The numbers game – building up from small sided games

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How 1v1 leads to 4-3-3 and it’s role in player development

a youth soccer coaching article by Larry Paul of the Burke Athletic Club

Changing the number of players in a team can change the way the team plays. It can mean new responsibilities or opportunities for everyone. The structure, or form, that the game takes is called systems of play. Here, Eric Cantona argues, tongue in cheek, against these systems in favour of a high risk 1-1-8, takes you to YouTube. It’s the “Just let them play school” taken to extremes. While this is good theatre it’s not practical advice. After all, Eric couldn’t have played the role of the playmaker at Manchester United without those six or seven players behind him doing the dirty work. And he never could have learned all of his great attacking qualities by “Working harder, not smarter” as a youth. Someone else was moving the piano.

In youth soccer development the numbers 1v1 to 11v11 play an important role. They provide a clear starting and ending point for evaluations and learning, a simple path that provides both the tools to measure and assist in the process. This one element of the game, the number of players, provides you with a powerful way to help the players develop their TIC and to make a greater contribution to the game. In the end that’s all the players want; to have an impact and to play a role in the outcome.

1v1. The basic form of soccer. Each player is learning opposite lessons in the game. Without a basic grasp of this level what follows will be much more difficult.

2v2. Working with a teammate. Cooperating to achieve an objective.

3v3. If two’s company and three’s a crowd you had better sort it out here. Now the game revolves around a shape and a centre.

4v4 is special. It’s the smallest form of real soccer and the fastest way to develop an appreciation of all of the basic tasks and skills. Generally the four players assume a diamond shape, it’s the most efficient and effective way to cover the field and that creates the following learning opportunities.

The sweeper can learn to play as a centre-back. Their basic task when in possession will be to build up the attacks and support the midfielders. When the opponents have possession they’ll have to mark the striker 1v1.

The midfielders first defensive task is to neutralize their immediate opponent, again 1v1. In possession they also have to help in the build up and then support their own striker. Getting forward to score goals is a bonus, a supplementary task. They learn the roles and skills of the right and left midfielder through their position and responsibilities.

The top player can learn the role of the target player and/or striker. These jobs require different skill sets and will depend a lot on the qualities of the player themselves. They will also have to defend against the opponents sweeper, a la 1v1.

The beauty of 4v4 is that the players interchange positions as they see fit, as the situations dictate. They change within the flow of the game to meet the needs of the team. This flow cannot be effectively controlled by the coach, it’s up to the players to see and develop their “Feel” for when to go, when to stay and which job is most important. If a player is comfortable in a specific role they can develop a level of expertise in it. They adopt it as their own. In any case, over time players will have to use both feet in attack, defence, to dribble, pass, tackle and shoot in all of the areas, i.e., right, left, top and back, of the field. They have to fill all of the basic roles, i.e., ball winner, goal scorer and playmaker, of the real game. They have to deal with hundreds of 1v1’s, 2v1’s, 2v2’s, all of those smaller forms in the context a real game.

5v5 – Without goalkeepers. With the addition of an extra player one of the basic tasks from 4v4 will be duplicated. This affects the distances, angles, space and tasks of all of the players. On the smaller field it also encourages the use of two line play.

3-2, adding the 5th player up top. This creates a three player back line because the midfielders don’t have to go forward as much and have less space to do so. It changes them to a right and left fullback’s that work alongside the center back. When the opponents also play a 3-2 one of the back players will be free. If it’s one of the outside players they can practice playing as a wing back. If they are marking the opposition, the centre back is free and can play as a libero. Up top the second striker can play off of the first. One player can assume the role of target player while the other plays as the striker. The 3-2 alignment encourages building up from the back because the team’s balance favours it.

2-3, adding the 5th player to the back. Now the midfielders don’t need to come back as often so they play farther up. This works well when you are better then your opponent. If not, the two back players will be under constant pressure and will have a hard time building up the attack. When both teams play this way the game usually degenerates into two different 3v2’s, one in each half of the field. A team must make up in superior qualities what it lacks in numbers. Since the build up precedes the attacking phase if back players aren’t up to the task the game can get ugly fast.

1-3-1, adding the 5th player to the midfield. Only the best players and teams should try this. It demands a high level of technical and tactical qualities, especially from the central midfielder. Not only do they have to understand their own game but they need to know where everybody else is at all times. The central midfielder will need to fill in all of the other roles as players move and be comfortable in them all.

5v5 – With goalkeepers. This is basically the same as 4v4 on the field. The addition of a goalkeeper has little effect on the other four players roles.

6v6 usually means the introduction of a goalkeeper. The five players on the field follow the same outline as 5v5 above. 6v6 without a goalkeeper is not seen in competition. In training it’s a good way to present the basic tasks of 7v7 and to force an aggressive defense.

7v7 one of the standard small sided games. The examples below assume a goalkeeper;

3-3, the basis for three attackers in 11v11. This is the smallest form for developing wingers. Each flank player in the top line, each winger has an immediate opponent, i.e. they need to develop their 1v1 skills. They have a marked central striker, i.e. a target to play to and an opposing goalkeeper who cuts out the poorer crosses. The large goal offers the choice to cross or shoot. This is a good form for introducing 4-3-3 and 3-4-3.

4-2, the basics of the counter attacking game. You can use this form for teaching either, the four back players behind two central midfielders, or, the four midfielders behind the two central strikers in 11v11. The former encourages a counterattacking philosophy and develops a holding midfielder while the latter can help to develop the playmaker. He or she has three players behind them to defend and two players in front of to find. That means fewer defensive responsibilities and many opportunities to find a target or carry the ball forward. The communication and the separation of tasks between the two central back players is a key learning point. This is a good form for introducing the 4-4-2 forms.

2-3-1, this structure asks a lot of youth players. First, the lone striker will find themselves isolated quite a bit. The outside midfielders must be able to cover the entire length of the field, corner flag to corner flag. Because of this they will constantly find themselves chasing the ball, an opponent or both. Because of their defensive responsibilities they will be starting their attacks, and making crosses, from deep positions and this does not develop the wing play qualities of the 3-3. Because the lone striker won’t be able to pressurize the opponents back line effectively, one or more of the midfielders will often push up. However, if they are starting from positions too far back they get forward too late. The ball passes by them and the back two are exposed. Finally, unless one of the three midfielders drops back to play with the back two, the back two players will not have many chances to carry the ball forward or join in the attack. They have problems building up and resort to the long ball. Teams that use this form will need to rely on strong physical qualities as opposed to technical/tactical ones. This is a form for developing the 3-5-2 form.

3-2-1, the Christmas tree. With an emphasis on defence this takes the 2-3-1 to a new negative level. The difference between the two forms is that in the later there are two full time defenders and three part timers while the former is reversed. The change is in one players basic tasks. The problems are similar to the 2-3-1, an isolated striker and midfielders who have to cover a lot of ground. The advantage is the increased strength of the back line. The extra defensive player can help to reduce the midfielders need to come back. Two players can cover the back when the third joins in the attack. This is a good form for developing the 4-5-1 or 5-3-2.

8v8, the other standard small sided game. The biggest change between 7v7 and 8v8 is it’s easier to play three real lines in 8v8. When you use three players as the basis for a line there are only three players left. (Some coaches try to use a 2-2-2 but this does not adequately cover the field.) By using the basic forms from 7v7 some of the forms you can make are; 3-1-3, 3-2-2, 3-3-1, 4-2-1. All of these forms use three lines with a minimum back line of three players. The eighth player creates the need for an even greater separation of tasks, the extra line and that lengthens the team. A four player line might be overkill in protecting the width.

9v9 to 11v11. These are considered to be full sized games.

The bottom line on player development.

Player development should have a clear starting and end point. – It’s not a random set of technical skills without context. 1v1 to 11v11 contains all of the moments, tasks and TIC. You have to know where you are, where you’re going and how you are going to get there. This progression does that.

It should follow a simple and logical progression. – The different sizes of the game. Use uneven numbers to bridge the gaps.

It should take into account to individual differences. – The coach should look for, cater to and develop the players strengths first. Build on what they can do before obsessing on what they can’t. Also, avoid mass solutions. Not all of the players suffer from the same diseases.

The coach must balance between the present and potential qualities. – Use the different forms and roles to explore potential. Todays striker is tomorrows centre back.

Ultimately a players development is measured by their contribution to the game. They don’t get style points, they need to get the job done.

Their contribution to the game rests on their general and special qualities and how they are applied to the game. – Everybody is different. This is why Festival play is such an important part in development. Players learn about differences in themselves and others.

These qualities can be enhanced or hindered by the role they are assigned in the team. – With older players match the qualities to the role. There are only two reasons why players fail. They are at the wrong level or in the wrong position. In recreational soccer having players at the wrong level goes with the territory. Having them in the wrong position goes with the plan.