Pep Guardiola

How do modern teams dominate possession?

It's all very well getting the ball, but how do the best teams retain it, and make it work for them?

12:00pm on Monday 10th February 2020
Stevie Grieve

In the past decade, the concept of teams being utterly dominant in possession in order to control a match has become more popular, with Pep Guardiola in particular a pioneer of modern possession ideas.

It is not easy to ensure that teams not only retain the ball, but ensure that they are being offensively incisive and creating openings. As we discussed in our tactical analysis of Nice this season, simply having the ball means completely nothing - it is how you use that possession to make the opposition come out of their comfort zone is what is key.

So your team has the ball, and the well-disciplined opponent is lined up in a low block - what can you do to get through?

Coach Stevie Grieve covers this and many more topics in his Tactical Teacher course, and here he has given FootballCritic a breakdown of some of the ways the very best teams achieve this.




Players need to understand how they should move as the ball changes position by providing length, width or depth to the game based on horizontal/vertical zones. When should they move ahead of the ball, or behind the ball, and which runs should they make depending on how high up the pitch the team is?


Players need to play in front of, and between, two opponents to receive within a space directly ahead to move or pass between two opponents. Players also need to play between and behind two opponents to create positional superiority by being able to receive and turn behind the line of pressure.They should be on the shoulder of widest opponent to offer a pass around pressure, and attacking players should play between two players on the opposition defensive line to pin defence back.

Each player had to decide which of these reference points should determine his movements.Arrigo Sacchi


This references movement as the game flows to maintain position to split two opponents as they and ball move, and understanding mechanisms of each system the opposition utilises. Players need to play between defensive lines to receive in front and play through. They need to position in front of the line, around the line, and behind the line, as well as occupying multiple opponents.


Where is the optimal position to help team-mates (side-to-side and back-to-front) and where should the player move to, to establish structure? Should they run ahead, or drop off? The positioning of team-mates across multiple layers is crucial.

It's vital to have no more than four players on any one horizontal channel, as shown in Image 1 above. Teams can look to create as many angles as possible by staggering players across multiple levels.


This involves ball circulation. If we have two creative CMs who are more effective playing in the space behind the opposition midfield line, we may want to invert the FBs. In Image 2 above, to enable them to stay high, we will keep the wingers on the extreme width of the field and maintain the ability to quickly switch play to move the block.

The narrow FBs reduce the distances needed to cycle possession across the central zones, allowing more opportunities to change the ball position to play forward to CM or wide.

This high position of the CM can enable quicker counter-pressing after a turnover with the weak defensive spaces covered by the FBs playing in the narrow position closer to the CBs and DM.


This helps the team in possession to build a +1 situation, whether it be 2v1, 3v2 or 4v3. In Image 3 above, the right CB is in possession. The DM is in position to receive and recycle to either the left CB or to one of the three players (WF, CM, CM) between the lines. By taking up space between and behind two players, the midfield is forced to draw narrow, releasing space on the far side of the pitch, where the full-back is positioned. Players need to establish enough room between them and the opponent so that their first touch is such that they can protect the ball and turn in one movement. As the ball progresses, each player between and behind should have a runner on each side, thereby creating an attacking 3v2 (or +1 situation) in their favour.


This involves optimal ball circulation. If a team is defending deep, playing in a solid block, how do you get round them? Well, we need to make the players lose compactness both horizontally and vertically. We do this by forcing the block to move quickly multiple times by using long switches of play.

In Image 4 above, the CM switches long to the WF, meaning opposition players in the block need to move quickly to reach the far side to defend. As they all move, the ball goes from WF, to FB, to DM, who completes another long switch of play to the opposite flank. With this move, we may not have progressed the ball too far, but we have created a pattern of where space will appear as the block moves.

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