The soccer argument for playing without the ball: how teams like Morocco, AC Milan and OL Reign are getting wins

In the final FIFA technical talk of the World Cup in Qatar, former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger and former U.S. men's national team (and Bayern Munich) manager Jurgen Klinsmann took time off from telling players to stick to sports and angering the entire Iranian national team, respectively, to offer observations about the tactical developments and statistical trends the World Cup had to offer. The main development was something I wrote about recently as well: Having a lot of the ball in Qatar didn't really result in winning.

"You have examples of teams who have a lot of possession, but not results," Wenger said. "In this tournament, you need technical quality at different stages."

"You need to have players in the box capable of finishing chances off," Klinsmann added, "so it is not by coincidence that you have France and Argentina in the final. ... Even Spain, with their technical abilities, need players to finish things off."

- Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

Indeed, possession had no actual correlation to wins in Qatar, which was a continuation of a serious downward trend in that correlation over the past three to four World Cups.

We saw classics in the "pulling an unlikely upset over a possession-heavy favorite by nailing your only opportunities" genre: Japan beat Germany with 26% possession and less than half as many shots (xG: Germany 3.1, Japan 1.5), and Saudi Arabia beat Argentina by scoring twice on three total shots worth 0.15 xG -- but something different was at play here, too. There were quite a few examples of teams not only winning without the ball, but generating far more danger in the box, too.

Morocco, of course, was the progenitor and best executor of this approach. In wins over Belgium, Spain and Portugal, Walid Regragui's squad generated 33%, 24% and 27% possession respectively, but created a total of 3.6 xG to opponents' 2.9 in the process. Opponents attempted more shots (35 to 25) and enjoyed far more touches in the attacking third, but Morocco produced the better scoring opportunities. They weren't lucky to survive onslaughts: they were actually landing more punches. Of those three opponents, only Spain created more xG (1.0 to 0.7), but Morocco still created two of the three most high-quality shots against Spain, too.

While declaring that the tiki-taka style most commonly tied to Spain was a "thing of the past," Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic said in Qatar that "the future lies in the speed of counterattacks and fast transitions." He's not necessarily wrong, but we've been here before. After all, Real Madrid's Jose Mourinho had supposedly solved Barcelona and the Pep Guardiola game with quick strikes more than a decade ago, and there are countless headlines predicting the possession game's demise. "Guardiola defiant as tiki-taka declared dead" at Eurosport in 2014, for example. "Was Euro 2016 the death of possession football?" in the Guardian. "The death of Tiki Taka" in MARCA in 2019.

Now that we're returning to the club game, the correlation between possession and wins will return. This is both because the richest and, on average, most talented clubs are primarily designed to play the possession game and because the most possession-adept managers in the world, like Manchester City's Guardiola, are able to acquire the pieces they need to win big. (At the international level, you're stuck with the limitations of your player pool.)

Possession and scoreboard dominance from teams like City won't cease anytime soon, especially as long as players like Kevin De Bruyne and Jack Grealish are around to serve up the types of sumptuous assists they've used to beat Liverpool and Leeds United since the restart. Plus, with City acquiring Erling Haaland and Julian Alvarez and Liverpool nabbing Darwin Nunez, it's clear that the possession-friendly clubs understand the need for "players in the box capable of finishing chances off," as Klinsmann put it. Haaland finished off two vs. Leeds on Wednesday alone.

Before we get fully immersed back into the club game and possession world, however, let's take a moment for a thought experiment. Let's lean into the "death of tiki-taka" idea and see what we find.

With every year that goes by, the book for how to stifle the modern possession game gets a bit larger and more detailed -- and not just the "bunker down and score on your lone shot attempt" chapter -- and a more well-defined, counter-cultural style begins to coalesce. This is how sports work: Innovation comes, money follows the innovation, inefficiencies appear, and smart teams exploit it until the big teams adapt.

If the smartest of the less talented and less monied teams of the world are better adapting to the possession game -- even as the Guardiolas still dominate at the highest level -- let's piece together what a Morocco-style playbook might eventually look like in the club game. And to do that, let's visit a team from Birmingham.

No, not that Birmingham. The Alabama one.

The League of Extraordinary Possession Haters

On Aug. 21, in the Southern Harm Derby in Memphis' AutoZone Park, former D.C. United manager Tom Soehn's Birmingham Legion put on an anti-possession showcase. Despite falling behind early via a goal from Memphis 901's Luiz Nascimento, Birmingham generated just 41% possession, but attempted 17 shots worth 2.7 xG to Memphis' 15 and 1.8. They scored on a Juan Agudelo penalty, a corner kick headed in from third base (AutoZone Park is, first and foremost, for baseball), a quick strike after a defensive misplay and a full-on, vertical counterattack. They won 4-2 on their way to a fourth-place finish in the USL Championship's Eastern Conference.

On that same day in Mexico City, Santos Laguna pounded host Pumas 5-1, generating shots worth 3.0 xG to their opponents' 1.4 despite 44% possession. A week earlier, the NWSL's OL Reign had blown out NY/NJ Gotham FC 4-1 behind two goals from Megan Rapinoe. With just 44% possession, they managed 22 shots worth 2.8 xG to Gotham's 10 worth 0.6.

A couple of weeks later, Osasuna beat Almeria 1-0, generating shots worth 2.0 xG to their opponents' 0.2 despite 39% possession. None of these matches featured super-early goals that would dramatically affect the game state and possession ratio, and all of these winning teams have proved on many occasions that they enjoy life without the ball quite a bit.

StatsPerform provides increasingly detailed and interesting data for countless leagues, so I decided to scour virtually all of them to find teams that fit a certain Morocco-esque profile. I looked for teams from the current season with the following characteristics:

  • A possession rate under 50%

  • A positive (or nearly positive) xG differential

  • As many or more touches in the defending box as anywhere else on the pitch

Even with a huge sample of leagues, there weren't a ton of examples, and a lot of them came in leagues without obvious heavyweights. I selected 20 teams from 12 different leagues.

  • Championship (England, second division): Millwall and Luton Town

  • Bundesliga (Germany): Freiburg and Stuttgart

  • Eredivisie (Netherlands): Utrecht

  • LaLiga (Spain): Osasuna

  • Serie A (Italy): Atalanta and Udinese

  • Liga MX (Mexico): Monterrey and Santos Laguna

  • Liga Profesional (Argentina): Estudiantes

  • MLS (USA): Philadelphia Union and New York Red Bulls

  • NWSL (USA, women's league): OL Reign

  • Primera A (Colombia): La Equidad and Once Caldas

  • Primera Division (Chile): Audax Italiano and Cobresal

  • USL Championship (USA, second division): Birmingham Legion and San Antonio FC

An eclectic bunch, to be sure. Richer clubs like Juventus and Atletico Madrid mostly fit this bill, too, and Newcastle United came close, but I decided it was important to avoid financial advantages for the most part.

As mentioned, a lot of these teams are found in leagues that don't have as many possession-happy heavyweights. On one hand, you could say this style might not translate in, say, the English Premier League. On the other hand, Newcastle is proving that incorrect at the moment. Besides, what's the good of a no-relegation league like MLS or the USL Championship if you cannot experiment stylistically? There's minimal downside! You can't get sent down!

The New York Red Bulls are an almost cartoonishly extreme version of the Red Bull style, and by God, you cannot definitively say that the Birmingham Legion are not the future of soccer. (Well, you can, but go with me on this one.)

Trends and similarities

Indeed, the teams above provide some of the best examples of both creating more high-quality opportunities and, for the most part, winning without the ball.

Only a few teams in this batch are awesome within their leagues, and a lot of them play in American leagues that have controlled payrolls: Philadelphia won Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference and reached MLS Cup; San Antonio won both the USL Championship's Western Conference and the Championship Final; and OL Reign finished first in a parity-heavy NWSL. Outside of the U.S., Freiburg is second in the Bundesliga and has reached the Europa League knockout rounds, Monterrey and Santos Laguna finished second and third, respectively, in the Liga MX Apertura, and Atalanta is sixth in Serie A.

For the most part, though, these teams average between 1.4 and 1.8 points in their given league: solid, albeit unspectacular. Only Stuttgart (0.9 points per game despite the positive xG differential) is languishing. Some, like Freiburg and OL Reign, have possession rates just barely under 50%, while others, like San Antonio and Luton Town, are in the 42-43% range. But they all meet the requirements above.

The teams in this mish-mashed league of 20 are all slightly different, obviously, but there are some similarities worth exploring.

Pressure the ball, don't get overextended, and get the ball the hell out of your half

Near the end of his 2022 book, "Net Gains: Inside the Beautiful Game's Analytics Revolution," my ESPN colleague Ryan O'Hanlon took what he had learned from industry experts to project how he thought a club that is particularly attuned to analytics might act, both on the pitch and behind the scenes.

Among this theoretical club's features: "Most likely, [its] style would prioritize keeping the ball near the opposition goal and creating opportunities to move the ball quickly into the penalty area against an unsettled opposition. It would value risk-taking -- like pushing defenders high up the field or attempting difficult forward passes -- that might lead to embarrassing moments and the occasional lopsided results, but ultimately (well, hopefully) increase the team's chances of winning matches over the long run."

Most of the teams in this possession-hating club pull off that combination pretty well.

Keeping the ball near the opposition goal. There aren't a ton of extreme pressing teams in this group -- New York Red Bulls, Estudiantes and San Antonio are the only teams in the single digits in passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA), a common measure of pressing activity, and nine teams were at 12 or higher, a rather passive average -- but there is still a higher level of pressure than normal, especially in the midfield. These teams begin 40% of their possessions in the middle third (for perspective: Premier League teams average 38%), and they allow opponents only 4.3 passes per possession (EPL average: 5.0).

Even if they aren't turning you over, they are stopping you from advancing freely down the pitch. Opponents average only 305.9 carries and 55.2 progressive carries per match, lower than the EPL averages of 344.6 and 59.4. (Per Stats Perform, progressive carries are "carries that occur in the opposition half, which are greater than five meters and move the ball at least five meters towards the opposition goal.") These teams also allow 42.5 progressive passes per match, well below the EPL's average of 47.0.

A lot of these teams also offer a higher defensive line than what the generic low-possession team would muster; they take the fight to opponents while the ball is still pretty far from their goal. That said, these teams also try to avoid an extreme amount of defensive risk.

The downside of a particularly high defensive line is that opponents will often break the line and create clear, high-xG looks at goal. You don't find much of that in this sample of teams. Opponents attempt 87% of their shots with at least two defenders between the ball and the goal (EPL average: 83.8%), with four teams -- including the current, much more conservative version of Atalanta -- topping 90%. Plus, only 46.1% of opponents' shots are attempted from inside the defensive box (EPL average: 51.2%) and, consequently, only 33.0% are on target (EPL: 35.9%).

These don't seem like huge differences, but in essence it's the difference between defending like Arsenal and defending like Leicester City. (Just check the table to see how it's working out for those teams in particular.)

Risk-taking and difficult forward passes. These possession-hating teams don't want you comfortable on the ball, so when you see that their possession rate is under 50%, that tells you that their own possessions are generally pretty quick, too. They average 98.1 possessions per match -- 97.1, if you take out the OL Reign since women's matches feature more possessions on average -- which is well above the EPL average of 90.3. Their average direct speed -- how quickly a team is moving the ball up the field in a given sequence -- is 1.84 meters per second, when no one in the EPL averages greater than 1.56. Seven teams average higher than 2.0 meters per second, led by San Antonio's absurdly direct 2.53.

On average, 40.3% of these teams' passes are forward (EPL average: 35.1%) and 16.8% of them are long balls (12.2%). Since these passes are riskier, their possessions average only 20.0 seconds (23.6) and 3.8 passes (5.1). Among the Premier League's top 10 teams, only Brentford averages below even 4.5 passes per possession.

There are two primary goals with a quick, vertical attack. First, while you will quickly lose possession at times, you are looking to take advantage of what O'Hanlon called "unsettled opposition." It is difficult for even the most talented team to break down a properly organized and parked-in defense. Smart teams try to seize on transition opportunities.

There's another goal here, too, though: getting the ball away from your own goal as quickly as possible. Only 42.3% of these teams' passes are attempted within their own half, as compared to 47.4% of EPL teams. Opponents start only 6.4% of possessions inside the attacking third. Trading some of your own on-ball possession to assure that opponents can't take over in dangerous territory is worthwhile, especially when you pair it with a higher defensive line and strong midfield pressure, which also keeps the ball away from your goal (and assures that your transition attacks don't have to travel nearly as far).

These teams don't dominate transition to a wild degree, but in what I call "transition possessions" -- possessions that start outside of the attacking third and last 20 or fewer seconds -- they score more (0.47 goals per 90) than they allow (0.34), and they only lose the ball 39.8% of the time in their defensive third in these possessions (EPL average: 44.6%) because, again, the ball isn't that deep as often.

Which major clubs come the closest to this style?

Again, this list of anti-possession heroes mostly consist of teams either based in leagues without financial (and ball-dominant) heavyweights, or that are grounded in a merely above-average spot in the table. It's cool that they're succeeding the way they are -- and that we were able to find some similarities among them -- but here are a few richer, higher-ranked and/or more ball dominant teams that are achieving some of the same aims.

Four of these five teams have reached the Champions League knockout rounds, and the other is currently third in the Premier League. Good teams!

Newcastle United. Even though the ownership back story isn't particularly heart-warming, Eddie Howe's Magpies have been fascinating to watch. They are a legit third in the Premier League table -- they're third in xG differential and overall percentage of touches in the box, too -- and they've gotten here as one of the most direct teams in the league (1.54 meters per second in direct speed, fourth overall). Their possession rate is 49.9%. They rank near the top of the league in both progressive carries allowed and progressive passes allowed, and they've allowed only a single goal in transition possessions.

Newcastle are experiencing a pretty spectacular breakthrough this year, and they're doing it with a style pretty close to Morocco's.

Bayern Munich. They're annual Watchability champions because while they tend to dominate the ball (66% possession in the Bundesliga this season), they're also constantly trying to do something with it. Their direct speed is 1.34 (above average for a heavyweight), they average nearly 97 possessions per match, and despite taking risks and playing with some high defensive lines, they've allowed only two goals from transition possessions in league play.

Manager Julian Nagelsmann has clearly been influenced by Guardiola, but his Bayern brings a German directness to the table, too.

AC Milan. The defending Scudetto winners are second in Serie A behind only Napoli (who could have made this list with a bit higher tempo) and finished second in their Champions League group as well. Among the current Italian top five, their direct speed (1.45) and average possessions (93.2) are easily the highest, their percentage of passes in their own half (47.9%) is the lowest, and they both average and allow the fewest passes per possession. They've allowed only a single goal in transition possessions.

Milan create chaos from box to box and prevent opponents from taking either high-quantity or high-quality shots.

Eintracht Frankfurt. After a dismal start to the season -- they lost their first Bundesliga match to Bayern 6-1, went winless in their first three matches and opened Champions League play with a 3-0 home loss to Sporting CP -- Die Adler caught fire. They're fourth in the Bundesliga (third in xG differential and percentage of touches in the box), and they charged back to finish second in their Champions League group.

Eintracht have done it with frantic and exciting play, too. They average 103.5 possessions per match, third-most in the league and most of any team in the top half of the table, and their possession rate is only 50.7%. Only Bayern starts possessions further up the pitch on average, and while they've allowed five goals in transition possessions, they've scored 10.

Benfica. Roger Schmidt's squad is far too dominant domestically to not dominate the ball (66% possession in the Primeira Liga), but they were at only 49% while winning their Champions League group. They dominate the midfield -- they start 46% of their league possessions in the middle third to opponents' 29% -- and they make more progressive passes and carries than even Bayern. They are a bit vulnerable in transition defense, but they also score a ton of goals in transition themselves. They force the issue beautifully.