Three Team Possession: What Is It Good For?

In this article I will explore three team possession – when and where it has value, some lower complexity activities that can be used to build up to it, and how adding constraints can diminish (or enhance) its value. I have chosen to explore this activity because I have seen used quite frequently within the North American soccer sphere and I think it is very much a double-edged sword.

I want to begin by analyzing what this activity is good for using the 5Ws framework (who, what, when, where and why). Because the activity is non-directional and by default there are no positions, a lot of context of the normal game does not transfer. Notably the attacking principle of Penetration is almost completely lost and the Who/Where dynamic suffers greatly for it. The one thing that will always transfer is the What, the repetitions required for skill development (first touch, dribbling, striking, scanning/multi-object tracking). Most of the other attacking and defending principles transfer to this activity even if how to utilize them in a directional context is lost. For example, I will encourage (young) players to think about the concepts of Support and Width by using coaching points like “two small passes, one big pass.” This phrasing is intended to give players roles to fill and implicitly ask them to look for their teammates and make decisions about where to move based on what options the player in possession already has. In keeping with the emphasis on multi-object tracking, because defenders are numbers down, third defender screening and denying multiple passes by occupying key spaces also has heightened value if the teams are big enough.

The relatively relaxed structure of the activity means that there is plenty of room for general tactical development (decision-making) as well, at least in the context of keeping possession (e.g. When pressure is great, come closer and offer a wider angle of support). I break the attacking mission down into three parts for young players: 1) keep the ball, 2) play forward and 3) create chances to score. Three team possession gives players practice at accomplishing the first. Once players have ability to consistently maintain possession using the overload, they need to be pushed again. In my situation, I was most recently working with U9/U10 boys who had never played larger than 4 v 4. Most of the group were not good enough to consistently execute the core fundamentals of the game (scanning before receiving, intelligent first touch into space, pass to another player who will also be able to retain possession despite whatever pressure they face). This activity therefore had value, as it gave them the opportunity to practice these skills in an overload situation (4 v 2, 6 v 3) where they could find success (as defined by retention of possession) at least 50% of the time.

For my boys, my preferred lead-in activity to three team possession was 3 v 1 rondos. The 3 v 1 rondo is most useful in building in the Support concept while giving a player technical repetition. At its core, the activity relies on the notion that one defender should not be able take away both passing options at the same time, so two players who simultaneously interpret a situation (pressuring defender) the same way should be able to work together to find a pass that moves the ball further away from pressure and makes retaining possession easier. Where the overload is greater (e.g. 5 v 2) there is less emphasis on the Mobility of the players, but in 3 v 1 the need to readjust is constant. Each player is always the next pass, rather than potentially being two or three passes down the line. This ensures that no time is wasted – every action by every player matters in every single moment. I found it necessary to rotate the defenders on timers rather than on winning possession to ensure that players were not continually stuck in the middle for whatever reason. This can be made competitive by keeping score of the possession chains scored against each defender over a given duration. If your players need this activity, they might not be able to count and keep the ball simultaneously, so bear that in mind.

Two specific variations of 3 v 1 rondos to get players used to movement are the open corner and open side rondos. These can also be done without defenders to impart the basic concept if necessary. These rondos require the attacking players to always support the possession with passes to either connected side or corner. The basic idea is that every time the ball moves, the players must move as well to ensure the player in possession has two passes. I prefer the open side rondo to the corner rondo primarily because there is a spectrum of supportive positions the player can choose from rather than a binary “you are in the right place” choice presented by the corner model, but the binary aspect can be useful in creating the expectation of movement. Once players understand the basic concept of support you should be able to do away with these stipulated movements and let the players have freedom in a 3 v 1, which includes the freedom to stay in place if they can complete the mission (retaining possession) without moving. Once players have success finding ‘the’ open player with just one defender the complexity can be scaled up. This brings us first two 4 v 2 and then 6 v 3 (which is more a matter of convenience than preserving the concept of overloading by two).      

For lead-ins to the 3 v 1 rondos, I would usually opt for something that emphasizes technical repetition with two players passing the ball and taking directional first touches (as opposed to stopping the ball). Sometimes this is two players standing still and doing ball mastery/change of direction techniques between their first touch and the return pass, but this is also a good opportunity to introduce players to different movement forms that enable scanning, such as side-shuffling and backing away, as well as asking for the ball to specific areas (a space they are running into or to left/right foot), which requires the passer to look at their target and interpret their actions. You can also ask them to experiment with the type of pass they are giving here, both in the foot it comes from and the surface (inside, lace, outside) chosen.

Once players are finding some levels of success within the basic three team possession activity it can be modified with specific restrictions or incentives to focus in more detail on certain concepts or skills. The USSF espouses a constraints-based approach to practice design without ever explicitly using that terminology (my experience). I would say this is unfortunate as codification and shared terminology can be an important part of allowing two people to communicate clearly, though perhaps this terminology was not prevalent when the coursework was designed or when I took it. I am linking a basic overview of the concept from someone I came across when I was exploring this topic at the time.

From here it is my intent to explore different types of constraints that can be imposed to place emphasis on specific actions and behaviors. Before getting too deep into the weeds,  I want to take a brief detour into the Hippocratic Oath and the concept of non-maleficence, or in layman’s terms “first, do not harm.” If your practice is the sum of all the good design and well-delivered coaching points less all the negative knee-jerk reactions and negative design elements that go unaddressed, then both sides of the equations can min-maxed to create progress. What I see all too often is that in the intent to alter one side of the equation, there are knock-on effects to the other side (economics uses the term externalities), often running counter to the intended effect. A non-soccer example for this is MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus), wherein our efforts to control or eliminate bacteria populations have inadvertently created strains of bacteria that resist some forms of pharmaceutical treatment. This occurrence makes the broader scope mission (maintaining a healthy populace) more difficult than it had been previously.

Probably one of the most commonplace soccer examples of this is a “two touches or less” mandate. This requirement is well-meaning in its intention: if a player has fewer touches available to them then they should shift their information-gathering processes to before they receive the ball, rather than only engaging these skills after receiving possession and using up half their allotted touches. It also increases repetition volume be ensuring the continuous transfer of the ball. The issue with this mandate it that it restricts a player’s opportunities to make meaningful choices (and therefore learn) while selecting for a quality that is not even universally desirable.

To explore that in a bit more detail, seeing a player’s unrestricted actions ensures we are working to get them from where they really are to where they need to be instead of viewing them through the forced perspective of two-touch play. The first step toward enacting real change is to understand reality as it is, rather than for what you hope it might be. Selecting for specific kinds of decision-making means limiting the types of mistakes a player can make. This in turn limits the type of feedback the player receives, both in experiencing the outcome of their decision and whatever feedback the coach tacks on. Giving a player freedom should result in an accurate assessment of the player which enables the coach to create an alignment between the specific needs of each player and the feedback they receive.  

Moving on to the merits of tempo, we want players who voluntarily choose to play quickly when it makes sense to do so. Two almost ubiquitous examples of this are 1) the player is faced with pressure and possession is risked or 2) increased tempo will create even more space for the next attacker. Because these two situations account for most situations where a player receives the ball, enforcing high tempo through constraints is not harmful in those instances. However, there are instances where there are no good options available within two touches (at least, within a player’s skill ceiling) or taking three/four will create more success (space) for the attacking team.

Finally, to return to externalities, two-touch creates situations where a player is punished for touching the ball during the run of play, which is unthinkable in the normal game. This necessitates a huge uptick in referee interventions, which means less practice counter-pressing and developing good habits in transition (as well as redirection the coach’s focus from helping the players improve to managing the activity). A common sight under this constraint is a player shielding the ball from his immediate marker so a teammate can swoop in and take over possession. This occasionally happens in normal play, but nowhere near as much as a two-touch mandate might suggest.

Quantifying Constraints – Imperfect Rules for an Imperfect World

Here is a graph quantifying decision-making. The general notion here is that intelligence is good, tempo is good, slap constraints on both (task rewards/punishments) to get the best of both worlds.

Art versus Science: Part of what makes limited touches a poor constraint is that it is being used to measure speed of play, ignoring the fact that you can take four or five touches very quickly or two touches very slowly. Furthermore, we are judging the quality of a player’s decision based on whether possession was lost within the next two passes (an attempt to give the player responsibility for not just the technical quality of the pass, but also the tactical quality of the pass). These units of measurement are chosen for their accessibility and clarity rather than for their perfect alignment with what we trying to judge. It is much easier to count to two in units of one, than to try to judge if a player took 1.9 or 2.1 seconds to release the ball.

We use these forced approximations and other simple rules to try to introduce some degree of objectivity into a complex game with 23 simultaneously moving parts where objective truth can be hard to come by. The presence of a mutually agreed upon record of what happened allows players to be held accountable for their decisions and to use what happened in the past to reinterpret similar situations in the future and make better decisions (i.e. learn). This pursuit is valuable enough that we will accept the odd false positive (or false negative) knowing that the trend line will still have value. The coach’s responsibility is then twofold: to design an activity that minimizes the incidence of false positives and false negatives as well as to recognize and counteract the positive or negative influence of these instances with contrasting feedback.

Based on what the two-touch mandate values, you could be forgiven for valuing the quadrants accordingly:

Yet, the reality should look like this:

These hierarchies agree on the value of production in quadrants 2 and 4, but not in 1 and 3, so let us consider what the bottom-left and top-right (those) quadrants might look like. In the top-right, we have extra touches coupled with high intelligence. Fortunately, this concept has already been codified in the Spanish-speaking world, where it is called la pausa. I really love this Busquets example because it shows him passing up a ‘good’ two-touch play (the short lateral pass) for a better three-touch play (the penetrative seam pass).

As I mentioned before, the lack of directionality to three-team possession makes it harder to properly reward these specific types of passes, whereas a directional game can implicitly reward this allowing the team to pursue the subsequent part of the attacking mission (get further up the field and create shooting opportunities).

In the bottom-left you have players that play quickly but without making intelligent decisions. This forces us to ask, what does intelligence look like on a soccer field? I am not going to pretend to be some genius who can objectively define something this complex, but I do not believe it takes a genius to say that intelligent decision-making requires the consideration of all possibilities. In execution this means awareness of all possibilities AND the courage to pursue all possibilities. While it is possible to choose poorly with total awareness, for the young players who can benefit the most from three team possession the primary cause of low intelligence play is an ignorance of alternatives, which brings us back to scanning/multi-object tracking.

So, what does it look like when a player has underdeveloped information-gathering techniques? In my experience, this player will often return the ball from where it came (directionally speaking in general but often directly to the origin of the pass) or put their back to the edge of the playing field and refuse the engage with the center of the pitch. This allows them to fulfill the requirement of two-touch play with the lowest degree of difficulty available to them (also called the path of least resistance/principle of least effort). This is often an ego thing (fear or making a mistake/looking bad in a group setting), so while we could try to coax players to attempt the more difficult choice, it is often simpler and less time-consuming to rig the game to force the issue. If courage is a matter of choice, then remove choice from the table. In the absence of alternatives, the extraordinary becomes ordinary and what is necessary becomes normal.

Examples of Constraints

The two-touch mandate is a blanket punishment on any use of more than two touches while the conditional scoring comes from a possession chain of X passes.

What we need to understand in exploring constraints is what behaviors need to be punished immediately, what can simply be ignored (neither punished nor rewarded) and what should be rewarded and ensuring that there is an alignment between a constraint’s intended effect and its actual outcome while accounting for externalities. There are those that would argue that nothing should ever disallowed (within the laws of the game) and we should only use incentives. This gives the players complete freedom with a carrot to strive for, but I have found a corrective pressure from the other end of the spectrum is often useful alongside it.  

To return to two-touch, an example of using incentives would be only counting individual possessions toward the advancement of a possession chain when the player uses two or less touches, while potentially adding a punishment in the form of rolling back progress for excessive touches: starting with the fifth touch every touch that is not a pass reduces the possession chain by one. This creates a gray space where more touches are acceptable when necessary, but also makes it clear that moving the ball quickly has value and too many touches is very much something that exists.

Here are some further examples of things I have either seen or thought of using the 5W framework:

  • Who
    • A possession chain only completes where every single member of the attacking two teams has completed a pass.
      • This can be combined with other restraints (Where or What) to create positive peer pressure and incentivize teams to incorporate everyone, though depending on the emotional maturity of the team you need to be wary of creating and “us against them” situation within a given team.
    • Players are only rewarded (or are rewarded further) for passing to their team (or the other allied team) within the two attacking teams (e.g. blue passing to blue or blue passing to yellow when red is defending).
      • The intent here is to emphasize scanning and reward players for discerning between good passes and better passes. The specific instances (what is good and what is better) do not necessarily translate to the game because of a lack of Where, but the general concept does.
      • Put another way, this constraint evolves the activity from one where advancement of the chain is the only goal to one where advancing the chain is the bare minimum, with advancement in specific ways acting as the new North Star (analogous to creating opportunities to play forward).
  • What
    • Players are given a point for completing X passes in a row.
      • This constraint is the fundamental building block of this activity because it is what forces the defending team to pressure. The whole point of possession is to continually transfer it forward to get closer to the goal. Without having penetrative potential to force defensive action, we need to introduce a constraint that forces the defending team to pressure and allows the attacking team to create and take space.
    • Players earn a point for completing a give and go.
    • Players only earn points for first-time passes.
      • When played like this, you can do away with possession chains just play to a number as two players passing the ball back and forth has the same effect of forcing pressure.
    • In contrast to the two-touches or less mandate, there is “three-touch must” – a player must take at least three touches before releasing the ball. This has its own set of issues, but I like to use it occasionally to force players to be very deliberate with their first touch, dribble and practice ball manipulation skills.
  • When
    • Given one of the most common criticisms of this is a lack of directionality, we can introduce that here. Stick goals at either end of the playing space and then after completing X passes the possessing team(s) attack the goal further away from them. The defending player closest to the goal becomes the goalkeeper (or not, the choice is yours). This can be done with pop-up goals as wells, emphasizing width via a six-goal game, whatever benefits your players.
  • Where
    • The other common “problem” is players making a ring around the edge of the space and not interacting with the center, so we can create incentives for them to do that. Something I have used is a central square with points for playing into and out of the square, with more points depending on the relationship of the sides the ball enters and exits the square from (same = 0, contiguous = 1, opposite = 2). This creates an incentive not just to use the central space, but to use it access the opposite side of the field and keep the ball moving toward what would nominally be considered forward.
      • I have considered doing this with other shapes as a well. A triangle seems the simplest (play out any face other than the one the ball entered for a point), with the opportunity to add additional incentives (+1 for one-touch play) to get players to look for opportunities to play first time around the corner.
      • I have also seen coaches use mini-spaces like the pips on the 5 face of a die (corners plus center) that teams must use to score (only passes into pips are worth points).
        • This was often combined with a When element – no hanging out in the pips (akin to basketball’s paint), thus forcing players to time their runs into space. This was mandated by the size of the pips, but it is probably an important consideration for any incentivization of central space, lest one player hog it or lazily occupy it and only it.
      • At its most basic, incentivizing the middle is a shallow attempt to introduce some level of directionality to the game, which is worth pursuing if you want to use this kind of activity for more advanced players.
    • Players are rewarded for completing particular types of passes based on origin and destination (say from one edge to the other – big switches of play).
    • One thing I have taken to when I have the equipment is just putting random stuff in the way – mannequins and pop-up goals being the most common – which forces both passer and receiver to change how they play in response to these conditions. A mannequin creates opportunities for the receiver to move out of its cover-shadow or for the passer to lift the ball over it or bend the ball around it, both of which are skills that would be used less without the obstacle being present.
      • I have combined this with the previous constraints to encourage large, lofted balls over goals placed in the middle of the field.
  • How
    • This is a bit different, but I have seen three team possession used for handball with two different aims. The first is to eliminate the technical burden of controlling the ball, that freeing up more cognitive capacity to think about positioning. I am not a huge fan of this, but I think it can have value if used sparingly.
    • The second is to use handball to incorporate more heading and aerial control elements. Because it usually does not make sense the lift the ball unless it is the only way through, these types of repetitions can be difficult to get in bulk, but by playing handball you guarantee the ball is never on the floor and create opportunities for players to practice these touches. As it is handball, players can choose to catch the ball, but incentives are created for legal soccer touches before catching the ball (chest control, thigh control, header to self/other). This can extend to incorporating volleys as well rather than thrown passes (control and volley), but the shared height of heads and feet is something to be cautious of.

Closing Thoughts

This is my first opinion-oriented article and I would love to get feedback from you if you’ve stuck with me to this point. Some specific things I would be interested in hearing about are different constraints and variations you have used or seen in the past, thoughts on some of my constraints and thoughts on three team possession in general.

I’d also appreciate any direction in terms of whether or not this is too long and what things you’d be interested in seeing me write about in the future.

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