In its simplest form, ball possession in soccer is typically approached in one of two ways. A team will either look to maintain possession of the ball often with the intent of unbalancing the opposing defence through passing and movement, until a space is created through which to penetrate, or a team will look to willingly concede possession, with the aim of exploiting space created through quick transitional play. There are hundreds if not thousands of different strategies – including variations of team and group tactics as well as line-ups and formations – with which teams can achieve these objectives, however, almost all of these strategies can ultimately be grouped into two sub-categories:
- High Percentage Ball Possession
- Low Percentage Ball Possession
Despite the differences in game strategy, a recent study by Soccer Research Group at the University of Sunderland (Bradley et al., 2013) found that there is no significant difference in the total amount of running or high intensity running between teams using high and low percentage of ball possession. The study examined over 20 teams and over 800 players from the English FA Premier League. The players were grouped into these two sub-categories, with “high percentage ball possession teams” or “HGBPT” (teams that had 55+/- 4% ball possession in matches) and “low percentage ball possession teams” or “LPBPT” (teams that had 46 +/- 4% ball percentage in matches). Researchers analysed the teams based on several different physical and technical performance indicators. Among the performance indicators measured were (from the physical side) total amount of running, and total distance covered at different running speeds, and (from the technical side) passes, shots, dribbles, tackles, and possessions won and lost. In addition, this particular study also compared performance in these metrics amongst different playing positions, including fullbacks, central defenders, wide midfielders, central midfielders and strikers.
Their findings also yielded some other interesting results. It found a significant difference in the amount of high intensity running done when in possession of the ball, compared to the amount of high intensity running done when not in possession of the ball, between the two sub-categories. HPBPT did 31% more high intensity running when in possession than did LPBPT. Conversely, HPBPT did 22% less high intensity running when not in possession of the ball than did LPBPT. This suggests that despite using high intensity running at different times in a team’s game strategy, both sub-categories of teams engage in similar total amounts of high intensity running .
There were also positional differences in physical performance. Central defenders in LPBPT did 33% less high intensity running when in possession than did central defenders in HPBPT. Meanwhile fullbacks, strikers, and central/wide midfielders in LPBPT all did significantly more high intensity running without ball possession than did their counterparts in HPBPT.
The two sub-categories of teams differed in their technical performance as well. Players in HPBPT performed 44% more passes, and also had a significantly higher percentage of successful passes, received passes, touches per possession, shots, dribbles and ﬁnal-third entries, than did players in LPBPT. Total passes, passes received, and pass completion percentage, were all higher in HPBPT than in LPBPT, across all playing positions
So what does all of this information mean to soccer coaches and fitness coaches? First of all, it is imperative for any coach and/or fitness coach to take note of what type of team (HPBPT or LPBPT) they are working with, and also what their particular strategy for an upcoming match will be (do they intend to have more or less ball possession in their upcoming match?). Once this critical piece of information has been identified, then some specific training strategies may be implemented based on the findings of the study.
HPBPT are required to do more high intensity running while in possession of the ball, so coaches and fitness coaches should design training exercises, such as conditioned small-sided games, that require a lot of running off the ball to be done by players who are supporting the ball-carrier, in order to maintain possession. In contrast, since LPBPT do more high intensity running when not in possession of the ball, coaches or fitness coaches working with these teams should spend more time on defending sessions (functional exercises, or small-sided games), which elicit a similar type of movement and game play. Position-specific training might also be an important addition to teams’ training routines, based on their percentage of ball possession. Central defenders in HPBPT, for example, may need to perform some functional sessions with a lot of high intensity running, as they will be required to do a high amount of high intensity running during game play. Players in the other outfield positions in HPBPT will also need to do more high intensity running in training, in addition to training with a high number of passes in their sessions while maintaining possession of the ball.
Ultimately, the planning and implementation of strategies and tactics prior to match play in soccer is a complicated process. When planning training and preparing for an opponent, coaches and fitness coaches must account for a variety of factors including the strengths and weaknesses of the individual players in the team, as well as those of the opponent, and they must consider the results and evidence gleaned from recent studies like the one done by the Soccer Research Group. If their strategy involves maintaining possession of the ball, their players will be required to perform large amounts of high intensity running, while at the same time managing a high number of passes, all while they are attacking and in possession. Thus, the physical and technical training for a team striving to maintain a high percentage of ball possession must include exercises which mimic these actions on the pitch. On the other hand, teams aiming to play with low percentage of ball possession must do most of their high intensity running when they do not have the ball. In this case, coaches and fitness coaches must plan exercises that force players to do the majority of their high intensity running when defending, rather than when attacking. If and when these teams do win possession and transition into attack, they must also train and prepare to maximize the efficiency of their movements, limiting the amount and speed of their running and trying to get to goal as quickly as possible.
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