Even smaller sided games (ESSGs)

A lot has been made about 4v4 and its relationship to football (soccer). When you accept that “a soccer coach coaches soccer, not something else” and that “4v4 is the smallest form of real soccer” it appears that 4v4 is the smallest game that a coach should use. This is not the case. There are several situations and reasons why small sided games should be smaller than 4v4.

Age/soccer age. When children are introduced to soccer at 4 or 5 years of age, parents and coaches can confuse the activity with the sport. Soccer is a complex game when you take into account the role that insight and communication plays in it. Children at this age lack the intellectual capabilities to grasp the objectives and meaning of the game. Socially, they are concerned with themselves and can’t get past “I, me, mine.” They are not “playing soccer,” but using soccer to develop skills. For them, 4v4 is too big and too complex.

For older children being introduced to the game there is a different problem. While they may have the mental and social skills to understand the objectives and are able to work together they lack the necessary tools to execute their decisions. Their speed of play are not up to the level necessary to play “real soccer.” They either expend too much energy or might even “shut down” when they are faced with too much resistance. This is the fight or flight response to stress. Reducing the numbers below 4v4 is a good way for them to become comfortable to the game.

Even older, experienced players can benefit from smaller games. Demands can be made that focus on specific problems, especially 1v1 skills and self confidence. Better communication skills can be developed, responsibility and ownership for tasks can be highlighted and improved in these soccer like games. The basic skills needed for teamwork can be quickly developed.

The following demonstrate how numbers below 4v4 effect and contribute to the learning environment inside of the games. When these numbers are combined with different goals and rules a general lesson, such as speed of play, can be presented with considerable variety.

2 vs 2 Basic Game


Team work starts with two. If players cannot solve the simple problems they face with a partner they will not be able to function in any larger team context. Therefore, 2v2 in modified forms (different goals and rules,) offers them opportunities to learn how to work together in the four main moments. At this level the concepts of zonal play and man to man marking can be introduced. Players learn that, in a team, they can share responsibilities and are dependent on each other. They are constantly involved in the play, either with the ball or in a helping role, (sometimes by staying out of the way.) They can come up with their own plans and responsibility/ownership falls on “you or me.” Accountability is very clear.

A basic requirement in soccer is being able to handle both sides of 1v1. In 2v2 the players are constantly exposed to this moment. The difference between these situations is that in straight 1v1 the “game” is over very quickly and players “must beat” their opponent or they fail. This produces a high stress situation. 2v2 offers players the option of choosing the moment when to take on their opponent or simply keep possession of the ball. This lowers the stress level which can enhance the learning environment.

3v3 Basic Game

Bunch ball is a constant problem in youth soccer. This results from the players inability to maintain their shape. The distance and angles between the players is lost and, as a team, they are not able to work together efficiently. Since three players make the smallest shape, a triangle, 3v3 games in modified forms are an excellent way to introduce this concept. There are still lots of 1v1 opportunities and the basic lessons from 2v2 can be expanded and built on. 3v3 also guarantees that there is open space somewhere on the field.

Uneven Numbers Act as a Bridge

Going from 2v2 to 3v3, or 3v3 to 4v4 may prove to be difficult for some players. In this case uneven numbers can be a bridge to help them get across the learning gulf. One objective in these games is to help players learn how to use the new situations that larger numbers create against lower resistance. Do they use each other in the most team efficient manner? Do they take advantage of the opportunities presented in the game? Do the players recognize when they are numbers up and have that advantage? Do they understand how to adjust the game when they are numbers down? Games with uneven numbers can be modified, goals or rules, to help maintain a competitive balance.

Neutral Players

By using a neutral player, (they play for both teams giving each a numerical advantage when in possession, in the example above the yellow number 8 the players can get a basic grasp of ideas against less resistance. The coach can play this role so long as they are better than the players and don’t create a problem themselves. Since neutral players don’t have any defensive responsibilities they shouldn’t be overused.

Here’s a short YouTube video that looks at how adding and subtracting players at this level dramatically changes the game.