Why teams should be aiming to improve their in game control, not increase possession.

Possession is a stat that is lauded in the modern game and regularly pointed to by fans, managers and even players as a barometer of performance.

The phrase ‘keep possession’ is a common phrase thrown from the side-lines and stats will regularly flick up on TV with team possession stats.

But what is the obsession with possession? Does keeping possession lead to winning football matches? Or has it become overvalued?

Intelligent Football investigates

It is clear there are several benefits of a possession game and met with the correct personnel possession based tactics can bring huge success. Just look at the Barcelona era under Pep Guardiola. I would argue that there is a far more necessary and relevant term that teams should be aspiring to achieve within a game – CONTROL.

So what is control? Control is the power to influence or direct a course of events. Teams in control should be;

  • Under ‘emotional control’ – no yellows, reds and disciplinary problems
  • Skilfully controlling the game, fitter and more committed than the opposition
  • Employing game management tactics
  • Controlling the flow of the game and playing to “our” style
  • Capitalising on space and weaknesses in the opposing team
  • Confidently handling the opposition’s dangerous players
  • Restricting attacks and opportunities at goal, corners and set pieces
  • Doing what comes naturally

There is a fundamental difference between possession and control.

Being in control forces the other side to make mistakes when they have possession.

An unforgettable example of this is the Premier League matchup between Liverpool and Chelsea in April 2014. Liverpool, chasing the title, had 73% possession to Chelsea’s 27% but never truly threatened the Blues goal or extended any real control over the game. A lapse in possession granted the Chelsea first goal and a Mourinho masterclass in game control enabled the Blues to see the game out and get a second late on the counter.

Case study: Leicester City FC

The greatest story in football history. Leicester City provided an exhibition in how control not possession can lead to resounding success. The Foxes averaged 47% possession throughout the season, they didn’t create the most chances or have the most shots but they exhibited superb game control tactics.

3 key ways Leicester maximised their control to win the Premier League

  1. They did what comes naturally. A goal is a goal however it finds the net and the Foxes scored the second most set piece goals in the league, while their direct outlet to Vardy was the source of a vast share of their goals. Players didn’t try and do too much and did what they do best. One example being Albrighton, released by Aston Villa and admittedly not the greatest overall player, but capable of producing excellent attacking crosses. Kante in the middle, extremely talented at pinching the ball and disrupting the opposition. Mahrez, producing a moment of magic and weaving through defenders and given license to do so. Leicester exercised control by maximising their player’s talents, not forcing players out of their suited position and providing the green light to do what they do best.
  2. Defensively resolute. With the least defensive errors in the league, the most clearances, interceptions and blocked shots Leicester showed their physical and mental control throughout the season. When they had the ball they ensured it was out of harms risk and moved quickly up the pitch. When the opposition had the ball they were organised and worked as a unit to handle danger.
  3. Discipline. Despite a late red card in the season for Jamie Vardy at home to West Ham, Leicester for the most part stayed out of trouble and finished third in the Fair Play table, beaten only by Arsenal and Everton. Bad habits like picking up an early yellow during a game and a lack of suspensions enabled Ranieri to control his starting xi to a greater extent and instil a consistency which would eventually land them the title.

Credit to Squawka for stats.


Intelligent Football recognises the importance of control and that it is a central trait of any successful team. Our 10 point Intelligent Process includes “teaching turning possession into control for long periods of the game,” amongst 9 other crucial steps.