Functional play for U13 to U18 players

I wrote this up for the Y League team I was coaching last year so it was initially written for higher level U13 and U14 girls. I went to adapt it for a wider age range and levels that are generally a notch or two lower and found that 80% of it still held true.

Functional Play (For U13 to U18 teams primarily)

One of the things that I consider a lot when coaching is, given the relatively short length of time we have to work with the players, what should we focus on to have the biggest impact on players. Generally we look at technical or tactical aspects of the game but increasingly I tend to concentrate on what I call ‘functional play’.

Working on functional play refers to identifying areas of the game that, at your particular age and level, have a disproportionate effect on a team’s success. From U13 to U18 there’s a surprising number of areas of common concern that almost all teams would benefit from addressing. I’ll break them down:

Defensively:

  • Coping with balls played over top of the back four that force you to play facing our own goal
    • COACHING POINT (CP): getting early, clear communication between the defenders and between defenders and the keeper
    • CP: learning to hit balls in a direction that is different than the one they are running in.
    • CP: quickness over 10 yards and body positioning to impede attackers chasing these balls
    • CP: proper shielding technique to hold off attackers
    • CP: awareness of where they are on the field if they are in a position of having to go to ground to minimize odds of giving up a penalty or dangerous free kick
  • Denying second chances. If you can limit teams to the chances that they are able to create themselves and deny them a second, unmerited, opportunity, it will greatly reduce goals against.
    • CP: Effective clearances. I think this is the most important piece of functional play at these ages that relates to reducing goals against. If defenders can clear balls out of dangerous areas consistently well when given a chance, rather than setting up a second scoring opportunity with a weak clearance, you will be very difficult to score against
    • CP: Quick pressure on the ball that cuts off shooting angles in the box
    • CP: Good awareness on balls that are going out of bounds. Can you prevent corners from being conceded; same for throw ins deep in your end.
    • CP: Defenders clearing the penalty area quickly to take space away when balls are cleared and giving their keeper more room to operate. Another very important point.

Midfield:

  • Effective transition from the middle third to the attacking third
    • CP: Quick ball movement forward when the opportunity arises and quick support to the strikers; as a general rule: attack in threes, fours and fives; not ones and twos. This of course is dependent on the score and the amount of time left in the game.
    • CP: Pulling defenders on the other team towards the ball and then either playing in behind them or around them (switching play)
  • Ability to win the majority of 50-50 balls and 1v1 battles
    • CP: Games swing a lot in midfield when one team wins considerably more loose balls (50-50’s) than the other and when one team can either effectively stop players trying to go past them 1v1 or the opposite. When defenders win 1v1 battles, it creates transition and 2/3 of goals are scored in transition. When attackers win 1v1 battles it unbalances defenses and leads to either shooting opportunities, crosses or the chance to penetrate.

Attacking third:

  • Quick ball movement to change point of attack
    • CP: The purpose of quickly moving the ball around is to find or create opportunities to attack. If you can move the ball to areas where you have overloads (2v1s, 3v2’s, etc) and attack from there, you will have even more success around the goal.
    • CP: Providing lots of off the ball movement in attack (see attacking in numbers above)
  • Recognizing shooting opportunities
    • CP: At this level a quick release is just as important as power. Not letting goalies get set is conducive to scoring
    • CP: Players don’t need to go all the way past a defender to shoot. They need to recognize that creating a shooting angle past the defender is not only enough but can be better if they can set the defender up as a screen to limit the keeper’s view of the ball
  • Set plays
    • CP: Corners and free kicks that are not direct strikes on goal are more about delivery with pace followed up with determination to get a touch on the ball than trickery at these ages and levels. Putting the ball in dangerous areas around the other team’s goal and having the determination to re-direct the ball first is crucial to success on set pieces. Until you can get players who can hit specifically targeted areas 80% of the time, it’s a false economy to spend time on fancy corners or set plays that demand specific placement of the ball. Aim to get the ball in the mix and have players show they want to get the next touch on the ball when it arrives.
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