Let's Talk about Direct Possession
“They’re a kick and run team.”
As a coach, I hear it often around the youth soccer pitches. The simplified, derogatory term makes its rounds on social media as well, often with a jab at a coach’s intellectual capacity or a club’s identity.
At times, it’s justified.
From a coach’s perspective, few aspects of your team’s performances are as rewarding as limiting the opposition to hopeless long balls. Granted, you’re not in the clear. Making a mistake and losing to one of these teams is about as awful as a coach can feel, but you’ve done your part to limit their attacking joy.
But those conversations about an opponent’s playing style led me to wonder if we’ve done enough to define the styles and distinguish different forms of direct play in possession.
This article won’t delve into counterattacking systems (more on that in a later blog post). For now, let’s break down the difference between the much-maligned Route 1 style (poor word choice) and direct possession.
Direct Styles of Play
Let's start with the most common form of direct soccer, at least at the youth level, the infamous Route 1 philosophy. This is a clear “win now” approach that pushes player development to the wayside at the youth level and removes aesthetics for the equation at all levels of play. To put it in simple terms, the fastest route is from point A to point B. Route 1 teams will attack on that straight line, looking to use the speed and athleticism of the forwards to get past the opponent and through to goal.
This approach is essentially playing the odds that they can keep you from scoring by overloading behind the ball, then playing the odds that the opponent will make a mistake that leads to a goal.
This requires absolutely no soccer intelligence, just an athletic advantage up top and a couple of mistakes from the defending team. It's the perfect win-now approach because it focuses on keeping defenders behind the ball and risking very little in the attack.
The reason we're so critical of this style of play at the youth level is that it sacrifices player development for the sake of a few wins in early childhood. Yes, this may work at the younger and lower levels of play, but it's not a sustainable playing philosophy or player development model. Quality teams learn how to play against this style. Athletic advantages are also easier to nullify as growth spurts kick in, leveling the playing field.
With such low tactical and soccer IQ demands, even the top players in these systems are typically average to below-average players by U15s or U16s. If your child wants to even entertain the possibility of playing the game at a higher level, be it at a regional or national club level or collegiately, a more intelligent and technically demanding program is a necessity.
Far from the “kick and run” of Route 1 soccer, direct possession maintains the lethal vertical qualities while also requiring players to engage in a more technically and tactically demanding approach. Rather than playing over the defenders and hoping your forward can outrun them, direct possession is typically a fast-paced attacking style that aggressively passes through the opposition's lines and engages in 1v1 duels in a very intentional manner.
Players with exceptional dribbling abilities are especially fond of this approach. Since the ball finds them quicker than an indirect possession style, your team's best dribblers often find themselves in 1v1 situations with running room in the wings. With additional space and isolation against the defender, the attacker can use his strength in the dribble against the outside-back or a covering centerback.
In the big picture, when the team attacks the opposition, they do so in a controlled and fast-paced manner. Another way to put it is teams are taking the space while it's still there. Direct possession is a high-tempo approach that acts on immediately available advantages.
Creating Direct Attacking Opportunities
This is not to say that every time a direct possession team has the ball they play forward. That’s simply not always on.
However, additional passes in the buildout or playing negative to move the defense along the X and Y axis can set up the line-breaking passes these teams are targeting. An example of a direct possession team is Inter Milan. The Serie A winners had the 6th most possession in the league at 52%, but their xG (expected goals) rated 4th in Europe’s top five leagues (per Wyscout).
The 3-4-1-2 that’s in vogue offers opportunities for direct possession as well. High central overloads, combined with the width provided by the two wingbacks, often positions the possessing team on either side of the opposition’s press or positioned around it. As we’re seeing in the Euros, defensive midfielders and central mids are essentially left in no-mans-land. Blocking a passing lane to the high targets is often their only defense.
If the passing lane into the high central overload is taken away, passes into the wingbacks serve to stretch the opponent’s pitch coverage on the X-axis. Playing into the wingbacks often targets the opponent’s outside-backs.
Wingbacks will often position themselves in the soft spot between the opponent’s wide forward/attacking mid and the outside-back. The former is generally reluctant to drop off to cover the wingback while the latter wants to maintain his connection with the rest of the backline. If the wingback receives and the wide forward isn’t able to recover, 1st defender responsibilities usually transfer to the near-sided outside-back.
As the outside-back steps higher and wider to contain the new threat, the possessing team’s high central overload becomes active. Now the passing lanes to the central targets are open and numeric equality achieved. There might even be a high, central numeric superiority for the attacking team.
Either way, these are numbers that favor the attacking side. Those superiorities don’t last very long, so the attacking team will look for a quick progression up the pitch, taking advantage of the newly available space and numbers.
Determining your style
From a coaching perspective, determining your team’s style of play is asking “how do I want my side to engage the game?”
Within a direct possession style, there’s a commitment to taking numeric and positional advantages as they arise. Defensive security and possession in deep parts of the pitch force the opponent to engage in a way that creates space for your top attackers.
We see this in the way Inter Milan created space for Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez to run at the opposition’s centerbacks. Chelsea’s deadly direct attacks helped them secure the Champions League title. Timo Werner, despite his goal-scoring struggles, stretched the pitch vertically with aggressive runs behind the defense, creating pockets of space for his two central teammates to receive passes and run at an unorganized backline.
Far from Route 1 soccer, direct possession is a controlled approach to direct attacking. It often starts with low tempo, deep buildouts, but those actions are by design. Rather than unbalancing the opposition in their own defensive third, where there’s less space to disorganize them, direct possession looks to maximize space on the vertical axis and attack it once the opponent’s overcommit high up the field. Plus, that change in tempo is deadly.
It’s quick, structured, purposeful, and lethal.
It’s also a lot of fun to watch.
So, as you turn on the next Euros or Copa América match, look for tactical objectives of direct possession teams.
Next week, we'll move from direct possession to indirect.
P.S. The Sweeper Keeper Newsletter goes out every Sunday. You’ll get the best soccer content from the previous week. How does it work? I sweep the web for content, keep my five favorite articles, and pass them along to you. No clutter, no additional noise, just great reading material for your Sunday.