Whether defending a slim lead or working to establish rhythm in a game, any soccer team — even one built to absorb pressure and counterattack — needs to be strong in keeping possession under pressure. This requires patience, composure and lots of practice.
The concept of maintaining and recycling possession can be confusing to players, who are told from a young age to get the ball forward and go to goal as soon as possible. But the best way to control the game is by controlling the ball. And the only way to do that is by keeping it away from the opposing team.
The problem is that stereotypical possession drills tend to lack purpose and excitement. Counting passes doesn’t spark excitement like scoring a goal, and practices lose their competitive edge if players lose interest.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. From warmup rondos to sessions on building out of the back, there are tons of ways to punch up your possession-based practices and make them more fun, exciting and (most importantly) effective.
The Essential Possession Drill
I often see coaches set up the same basic possession drill: a 20×20 grid with two teams, each working to keep the ball. There’s nothing wrong with this, exactly, but there’s not much right either. There’s no purpose. There’s nothing to keep players engaged and interested.
That’s why I recommend tweaking the setup to increase the challenge. Make three evenly-matched teams of 4+ players. At any given time, two of these teams are working together to keep the ball away from the third team. Both attacking teams can play from inside the grid, or one can stay on the perimeter. Either way, defenders are outnumbered 2:1, forcing them to collaborate and communicate as they work to win the ball.
The beautiful (and tricky) part of this three-team possession game happens when the defenders succeed. The team that makes the mistake (losing possession) must immediately adapt to become the new defensive team, while the new attacking team must open up to create passing options and maximize space on the field.
This drill can be confusing at first, but teaches players the importance of quick transitions and effective communication. It also keeps players on their toes and constantly engaged both mentally and physically, rather than going through the motions. Watch one variation from the AFC Ajax U12 Academy below.
Making Possession Drills Competitive
Coaches can increase competitiveness and engagement in possession drills by raising the stakes.
When a team loses the ball, they could be responsible for a certain number of pushups, jumping jacks or sprints — this has the added benefit of minimizing confusion during quick transitions. Coaches could also place small goals on endlines and allow attacking teams to score after a certain number of completed passes — in that context, the defensive team gets an unwanted point (or strike) when they are scored on.
My personal favorite modification introduces fun attacking combinations and goalscoring excitement. A similar three-team possession drill is played 25 yards away from a full-sized goal. One of the three teams is neutral, spreading out along the perimeter of the 20 yd x 20 yd grid to provide both length and width.
After a certain number of completed passes, the attacking team plays a through ball (wide and towards goal) for one of these neutral players. The attacking team sends two attackers into the box, while the opposing team sends one player to defend against the incoming cross. Coaches can modify by specifying that only one-touch finishes, headed goals or volleys count for a point.
After going to goal, the attacking team quickly switches roles with the neutral team on the outside of the grid. The other two teams resume play as usual.
Coaching Points for Possession Drills
- Keeping possession depends on maximizing and utilizing space. Encourage players (and pause play if necessary) to constantly expand their playing area.
- This is a fantastic way to work with players on opening passing lanes and looking for penetrating passes. Help build your team’s soccer vocabulary with conversations around different lines of passing (first line, second line, third line/splitting passes).
- Keeping possession isn’t just about passing the ball. Particularly in small spaces, ball retention is an important competency for any player — and especially for midfielders. Teach your team how, when and why to protect the ball with your body.
- Sometimes the best thing to do in a situation is nothing at all. Patience and composure on the ball often mean waiting for the right time to take action.