While you can’t predict the twists and turns that every football (soccer) game brings, the team can and should practice game-like patterns to simulate live playing conditions. Essentially, it’s like setting up a dress rehearsal—except that instead of wearing the team uniforms, you wear the mentality and the effort you hope to create during the actual game.
For example, have a defender, who is positioned on the right side, play a forty yard ball towards the top of the box. There, a forward is checking back to receive the ball. This run back by the forward can be just a five to ten yard run, first dragging the defender towards the goal and away from where he wants to receive the ball, and as a result creating the space he wants to check into. The forward then lays the ball back to a centre midfielder, who plays the ball down the line to the defender who has made an overlapping run, and then crosses the ball into the box. The midfielder and forward make near and far post runs, and the defender picks one of them out with a cross.
Have each of these players rotate into the next position. The forward becomes the defender, the midfielder becomes the forward, and the defender becomes the midfielder.
Next, develop and create your own patterns. For instance, a defender plays the ball into the midfielder, who plays it back to him and then serves the ball into the forward. The forward lays the ball back to the midfielder, who then plays the defender down the line. Then the defender crosses the ball (picking out a player with the cross). Vary the passes, make all the passes in the air, keep all passes one touch, add in a cross-over exchange (where a player dribbles at a teammate and then exchanges the ball), and/or make it so all passes are played with your weak foot. Make the passes sharp and play them away from where the defender would be. Add more players and increase the number of passes that are made before a cross or a shot is taken on goal. Have a player overlap the defender and serve the ball in for a cross; have the midfield begin the play with a pass to the defender who then plays it to the forward and back to the midfielder. Have the ball played down the line to the defender, who swings in the cross.
Always try to finish with a shot on goal after running through a few patterns. Also, make sure every player or position gets a touch on the ball before a shot or cross is taken.
Make the patterns game-like by playing the ball with pace and making all of your touches sharp, as if you are under pressure. Start out walking through these patterns and then build up speed as your team becomes accustomed to the runs (patterns). When you are beginning to run through the patterns at a faster pace, make sure the angles of the passes are sharp and the runs are at a game-like pace.
All the players should try to check back to the ball as if they have a defender on them and make angled runs back to the ball. These runs don’t have to be long – even just two or three yards (quick cuts). Again, the overall idea is to concentrate and make these patterns game-like, turning them almost into exact set plays, to the point where your team could run through them in their sleep.
Some drills, patterns, and tips you can use in your practice:
Full Field (11 players):
Have the keeper throw or punt the ball to the forward, who controls the ball and plays back to a defender. Developing a passing pattern, where each player on the field gets a touch on the ball and a series of a wall passes, dribble exchanges, overlaps, and a long switch, are included in the routine.
Half Field (6-9 players):
The left defender plays the ball to the centre midfielder, who then plays it to the right back (switching the field). Right back plays the ball to the right midfielder who plays again to the right back. From there, the ball is served into the forward who is checking back. The forward lays the ball back to the centre midfielder – who plays the ball to the right or left back, with both overlapping on the outside. The forward and centre midfielder make near and far post runs and the midfielders crash the box for a ball that might pop back to them.
Small Space (top of the box; 3 players):
Begin the drill on the far corner of the top of the box. Right midfielder does a dribble exchange with the center midfielder, who takes the ball down the line and whips in a cross to the forward and right midfielder. Incorporate the wall pass and overlap into this pattern. Vary the passes. Play the ball short so the player has to come back to the ball. Play the ball sharply so they have to play one touch, and then when playing the ball to the player for the cross, play the ball hard to their feet and down the line so they have to run on to the ball.
Elements to focus on:
- Communicate. Say man on or turn, dictating how the pattern will evolve. If someone says ‘turn,’ then the ball or pattern will need to go forward. If someone says ‘man on,’ then the ball will come back again before it goes forward.
- Move in your position’s sphere. Make short, angled runs back to receive the ball or cuts into space.
- Every player should get a touch before a cross or shot is taken.
- Add in a few defenders as the drill progresses.
- Vary the passes: all in the air, on the ground, or chipped (lofted passes). All passes with right or left foot.
- Play driven balls.
- Require the players to score with their heads.
- Insert one long switch before you can go to goal (switch must be in the air).
More Drills and Exercises
1) This is a good warm-up and also good to do once a week: In pairs about five yards away from one another, one player tosses the ball in the air to his or her teammate’s right and left inside of the foot, top of the foot, thigh, chest, and head. Go through the cycle about ten times each – ten times on the left inside of the foot and instep and so on. Keep your ankle locked and hit sharp passes back to your teammate.
2) Keep away in a tight square, starting out without restrictions, and then go to two touch, and then one touch. Towards the end, make it a competition where the team who completes ten passes first wins.
3) Follow your pass (groups of three). This is a good warm-up drill as well as good for improving and maintaining your technique. Remember to always play crisp and sharp passes. You can set this up at various distances to work on both short and long passes.
Start out ten to twenty yards apart and simply pass the ball to your teammate who then passes the ball to the next player in a rotation; you get a good warm-up by following your pass. Start this drill using only two touches and then move on to one touch. Have the player who is making the initial pass close down the player who is receiving the pass, acting like a defender – force the player to go one direction. Make them control the ball to one side or the other with just two touches, one for control and the other to make the pass. Make one clean touch to the side and then make the pass.
Next you can spread out to thirty or forty yards away and play the ball in the air, trying to maintain the rotation and sharpness of the drill with two touch play and driving the ball into your teammates. A lofted pass is easy for the defence to intercept and gives them time to close your teammate down. You can practice all types of passes – chips, bending the ball, half-volleys, and low driven balls.
4) It’s a good idea to finish a day of practice with some crossing and finishing. Have your defenders and midfielders serve the ball into the forwards who make near and far post runs.
When doing a crossing drill or any drill, try not to hit a ball that is still. Have a teammate play the ball into the players who are crossing the ball – either a crisp pass into their feet or play a ball ahead of them. It is not a game-like situation if the ball is dead and not moving. The next player in line plays the ball to the person who is crossing the ball. Use a crisp pass to start the play. Forwards line up at the top of the box – making near and far post runs, midfielders and defenders out wide.