If you want to see the original post series go here. This page allows you to print or export the entire series at once.
What is a “possession style”?
Possession-based soccer is characterized by:
- Methodically moving the ball up the field with many short, quick passes
- Comfortable playing the ball across and back, including to the keeper
- Passing around opponents instead of dribbling them
- Patience; not forcing the ball forwards
When should you begin teaching it?
There are many basic technical skills that should be in place before you move into these tactical concepts. Generally this can begin around 10u. Your players should be comfortable with (though not necessarily experts at):
- Able to dribble with their heads up to look for a passing opportunity
- Able to properly execute a pass to a teammate under pressure
- Understand basic spacing to get open and call for a pass
- Demonstrating all the above consistently during games
All requisite technical skills must be in place before you can move forward, else you will just frustrate yourself and team with trying to force a style the team is just not ready for.
How can I get my players to adopt this style?
Possession is a mindset that your players must adopt at their very core. This is not something you ever finish coaching, you can only expect small incremental improvements each week and you must focus on it constantly. EXTRA coaches should expect to make far more progress over a given season, but doesn’t mean you shouldn’t expose Core teams to this teaching either. Core coaches just need to have reasonable expectations. As we coaching staff at 1455 do a better job at getting more Core coaches coaching the same way, you can expect more players to be exposed to these concepts at earlier ages, and thus Core coaches have less “starting over” to do each season. And that makes it way more fun for everyone involved.
Possession Skills Path
This is a skill path progression for teaching a possession mindset and accompanying technical skills.
Note: A lot of this work is adapted from two sources 1) Possession by Dan Blank. 2) US Youth Soccer Association’s Olympic Development Program Coaching Manual which is all about possession style soccer.
Both resources are geared towards the Advanced player stage (15u+), so I have pulled out applicable content and simplified it for use in Basic and Intermediate stage players. I still recommend reading them if you’re interested in this topic.
This is our first post in the Possession Series here. A possession style of soccer requires buy-in from your entire team. If even one of your players is not committed, either they will give the ball away or teammates will stop playing to them–ultimately leading to a lack of success either way. In order for anyone to buy into anything completely, they have to understand the concept and the ultimate benefits to them and the team. And it’s even WAY more difficult to get them to play this style under pressure in a game, even if they believe in the theory.
So let’s jump in and begin the never-ending journey.
After you’ve introduced the concept of possession soccer I like to move to a little demonstration. Ask your players to pay close attention because there will be a quiz. Ask for volunteers from your team, ask for anyone who thinks they’re one of the best attackers on the team, select (or pick) three. Then get two of your best defenders and your best keeper. Have the keeper and defense take up their defensive positions near goal and have the three attackers outside the penalty area and play the ball to your attackers and have them attempt to score.
Nine times out of ten the attackers will fail to score, even having an extra player. If they happen to get lucky and score have them play it again. Ask the remaining players how it went. Most will say it went well (they are shy or have no idea), and you’ll hopefully get a couple vague comments about how they should have passed more, or spaced out more, etc.
Now repeat this activity, but have coaches demonstrate. Show them what a possession style attack looks like. Run through a couple iterations. Now have everyone regroup in the huddle and ask them the differences between the player and coach examples. Now you should be getting real feedback. If not, ask them guiding questions.
Now you introduce them succinctly to a few possession style principles such as playing from the spot, movement off ball, using support, turning away from pressure, etc. This should be maybe a minute on each topic at most. They won’t be absorbing much, you’re just getting them thinking.
I then ask for 4 volunteers. Anyone will do. Split them up into teams of two. Have them move away from the group and toss them a ball. I then yell, “ok guys, play soccer!”. It usually takes them a few seconds, then they figure it out and start passing the ball among each other. Once they get it have them come back. Ask the team “what game are you playing if you take the goals away in soccer?”. The team should immediately respond with “keep away”. Then you can ask “so if we get really really good at playing keep away do you think that will make us really really good at soccer?”. You should get some clear agreement here.
Ask for 2 volunteers. Set up a quick 5×5 cone square. Put a ball in the middle. Put one player right over the ball and the other by a corner. Step away and ask them to keep the ball in the square and play soccer. Nine times out of ten the player on the ball will quickly kick the ball away when the other player comes rushing in and the ball goes 10 yards out of bounds. Ask the team what happened. I’ll usually get a few vague replies before I’ll cut to the chase and say “she panicked didn’t she”. Ask the players what they could do differently. Wait until you get a comment about “using her body”. Highlight that response and ask the players to try again, but this time to try to use their body. You’ll still get a poor result but it will be slightly better. Now have coaches demonstrate.
Now come back to your team and explain how if you master the simpler 1v1, you’ll then be in a better position to play 2v2, and so on. So your first session is going to be all about getting comfortable maintaining possession 1v1.
This format will easily allow you to move into the first technical/tactical session of Shielding the Ball.
When you start a shielding drill, most players’ natural instinct is to dribble the ball away from pressure, but that’s dribbling and not shielding. We need to get players comfortable with heavy pressure from behind and holding their ground at the same time.
Activity – Cage Match
Start with 5×5 grid to accommodate 2 players per square. Put a raised disc cone in the middle of each grid and put a soccer ball on it. Starting with 1 player in each grid, their job is not let the other player knock the ball off the cone for 5 seconds (adjust time as necessary so they occasionally win). Start with both players in a corner, with the protecting player facing the ball. Allow physical tactics such as pushing and shoving, but no tripping/tackling/etc. Whichever player wins gets a point. Play this through so each player gets 10 chances in each position. You can pause every couple passes for coaching questions.
- Can the protecting player protect the ball if she isn’t seeing where the other player is?
- What two things should the protecting player always be standing between? (opponent and ball)
- Should the protecting player be standing up straight or low and bracing?
- How can the protecting player use their arms to create more space? Is this allowed? (yes!)
- What other benefit to do you have if you have your hands out touching your opponent? (you know where they’re moving)
Note: If you see any mismatches between players, you can move players around to make it more even/challenging.
Add 4 small flat disc cones around the ball making a mini 1×1 grid and remove the center cone. The protecting player can use their feet to maneuver the ball but they must keep it inside the mini grid. This is a good time to swap players around to keep it interesting.
- Do you have to touch the ball to protect it?
- What parts of the foot work well to keep it under tight control? (sole)
Remove cones to convert the 5×5 grid into 10×10 grid. Two players per square still. Player 1 has possession of the ball. Player 2 attempts to win the ball. Play continues for 30 seconds. The player with the ball at the end scores a point. If a player kicks the ball out of bounds, the other player gets a free dribble back into the grid. Run through several iterations switching starting players each time.
- Do you have to keep your back to the opponent? How else can you stand? (sideways to opponent, wide stance, leaning heavily into)
- Even with the wider space, should you be dribbling away? (no, it just backs you into a corner)
This setup will lead nicely into Receiving the Ball so you may want to combine into a single practice.
This is our third post in the Possession Series here. We are picking up after our Shielding the Ball exercises and still focusing on the individual technical skills that will help enable our possession style of soccer when we move into teaming situations.
In this case we want players thinking about their next move as they receive the pass. They must have some very basic tools to receive the ball under pressure because oftentimes they will need to hold onto the ball before their next passing opportunity appears.
These activities build on the Shielding the Ball progression so you’ll want to start with the same 10×10 grid.
Activity – Cage Match – Ball In
You’ll have 3 players per 10×10 square, one is the server, the other is the receiver, and the other is the defender. The receiver and defender start on the opposite side of the square from the server. The receiver is nearer to the server with the defender right on their back. The server plays a pass to the receiver and the receivers job is to gain control of the ball and shield the ball for 5 seconds. After ten passes in a row, have all three rotate roles.
- How can you trap the ball creating the maximum amount of distance between the ball and the opponent? The receiver should be turned sideways, stopping the ball with the foot away from the opponent and leaning towards the opponent ready for the challenge
Same activity but have them control the ball with their non-dominant foot for ten passes each.
Instead of standing on the corners, have them stand on the side of the squares. The server will put the ball into the square at a random locations, sometimes right to, sometimes to left side, sometimes right. The receiver will have to make a quick decision about which foot with which to receive the ball. Receiver still shields for five seconds. Play until they’ve made sufficient progress.
- What happens if you don’t move towards the pass? Defender beats you to the ball
- Do you have to wait until you receive the ball to shield? No, put yourself between the opponent and the closest point in the balls trajectory where you plan to retrieve it
- If the ball heads towards the left touchline, which foot do you receive with? The left (leaning right, against defender), so you’re facing the open field instead of the touchline, setting yourself up to be able to look for support
This session leads nicely into the fourth: Escaping Pressure
This continues our theme so far of perfecting some tactics around 1v1 before we move on to group scenarios. I’m a believer in that the better able the players are able to cope with and respond cooly under pressure with the ball, the less rash they will be giving away possession. If they aren’t comfortable with pressure and able to buy themselves time to find the pass, they will force the ball ending up in turnovers.
Many times during the game a player will be in a position where shielding the ball is not a viable option, such as when you face pressure from two directions. A player must take a dribble to increase space or put both opposing defenders behind them.
Activity – Escape Tunnel
This follows the same grid pattern used in the previous activities except you will remove one side of two squares to make 10×20 rectangular grid . You will add two small “goals”, both on the same long side at opposite ends. There are two players per zone. Player 1 stands on the same touchline as the two goals facing the opposite side with a ball between their legs. Player 2 plays the ball from behind player 1 into the center of the zone. Player 1 must retrieve the ball with player 2 applying immediate pressure from behind, and the object is for player 1 to dribble through either goal. Have the players rotate roles each time.
- Where does your ideal first touch go? Either side, not away from objectives
- Can you do anything to increase you chances of making a successful turn? They can throw a body fake in before receiving the ball
- Do you have to stop the ball first? When is the best time to make the decision of where you want to go? Before the first touch
- What moves can you use to turn with the ball and escape pressure? You might want to have certain players demonstrate moves that you’ve observed that are good, or you may want to show them some of yours.
- Do you have to rush? Is there pressure from anywhere else at the moment? No
Move to 3 per zone, adding a server. Ball is served in from a coach or teammate randomly in the zone.
The server puts in a random ball and moves location. Receiver has to find and pass back to the server. Rotate roles.
The next article in the series is Playing From the Spot.
Playing from the spot refers to the concept of killing the ball at your feet, then playing the ball from that location. It is an extremely simple concept to understand but very unintuitive from a players standpoint to execute during a game.
For example, generally a player receiving the ball will always take a first touch a couple yards up field. Generally there is a defending opponent within ten yards that immediately starts to close on that location towards the ball. Your player just helped the defender by removing a few yards of distance, and now just has a split second to play the ball before the opponent arrives. This often results in a frantic attempt to juke the defender or an errant pass, resulting in losing possession.
Wouldn’t it be better for your player who receives the ball with ten yards free around her to kill the ball and force the defender to close that gap? That gives your player another half second at least to make a decision.
You can create a visual of this during practice by just illustrating the difference in the two approaches above (playing from the spot vs taking the first touch toward opposition). Just show them the difference in how much time they’ll have to play the ball. Having explained it to them, you can also be assured that NONE of them will change their behavior one iota. I recommend a homework assignment: Have them each watch the first 10 minutes of any professional game on YouTube, even better if you assign a specific game. Have them count how many plays from the spot there are in that ten minutes (one touches count as playing from the spot). You can split them into two groups and have half count one team, and half count the other. Now that they’ve done that, have them compare that to the first 10 minutes of game video from your own team (if you can get it) or have them show up early to their next match and count from the game before theirs. The difference will be staggering.
After getting the players conscience of playing from the spot, you’ll spend the rest of your coaching “career” with them fighting their urge to go full throttle towards opposition. The battle will never end, you must be diligent about incorporating this into all your practices, calling out great examples, and calling out times when they forget.
Up to this point, this Progression series has been all about getting players comfortable with pressure and able to buy time until a passing option appears. Without that comfort, they won’t have the fortitude to play from the spot. So as those complementary skills increase, so will their capacity to play from the spot.
This is the first skill in this series that requires teammates (instead of just opposition) to practice. There are limitless drills online about how to practice it, but this below is the simplest distillation of the skill I can come up with. As players improve you’ll build in lots of variation.
One mantra I encourage you to adopt and keep repeating to your players: “It takes more than one opponent to take the ball from us!” This will help them mentally prepare for being comfortable holding the ball 1v1 which enables the ability to play from the spot under pressure.
Activity – Keep Away
Start with a grid of 10×10 squares, 3 players per square. The game is simply keep away, with the player responsible for losing the ball becoming the defender. The player with the ball is not allowed to dribble, they MUST play from the spot. They are allowed/encouraged to turn with the ball and shield it from the defender until their teammate gets open. If they dribble the ball it is considered a turnover. With only a 2v1 scenario, often there will not be an immediate passing option, that’s fine. This is encouraging both playing from the spot, shielding the ball, and receiving with the proper foot. Emphasize all 3 coaching points, all drills should be compound in nature. We will come back to similar activities where the focus will be on the players without the ball, but we haven’t gotten that far in our possession series, so we focus on what we’ve already taught them.
Combine two groups/squares so that you have 4v2. If you have odd players out, move to a 5v2 or you can have 2 players rotating in/out and focusing on 1v1 scenarios from earlier articles in this series.
Start with a 20×20. 5v2. The objective now is for the players with the ball to move as a unit back and forth across the zone to “score”. Again, all players must play from the spot, now we are adding a directional objective. Once a player receives the ball outside the square, they have scored and now must work the ball to the opposite end of the square. After a certain number of scores you have players rotate into the middle. You can add variations involving numbers of passes that must be completed to score, putting a max time any player can sit on the ball, or put a 1,2,3 touch maximum on each player etc. You can reduce or increase ratio of players to increase/decrease difficulty. You will also want to work in the concept of playing to space at some point as well.
Small sided game 4v4 or similar. No dribbling allowed.
This is an excellent lead in session to our next session which will focus on instruction to players on their Movement Off Ball.
A popular coaches’ mantra you might have heard is: “Who is the most important player on the field? The player withOUT the ball.”
If you want to play a possession style of soccer, movement off ball will (or needs to) become your single biggest topic you work into almost every session. As we learned from the previous post about playing from the spot, if we’re encouraging players to not automatically advance the ball on their own, guess how your team has to advance the ball: Yep, playing the ball to an available teammate.
What sounds easy (e.g. “just get OPEN”) is actually a dozen+ skills/tactics that ALL your players have to master for your possession game to be effective. Because this topic is a never-ending rabbit hole of skills development, we need a place to start. Though there is much overlap, there are both technical and tactical aspects to movement off ball. This article will focus on the technical aspect. Once your players become masters of the technical element you can start slowly introducing the more tactical aspects that will have to be covered elsewhere.
Let’s simplify down to the primary technical skills involved:
- Peeling away from marking opponents during a transition
- Moving to available space
- Signaling availability to your teammate
- Preplanning your next pass
Senior coaches like to say some variation of “games are won and lost in the transition”. That means many things, but for our purposes the important element to possession is that your players need get good at the mental switch of possession. Once possession is gained, players must convert from a Cover mindset into Width and Support. I will tell you right away, however, that in your early days of teaching this, your players are going to get run ragged because of the frequency of possession change in youth soccer. As your team gets better at possession, the less transition they have to do = less running = happier players. Use this as a coaching point.
The hardest element to teach is actually the simplest: instilling the habit of actually moving off ball. Few things frustrate a coach more than a player that passes the ball, then simply stands there watching. A new mantra I want you to adopt: 3 steps!
3 steps will be shorthand for your players to understand that after transfer of possession or any pass that they make, all players need to immediately and quickly take a minimum of 3 steps somewhere to support their teammate. The next question is where should those 3+ steps take them, which leads us to…
For the sake of simplicity, at this stage of training, available space will mean three things:
- Not immediately next to an opponent
- Within passing distance of your teammate
- In a passing lane or “seam”
Once you get into the discussion of which seams or spaces are better than others under different scenarios, I would label that as “tactics” and something to introduce much later after they are having success with possession in small sided games. When you start talking about positioning/spacing outside of passing range you are then talking more about the principles of width and penetration, thus I consider that more tactical in nature as well. For the sake of learning, if your players can get really good at generically taking good advantage of available space you’ll be way ahead of the competition at this level and you can slowly build from there.
While not directly associated with “movement”, you’ll want to work on your signaling during your position exercises to maximize their adoption. First, there aren’t 100% correct or incorrect ways to signal, but some are better than others. I’m going to introduce you to a few of my recommendations that are intended to be very clear, as well as allows for the addition of more complicated signals as they progress.
Verbal signals should only be used in a manner in which they cannot help an opponent. Commands to the player on ball should be short and relevant to their environment, but typically not instructional. So “man on”, “turn”, “behind”, “support” are all good verbal signals because they feed succinct, relevant information to the ball carrier without conveying useful information to the opponent. Conversely, yelling “open” or “pass back” or “through ball” are not ideal because it immediately draws the attention of the defense. It’s better to teach players on the ball to scan the field with their head up looking for nonverbal signals which are much harder to spot and leverage by the opposing team.
- Pass the ball to my feet – Both arms in front of your body pointing down toward your feet, palms open
- Pass a leading ball – One arm pointing downward at 45 degree angle, palm out. Pointing in direction you want the ball
- Pass to me in space – Arm up, pointing upward 45 degrees in direction you want, palm out
- Don’t pass to me -or- pass to other player – Arm straight out to side 90 degrees, palm/fingers closed. Pointing in direction of better option. Stand straight up, chest out. Your body language should reinforce that you are not in a position to receive the ball
Nail these four before progressing to anything more complicated. I like the verbal command “support” as a catchall term for conveying a safe passing option that the player on the ball can use while their head is down under pressure–generally behind the ball carrier. This generally does not help the opponent as they are likely to be facing in a manner to see your open teammate already.
You can check here for other options to introduce in the future.
A critical skill to start developing young is teaching players that as soon as they arrive in a seam and are ready to signal for the ball, they take a quick sideways glance in either/both directions to spot 1) an open teammate upfield, and 2) if they have a closing defender that will prevent them from turning with the ball.
While you can create drills to work on this specifically, you’re just as well to simply incorporate 1 touch restrictions in other teaming drills you run which force the player to pre-evaluate their options.
Activity – Keep Away
You can leverage all the other drills I’ve covered in this series to focus on these aspects. The focus of your coaching simply shifts to the off-ball players in each activity. You can start with the Keep Away progression from Playing from the Spot with a couple of slight modifications:
- Players who don’t take three steps after a pass move is the same as losing the ball. Start by having coaches call this out. After a time, consider placing a bounty on recognizing this infraction. Any player who sees a player standing still can yell “no 3 steps” and they receive a “get out of jail free card” so if they lose possession the other player goes in in their place
- Incorporate signaling. Use the same rules above such that if they don’t signal, it’s the same as losing the ball
- Incorporate touch restrictions that will help the players get better at shielding and will encourage players to plan ahead for their next touch
Our next post in the series Importance of Width and Spacing, will provide you some additional coaching points for those off ball.
In our previous post we defined some ground rules for what constituted acceptable off-ball movement. As your players get very good at the keep away style drills and you move into more realistic game scenarios, you’ll want to build on their knowledge and help implement a bit of tactics to your coaching.
When your opponent has the ball, your players will instinctively be drawn toward the ball. Up to a point this is what you what. You want to make their field of play very small. You want your team to recognize that when they have the ball, the opponent will naturally make their field of play smaller. So it becomes very important that your players understand that when they have the ball, they need to create the width necessary so that the player with the ball can advance beyond the first line of pressure.
You want the other team to have to cover the most distance to chase you down (like we covered in Playing from the Spot). This is the corollary instruction for the players off ball. When trying to create the most width and spacing possible, feet and inches matter. So add these coaching points to your keep away style drills and small-sided games:
- Don’t stand inside the touchline when you can stand outside the touchline, use that extra yard or two to make the space bigger
- Don’t check to the ball when the pressure is that way. If the pass split the defense, take the ball further away to make the defense chase further
- Start teaching the players to recognize situations which require close support vs those where the player can and should play further away. If the ball carrier is not under heavy pressure and looking up, have them space further out to receive a longer pass. But under heavy pressure when the ball carrier’s head is down, they need to move closer to support
The next post in the series covers Passing Angles.
Back in Movement Off Ball our focus was on getting players moving to space to support the ball carrier. As your players get better this you can start to sprinkle in some more specific advice on the better use of angles to provide support.
Spacing vs Seams
It’s one thing for a player to get into space to receive the ball, but if the opponent is organized on defense, they are providing good compactness which is closing down space for your ball carrier to exploit. So being in space may not be enough to be available, your off-ball players need to be actively aware of and trying to find a passing seam (or lane). A seam/lane is simply space between opponents where a pass can safely be made.
In the diagram below, your team (represented by triangles) has the ball. There are two opponents blocking the ability for your player with the ball to pass to either teammate. The solid arrows represent the available passing lanes. The dotted lines are where your ball carrier’s teammates can move to receive a pass through either available seam.
Safe Angles – Players instinctually do not want to run any more than is necessary to complete an objective. When their objective is to get into a seam, oftentimes they will stop short of providing safe angles in favor of just a visible angle. The figure below shows a teammate giving an unsafe angle. Players must be taught (shown how) to provide a safe angle that a defender cannot stop with a simple stab of the leg.
Realistic Angles – Players must be shown what constitutes a realistic angle. Oftentimes you’ll see a teammate get open completely outside the ball carrier’s field of vision. Teammates must recognize the difference of a ball carrier being in open space versus under pressure when they are unable to turn. Teammates need to be shown the difference it makes to be a seam that is visible and usable by the ball carrier vs one that can’t be played because of pressure.
Open Side of a Seam – This refers to teammates getting open in a seam on the far side of the opponents to the ball carrier. If the teammates checks inside the opponent, at best they receive the ball under heavy pressure. Worst case the opponent beats the teammate to the ball, losing possession. Show them how to play the open side as shown below.
During your possession exercises, consider rewarding passes that split defenders double what you reward others to encourage this thinking.
Don’t call for a bad ball; don’t pass a bad ball – There are two sides of this coaching point, one for ball carriers and one for teammates. Ball carriers should never play a bad option presented by a teammate. If the teammate won’t get in the proper position, it’s the ball carrier’s responsibility to put the pass using the good seam or angle and forcing that teammate into the proper space. Conversely, players just want the ball, and they’ll call for it even if the angle isn’t great. You need to actively call out players that signal availability in poor situations. One way to do this is during your keep away / rondo exercises that either of these infractions leads to the turnover. Meaning, if a teammate calls for the ball while not in a good position, that’s the same thing as a turnover and that player must go into the middle.
Activity – Dutch / 31
Like Keep Away, this is very basic progression that will start simple but ultimately can be as challenging and dynamic as you make it. You can adapt the player counts and grid sizing to accomodate your age group.
Start with a grid of 10×10 squares. Each square starts with four players, one on each corner. Player A starts with the ball and passes counter clockwise to Player B, who players it counter clockwise to Player C, then C to D, etc around and around. The restriction is that players can only take two touches, the first touch must be with their right foot. 2nd touch is the pass, either foot.
After the ball has made 10 rounds or so, switch direction. Now each first touch must be with the left foot.
This 1st phase is getting them comfortable opening up and receiving the ball across their standing leg while getting them used to immediately changing direction.
You can add a fun/competitive element by having players count and call out successful passes. You can see which square gets the most passes in a set time or play first to a certain number.
Remove one player from each square. The exercise is the same except the ball is always played to the corner without the player. Player A starts with the ball without any player in Corner B. Player B is standing in Corner C. Player B takes off towards Corner B. When Player B is half way to Corner B, Player A plays the ball to Corner B such that the ball arrives just as Player B does. Player B has the two touch limitation with the right foot receiving first, then must play to the open corner timing is so that Player C arrives at the same time. Around it goes, then again you’ll switch the direction at some point.
This is more difficult because players now have to consider the timing of the pass and they must execute their two-touch maneuver at full speed. The two things to watch for will be players 1) playing the ball too early or 2) (which is much more common) balls played late. This happens either because the passer waited too long or the runner went too early before the passer took a 1st touch.
Now we add a defender in the middle making this a keep away style activity. Players must stay on their square and move to the open corner to support their teammate. You can add touch restrictions, and 3 second pass rule, etc to increase the level of difficulty.
This progression overlaps with your keep away progression. Same rules as before.
There are 3 teams per square, each team with different color pinnies. It’s two teams versus one team in keep away. When a player loses the ball, their team is now in the middle. This is a fast-paced game and turnovers can be very quick and thus taxing for players to keep track of their team. It gets easier for them after they’ve played it for a while.
To keep score, every successful completed pass is a score for BOTH teams (passer and receiver). Each team is responsible for tracking their own points. The first team to 31 (or any arbitrary score) is the winner.
Next up is getting players to use this knowledge in combination with understanding balance and mobility by Scanning the Field.
This installment is not really about your players’ ability to look up with the ball. While that is a definite prerequisite, what we’re actually covering here is the tactical side of how you leverage the technical skill of being able to (and comfortable with!) looking up under pressure.
As your possession IQ increases and players get comfortable with shielding the ball, playing the way they’re facing, giving good supporting angles, etc., the better they will be at connecting many short passes in succession. The longer they do this in a smaller space, the more opponents they will draw towards them. At some point there will an equal amount of opponents (or greater) in the vicinity of the ball. At that point it becomes very difficult to retain possession.
Your players need to understand that the longer they keep the ball in a small space, the more pressure they will face. So players need to constantly be scanning the field to understand where the balance of players is favorable to them, oftentimes this means they need to find the more difficult passing options that let them recapture numerical advantages.
Because your players are likely younger and will have difficulty connecting long passes (let alone passes that require height), I recommend you instill some simple guidelines for your players that you will work into your small sided games and scrimmages:
- Look for a pass to the MOST open player in your passing radius. I define the passing radius as the distance that your team is comfortable and capable of connecting passes reliably. This increases as players age. If the ball carrier has a 8 yard passing option but is under tight coverage, make sure your player takes a quick scan of the field 15+ yards around to find a more open player
- If the ball gets passed back, the receiver’s first look should be to switch
- After three passes in the same area, the ball carrier should be looking to switch to an open part of the field
You can put restrictions in your small-sided games to enforce this:
- Balls must be switched at least once before a team can score
- The ball must be touched by both “wings” (left and right) to score
- Any pass back that doesn’t result in a switching attempt is a turnover. When you try this one, the other team will get very good at playing the switch which is good thing, but that means the switch may not be there. As long as the receiver of a pass back glances up to look for the switch, I would count it–but they still need to play it if it’s a viable option
- Divide the playing space into a 6-9 square grid, limit the number of passes inside any one grid
The last post in this series is Play the Way You Face.
Playing the way you face is one of those topics that is very counterintuitive to younger players. For the most part of their soccer experience everyone has been teaching them (inadvertently at least) that the path to glory is towards the opponents goal. So the player instinctively will always turn with the ball to prepare an advance in that direction.
The issue here of course is that 50% of time, an opponent will be standing right there as soon as your player turns with the ball. The opponent immediately goes in for the tackle and will oftentimes come out on top. That means that every time your team turns with the ball they only have a 25% chance of escaping that pressure and advancing the ball. Hence why in youth soccer turnovers occur on average every 5 seconds.
Players need to learn that the best path forward for the TEAM is often a lateral or back pass. And they need to learn the importance of evaluating the situation before they turn with the ball. Because they don’t naturally understand how dangerous it is to turn under pressure, you’ll need to spend a lot of time demonstrating this first.
If you’ll recall the Escape Tunnel drill from Escaping Pressure, this provides an excellent progression option you can add to focus on this.
In Escape Tunnel, the player receiving the ball must determine a way to get through one of the open gates. Up to this point they have always had a player immediately on their back to deal with. Now you can change it up and instruct the defender to not chase the receiver half the time. This forces the receiver to be mindful of the fact that sometimes they can turn immediately and advance, other times they’ll need to shield the ball.
Another progression involves the player’s teammates. Get them involved by helping the receiver know when they can turn. Have the teammates not in the drill yell “turn” or “man on” to signal the receiver if they have time or not.
Activity – 2v1
I use a variation of this to teach many different skills, but in the case you’re going to use this activity to demonstrate just how dangerous it is to turn under pressure.
The setup for the drill looks like this:
You start with 2 attackers and 1 defender + keeper. The first attacker plays the ball to the 2nd attacker with the defender starting at his back. The 2nd attackers job is to turn, beat the defender, and score.
The first time I run through this, I always ask for a volunteer who thinks they’re great at scoring, they start as the 2nd attacker. I then let all the other players watch as we demonstrate. Assuming you have a basically capable defender and keeper, your forward should score maybe 1 out of every ten times. I ask the forward to reset and keep playing this activity through 4-5 times. When complete, ask them how hard is that to score 1v1 vs a defender, which is one of the easier positions to score from. Usually they’ll admit it’s pretty hard.
Then I’ll ask them to do something different, I want them to play the way they face and use their teammate. I have them layoff a pass then get open. So the activity then looks like:
Explain that what you just did was take a 1v1 scenario and turn it into a 2v1 scenario because now the rear player is advancing the ball for you and the other attacker can peel off and get open to receive an easy through ball.
You can add a lot of variation once they get the basic process down. I like to have teammates who are waiting for their turn serve the ball from a different angle. You can also remove the keeper if this is still a challenge for younger players. I also like to add a 2nd defender that is stationed some distance away from the attack. If they attackers take too long to execute, the 2nd defender will reach the action just in time to break up the through ball. Make sure you vary the starting position of the defender, perhaps have once out ever few plays the defender play off so the opportunity to turn is actually the best option.
- Is it easier to beat an opponent behind you or play the ball away to get open, why?
- How can your teammates help you? By calling out “turn” or “man on”
- What are examples of good angles for your teammate? Better than square and far enough from opponent