Keeping it Simple – Part Three

This is the third part of the mini series by Gareth Millward. The other two parts can be found here;

Part One

Part Two

Keeping it simple – Passing patterns


  • Slow methodical passing is not always the best way to hold possession, especially against pressing sides
  • Knowing when to “hold” and when to “go for it” is important for your overall strategy
  • You don’t have to completely change your approach – but you may need to make some changes to your basic game plan

One of the great advantages of my possession-based football is that I can play defensively with the ball. While I have it, my opponent can’t score. Most of the time, then, I tell my team to “retain possession” in the team instructions.

What this does “under the hood” is make the team play at a slightly slower tempo and with slightly shorter passing. The idea being that players will pass the ball to someone nearby, take fewer risks and take their time before making a decision.

All well and good. But – as with everything else – it’s about compromises. As we did last time for pressing, then, what are the characteristics of “retain possession” versus “regular” passing systems?

Retain possession – pros and cons

Retain Don’t retain
A Reduces risky passes Looks to carve openings
B Keeps the ball away from opponents Forces opponents to react
C Vulnerable to high pressing Able to bypass the press
D Can use skill to work through opposition defence Concedes the ball to well-drilled defences via interceptions
E Conserves energy by slowing the game down Requires energy to play quicker and regain ball if lost
F Works well with technically gifted midfielders Works well with “athletic” players

And, as ever, this is an oversimplification… But it gives you an idea of the ways in which retain possession works.

The two areas that most concern me are (C) and (D). The reason I play with the ball is so that the opposition don’t have it. And, ultimately, I want skilful players (for my level) to break the other team down. Sometimes, however, you need to do this in a slightly different way.

As I discussed last week, I press to put my opponents under pressure and force them to make decisions. As I also discussed, if I don’t do this effectively, the other team can play quick forward passes and completely bypass my press.

Consummate tactics hipster Jonathan Wilson explains this well.

If there are spaces when a team presses, then it’s relatively easy for the opponent to thread passes through the gaps. That applies both vertically and laterally – Arrigo Sacchi, who pioneered pressing at Milan in the 1980s, spoke of an ideal of 25m from the most advanced player to the back four, while there is also a requirement for, say, the right-winger to move centrally when the ball is on the left. 

So, how do we use this to our advantage?

Switching gears

At times I’m pressing where I should, but still cannot get the ball into dangerous areas. This usually comes in two situations, and often with a combination of the two. Either:

  1. The opposition is putting pressure on my midfield; or
  2. The opposition is flooding the midfield

In these circumstances, my players cannot get their passing game together. The opposition’s press is doing to me what I intended to do to them. This often results in losing the ball through misplaced passes or dawdling on the ball. When that happens, I get hit on the counter and concede good chances.

It bears repeating what I said last time – if the defending team presses, quick passes over or around them can break the defensive system.


It doesn’t matter if you have 70% of the ball. One good counter – one clear cut chance against – and the game can be lost. That’s football. And it’s bad game management on my part when that happens.

When things aren’t working, it’s time to try something new. But that doesn’t mean changing formation and completely reformulating your approach. Why would you? That would mean multiple substitutions, and there’s no guarantee that you won’t need to switch again later. Besides, there’s only so many formations and approaches that you can train during the week. (Especially if you’re a part-time outfit. Trust me.)

With the same players and the same formation, the first thing I would want to do is make some minor changes and see if we can gain some ground.

Before explaining what I do, it’s perhaps best to outline what I notice when things aren’t going well. What do I see during the match that makes me want to switch?

How do you see this in the match engine?

  • You have a lot of possession “in the last 5 minutes”, but are not getting any shots/highlights
  • The opposition is getting a lot of chances to score on the break (from tackles or misplaced passes)
  • Your forward players do not appear to be getting many touches of the ball and/or attempts on goal
  • Problems have become more pronounced since the commentary noted the opponent got more defensive
  • On extended highlights, you notice lots of sideways passing, or one-twos in the midfield, but few balls that penetrate the opposition
  • The opposition has three (or more) central midfielders

If one or more of these things is happening, and I need to take the game to the opposition, I do the following:

  1. Uncheck “retain possession”
  2. Ask the players to “work ball into box”

I’ll explain what I mean by “taking the game to the opposition” in a later post. But in brief, I mean that I need a goal, or I think that by sitting back I’m leaving myself vulnerable.


Well, unchecking “retain possession” encourages my players to move quicker and to play more forward balls. I am explicitly asking my players to do what pressing sides hate to see: make a quick pass forward before the defender can reach you, taking them out of the game. It also allows more balls to be played into spaces, or over the top of the midfield, forcing the opponent into deeper areas.

I still want the players to create good chances, though. My possession-based game is designed to create fewer chances, but better quality ones. So, I don’t want them trying to bang it in from 30 yards. At least not all the time. I’d rather they worked the ball into the box where an in-cutting winger or striker can tap home. As I said – I’m looking for a change of approach, not to completely abandon my system.

Simply by speeding up the tempo of the game, it can disrupt the opposition, forcing them to react.

There are other reasons for doing this.

To take us back to the list of characteristics earlier, points (D) and (F) are worth noting. The idea behind retaining possession is that your skilful or powerful players will unlock defences by out-thinking and out-moving them. Some days, however, that just isn’t going to happen.

Perhaps the pitch is a quag. Perhaps your magical playmaker is injured, suspended, or just having the worst game of his life. The opposition may just be having their best defensive game in weeks. In any case, Plan A just ain’t working. That’s when changing your approach can give you something – anything – else. At the very least, it’s worth trying for a few minutes to see if it improves your fortunes.

In most cases, the strategies I’ve outlined in this post and my previous one are my two “go-to” changes that I make when things are not going right. They solve (or at least mitigate against) most of my problems in common, run-of-the-mill league games against teams of similar quality.

Next time, I will be looking at what to do when the opposition are not so common. Sometimes, their approach or formation is just so completely different, it’s time to make some tweaks of your own. So, I’ll be taking you through some characteristics of midfield shapes – what to look out for, when to change and when to stick to your guns.

6 thoughts on “Keeping it Simple – Part Three”

  1. Fantastic Posts! Looking forward to the next one. This one really made me think more about what i can do better for the next match, instead of blaming the game when the opposition wins with 1 shot. Like you said matches can be one or lost in a second 😉

    1. There will be a part four but no time-scale as to when yet due to the author being a bit tied up at the minute 🙂

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