at the highest levels of England’s coaching qualifications, overloads are (to a certain extent) overlooked all together

[quote]Jed Davies’ book on developing a possession philosophy in football will be available to buy in August 2013. The book has taken over two years and hundreds of club visits and interviews to write with the help of coaches from the likes of Liverpool FC, Swansea City FC, Wigan Athletic FC, Barcelona B, Barcelona-USA, Villarreal, Bahrain-U23’s national manager and many more professional coaches who have expertise in possession football. Please sign up to www.jeddavies.com to be informed about it’s release.[/quote]


Manchester United coach not being allowed to use 3-5-2 : Read article by @markproskills [Mark Senior] in the DailyMail on the 26th of June

All other quotes are from private interviews conducted by Jed C.Davies and are included in his upcoming publication (August 2013)

Assistant Manager of Oxford University Centaurs and Head of Analysis. The Tiki-Taka Handbook can be ordered from: http://shop.soccertutor.com/Coaching-the-Tiki-Taka-Style-of-Play-p/st-b019.htm Director of inspire football events | Football writer & youth academy coach - jeddavies.com | Writer on several websites as well as Liverpoolfc.tv and many more | Please follow me on Twitter - @TPiMBW or www.Facebook.com/JedDaviesFootballCoaching | Always open for a reasoned debate so please leave a comment
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