The Art of Possession Football

Possession football seems a desired play style amongst the Football Manager faithful, yet it seems to cause a lot of confusion especially on a higher mentality structure like control or attacking. While possession tactics on Football Manager are simple to create, they’re not if you use a higher mentality due to higher the mentality, higher the risk and faster play will be. When thinking about possession on Football Manager you immediately think lower mentalities are better suited because they are more cautious. While this is true to some extent but it’s not the only way of having lots of possession. So for this article I will be using a control or attacking mentality to highlight how to have success this way. All the current tactics and articles we see always focus on the lower mentalities because it’s easier to achieve but that’s not what the user is always looking for.

One thing I would like to clear up before we start the article though is how possession works. People always throw real life percentages around when talking about Football Manager but don’t realise that how Football Manager and most analysis sites workout possession is very different. So if we start by looking at someone like Opta then we can see how they measure possession.

When you are watching a football match every once in a while you’ll see flashed up on the screen a statistic showing how much “ball possession” each team has had. Opta explains how this statistic is computed:

There are several data providers out there in the UK and across the world monitoring games, from TV companies themselves for live games, to specialists like Opta.

Each has their own method of working out possession. Some use calculations based on the data, but most use a “chess clock” approach where each team has a button which is hit when they are in possession. Some do this in the broadcast truck, others have analysts who call it out and inputters who hit the buttons.

Opta used this method originally, but the problem we found with a chess clock approach for time is that you are reliant on the person logging the data remembering to hit the button and the person doing it usually has other tasks to perform and other data to log.

Missing a couple of switches obviously skews the possession figures and it’s impossible to go back and change it. It may not sound much but one minute where the clock is wrong can affect the possession figures by two to three percentage points.

Opta now record possession in a football match by means of an automated calculation based on the number of passes that a team has in a game. We have two analysts, each monitoring one of the teams and they log each event in a game, totalling between 1600 and 2000 events per match.

Each of these events has a time code plus an xy coordinate and the collection system is rigorously monitored by our team of checkers.

During the game, the passes for each team are totalled up and then each team’s total is divided by the game total to produce a percentage figure which shows the percentage of the game that each team has accrued in possession of the ball.

For Opta “ball possession” means percentage of completed passes, and is not a measure of time, though Opta does claim that the two are very closely related.

That is how Opta work their possession out which seems reasonable enough. However Football Manager handles it different to how Opta now works.

Football Manager still uses the old method of the ‘chess clock’ to record possession. But what does that mean? Well it means that the difference in methodologies between them and Opta cannot be accounted for. One of the main differences between the two methods but be an example like this;

Team A is under real pressure and the ball is put out of play by Team B. Team A could take a minute or longer to put the ball back into play and all of this would account for possession in Team A’s favor. Because it’s the amount of time that is calculated. Were as for Opta all of this would amount to nothing and is meaningless. But in Football Manager it’s counted as possession. It’s worth remembering that when trying to figure out possession on Football Manager based on real life percentage figures. If you realise this then it’ll save you lots of time that would normally be spent banging your head against the wall.

Before we jump into the analysis and seeing how I go about creating a possession style I would like to point out that the idea of this thread, is not for you to copy what I do. But rather for you to take elements of what I do and implement them into your saves. if you just copy what I did and expect the same results then you didn’t understand the purpose of the thread. This will also mean I won’t answer any questions you have when you post something along the lines of ‘You have success with Swansea but I tried and blah blah’. So please, use this article as it’s intended and take what you learn here and implement it into your own saves with your own systems. This article is about the ideas, principles and philosophy of possession football in higher mentality structures.

The Beginning

In Football Manager there is possession that is meaningful and possession that is meaningless. I see a lot of tactics and posts on a daily basis that fall into the latter. Achieving a high possession percentage is relatively easy but creating something that is still potent and uses that possession in dangerous areas is a lot harder. For any kind of possession strategy then something based on these Team Instructions would be a good starting point for such a system;

Highly Structured Team Shape – This would allow space to open in midfield and encourages players to keep it simple.

Lower Tempo – This encourages players to look for support and not to rush with their play. Players will be looking up and accessing their options more.

Roam From Position – Encourage players to make themselves available, keeping support options available. It’s probably one (if not) the most important aspect of ball retention.

Dribble Less – You don’t want many players dribbling with the ball because you want players in support and the idea is to retain possession. Dribbling can see passing options reduced.

Pass it Shorter – It’s all about keeping it simple with the ball. The longer the pass the more likely it can be under/over hit, mistimed or even intercepted by the opposition.

Retain Possession – Again it reduces passing length making it even shorter and cutting the risk of through balls out.

Work Ball Into Box – You don’t want players shooting from distances and wasting chances. Not only that but it would give the opposition the ball, which kinda goes against possession right?

Play Out of Defence – Building attacks from the back is basic possession football.

Distribute Short – If you don’t then you will often find your keeper booting the ball long and wasting possession. Your keepers distribution will likely have the single biggest impact on your overall possession. So make sure he isn’t wasting it.

Now if you used all the above in a system then likelihood is you’d see lots of possession but most of it pointless without the roles to utilise this possession. But these are the most (well, what I think anyway) are the most important team instructions when it comes to creating a possession brand of football.

After writing the last article that I did, the counter attacking one, a lot of people have been asking me how to make it more attack minded. So with that in mind, I had the idea of using the same tactic that I discussed throughout that entire article in this one. But the further I got into this new saved game the further it no longer resembled the original 4-1-4-1 so I abandoned it after about eight games. The more I changed the player roles the more it was becoming pointless. I don’t mean the shape was pointless as the 4-1-4-1 is a great shape to use for a possession based game. What I meant was, it was becoming boring for me to write about that shape yet again. So I mixed it up slightly but it’s still basically a 4-1-4-1 due to the roles and duties used.

The Club

As you will have seen above, I decided to take over Swansea this time to create a possession tactic. The reasons for doing this is because I like Garry Monk and Swansea, I like how they try to build a philosophy and stick to it regardless of the manager is. More clubs should look to this approach because it’s proven to work over time. So what better club on Football Manager to use right? They’re not a top side yet should have enough quality to avoid relegation. The media prediction is 10th in the first season, so it should be a challenge.

The Tactic

It’s worth noting that I didn’t just arrive at this tactic and it work instantly. In fact, I still think it needs work but it’s successful as you’ll see. All I wanted to concentrate on was possession for the first year and use that as the catalyst to build from. Getting high possession numbers was always the aim but that is always a challenge when you’re classed as weaker opposition to the rest of the league.

Mentality – The whole point was to show this on a high-end mentality but due to the side I am I thought control would suit us better than attacking. Control is still attacking though so don’t be fooled by the name. It still plays fast, attacking football and uses a high defensive line. It’s really aggressive in it’s approach. It’s actually not that different to attacking.

Team Shape – I touched upon this earlier. I think team shape is the one setting on Football Manager that throws people off because it seems complicated. It’s really not complicated at all though, myself when deciding what to set the team shape as I simplify things and make the choice based on these;

Do I want players to be more creative than usual? If so I’ll go to the more fluid end. If not I’ll go to the more structured end. The hand of god on the SI forums was spot on when he said;

More structured team shapes will encourage players to keep it simple and more precise. You would choose this if you want players to stick to the basics and avoid losing the ball with technically difficult passing/dribbling. The downside is that you might restrict some players’ creativity and your team’s style can end up being rather workmanlike/boring.

While the more fluid approaches will make players try more tricks and play with more creativity, flair and pizzazz. There are a couple of reasons you might want this. From a tactical standpoint, it can possibly help players unlock defences by making play less predictable and harder for defenders to read. It also tends to be more fun to watch.

Honestly, it’s not a big deal and if you set team shape in accordance to the above then you’ll always be fine. If you’re not sure you can always leave it on flexible which is a bit of both approaches and is the ‘neutral’ point.

Team Instructions – These were the tricky ones because I mentioned earlier all the best TI’s to use. But using them all is overkill and would no doubt create a possession style that was creating possession for the sake of possession without ever being a goal threat. That’s not what I wanted so I narrowed it down to just five in the end.

  • Retain Possession.
  • Play out of Defence.
  • Lower Tempo.
  • Close Down Much More.
  • Roam From Position.

Those are the five I ended up using. I mentioned earlier in the article about what these team instructions offer, so I’ll not go into those details again. However I will touch upon why I’m closing down more as I didn’t mention that above. The only reason is because remember how possession is calculated on Football Manager? Time. So the less time I can give the opposition on the ball the better. That’s my only reasons for using it.

That covers that side of things. So let’s focus on the roles and duties now.

The Defence

It’s nothing out of the ordinary here, in fact it’s rather conservative really and what you expect from most defensive players. None of them have any player instructions apart from the goalkeeper. Remember earlier, I mentioned how he was important to possession football. Well I gave him some instructions to ensure he wasn’t wasteful.

All those are focused on retaining the ball and passing it the shortest possible distance. The reason he is selected to roll it out is because when he was throwing the ball out, he was distributing it to full backs on the odd occasion when they were a bit too advanced. So I wanted to encourage him to play it to the central defenders instead and so far it’s working better. I didn’t want him to slow the pace down though because I feel he already plays at a slow enough pace. It is something you can consider though if you feel the player might benefit from a couple more seconds before releasing the ball.

Midfield and Attack

Those are the roles and duties that I use for the entire midfield. The interesting part is that the wide players have support duties. The reasoning behind this is that players on support duties in the wide areas will drop deep when out of possession. What this basically means is that out of possession I have a flat four in midfield so the shape resembles a 4-1-4-1 in defence. If these players had attack duties then that wouldn’t happen as the players would still more than likely be far too advanced.

While I am focused on possession I still want to actively set out to win games and in order to achieve this, I need support from the midfield. That’s why I’ve opted for a box to box midfielder because he will be the engine who goes up and down the pitch. Next to him we have the roaming playmaker, who is responsible for playing the ball around from a central position and also providing a thread in the final third.

Out on the wings we have an inside forward, who’s job is to support the striker and make himself a handful by making deep, late runs into the box. On the other side we have an advanced playmaker. He is both a creator and a goal threat. Remember I am focused on retaining possession so this role helps with this and between him, the false nine and the roaming playmaker, we see some interesting link up play which we will touch on a little later.

Up front we have a false nine, who will drop very deep out of possession and help the midfield. In dropping back with the other attackers, it stops him being isolated up front on his own at times. It means players are closer together when out of possession and this allows for better passing angles and options with ball retention being a priority.

That’s just a brief overview of things before we start the match analysis and see why this tactic works for the set of players I have. Speaking of players, it’s not been easy with Swansea on that front. Two of the biggest stars asked to leave when I rejected bids from PSG and Chelsea, so I had to sell. I could have hung on and kept them longer but I didn’t see the point in doing that, when I am trying to build a specific style of play. I need to build this around the players at the club and not base it on ones who would be leaving in the next window. So here are my transfer dealings, just so you can see the players I brought in.

I lost quality players in Ki and Gylfi but I reinvested the money well and bought players I expected to stay at the club for a very long time. I’m not sure why I did that though as this was only ever going to be a one season save to highlight how this brand of football works. But I guess it’s hard not to approach the game like I do every other save, so maybe that’s why?!

The Analysis

When I first started out I did use a 4-1-2-2-1 for the first three games, then I had the idea of linking this article with the counter one so switched to the 4-1-4-1. Then after four games switched back to the tactic that you now see above. So for the first few games things were a bit hit and miss and not every settled. My results were fine but my ideas were all over the place so it took a while for things to really kick in. That’s why my average possession for the season, which I’ll show you at the very end, is lower than it should be.

The first real-time when the tactic felt settled was when I beat Liverpool 2-0.

The stats and the result might not be that impressive but for me it was. This was the first time I really dominated possession against a bigger side. I’d dominated weaker ones before this game but you always expect to have the better share of possession against the weaker teams. While it was only one game and at home, it showed my plan was working and that my ideas could be put into practise. All I needed to do now was add the consistency factor so I could do this game after game. Let’s break this game down and see how the tactic I use works in a match environment.

To build any kind of possession game you always need the players that are on the ball to have passing options. This comes from movement, without this you’d struggle to retain the ball. In the above screenshot we can see the box to box midfielder who has just passed the ball to the player on the wing, the advanced playmaker. But look at all the passing options around in this move, there are many different ones. So in a situation like this you’d expect to keep the ball.

When Ayew, the advanced playmaker receives the ball then I immediately see three players all making different kind of movements. The roaming playmaker is coming towards the ball to offer the short option. The box to box midfielder is looking to push on and get further up the pitch. While the defensive midfielder, is jockeying around his position and being the spare man. This all means that when the ball does move central we can keep possession and then other players can be brought into the game and offer support.

When Maia gets the ball the box to midfielder, starts to dart forward and go more advanced. This opens up space for Maia to use. The roaming playmaker also does the same, this takes his marker with him. This means that my right back and the advanced playmaker become free down this flank.

Due to all the movement, the move continues as the defensive midfielder passes the ball back to the advanced playmaker. He then shifts the ball out to the fullback. When the fullback gets the ball the advanced playmaker moves forward offering himself as the short passing options. The roaming playmaker does the same. The box to box player then pushes on and becomes the most advanced player on the pitch. While the defensive midfielder drops off ever so slightly.

This is still the same move. You can see my side is being patient with the ball and not really forcing play, as we try to play our way up the field. We are seeing lots of movement and link up play, which highlights the tactic and player roles are working as I want. The ball comes back to Ayew, the advanced playmaker. This time though, when he receives the ball he passes it forward to the roaming playmaker and suddenly the opposition is on the back foot. The false nine starts to push forward and is looking to get between both centre backs. At the same time, the box to box midfielder is going to drop off his marker and make himself available as a passing option.

The false nine realises he ran too early so drops back off so he can support the box to box midfielder. While over on the far side, the inside forward if on the blind side of everyone and makes a run between the fullback and central defender. This means the box to box midfielder slips the ball to the false nine, who then plays in the inside forward. He then shoots from just outside the box and forces a save from the goalkeeper. It’s a shame the move didn’t amount of much other than just a shot at goal. But it does highlight how important passing options and movement are.

You’ll have seen that my defensive midfielder is involved heavily in the move and early on in the above scenario, he was a pivotal part of it. Someone yesterday (RTH) asked me if I suffered due to using a mobile defensive midfielder, because most advice we see given out on the forums or in articles always suggest you should have a holding player. Now I do have a holding player obviously but he meant my choice of a support duty rather than a defensive one. So we thought it might be a good idea to expand on this and go into details about his role more.

Thiago Maia is the number nine. As you can see he is a lot closer to the midfield players rather than sitting and screening the defence. This is because I like him to push our possession play forward that’s the main reason he is on a support duty. But what exactly does pushing possession play further forward actually mean?! Let me try to explain a little clearer.

I don’t have as many attacking duties in the tactic as you might think I would have, considering I use the control mentality structure. This was on purpose so I could focus on retaining the ball because an attack duty with a control mentality increases the player risk for everything they do and makes play fast. So to get the correct balance I decided to be more conservative with the duties used on the attacking players. But this also allowed me to more risky with the defensive midfielder role without being badly exposed. I might get slightly exposed as times and we’ll take a look at that in a bit, not I believe the risk is minimal compared to what the defensive midfielder offers me in this system.

Forty nine received passes, with four of them being intercepted. The above shows that he is a passing option in his own half more than he is in the oppositions which is understandable and what you’d expect. At the start of most moves he is involved heavily.

Those are his passing completed stats. They almost mirror the received passes map from above. This shows he keeps it simple after he receives the ball. Quite a lot of these passes are in the oppositions half, again which shows he’s important in the build up play. If we take this Liverpool game, we can look at what he actually does in-game to add some context to the stats above.

When he intercepts the ball he is very forward thinking and this also allows to build moves and apply pressure on the opposition. In the above screenshot he has just won the ball back and passes it instantly to the false nine. If he was on a defensive duty he wouldn’t be winning these sort of balls in these kind of areas, as he would be deeper positionally. But by winning the ball in these areas was can push forward. In this particular move when the false nine gets the ball, the inside forward, box to box midfielder and roaming playmaker all stream forward into free space and we cause Liverpool all kinds of issues.

Another example but this time showing him dictate play in the final third. He ends up using the red dotted line for his pass this time but again, it highlights he has several passing options to choose from. He offers me much more by being allowed to push forward than he does screening the back four. It allows me to build attacks as he is always the deeper options. It also means if the opposition doesn’t clear the ball correctly he is well placed to pick the ball back up and keep the pressure on the opposition’s back line by keeping the move going for those who are already in advanced positions.

It does have drawbacks at times though and isn’t all plain sailing. He might get caught out of position, or be stretched,  if we are counter attacked quickly by the opposition. But I have confidence in the defence. It all comes down to risk versus reward, for me the risk is worth it for the bigger picture. While someone else in a similar setup might prefer a more cautious approach and opt for the defensive duty. Neither is better than the other because both have pros and cons. You just need to decide which approach will benefit your own style the most.

Let’s look at an away match to Arsenal now. This was a very tricky tie and a lot relied on this result. I was two points clear of them in the league with two league games left. If I lost the game it would mean the title would be out of my own hands and I’d need to rely on other results.

I only had 59% possession here but considering it’s still the first season and Arsenal are a better, stronger side than I am, it was a great dominant performance. I was unlucky not to win in all honesty. Not only did we win the possession side of things but we also created lots of on target chances. Sometimes in possession oriented tactics, especially on high mentalities, you see the quality drop because everything is more rushed just by pure definition of what the higher mentalities offer. That’s why it can be hard (not impossible though) to make them work.

Sometimes we do go more direct though if the opportunity presents itself. It’s not needless possession just for the sake of it. In the above screenshot it doesn’t look like much is on at the moment. However the left back who is currently on the ball plays it to the false nine, who then plays it to the inside forward on the far left.

I’ve mentioned this in various articles over the years but this shows why having runners from deep is a vital part of any tactic. It’s because it opens up space and you can catch players out of position and make the most of it, like in this screenshot.

The box to box midfielder is in acres of free space, he receives the ball and slot it home for the equalizer. I wanted to show a more direct goal so people don’t think it’s always possession stuff and that we waste good counter attacking opportunities because we don’t. We still take advantage of them and capitalise on the opposition’s mistakes.

Here are a few more screenshots of our possession throughout the season.

Those are just some of the games were I had high possession. There was a lot more but rather than list them all, I’ll now show you the average possession for the league for the duration of the season.

That’s not bad going at all and if I started the season without changing as much, I’d have expected this to be more in the region or 60-62% for the overall season. But all the uncertainty and swapping about I did, really did harm us to begin with and then we were always playing catch up. However that’s still an incredible amount of possession for a side who was predicted to finish mid table. The league table didn’t look too shabby either.

I had a strong defence and didn’t let many goals in at all. I also didn’t score that many either which is understandable but for the players I currently have, which also lacks squad depth then it’s a decent return for a club the size of Swansea.

The tactic still isn’t perfect either and still has lots of issues to iron out. But overall that’s a fantastic first season. If I was carrying this save on then there are a few things I’d work on for the upcoming season.

Shots – I have a decent ratio of shots to shots on target it’s currently at around 50%. That’s the bare minimum that everyone should be aiming for. The lower the mentality you use the more that should be closer or above 60% as it’s much easier to sort out. Were as in the more attacking mentality structures your look at the upper end of the 50% range really. Unless you are dominant with the top side in the world I think you’ll struggle to get anything over 60% on attacking or control mentalities. That’s not to say you shouldn’t aim for higher though, it might just be extremely hard to work on improving above those figures. It should never be lower than 50% regardless of the mentality you use though.

Possession – This will hopefully rise this season and I should see the season’s average go well beyond that of the first season with a bit of luck. Remember that building towards a possession system can take time to get right because a lot of it falls on the quality of players available. The system you use still matters as well, but players are also a big part of it. There is also a chance I might go backwards slightly this season too with the added games from European Football. So it’s worth remembering that if you have a small squad or lack of funds to add the squad depth. Try and be realistic in what you can achieve because if you don’t you might be in for a nasty shock. I still expect my side to do well in the league and carry on what we’ve built so far. But I’m also aware that things might be a bit up and down this season.

Those are the two things I would monitor now the overall style and approach is sorted out.

There’s a lot of talk on the forums currently about how their sides only score and concede from crosses. So before I wrap this article up I wanted to show you a couple of screenshots showing the type of goals I score.

Those are the assist and it’s through balls that is high here and not crosses like many might suspect.

It’s a lot more centrally focused that you’d expect. Not much comes from the wing compared to the central areas. This is because of the roaming playmaker and the box to box midfielder being late runners and linking well with the players on both wings. All the roles used in the tactic link well and the examples we looked at in the Liverpool game, is the reason why we see a more central heavy focus on play.

I’ll leave it as that for now as I’ve waffled on long enough. I really hope you enjoy this article 🙂

8 thoughts on “The Art of Possession Football”

  1. Thanks for this – it has really helped me in evolving my tactic using some of the ideas and thoughts in the piece. For instance, I use an AP in the centre midfield position (part of a 4-1-2-2-1) which is now on a support duty – still gets forward but now cleverer with possession – especially with the B2B which I have never used before.

    Also, the importance of getting the correct role for the lone striker is vital. I had been using a DLF (s) which I found to be too deep at time and not penetrative enough – meant that some of the attacks were predictable. The CF (s) I found to be too isolated from the IF and midfield. However, using the F9 role has changed the way attacks are built and he will also get into the box to be a danger.

    Trying to keep the shouts basic using some of the theories – using ‘pass from defence’, ‘work ball into box’ and either ‘short passing or retain possession’ – not sure which I prefer currently and low tempo. If I feel that we are being blocked out, I will also use ‘roam from positions’.

    A big thank you!

    1. Glad you found it helpful mate.

      I tend to change the lone striker role depending on what kind of match it is. Sometimes I like a striker to drop deep and drag the defence out, this is normally my approach against teams who defend deep. Against teams who don’t sit back and attack me I like to keep a striker pushed up to occupy the defenders and keep them busy. Making it harder for the defence to push to up and limit the space I have in midfield.

      1. I get confused as I follow quite a few people who are great FMers like yourself and Rashidi but sometimes I don’t know whose approach to follow. I know Rashidi doesn’t like the ‘closing down much more’ instruction as it makes the whole team close down, he prefers to press individually. Also his take on a possession style in some of his guides, he used a ‘very fluid’ shape instead of ‘highly structured’. I’m guessing that’s just because both approaches can work? You can approach controlling possession in many different ways?

  2. This was the thread that was like a light bulb for me when I first read it …. then reread it …. then reread it again 🙂
    Took this and some of Rashidi’s ideas and merged them and have thoroughly enjoyed the game since.
    Thought provoking, informative and had me questioning a lot of the stuff I though I knew as I’d been playing CM/FM since the very beginning.
    That’s what I want from FM content and only a small majority of bloggers and you tubers have ever been able to interest me in this way.

    Cheers for making it more fun!

  3. I think I understand tactics much better after reading your topics several times. First thanks for this huge work.

    I like to experiment with tactics in FM and I was trying to achieve possession football. I used your ideas to build it. I found that if you play with lower tempo, retain possession than it is harder for you to break your opposition even if you have deep runners and support players. And while you attacking to opposition with lower tempo you loose the ball and just because of slow build up your players can be high up the pitch and vulnerable to contra attacks. And you can not spoil the space.

    I play some of the matches with slower tempo and retain possession. And i played these matches again but this time with faster tempo. With faster tempo my players could find spaces and results were much better. Why havent you tried higher tempo.

    And team shape. You have selected more structered one. But as you mentioned with this mentality your forward and wingers have higher mentality which probably results in rush play by them. You already selected control mentality. So some of your players have higher mentality ranking than control level. What will happen if you used fluid mentality or flexible? I tried fluid but I could not see what changed exactly.

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