Our league (United Soccer Club) transitioned from 8v8 to 9v9 this year. In any event, in any league you play, you will encounter variations of small-sided games. As you balance development versus results, the way that you align your players at young ages says a lot about your motive.
I believe, without reservation, that the optimal developmental formation for SSGs (7v7, 8v8, 9v9) requires you to play 2 Center-Mids. This opinion has been years in the making. Are there other formations that would be easier to get forward? Yes. To score goals? Of course. The problem is that at the ages where the players are playing SSGs, you have to balance development heavier than tactics or results.
In the new 9v9 setup, I see most coaches play a 332. The lone center-mid is left to spray the ball forward for the forwards to run onto it. To me, this is seed of the 442. My problem is this: if you can teach players how to build through the middle and teach 2 players to operate in that boundary-free zone, they can always play “direct” 332 style when necessary. But the reverse is not true.
I played competitive tennis as a youth. I loved overheads. I loved to spike them (play them short). I was taught by a wise coach to play deep overheads – preferably in the corners – but in no case should I spike them. He told me that if I could learn to play deep overheads, I could always spike one when appropriate – but knowing how to spike doesn’t mean you know how to play a proper deep overhead.
Using 2 CMs in youth soccer is the same to me. Will it slow down your attack? Yes. Will it cost you goals? Yes. But, if you can start building the concepts of having 2 CMs learning to work together in the middle – learning how to move in support (either away or to each other), it is like learning to hit a deep overhead. As a coach, you just need to do it.
So, for the last year my 9v9 teams have played a 323. And, for me, I do not see a 433 like Real Madrid – they are not all 3 “forwards” for me. I have a lone forward with two wingers or attacking midfielders (however you want to call them) that provide width to the attack. They are expected to track back and defend but not all the way back to the touch line. The their defensive duties usually stop around the penalty area or a touch higher.
But, for me, the bottom line is that you need 2 CMs in the SSGs to encourage play through the middle and encourage technical growth, not selling out for short-term results.
I was reviewing my old posts on this site and stumbled across a great reply that we received from an ex-professional player. His name is Carl from Seattle. He included a session broken down by minute from his favorite coach. Here is a link to the Lake City Hawks Facebook page. I also discovered that the coach, Walter Schmetzer, Sr., runs a store and skill academy. Here is a link to that. And, it looks like from what I saw, that Walter’s son is the coach of the Seattle Sounders. For all those reasons, and because you just want to learn, read closely what Carl posted:
The Team Training Session Focused on Player Development
Coaches have asked me what an ideal practice looks like if player development, as opposed to team development, is the primary objective. It looks today, as I practice it, just as it did as practiced by Coach Schmetzer–my former youth coach–the most successful coach in developing players to excel in ODP since its inception in 1977. He didn’t coach elite players; he coached ordinary players who became elite.
Before the days of “super clubs,” Coach Schmetzer, a master at player development, who did no recruiting, produced, from a single U18 boys team, the Seattle-based Lake City Hawks, six Washington State U18 ODP team players. Of those, three made the regional team. Of those three, two –at 17 years of age–played for the U19 youth national team. Three of his 18 players turned pro, all before age 21.
What I, who didn’t start playing competitive soccer until U15, learned from him allowed me to represent our country in international play at 17 and play this amazing game professionally at 18.
His brilliance was in his simple approach, as demonstrated here is his typical practice, which can–and should–be used with children as young as 10:
First, before any player arrives, set up the three following areas with a total of 12 cones, 4 for each area:
1) 20yds X 20yds, the “juggling box”
2) 5yds X 20yds, the “skills rectangle”
3) U-12-U-14, 35yds X 35yds or U-15 to U-19, 40yds by 40yds, the 9 vs. 9 “keep-away square.”
These three separate areas should be close to each other.
Second, place practice bibs in a pile in your “rest break” area.
Note: Every player is to have brought his or her own soccer ball, so there’s one ball per player.
Third, when players arrive at practice—even if early—they are to go immediately to the juggling square and juggle.
The first fifteen minutes of a two hour practice is spent juggling.
Fourth, players pair up and go to the skills rectangle. Players are lined up on one side, 5 yards opposite their partner..
Instruct players to do 1-touch passing, back and forth between the two partners. When you estimate each player has made 200 passes, change the drill.
One player tosses the ball to his partner, who traps it with his thigh and then does a trap-pass, using the inside of his foot, back to his skills partner. When each player has done about 30 traps, move on to the next drill.
Tell players that in 60 seconds, they—the pair— are to try to get as many volley-catches back and forth as they can. They’re to count. You tell them you’ll see which pair gets the highest number of successful volley-catches. To start, the players with the ball, in hands, lean over the ball, drop it lightly and, using the instep, volley it to their partner, who attempts to catch the ball with his hands. Each time a pair does this successfully, it counts as one.
Next, the players, with partners standing about four feet from each other, are to head the ball back and forth as many times as they can without the ball dropping.
In the drill that follows, one player, with the ball in hands, tosses it up about 15 feet, and out about 20ft. His skills partner sprints out to the ball, trying to catch up with it to do a trap, using his feet, to turn back toward his partner; once trapped, the ball is passed to the partner who tosses it. This player sprints to the line and his partner tosses the ball again. This drill, which incorporates fitness training, is done for one minute. Players do these as fast as they can.
While this is just a sampling of skill drills, you continue the skills training for 45 minutes before taking a 2-3 minute break, during which time you randomly hand out the nine practice bibs to players who are to put them on before returning for more skill drills. At this point, you are an hour into the two-hour practice.
Fifth, you resume skills training and, again with players pairing up, continue for another 35 minutes.
Sixth, without taking a break, take your players over to the 9 vs. 9 “keep-away” square. Be sure to take 10-12 balls with you in the event some are kicked far away during the game. Your players spend the last 15-20 minutes of practice playing 9 vs. 9.
Here are the instructions:
One team starts the game, anywhere in the square, with a free-kick. No opposing player or teammate may be closer than 10 yards to the player taking the free-kick (a “start” of play or “restart’) at any time in the game. The game is 2-touch soccer. If a player touches the ball more than twice, you blow the whistle to stop the game and the opposing team gets a free-kick to restart the game. Teams score by completing four consecutive passes. If a team gets a point, blow your whistle to stop play. The team that just scored gets to restart the game with a free-kick.
Any time the ball is intercepted (possession is gained) by the opposing team, blow your whistle to stop play. That opposing team, whose players just intercepted a pass and gained control of the ball, now restarts the game with a free-kick. Any player taking the free-kick must, before making a pass to restart the game, look around and behind him (360-degree view). If he fails to do that before making the restart pass, blow the whistle to stop the game, say ”Didn’t look around” and the ball goes to the opposing team for a restart free-kick.
Also, if any player during the course of the game does not know where he is going with the ball before he gets it, then blow your whistle, stop the game and say, “didn’t know where you were going with the ball,” and the opposing team gets the ball for a restart free-kick. If at any time the ball goes out of bounds, a throw-in restarts the game.
Note: While at first there are a lot of stoppages, you will be amazed at how quickly your players pick this up. Plus, as you will see, you are quick on the whistle, which gives players no time to daydream. It’s intense, exceptionally fast-paced and challenging for players.
Once teams are getting four consecutive passes frequently, bump the requirement up to five, then six, seven and eight to score a goal. Once your players have mastered the 2-touch and 8-pass requirement, it’s time for one-touch soccer. Start with three passes equals a goal and follow the same procedure you did for 2-touch, bumping up the requirement of the number of consecutive passes to get a goal.
We Lake City Hawks played 9 vs. 9 one-touch keep-away during the last 15-20 minutes of every single practice, after 1hr. and 35-minutes of skill training, for four years. In my thirty years in the game as a player and coach, I have never seen any single training drill that does more for player development (“game play”) than this one.
The Reason Why
What’s most important for you is to know why such skill training is so effective.
1. First, it’s very efficient. Players arrive at practice and immediately go to the juggling square. During the 15 minutes of juggling, each player will get an average of 600 touches on the ball. Also, by having players do skill drills in pairs—not two lines of nine players
with sixteen standing, watching and waiting to pass the ball—you maximize players’ touches on the ball.
2. Second, you introduce competition (i.e., get as many headers back and forth as you can), and time restrictions (i.e., you are to trap, turn and pass back to your partner, doing these as fast as you can for the next minute), both of which require players to perform at game pace, or as close to game pace as is possible. Thus, players get accustomed to trapping etc. under pressure. Furthermore, you are incorporating fitness into skill drills.
3. Third, it’s effective. In the 1hr and 35-minutes of practice so far, your players have likely gotten at least 3,000 touches on the ball, more than some players get in three or four of their club team practices. How?
1. It teaches your players the most important facets of the game: to think one step ahead, to consider their options before the ball arrives; they realize the incredible efficiency and effectiveness of 1-2 touch play, so they don’t hold onto the ball too long; they gain an appreciation for the importance of excellent vision, getting the 360-degree look to see the whole field; as they are in such a tight space and have limited touches on the ball, they are forced to make excellent supporting runs for teammates. Furthermore, this game requires a very high level of focus and concentration. It all carries over to actual game play.
2. Also, in 9 vs. 9 keep-away, your players are playing at faster-than-game pace, in an area much smaller than the actual playing field. So when they do get to an actual game, they will have more time and space in which to play.
3. Your players don’t pick up bad habits. The rules and restrictions of the 9 vs. 9 game (and your quick whistle) don’t allow for them. In contrast, in a scrimmage with unlimited touches, full field, etc., players invariably pick up bad habits and these, unfortunately, carry over to the game.
4. In addition, your players will play “purposeful possession,” being patient, smart, willing to play the ball in any direction to maintain possession. There’s no “reckless race” the opponents’ goal.
What’s the Next Step You Can Take for Your Players?
I encourage you to use game time for player development. I have a recommendation that has proved very successful: Impose a 2-touch restriction during actual game play. Before you do, ensure your players have mastered 1-touch play during 9 vs. 9 keep-away. Also, the first time you do this, select any 20-minute segment of play for the 2-touch to start any time after the first ten minutes of the game. Players, of course, can use 1 or 2 touches to play the ball.
Furthermore, tell your players during your pre-game instructions that they’ll be playing 2-touch for that specific 20 minutes you’ve chosen. And all that you ask of each player during that time is that she knows where she’s going with the ball before she gets it. Add that the only time a player may use more than two touches is if she is in the opponents’ penalty area—this should, but it doesn’t always, take care of the inevitable question at least one player asks, “But, coach, what if I’m in front of the goal and need to dribble to take a shot?”
Also, tell your players you’re setting a team goal of six consecutive passes. Why six? They’ll achieve this goal and, regardless of the outcome (score) of the game, will feel a sense of achievement and be eager to try 2-touch again the next time you ask them to. Plus, they quickly become believers of the efficiency and effectiveness of 1- and 2-touch play.
Love this article because of the point it makes. Alex Ferguson said this player was the best in the EPL last season. He is the best this season. He is not a forward. He is not a #10. He is not a flashy winger. He is a center midfielder! He is known for interceptions and tackles and high work rate. Love it!
Cant makes the players around him better. That is why he is the most effective player in the EPL and regarding by Sir Alex as the most valuable. Yet, coaches at all levels, particularly youth coaches, fail to recognize these traits in players.
I can watch a game with another coach – see a player disrupting play form the other team, cutting out passing angles, intercepting, tackling, and be amazed. I then ask the coach what he sees – he doesn’t even notice the CM. He sees the fast kid up front or the big kid at back. It is embarrassingly poor observation.
So, for all of you, read this article and ask yourself, “why does Sir Alex say what he does about Kante?” And, “what can I do or say to reward these types of behaviors on my team?”
Track interceptions made at center mid or back line. I like to give those players a target when they walk on the field – specific – “I am looking for 5 interceptions.” I love doing this – gives them a target to aim for and accountability. Lets them know also what I am looking for.
Track tackles made at center and back. Again, I like to give players a target – “5 tackles” – this does not mean that they win the ball, it could mean turning a player around, shoving them off a run, etc. Same as above – helps with accountability as they know what my expectations are.
Track connected passes or turnovers. Either one. If your team is struggling to connect, track turnovers. For youth players, here is my standard: “If you have the ball with little or no pressure (like, say, after an interception), I expect you to make a connection (which may require some dribbling and looking). I count turnovers. I have yet to have a player I coach tell me that any coach has ever done that for them. Sad.
That being said, I do not mind turnovers if they are risking something. That is different. If they are trying to play through or over, fine. I am talking about turning the ball over when they have time and space to find the next pass.
You can follow my education on coaching soccer on this blog. I was a clean slate starting in ’06 and relied on coaching experience and coaching education to form my foundations. At that time, the US Youth Coaching guidelines (through Reyna) were to teach and work toward a 433. I took that to heart and tried to apply it and its concepts of short passing, ball on the ground, etc.
So, for one reason or another, I felt like I was caving to use a 442 – that somehow it was below me. That I was selling out for direct, kick ball results if I used it. How naive.
While reading Alex Ferguson’s bio and a few other books (I list them on the site), I learned that there are a lot of variations in formations and tactics. And, the player’s tactical role matters more really than whatever formation you think you are using.
So, while coaching my U14s (they are a top Division 1 team in the Houston area), I continued to work and work and work with the center mids on spacing and building through the middle – taking advantage of the number advantage in the middle (as most teams we played used a 442 direct approach – even in the A bracket in Division 1). But, week after week, I noticed we seemed to gain little advantage with the spare midfielder. They continued to struggle with spacing – not giving enough space to each other or giving too much. Most often, though, they would crowd each other in possession. And, we were still scoring mostly on the counter.
So, I tried something new. I wanted to create more space in the middle for the mids so I went to a 442 and, aha, we were able to build through the middle. We actually possessed more. It was an “aha” moment for me. Here are my lessons learned:
U14 players, even elite college-bound ones, are still kids. And, as I continue to learn, the hardest thing to coach is the middle because it requires more cleverness and the spacing decisions are not as obvious (no orientation point). Quite simply, simplifying the approach can make it easier for them to play the right way.
If your team is struggling with spacing, decisions, etc., consider a formation that is more simple so that they can use their mental energies on creativity on the pitch not on trying to remember where they are supposed to be for the formation.
It is what I learned a long time ago with kids – less is more. If you give them fewer players and more space, they will do more. If you put more players in smaller spaces, they struggle. They are not sure what is their job and someone else’s.
I still think it is important to learn other formations – this team plays a 433, 4231, 352, and now a 442. They are learning and my job is to educate. Even it it means suffering a result. As a coach, be open to ideas and learning.
I am still learning all the time. Just watching the boys play in a 442 taught me a lot. As a coach, I feel like I should always be learning something new.
I don’t agree that we should be told what formation to coach from a national standard. As a coach, you should teach your players all different variations. I don’t agree that US Youth Soccer should be telling coaches which formations to use and those ideas get dated. The most important thing for me is to use a formation that best helps to teach ideas to my players – whatever that may be.
When I am coaching for a result (like a Cup or competition game), even then my formation depends more on the players I have that day and their characteristics then some genera guideline.
Be flexible, so you don’t get bent out of shape.
Writing about youth soccer, player development, and the professional game.