Tactical adjustment thru technical refinement and decision making

[I already don’t like the title of this. Overly complicated when the theme is really that simple adjustments to familiar drills and games can help players recognize and solve problems]

My U13 team is doing very well this year. They are first place in league play and have succeeded with a short passing game in a 4-3-3. It’s a team of thinkers for the most part who have been encouraged to be confident and comfortable on the ball even in the defensive third. Because we got a lot of time with them in the spring to work on shape (it’s their first year playing 11 a side on a full sized field) and played a fair number of games against teams a level above them they were ready for the start of the regular season in September and were regularly winning by large margins against teams that still hadn’t adjusted to the bigger field.

Fast forward to last Saturday and we are playing a team that we’ve already played twice. Their approach was really intelligent. Having seen us play they had realized that while we were adept at playing through the thirds on the ground we still had players at the back who struggled a bit under pressure they played a 3-4-3 with a high, aggressive press. Despite the fact we actually went up 1-0 after 3 minutes and scored a second goal 10 minutes after that they stuck with the tactic and it caused us a lot of problems. 2-0 definitely flattered us as the high press with three forwards forced our defenders to try to find midfielders quickly and their four midfielders locked onto to our three with a great work ethic. We turned the ball over repeatedly in a 2o minute span and our keeper was forced to make an excellent save while it was still 1-0. Our forwards, not used to the lack of service to their feet reacted by becoming immobile for stretches which definitely didn’t help.

At half time, we broke out the cones and showed them what was happening. The main message they have received from us this season has been to ‘recognize situations and problem solve’. This was a new one for them and the determination and resolve of the opposition was causing them problems.

We encouraged our forwards to push the three defenders back and wide so that (a) they had room to come back into to receive balls played over the top and (b) to give themselves a chance to receive a ball and be 1v1 with little in the way of a covering defender to help. As our defenders aren’t really used to knocking long balls I knew the extra room to find forwards would help them as well.

We pointed out that this was a situation they had to adjust to and if they could demonstrate they had the ability to knock a few balls beyond seven of their players to our forwards who were then 1v1 at times, they would likely find that the high press would drop a bit or their midfielders would drop a bit and there would be more time and space to then play the way they were used to.

Some of them got this more than others and in the end we won comfortably 4-0 but for those of them could get what we were saying and were trying to act on it it was a very beneficial teaching moment. You play to your strengths individually and as a team but you also play to the situation and develop the ability to adapt and play what’s on.

I rarely tailor training to specific things that happened in the previous game but this was a significant event so tonight I brought two exercises to training that would hopefully help them to continue the thought process around what happened on Saturday. I had 12 of 15 in attendance so we set up soccer tennis (Tottenham as I call it). The end boxes were about 15 yards by nine yards and the middle area where the defenders were has about 15 x 12 yards. So with three groups of four and two defenders going in to win the ball (4v2) the space was both small overall but noticeably narrow so it was hard to thread a ball through the middle past the two defenders who were positioned there while their partners pressured the ball.

This recreated what happened in the game nicely. I didn’t point out that the space was specifically built that way and because they’re familiar with the game I had them playing right away with very little instruction. Normally though they are asked to maintain possession for three to four passes before playing the ball to the far side. The only change this time was they only had to make two.

First five minutes I don’t think there was a single success in completing two passes and then getting the ball through the middle to the other group of four on the other side of the defenders.

When I stepped, I asked them if they were having success. “No.” How about trying this? I got one to pass me a ball and let it hit the outside edge of my boot, popping it up about 18 inches before volleying it over the middle with the side of my foot safely to the other side. I pointed out that like the game on the weekend it’s too tight and there’s too much pressure to do what they normally did (keep it on the ground) so they had to be creative and solve the problem.

It was great. They loved the idea of having the freedom to clip, chip and creatively lift the ball to the other side. They also recognized that it was best to really try to keep to two passes before moving it forward as the space was tight and extra, unnecessary passes were leading to turnovers which of course meant they then had to defend. Speed of play picked up and as a result the need for as many chips and flicks diminished as defenders had to adjust quickly as well. The difference in their success rate was great to see and was mentioned to them several times as they played.

The second thing I did to make this point was in the small sided game we played. Field was about 55 yards by 36 yards, goals at both ends. I put raised cones on each side to mark the half way line and told them the only condition, one they’d had before, was that all players  except the keepers must be over the halfway line for goals to count. We’ve done this to encourage defenders to push up and support the attack in the past but this time the intent was different.

They played for about ten minutes to give them ample time to pick up on what I was really hoping to see but it didn’t materialize. When one team had finished an attack and all their players were in the attacking half by a good stretch I stopped play. The ball was in our keeper’s hands.

“What has the other team done?”

One of them got it right away. “They’re overcommitted.”

“Right. Like the team that pressed us on the weekend were sometimes.” What do we do?

I let them do a walk through whereby the keeper instead of rolling wide to a full back threw it over the top. Not something he could do on a full size field but still the point was made. Recognize the situation: the other team has pressed too many players too far up the field. Problem solve: it makes no sense to play through a thick forest of opponents at this time when we have both space and an overload further up the field that we can reach with one pass.

Naturally what happened then was defenders were quick to recognize when they lost position and the whole team dropped a bit reflexively. This opened up space occasionally to play out from the back and again forced the players to assess and choose from their options.

Often we bring a concept to training and design elements of the session to bring out that concept. Sometimes it just doesn’t work as you hoped it would but tonight went really well so I thought I’d share it.

Hopefully that makes sense without graphics. I’ll try to mess around with my iPad and do some out to help paint the picture a bit more in case the words aren’t enough but I’m a bit of a lazy blogger and this isn’t the best time of year (evaluations and team formation) for me to be doing this so it may have to wait.

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