A comprehensive guide to direct possession - 2023 Advent Calendar Series
Celebrate Advent with excerpts from Scott Martin's top articles on Total Football Analysis. Head to scottmartinmedia.com or Scott's LinkedIn profile each day through December 24th for the next installment.
Often when you hear someone speak about direct vs possession football, you’ll find “direct” used in a pejorative manner.
Whereas possession is associated with structure, control, intricate movements, and purposeful attacking, direct is often derided as a less aesthetically pleasing form of football. It’s simple, less intricate, and more easily replicated. There’s also the reduction of direct play to a hit-and-hope Route 1 philosophy. Any old squad can have success with the direct approach whereas possession is the burden of talent.
That’s where we’ll make our first distinction. Rather than distinguishing direct from possession, we’re reframing the concept to think of it as direct possession vs indirect possession. Another term for direct possessions is "artificial transitions."
Let’s start with a necessary distinction. The full article also covers other forms of direct possession and finishes with how defensive structures can create opportunities for direct attacks.
Route 1 vs Direct Possession
The most widely known form of direct possession is certainly the old-school Route 1, so we’ll start there and examine how this simplified hit-and-hope tactic (while successful at times) differs from more developed forms of direct possession.
While there is a hit-and-hope element to Route 1 football, teams that utilize this style significantly increase their chances of success latching on to the long ball if they can get numbers high up the pitch, typically with a speed advantage over the opposition. Our example of the approach comes from a West Ham United FC vs Leicester City Football Club match. Looking at West Ham, in particular, the club ranked 85th out of the UEFA top five leagues (98 teams) in possession, averaging 42.9 per game. However, they ranked 28th in goals per 90 minutes, averaging 1.52 with the 20th-rated total xG for the 2020/21 campaign.
In this example, Leicester has committed numbers high up the pitch to press the West Ham build-out. Leicester’s backline is high up the pitch, leaving space for the West Ham forwards to run into. Issa Diop recognizes the vulnerability and plays the ball over the top.
Jarrod Bowen latches on to the long pass, beating Kasper Schmeichel to the ball. Jesse Lingard makes a supporting run in the central channel, resulting in a simple square pass and finish to give the home side a 2-0 lead.
Route 1 directs the attack along the most efficient line. The attack is vertical, traveling along the shortest path, from A to B. It’s simple, plays the odds, and allows teams to prioritize low-block defending. It’s a risk-averse approach to the game that gambles on a mistake from the opposition that leads to goal-scoring opportunities.
That’s the prototypical view of direct attacking. But how does that differ from direct possession?
By direct possession, I mean a structured, controlled attacking brand of football that seeks to break lines and attack space with as few passes and as little time as possible. Not necessarily point A to point B, direct possession is not reliant on hopeful balls over the top, but, rather, is designed to capitalize on spatial and numeric vulnerabilities in the opposition through tightly connected networks, often with passes played on the ground.
To visualize an excellently executed attack through direct possession, we turned to FC Bayern München. After Borussia VfL 1900 Mönchengladbach GmbH’s long pass was claimed by Manuel Neuer, the sweeper-keeper played a simple short pass to his teammate, Jerome Boateng. The centerback found Joshua Kimmich, who positioned himself beyond the first line of Borussia Mönchengladbach’s press, allowing him to touch the ball upfield on the half-turn and attack space through the dribble.
As he nears midfield, Kimmich attacks the second line of the press while the first line continues its pursuit. With the first line unable to catch Kimmich, the second line steps up with Denis Zakaria stepping into a first-defender role.
But the second line is essentially caught in no man’s land and pinned to the spot. A simple outlet pass from Kimmich to Robert Lewandowski breaks the second line. Notice that in each image, Bayern Munich players have taken up positions between the lines, allowing them to play through the press, take their first touch on the half-turn, and attack space through the dribble.
As Borussia Mönchengladbach collapses on Lewandowski, he finds Thomas Müller isolated against Matthias Ginter. The pass is played into Müller, who receives the ball on the half-turn, allowing him to continue the team’s vertical move up the pitch. To his left, he has Jamal Musiala and David Alaba in a 2v1 against Stephen Lanier.
The pass is kicked wide to Alaba, who then cuts inside and prepares his cross. Kingsley Coman made an aggressive run into the central channel, commanding the attention of Ramy Bensebaini. Lewandowski reads the move perfectly, making the back post run to effectively switch roles with Coman. Alaba’s cross finds him at the back post and the Pole finishes off the play with a second-minute goal.
Route 1 is as simple as attacking can get. Point A to Point B in two passes in the West Ham scenario. Bayern Munich’s direct possession was much different. Although their move required just five passes before depositing the ball in the back of the net, we can see the principles of direct attacking at work in Die Roten’s possession.
First, their deep starting point and low tempo at the start of the possession encouraged the first line of the press to step forward along the vertical axis.
Second, as space widened between the Borussia Mönchengladbach lines, the Bayern Munich players intelligently positioned themselves between the lines.
Third, to play quickly and take advantage of the space readily available to them, we saw the Bayern players receive the ball in a side-on position, meaning their backs were facing the sideline allowing them to receive on the half turn. That body orientation allowed them to see the lines in front and behind them.
Fourth, knowing they had time and space to turn, the Bayern players quickly attacked space and looked to pin the defenders on the dribble.
Steps two through four were repeated twice more, then the Bundesliga champions attacked the opposition’s goal in numbers. Clever movements in the box freed Lewandowski for the goal, but it was the precision, efficiency, and management of time and space to create superiorities and pin the opposition that were ultimately successful in this goal-scoring move.
For the full article, which offers far more insight, including sections on hitting the target man, indirect buildout to direct attacks, counterattacking, and How defensive tactics create direct possession opportunities. Head to Total Football Analysis for the full analysis.
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Day 16 - A comprehensive guide to direct possession