Possession is Everything

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England’s performance in Euro 2012 was predictable and painful to watch. There’s no chance of England getting any further than the quarter-finals in a major tournament until they change their entire approach to the game. With the right manager who can instil confident, attacking football they may have a chance to reach the semi’s. To win the competition though they would need to beat Spain; a team that has re-defined how football should be played.

Possession, Possession, Possession.

Spain understand that the key to winning is possession, every time.

Have you noticed how Spain hardly ever loft a ball into the penalty box directly from a corner? To most of us that might seem a wasted opportunity to attack the goal. To Spain, a corner is an opportunity to lose possession of the ball. That’s why they nearly always play it out. They know that corner kicks can result in, at best, a 50% chance of winning the ball, and those odds aren’t good enough. They know that to create an opportunity and score they need to have possession of the ball, so keeping the ball comes above everything else.

It’s a numbers game. England may have the passion (or used to at least), but Spain have the brains. It’s like watching a game of chess. They constantly probe their opponents defence looking for weaknesses. They rarely shoot from out of the box because the odds aren’t good enough. Like a corner, long shots are merely opportunities to lose possession. Even on the edge of the penalty box they only shoot if they know they have good odds of scoring. That’s why they get accused of trying to walk the ball into the box.

Spain doesn’t have the best defence in the world. They don’t need to. Their form of defence is keeping possession of the ball. Just look at the stats. They conceded only one goal in Euro 2012 and only 6 in the last three major tournaments combined. They stack their side with midfielders in every position because these are the players who are best at keeping the ball.

It was telling that in the final of Euro 2012 they didn’t start with any recognisable strikers. It’s not just because they’ve got outstanding midfielders in the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, and Fabregas who are all capable of scoring goals. It’s because their form of possession football means that sooner or later they know they’re going to get an opportunity where any one of the outfield players can score.

Can England Change

So the question is, can and should the England team change the way they play to match Spain’s winning formula?

Most pundits don’t think to seem it’s possible. I was watching the Twitter feed when England lost to Italy and I noticed Michael Owen tweet that people should stop saying that England should play like Spain as England aren’t capable of playing that kind of possession football.

Is this really true? He would know better than me but surely if England have any hope of winning a major tournament they should at least consider it. It’s not going to happen overnight. England’s players all play in the Premier League which is known for fast-paced, exciting football; which, as a by-product, does not necessarily result in a high percentage of possession for the winning side. Also, when foreign managers from La Liga come to the Premier League they tend to adopt the style played in the Premier League rather than change to the style favoured by Barcelona and Spain.

In my view, for England to start playing possession football it would need 1) to start in the academies, both at a club and national level, and 2) require more English players to play in foreign leagues, particularly La Liga. Whilst the EPL is full of foreign players there’s only a handful of English players that have made the jump to foreign leagues.

With the right manager and players could England win a major tournament playing the English way? Perhaps. Spain have a recipe for success but it doesn’t always get the right result. After all, Portugal beat Spain 4–0 in 2010. So does that undermine my argument? I don’t think so. There’s always going to be anomalies in a game where form, fitness, conditions and importantly, luck, play a role. The exception doesn’t disprove the rule.

With Harry Redknapp in charge you would like to think that England would have had more confidence to keep attacking the opposition as opposed to playing defensively to protect their lead - the tactic that failed miserably in Euro 2012. Harry Redknapp could have got them to the final. They still wouldn’t have beaten Spain though.