How Coaches Mistakenly Teach Keep Away Instead of Penetration
Teaching Penetrating Progressive Possession Play vs. Keep Away
Soccer Possession Style vs. Counterattacking Style of Attack
Defending Soccer Counterattacks
11v11 Soccer Formations
Defending the Center vs. Defending the Wings of Soccer Field
Trading Off for "Width" for "Depth"
Jeff Tipping's Lessons from Euro 2008
First Principal of Soccer Attacking
Soccer Formation Used by the Brilliant Anson Dorrance

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(Below is a letter from a U14 Soccer Coach and my reply.)

Dear David,

Hello, I haven't had any contact with you for awhile, but I had a question that I hoped you could answer for me.

I have been coaching U14 girls rec soccer for the last three or four seasons; of all the helpful things that are on SoccerHelp, there is a definite trend toward training and strategy for younger players and specifically rec soccer teams. This is all well and good and has really been helpful to me over the last eight or nine years of coaching various age groups.

Quite a few of my players have moved on to high school soccer, and I want to do my best to prepare them for tryouts the season after they leave our team. One of the things that you stress for fullbacks and defenders is "kick the ball straight ahead, and let the mids and forwards shift to win it". (Note from David - this advice is for typical Rec teams - if you have a great team that can control the ball from the back, do that.)

I want to work with my fullbacks to get them to handle the ball more when it is appropriate and become the start of the attack if the opportunity presents itself. Bringing the ball out of the back (generally to the outside and then upfield), holding the ball when they can, etc. rather than just booming the ball back upfield.

(I'm talking about the two outside backs; I'd not want my center defenders taking off on me - although I did have one incredible girl who actually scored on a 100 yard run from the back at sweeper once - good heavens, it was beautiful.)

Do you have any ideas or suggestions? I know that this age level is the right time to start teaching more advanced concepts, and that the ability of the players is part of the equation. I've been using a 4-3-3, after starting out as a 3-2-3-2 team, with a sweeper and stopper. I'd love to teach them how to play a flat back four, but all of my girls aren't quite talented enough to make that work, I don't think.

Any ideas or things I should avoid?


Coach Chuck, Premium Member

My Reply --

Hi Chuck,

I'm glad to hear from you, and congratulations on your success.

I stress kicking the ball straight ahead for most Rec teams, BUT if your players have the skill to control the ball against opponents, that is a better way to play. The Style of Attack you use should be the one that gives your players the best chance of being successful, and NOT one that dooms them to failure. Keep in mind that if your Midfielders and Forwards are shifting with the ball, getting in position to win the ball and fighting to win the ball, THEN you aren't "Booming the ball", you are "Counterattacking". It's only Booming the ball if the ball is mindlessly kicked with no strategy. Playing the ball out of the back without a clear purpose is even worse if the result is a game of "Keepaway" instead of penetration to score a goal.

I just read a great article in the January 2009 Soccer Journal by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) that talked about "The Key to Soccer Success at the International Level" and "Lessons From Euro 2008". The article is by Jeff Tipping, the NSCAA Director of Coaching Education and Development, who is a brilliant soccer analyst. Several of the points made are the concepts I have recommended in SoccerHelp. Below are some of Jeff's observations:

  1. "46% of goals scored in Euro 2008 were from counterattacks." To paraphrase Jeff: Teams are trained in the importance of quickly transitioning to counter attack when the opposition is disorganized and defenders are spread out and pushed up, and they get the opportunity. (Note from David: The Italians are very good at this).

  2. "Most teams in Euro 2008 played with one or two clearly distinguishable, holding midfield players. These players held their position in between the backs and the attacking midfielders and were responsible for dealing with counter attacks and securing the middle of the field."

  3. Most teams played with one striker and a "shadow" striker behind."

As for a formation, do what works best for your team. Are your opponents scoring from the corners on crossed headers? Do you need "width" more than "depth"? A true 3-layer formation sacrifices depth in favor of width. Often, what is called a 4-3-3 is actually a 4-1-2-2-1, a 1-2-1-3-3 or similar. Anson Dorrance, the winningest college soccer coach of all time, plays a 3-1-2-1-3 soccer formation (he uses a star-shaped midfield, with an "Attacking Mid" and a "Defensive Mid", which we call a "Stopper", and will flood as many as 6 players into the Attacking Third). We sell a brilliant coaching DVD by Anson Dorrance – Click here to read the Review of Anson Dorrance & Tom Stone Soccer Clinic DVD.

Every decision involves trade-offs, and "width" to defend the "wings" means less strength in the Center. Defending the Center is more critical than defending the wings. The pros have to defend the entire field and have players with enough speed and stamina to do it, but as Tipping says in the NSCAA article "As counterattacks become more important, the following strategies need practice:

  1. "Immediate pressure on the ball to win it back."

  2. "Holding midfielders to screen the back players and slow down the counterattacks." (Note from David: This is like the "Stopper" recommended in SoccerHelp.

  3. "Collective organization to force the opponents wide and delay until recovering defenders arrive." (Note from David: This is the approach recommended in SoccerHelp. The easiest way to do this is to have "strength in the Center of the field" with "multiple layers of defenders", like a 3-2-3-2 formation.)

Regarding a "Possession" style of play, which has been emphasized for years by many U.S. select team coaches, Jeff says: "It should be noted that progressive possession play is different from simply playing "keep away." The intent is to move down the field and culminate with a shot at goal or a goal." And he says "It is important to delineate the difference between playing non-directional "keep away" games and possession games that have a direction. Keep-away games are essentially, circular in nature and do not really go anywhere. Directional possession games give the players a direction and the ball is moved sideways or backward so it can be played forward. Soccer is a vertical game and "penetration" is the first principal of attack. Possession for the sake of possession is acceptable only if a team is trying to kill time." (Note from David: Most of the SoccerHelp games involve direction, competition, scoring and pressure. We don't recommend games like "Monkey in the Middle".)

I hope this helps. I agree with what Jeff says.

David at SoccerHelp

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