Is There Too Much Emphasis on Keeping Possession in the Modern Game?

On March 2, 2019, Bournemouth set a new unwanted record as they became the first top-flight team since the start of the 2003-04 season to fail to register a single shot during their 1-0 defeat to Manchester City. Not only did they fail to trouble Ederson, they also ended the 90 minutes with a remarkable 17.9% possession.

Three days later, Manchester United booked their place in the last eight of the UEFA Champions League with just 32% possession at the Parc Des Princes. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side were excellent in Paris, and thoroughly deserved their victory, but the one-sided possession stats did prompt the question: does having more of the ball matter in the modern game?

A rather simplistic explanation of the benefits of possession is that it automatically prevents the opposition from scoring. However, there is always the danger of sides sitting deep, and the game becoming a deeply uninteresting spectacle for the neutrals. Many soccer coaches use possession-based drills as part of their daily routine, and these generally help teach players the value of accuracy and maintaining control of each and every situation. The Barcelona Small Sided Game is one of many popular drills which is widely used at all levels of the games, and the Catalan outfit have become the ultimate poster boys for keep-ball tactics. 

Although the personnel has changed substantially over the past decade, the Blaugrana have stuck rigidly to their favoured tiki-taka approach, and it has been replicated by a large number of coaches across Europe. Unsurprisingly, the Spanish national team have also been associated with this patient style of play, but its flaws were horribly exposed when they crashed out in the last 16 of the 2018 World Cup, and have since reverted to a more direct approach under Luis Enrique. 

La Roja found the Russian defence obstinate, and were unable to find room in the final third. Their possession stats were admirable, but they moved the ball from side-to-side without any real purpose or penetration. 

In the Premier League, Burnley regularly prop up the possession charts, yet Sean Dyche's side always find a way to grind out results. As of March 7th, the Clarets aren't completely clear of the drop zone, and are available at 8/1 to be relegated in the latest Premier League betting, but they have proved that you don't necessarily require much of the ball in order to survive in the English top flight. It is not uncommon for Dyche's men to have less than 30% possession against top six sides, but the former defender does not see this as an issue. 

Jose Mourinho's 'Parking the Bus' tactic has been well-documented over the last couple of seasons, but despite its criticism from high profile pundits, the Portuguese regularly had the knack of picking up results when it mattered. Possession stats did not concern the former Chelsea and Manchester United boss, yet he is one of the most decorated coaches in the modern game. 

Keeping hold of the ball tends to suggest a well-oiled outfit, but coaches who are able to confidently alter their approach on a game-by-game basis tend to thrive in the Premier League. Possession does tend to increase the chances of winning a match, and it is hard to argue with that notion. There is an obvious correlation between teams who keep the ball successfully and their positions in the table, but managers must have the right personnel in order to set up in this way. 

It is advantageous to dominate the possession stats, but it doesn't always necessarily result in three points. If Bournemouth had snatched a draw from their match against Manchester City, Bournemouth would surely have been praised for keeping Pep's side off the score-sheet, and very little would have been made of the fact they barely touched the ball. Tiki-Taka has been hugely successful over the last twenty years, but coaches are now finding new ways of using the ball proactively without necessarily dominating the possession count.