I took on two teams this fall, u12 & u13 boys at one of the top clubs in Pennsylvania. The club has an initiative with the coaches that we want to teach the players to build from the back, keep possession of the ball through the defensive and middle thirds of the field in order to get the ball in the offensive third in positions to attack and create goal scoring opportunities. The club implements this style in hopes of developing technically sound players who can pass and trap under pressure at a young age, which will hopefully lead to older players at the club who can execute decisions on the ball with proper techniques as they have been trained for years in this style of play.
The training sessions at the club are usually excellent, with a high intensity of play being demonstrated by the players on the turf fields at the club. The players are hungry and want to learn everything they can in hopes of one day reaching the academy levels of the club. For most clubs who try to build from the back, the problem is not at training or even during inter club scrimmages against players who share similar strategies and goals. The problem arises on the weekends, when the team arrives for their fall league game at Average Joe SC. As the team walks onto the bumpy pitch and glares across field to see the opposition for the day, AJSC is full of large, athletic, rough and tough players. The coaches at AJ are looking to turn the match into a test of will, rather than using the game as a chance to try to use the movements and ideas that were focused on that week in training. AJSC is worried about winning, and they see winning the u12 fall league of 2016 as the ultimate triumph. As the ball is lumped down the field from the defenders on AJ to their athletic striker up top who beats the center back to score, the players become frustrated with the build from the back style they are attempting to play. As the ball bounces over their foot on the pitch, or they are dispossessed by the onrushing opposition on almost every instance, tears start to swell in the player’s eyes, parents become equally frustrated and start lashing out at officials, other players on the team, and the coach for having silly tactics. All of this turns into a disaster due to the principles the club and coaches live by, which will benefit the players in the long run more than the ones on AJSC, but will allow for AJSC to make life a living hell for everyone they play against who tries to connect passes.
To be very clear there is nothing wrong with playing very direct, trying to win games, and teaching kids to fight, scrap, and claw their way to victory, even at a young age. Not everyone is playing soccer in an attempt to become the next world class player, some young players are playing for fun, to win, to meet new friends, and be taught the life lessons the sport can supply. The lesson that hard work pays off, and you can make things happen for yourself if you work hard even against more skilled or talented opposition is something players on AJSC will take away from the victories against the more posh bigger clubs who may not bring the grit and determination necessary to be successful at the sport.
I’ve been a part of teams who found ways to win against more talented opponents on numerous occasions and I will remember every one of those games for as long as live. Whether we started the game with ten guys, or played a team with more talented players, every time we achieved a results as an underdog it left a strong imprint on my life. Having the ability to punch above your weight and be fearless in the face of tough opposition lead me to finding success in this game. The idea that the game needs to be an artistic display of talent and expression is one that should be left at home. The game doesn’t always need to be pretty, teams who play very ugly brands of soccer find success at almost every level. Claudio Ranieri at Leicester, Big Sam’s West Ham teams of the past, Harry Redknapp when he was at Portsmouth and even at Spurs at times, every club Tony Pulis has ever been at, the list goes on and on of managers who are masters at implementing direct styles of play with success with less talented players then the opposition.
So how do you coach your team to play against a more direct style at a young age? First and foremost you have to learn to respect the other team for what they are doing. Complaining about it or feeling as if the game is unfair due to their “long ball style” will only lead to the players believing the game is unjust and it will lead them to developing an elitist attitude towards the game. This attitude will lead to their demise as players when they are asked to tackle, defend, and win challenges as older players. Playing over top the opposition is one of the three ways to penetrate, and an effective one at that. The long ball is easiest thing to teach, and is one of the foundations of the game. The long pass is the easiest way to get the ball in the attacking half of the field and all it takes is a bad bounce, a fast striker, or a lack of discipline from the defenders for a goal to happen very quickly.
Young players should embrace that being direct, winning headers, winning the 2nd ball, winning foot races, and fighting and scrapping for the ball is necessary to be successful at this game. If you are not willing to match the intensity, determination, and toughness of the opposition you will struggle to overcome this style when you are faced with it. Earning the right to play is a very real concept, I addressed this in previous articles, but teams must demonstrate this basic foundation if they ever hope to display their ability to possess the ball and build from the back.
One of the most effective ways to deal with longer play is to teach your keeper, and your defenders to recognize when a longer pass is coming. When the ball is played backwards, or a player has time and space with the ball, or if the team doesn’t even try to pass the ball, the defenders need to be ready to drop off. The keeper needs to be ready to come out to deal with anything that runs past the central defenders or comes into the box, and the central defenders need to do everything possible to keep the ball in front of them. The midfield then needs to drop as well to hunt any second ball that may come into the middle park. Look at these long passes as chances to win the ball back easily, and if your team has good ideas when they get the ball they should be able to win the ball back and possess it when the ball is played through or over the top.
Then comes the second part of the problem, if we do win the ball back or manage to have it fall to one of the players on the team, what do you do with it? It pains me when players who are trying to build out of the back or keep possession of the ball, win it back only to one time the ball up the field in the opposite direction. Teaching young players to trap and get the ball to the floor and play quickly will pay its dividends when you play a very direct team. Every instance they should look to get the ball out of the air and on the ground, and quickly transition to offense once they have it under control. If you are trying to build from the back, the ball should be on the pitch more often than not when you are in possession. Obviously there are instances where the ball needs to be cleared or played in the air, but teaching players to settle the ball instead of heading or playing first time when they receive it will ensure the game is much less chaotic, which will favor the more organized and possession focused team. Patience with the ball is something young players struggle with at times. They are are so eager to make an impact on the game, that they sometimes do not value the ball enough to connect more than three of four passes. Players will get bored of passing and look to play a risky through pass, having a dribble at someone, or trying to create a shot for themselves. The consequence of giving the ball away to a very direct opponent should be detailed to the players by the coach, promoting the team to ensure the ball is protected and their passing is precise.
If you are trying to build out of the back, transition from offense to defense must be taught along with movement, body shape, spacing and much more. To play that way is a very difficult task, and one that will almost certainly lead to preventable goals being given away by your players due to bad passes, touches, or mistakes with the ball in the back. The coach has the job of instilling confidence in the players that they can learn from these mistakes. The players have to believe that their techniques and ability to execute decisions under pressure will improve over time. Field and weather conditions may make it difficult to keep the ball at times, so being somewhat direct with the ball may be necessary at times. The coach has to have confidence in this style of play, and must stick with it, even when the results go against the team due to these tactics and principles.
Building from the back requires patience from coaches, parents, and players. Once the entire team shares the mindset that they will match the oppositions intensity, they will get the ball out of the air and play any time the opportunity arises, and they will drop off and collect long balls played over the top by the opposition and start to connect passes, the team should see success implementing this style of play. There are various sessions and coaching points that can help with the success of playing from the back, but hopefully the mindset and frustration players may see can be eliminated. If some of the ideas mentioned previously are digested by the members of the team.