Comment: What ever happened to possession?

After Bayern’s victory in the DFL-Supercup a discussion started, which Pep Guardiola has known all too well in his time in Germany. Carlo Ancelotti’s team voluntarily gave up possesion and with that gave up control. Can this system be successful or should the Italian adhere to the basic principles of positional play? A comment. Author: Justin • Translator:

The start of the Bundesliga season is near. It would be unfair towards the team, but more so for Ancelotti, to draw premature conclusions. Mats Hummels criticized his own performance openly, but also stated that this has to be expected at this point of the season. In our last match analysis, we pointed out that the structural problems are caused by lacking automatisms. Nevertheless, after the Supercup game there were again some fundamental discussion about ball possession, just like in the previous years.

A short look back

The record champion lost three Champions League semi-finals during Guardiola’s tenure. One of them against Ancelotti’s Real Madrid in 2014. The Italian coach focused on deep midfield pressing to create quick counter attack moments with Bale and Ronaldo. Bayern’s positional play was destroyed 5-0 in two games. In the next year no other than FC Barcelona waited. It was the clash of two possession hungry teams. Again Bayern lost, this time 5-3 on aggregate. Bayern lacked a lot of injured players and the fitness of some players who had only returned shortly before the game was questionable. Nevertheless, Guardiola stuck to his playing style seeking dominance.

Third year – third defeat. Bayern faced the world’s best organized 4-4-2 midfield pressing when they played Atletico Madrid, but Bayern was able to create more than 50 shots in the two games. It wasn’t enough, because the conversion of chances was poor and Atletico did score that one deciding away goal with their dangerous counter attacks.

On Sunday in the Supercup match we saw the opposite situation. Borussia Dortmund could have been upfront with 2 or 3 goals after the first half, maybe even should have been. While they didn’t score, Arturo Vidal did. With probably the third coherent attack of the game Bayern scored the 1-0 in the 60th minute. All relevant statistics favoured Dortmund, but the passivity of the Bayern squad wasn’t punished this night and so the result overshadowed the performance.

Pep Guardiola hinterließ ein Ballbesitz-System nahe der Perfektion. Wie viel wird Ancelotti davon übernehmen?(Foto: Marc Mueller / Bongarts / Getty Images)
Pep Guardiola left behind a possesion focused style near perfection. How much will Ancelotti take over?
(Photo: Marc Mueller / Bongarts / Getty Images)

The Benefits of the possession focused style

Ancelotti would have been openly criticized, if Bayern had lost the game, which was entirely possible. But the critical voices remained silent. Even his comment about the team playing very good, was not overly commented. Guardiola always focused on the performance of his team, it was his highest priority. While searching for the system with the highest chances of success he found “juego de posicion” – the positional play.

Bayern wanted to have the ball – if you have the ball the opponent can’t score. The basic principle is that simple and it worked. Guardiola set his team up extremely aggressive and offensive, but has also set a new defensive record with just 17 goals conceded in the last season. A historic best. The most important benefit of the position play is the structural superiority. If implemented correctly, the team can always create situations with a number advantages in the important areas. More so the squad has been more flexible than ever over the last years. The vast number of implemented systems could potentially help Ancelotti as well. So far he seems to stick to his two systems however.

That is why Bayern lacks the flexibility and the different structures against the different systems of opponents at the moment. There is hope, the preseason games where much more active and offensive, that the possession play hasn’t been fully abandoned. An additional hint could be that the new coach said he doesn’t want to start a revolution. Against Tuchel’s team Bayern was somewhat inferior physically. BVB was already in their rhythm and seemed a couple of weeks ahead in their preparation. Maybe because he did anticipate that and focused on a more defensive structure. Nevertheless, the game showed that football is complicated. Different systems and their effects can’t be reduced to a few games and results. The chances of success can be immensely high, but there always will be factors against which no structure of the world can change something. This was confirmed by Bayern’s win in the Supercup.

Can the passive counter attacking style be an option for FC Bayern?

Although Ancelotti’s team was far more offensive, active and aggressive in their preseason games, one could see lots of passive phases as well. The team fell back into a deep midfield pressing and gave away the ball to the opponent. Those were the situations however, that created dangerous moments. Bayern was pressed in their own half and under pressure all the time. The number of conceded shots should underline this impression. While some experts always asked for less time with the ball, they should recognize now that this style of play also demands an extreme high mental concentration.

It is difficult to move without the ball since the natural instinct focuses on being active. To find the right moment to press in a 4-4-2 doesn’t only demand high play making intelligence but patience and fitness. The quality of the Bayern squad is too high to be constrained by a system that relies on mistakes of the opponent. The first impressions clearly showed that the success chances were always higher when Bayern play offensive, aggressive and defended actively.

It would be great if Ancelotti could adapt the possession play with some key changes, something the Italian coach is trying to accomplish. The reasons for the non-functioning phases of deep build-up structures are apparent: Lack of automatism, players being not fully fit yet and the necessary changes in the mind-sets towards a new system might be the most compelling ones.

How can they be more efficient?

There are two big challenges for the coaching team at the moment: Improving the play against the ball and creating verticality in offense. Without the ball Bayern has a lot of problems with passivity, the distances in the midfield pressing are wrong horizontally as well as between the lines. Representative for that problem was a pass by Marc Bartra from their own box behind Bayern’s defensive line in the 8th minute of the Supercup match. Bayern did press high up, but the defensive line didn’t move up properly. In consequence a big empty space around the centre circle appeared.

Again it is most important to find the automatism. If you want to be successful with a 4-4-2 the spacing against the ball is of highest priority. If they do a deep midfield pressing, they have to stand compact without falling into passivity. It is a lot harder to control a game without the ball. If Ancelotti however manages to do exactly that, they would have a successful tool for the future. The more the opponent thinks himself to be safe without letting him create dangerous situations, the more open space is created when the ball is won. Bayern has a lot of work to be done in this regard, but one should give Ancelotti the necessary time.

There are also some structural problems within their possession play. The build-up does not function properly. The reasons for that are not the three build-up players (Hummels, Alonso, Martinez) but the positioning of the midfield players. Alaba and Lahm do not longer position themselves centrally, which leads to Vidal and Thiago dropping deeper. In consequence there are less options in the last third and long vertical passes lead to situations with a numerical disadvantage or passes don’t arrive at all. If the defensive wingers would position themselves centrally again this effect could be nullified. Even if only Lahm could fall back to his hybrid role of last season the deciding benefits would appear. Alaba could compliment the back three, Alonso would not have to fall back and would have enough support by Lahm in the central midfield. Bayern has been successful oftentimes with that 3-5 staggering in their build-up structure.

(My) Opinion:

I personally favour the possession style of football, not only because it is better for my nerves, but because it is a better fit for Bayern. If you play a system that focuses on the play against the ball you make yourself dependent on mistakes of the opponent. This wasn’t the case in the last years. The ball gives you control over the game, but also a high level of responsibility.

Of course I am also open for the new aspects by the Italian coach to include elements that allow Bayern to drop deep for a few minutes. I am looking into the future full of expectations, but also with worries about the potential of seeing Bayern having to concede increased numbers of shots. It will be interesting to see, and key for the success of Bayern, if Ancelotti can find the perfect balance between the two systems.

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Comments
  1. That was great. I agree wholeheartedly with how bayern suffered bring the ball out, no reason from all of Alonso, Thiago and Vidal to be checking that deep, totally nullifies Alaba and Lahm.

    I for one am all in for Pepsi brand of football it felt as if the opposition was always being suffocated as the trafitional lines to break the press where clogged. My biggest fear is that bayern concede to being just another good team playing a fixed 4-3-3. Under pep, it was organic and dynamic. We will see how it pans out, great piece.

  2. Ahmed

    I couldn’t agree more. Anceloti was very lucky not to lose, having played one of the worst games (based on statistics) in recent history. Ribery was lucky not to see a red card, and BVB were unlucky not to score one of several easy chances.
    Phillip Lhams comments about not having to control the game and not worrying about possession drew shivers down my spine. A more clinical opponent would have ripped us apart.
    While I have seen teams letting go of possession and winning, it’s more common the other way around. Facts and figures prove that.
    I can only hope that Anceloti is able to balance the different styles and alternate at will, otherwise, I’m not too sure the Bundesliga will be a piece of cake this year.

  3. Arturo

    Regarding the CL-semifinal against Barcelona, if I remember correctly Bayern was the first team to average more possession than Barça in the Camp Nou since Rijkaard’s times…and still lost.

    If Bayern doesn’t have the players to win betting on possession against Europe’s Top 3-5 (which I believe we don’t), playing with the same principle as on Sunday in a CL-semifinal might improve our chances

  4. Rod

    I think the cup game was just part of a preseason exercise. Go from one extreme to the other and then end up in the middle or so. Bayern don’t need to suffocate the opponent with possession because everyone just parks the bus. Counters are a very effective (more effective) way to score. Apart from failing at bringing the ball out from the back, Bayern looked good in the second half. The bringing the ball out from the back which looked so awful against BVB will have to be rectified but I’m sure it will.
    Will wait for the season to get underway, even until winter break to see more of the style that they will play.

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