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Soccer Warm-Up Session

We (coaching U14 Competitive Girls team) have been using a new warm-up procedure based on recent learning at a coaching licensing course. I like it because it adds variety and offers a more holistic approach to warming up players. It includes some new terminology and consists of three stages.

1. Body Activation

This warms up the muscles and stretches them getting the cardiovascular and muscle systems from static to operating speeds

2. Neural Preparation

By adding a specific ball control task to rapid and varied body movements the brain gets activated with the physical and mental speeds of soccer. Click Speeds of Soccer  to learn more about soccer speeds.

3. Technical Preparation

This exercise focuses on getting ready to play the game. It should include a goal oriented activity modeling the competitive nature of the game.

I suggest to use the same warm-up for games and practices so it becomes an integral part of preparation. An example warm-up session can be downloaded right here:

Warm-Up Session

Feel free to modify it for your team keeping in mind the three concepts of body activation, neural preparation, and technical preparation


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Balanced Soccer Training

I find it somewhat dumbfounding how entire soccer nations see the need to shift their training emphasis. And once they make that commitment it’s like the tail wagging the dog. Everything else must change. There are many examples worldwide but I will focus on the two I know most about.

After a disastrous world cup 2018 Germany is reviewing causes for failure. The most dominant conclusion is that there seems to be a lack of individual creativity and ball skills to put creativity into play. After the poor performances of WC 1994/98 Germany did a similar exercise. At the time the soccer leadership recognized that kids weren’t developing skills by playing street, park, or backyard soccer for hours after schools anymore. So they created a national talent discovery program and instituted regional training centers and required each professional club to run an academy. The academies were for the most talented starting at U15 and offered full-time residence and academic integration. The idea was to have adolescents focus on soccer more than on anything else. And it worked. Good players came out of the system culminating in winning the 2014 world cup. Did everything go wrong since then? I think not. What went wrong since the beginning of the program is that it wasn’t balanced. It emphasized tactics, skills, and physical fitness over the mental aspects of soccer, part of which is creativity, soccer sense and problem solving on the field.

Canada decided in the late 1990s to focus on possession soccer. The entire national and regional training programs changed and coaches were trained to teach the key ingredient to play possession soccer – ball control and passing. Fields were resized by age group, as were the number of players on a team. Clubs needed licensed coaches and technical directors. Nothing wrong with what was done, but again it was unbalanced. Tactics and physical development were reduced in training and delayed to U14/15. U12 players have little concept of formations or positional play. Again the approach was unbalanced.

I have always advocated a balanced approach based on the Four Pillars of Soccer Coaching, which also happens to have become the “official” coaching model of FIFA and many member nations, ironically including Canada and Germany. I advocate to use the four pillars at all ages, the content shifts by age group, the coaching methods and delivery shift, but the essence remains the same: holistic player and team development.

For example, to develop skills it has been determined that young children need 4,000 touches on the ball every week. I have monitored practices and on average a player can get 100 touches per minute by dribbling, practicing moves, etc. – individual ball work. That is only 40 minutes per week. In our practice plans, these touches are generated in the warm-up phase when players always work with a ball individually. The rest of the practice, mostly working in small groups, generates additional touches. Depending on the number of practices per week a coach may need to adjust the phases within our training sessions. By comparison, the average youth player (U7 – U13) gets at most 40-50 touches during a game. Clearly not enough.

So what does balance look like? One way is what we have built our program on:


Soccer Skills & Techniques – ball control, moves, passing, shooting, 1v1, ..

Soccer Game Tactics – formations, attacking, transition, defending plays,..

Soccer Specific Physical Fitness – aerobic, strength, agility, flexibility,..

Soccer Specific Mental Fitness –  communication, perception, anticipation, reaction, decision-making,..

Each soccer drill, practice plan, and book contains the appropriate balance of the four pillars of soccer.  In our BLOG we unpack some of the drills to let you look “behind the curtain”.

Our Soccer Drill Principles:

  • Maximum ball touches – no waiting in lines
  • Constant player movement
  • Easy set up & demonstration
  • Holistic training – four pillars of soccer
  • Small group & full team games
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How Goals Are Scored In Soccer

Kicker sports magazine published a study comparing teams from the EPL and German Bundesliga as to how goals were generated. The following situations were analyzed:

  1. Scoring after own attacking play
  2. Scoring on a counterattack
  3. Scoring from set play
  4. Scoring after pressing
  5. Scoring after counterpressing

The study compared dominating teams, such as Bayern Munich and Manchester City with each other and with weaker teams (typical underdogs) such as Hannover, Huddersfield, etc. I want to share general conclusions:

  • Dominating teams likely play a possession game and/or dominate possession. No surprise then that 50% of goals are scored after an own attacking play, 20% after set plays (logical because defending underdogs will foul them more around or in the penalty box), 15% after counterattack, 8% after pressing and 7% after counterpressing.
  • The underdogs who likely have less possession in their games score differently. 30% of goals are after a counterattack, 30% after set plays, 25% after own attacking play,  8% after pressing, and 7% after counterpressing.

From the perspective of you coaching a youth soccer team, you may want to consider the following:

  1. If you are coaching a dominant team in your environment, then it is well worth prioritizing your training efforts on combining in the attacking third to develop scoring chances and convert. Next practice set plays, and finally counterattacks. Be aware that the teams you are playing against will use counterattacks against you.
  2. If you are coaching a team that is usually the underdog in your environment you need to pay fairly equal attention to developing your own attacking plays, develop a strong counterattack, and work on set plays. Your job is a little harder but you will be prepared to change your playing style from counterattack to dominating when you play weaker teams.
  3. Pressing and counterpressing are talked about a lot and are somewhat trendy. But they only account for 15% of goals combined. Train these tactics after you are comfortable with your own attack, your own counterattack, and set plays.

For training attacking and fast break counterattacks consider our book Competitive Pro Soccer Practices.

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FIFA Soccer World Cup 2018 – Coaching Perspective

The 2018 soccer world cup is over with France as a deserved winner, although Croatia would have been equally deserving. As is common after a major tournament nations review their performance, draw conclusions about what worked and what didn’t and plan a new future. Some with the same coaches and some with new coaches.

Typically the nations who feel successful refer to their national soccer programs as being the right ones and plan to change little, the ones who feel they have failed question and analyze theirs.

Belgium is happy with their program, they are looking to develop the next generation, but the players questioned the coach’s game tactics in some games. France is basking inb their glory. England is celebrating its revival and the success of the youth program, Germany is questioning everything that has made them successful since a major program revamp stating in 2000. Argentina and Portugal are wondering if relying on Messi and Ronaldo was the right strategy and what to do next as they retire.

I find this very knee jerk and to some degree overcomplicating things. I strongly advocate the Four Pillars of Soccer , Technical Skills, Tactics, Physical Fitness, and Mental Preparation. Any program or team that develops these pillars into a strategic plan with specific goals, objectives and action plans will only need to tweak their program based on observation, and not to overhaul it constantly.

Lets look at an example. After disappointing 1994 and 1998 world cups Germany started a new youth development program, built academies, focused on adding skills to the classic discipline and work ethic of German soccer and develop a new tactical format. New players developed, youth teams were successful, and a new generation won the 2014 world cup. 2018 was a disaster with exiting in the first round. Now Germany is considering revamping their entire program again. But do they need to?

In terms of the four pillars of soccer Germany still develops skillful youth players. No need to change anything there. Tactically they actually changed their style in this world cup from quick passing and runs to more of a possession style a la Guardiola. Teams were ready for it and it didn’t work. Just go back to what worked before. Physical fitness – German players are generally fit. In this world cup the coach chose to start players who were coming off injuries and weren’t 100% fit. That was a mistake. Mental preparation was a disaster. The team was not hungry, not ready to fight and had an arrogant attitude that they would be successful, even though warning signs were there in pre tournament warm up games. So tweak the mental preparation. Does Germany need to overhaul everything? Not at all.

Other countries should do the same. Review and plan everything in the context of the four pillars of soccer and performance will be the best it can be. That is true for nations, clubs, and your team.

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FIFA WC 2018 – Quarter Finals

The quarter-final matches are set, without Spain, Argentina, and Portugal who exited in the round of 16. Belgium almost went out against Japan but recovered from a 2-0 deficit to win 3-2 in riveting action. England needed penalty kicks to get past Columbia.

One thing I have advocated for a long time is that possession statistics aren’t very meaningful in predicting or determining the outcome of games. What matters most, in my opinion, is scoring chances generated and goals. Spain.s 75% possession against Russia and Germany’s 75% possession against Korea are good examples. Finally, the soccer experts in media are catching on and are heralding the end of possession soccer. In my opinion possession soccer that involves a lot of square and back passes allows the opponents to set up defensively, win the ball, and counter quickly. The teams used to playing possession soccer will have to find new strategies to beat these counterattacking teams. I have always advocated that one or two touch soccer with quick runs and passes, switching point of attack, etc. is the way to go, even for highly skilled teams. You have to find ways to get the defense off-balance. We offer an entire practice book to fast transition play and attack.. Competitive Pro Practices – Fast Break Soccer.

Looking ahead to the quarter finals, on one side of the draw we have:

France v. Uruguay and Brazil v. Belgium, the winners meeting in the semi-final. There are three previous world cup winners.

On the other side we have Croatia v. Russia and Sweden v. England, one previous world cup winner. It is nice to see that a new face will make the final out of this group (I include England since they haven’t been in the final since 1966).

The games are getting tense, the action is exciting. Enjoy !!!

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Soccer WC 18 – Germany Exit and Next Round

In my last blog I mentioned that power houses Brazil, Argentina and Germany were at risk of being eliminated. Brazil had no trouble defeating Serbia to move on. Argentina struggled against Nigeria and needed an 86th minute goal to secure their spot in the next round. Germany suffered a huge upset loss to Korea and were eliminated, the first time Germany exited in the first round in modern times. The other team that needed a good deal of fortune to move on was Portugal, drawing Iran 1-1 with Iran missing a golden opportunity late in the game that would have eliminated Portugal and send Iran through top of their group.

So what happened to Germany?

When the defending champion exits this early it is worth some analysis. Having watched all games and being very familiar with German soccer, here are my thoughts and coaching lessons:

In simple statistics they couldn’t score. Two goals in three matches is not typical of German output, especially being shut out by Mexico and Korea. Germany had plenty of attempts at target but most of them weren’t of enough quality to score. In the last game they fired 28 shots at Korea’s net but only four were good opportunities. Of these three were headers by central defender Hummels.

To me the problem started before the world cup with team selection. Leaving speedster and Premier League young player of the year Leroy Sane out was a mistake, as was leaving striker Wagner out in favour of Gomez. 2014 winners Kramer, Schuerrle and Goetze were left off the squad as well. The latter two didn’t have stellar seasons, but neither did Oezil, Khedira, Mueller, Draxler, or even Boateng (injury). But they did made the team. Coach Loew stuck with these five in the starting line-up for the Mexico game and was rewarded with uninspired attacking plays and a shaky defense.

He left Oezil and Khedira on the bench against Sweden and the team performed better. Brandt brought on inspired play as a sub and Reus played on form. Why he brought Oezil and Khedira back against Korea remains a mystery.

The play did not flow as freely as it did in 2014 hence the lack of quality chances. Tactically there were issues as well. Both outside defenders attacked in possession sometimes joined by a central defender, leaving only one or two back against quick counters. Mexico exposed the weakness and Loew did not adjust and was punished again by Sweden and Korea.

With Khedira off form Kroos was left alone in the holding midfield. He had to defend and orchestrate the attack. Too easy to neutralize by the opposition. Mueller, Oezil, and Draxler were off as well and far too slow in combination play, thus starving speedy forward Werner.

The coaching lesson is that at this level you must be willing to adjust quickly. I have no doubt that Loew and his staff analyzed everything after the Mexico loss and they did move in the right direction against Sweden. Leaving Khedira and Oezil off in favour of Reus and Gundogan. Late in the game he brought on Brandt and Gomez again with Werner playing more on the wing. That paid off with Reus scoring and Werner setting up both goals. The defense was still shaky and Mueller was invisible. That should have provided some clues on how to progress against Korea.

A formation change to 3-5-2 with Suele, Hummels, and Ruediger as center backs would have solidified the defense. The midfield could have been Brandt-Kroos-Reus-Gundogan-Kimmich, with Werner and Gomez up front. That still would have left Draxler, Goretzka, and Mueller as possible strong subs.

But instead the formation and tactics stayed the same, Oezil and Khedira started, the defense played up and the game mirrored the Mexico game. Regression, not progression.

So coaches, don’t make decisions based on player potential, history, or loyalty. Make decisions based on facts, match analysis, and courage to change.

The Knockout Rounds

This is where the excitement starts and with the groups having surprise results, the round of 16 has some intriguing games and the bracket is a bit skewed.

Left side of bracket:

France v. Argentina and Uruguay v. Portugal, the winners playing each other in quarter final 1.

Brazil v. Mexico and Belgium v. Japan, the winners playing in quarter final 2.

The quarter final winners play in semi-final 1.

Right side of bracket:

Sweden v. Switzerland and England v. Columbia, the winners playing in quarter final 3.

Spain v. Russia and Croatia v. Denmark, the winners playing in quarter final 4.

The quarter final winners playing in semi-final 2.

To me it looks like left side of the bracket has many pre-tournament favourites and a combined 10 world cup wins plus the current Euro champion Portugal. It will be tough battles all the way through.

On the right side we have one pre-tournament favourite, Spain, and a combined two world cups. It is exciting to know that one of Sweden, Switzerland, Columbia, and England will be in the semi-final. Switzerland and Columbia have never made it there and Sweden and England not for a long time.

I can see Brazil v. Portugal and Spain v. England semi-finals, but with all the surprises we have seen it could also be Belgium v. France and Sweden v. Croatia.

Enjoy the excitement !!!!

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SOCCER WC 18 – Match Day 2 Review

Having completed match day 2 some groups have been clearly decided while others are still wide open, with some powerhouses (Argentina, Germany, Brazil) still fighting for survival.

Group A

Russia and Uruguay are through, not unexpected although Egypt with super star Salah was given an outside chance before the tournament. But they and Saudi Arabia will head home.

Group B

Favourites Spain and Portugal are in the driver’s seat. The only thing to create an upset would be a surprise Iranian win against Portugal in the last game. Although Morocco is eliminated, an unlikely win against Spain with an Iranian result against Portugal could give Spain a problem.

Group C

France is through and Denmark is in good position to advance as well. Australia is alive and needs a win against Peru coupled with a Denmark loss to France to have a chance to move on by virtue of goal difference.

Group D

Croatia is assured of a spot in the round of 16. After that it gets messy (or Messi?). Nigeria will advance with a win over Argentina. Argentina must win and hope that Iceland doesn’t pull off an upset over Croatia. Iceland still has a chance but must beat Croatia and hope for an Argentine win or tie.

Group E

The only thing we know for sure is that Costa Rica is eliminated. Brazil and Switzerland are leading the group with Serbia trailing by a point. As long as Brazil (v. Serbia) and Switzerland (v. Costa Rica) don’t lose their last game they advance. A Serbian win against Brazil will put Serbia through and likely knock Brazil out. A Switzerland loss to Costa Rica and a Serbia tie will put them on 4 points each and bring goal difference into play.

Group F

The only group in which everyone is still alive, even Korea with zero points. Mexico (v. Sweden) needs a tie to guarantee advancement. Germany needs to beat Korea by two goals to guarantee advancement. Sweden needs to beat Mexico by a bigger goal difference than Germany beats Korea to advance. That would knock Mexico out. Korea can advance with a win against Germany and a Sweden loss to Mexico.

Group G

Belgium and England are Through, Panama and Tunisia are out.

Group H

The only certainty is that Poland has been eliminated. Anyone of Senegal (v. Columbia), Columbia, or Japan (v. Poland) winning will advance.

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We have finally arrived at the 2018 world soccer summit. I hope you’re enjoying the matches in person or on TV. The first game in each group has been played and we would like to offer a brief summary and some coaching insights.

Big Upsets

The biggest upset without a doubt has been Mexico’s 1-0 win over defending champion Germany. That is if you’re not the Mexican team or coach. My insider information says that Mexico had prepared a game plan for each game six months ago. They have updated it as they watched Germany prepare for the tournament.

Another big upset was Iceland tying Argentina 1-1. Iceland seems to have picked up in the World Cup where it left Euro 2016. Playing disciplined defense with quick and precise counter attacks. And they had opportunities to even win the game. How does a nation of 330,000 covered in snow most of the year compete with a power house like Argentina? By declaring soccer their national sport some 15 years ago and focussing all their resources on player and team development, and building the necessary infrastructure to play year round.

My last big upset is Switzerland tying Brazil 1-1. Brazil started strong but went to sleep in the second half. There is no explanation for this one.

Smaller Upsets

Iran beating Morocco was not expected. Japan’s win over Columbia is a surprise from a strict result perspective, but Columbia being down to 10 men and 1-0 after three minutes explains a bit of the result. And Senegal’s win over Poland is not a total shocker but Poland’s talent, especially top striker Lewandowski, should have assured Poland of a result.

Near Upsets

Some of the heavy favourites were stumped by brilliant game tactics, total commitment, and some bad luck – but they won their games. In this category belong England’s 2-1 win over Tunesia in added time, Sweden’s 1-0 win over Korea, France’s 2-1 win over Australia, and Uruguay’s 1-0 win over Egypt without Salah.

So nine of the sixteen first match day games provided some unexpected events. And that is the beauty of the beautiful game – you just never know. So keep watching.

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UEFA Champions League Final 2018 – Coaching Insights

African american soccer coach holding a soccer ball. You are on your way to becoming a better coach.

Congratulations to Real Madrid for winning their third consecutive Champions League title. If you watched the game or read the commentaries you will understand that this exciting game had many critical moments. The early injury to Liverpool’s Mohamad Salah, followed by an injury to Madrid’s Carvahal. Or the two utter and complete goalkeeping errors by Liverpool’s Karius. So what are the coaching observations? Let’s look at them through the lens of our Four Pillars of Soccer:

The Mental Game

Until Salah’s substitution Liverpool was controlling the game and had generated nine attempts at goal. Madrid was on its heels. Remember that Salah had been Liverpool’s, and in fact, the Premier League’s leading goal scorer. The entire Liverpool attacking scheme is built around Salah. Losing him consternated the Liverpool team. They actually changed their mental approach to the game, stopping their attacking game and surrendering the game to Madrid. Like the air had gone out of their balloon. I am convinced coach Klopp addressed the issue at half time to rebuild the team’s confidence, and there were positive signals, until Madrid’s first goal (see below). What is interesting is that a team at this level had no positive mental response to the early loss of their key player. That is a mental preparation issue that teams need to address. What do we do when we lose a key player? There must be an instant switch to plan B. Instead, Salah’s loss was a giant momentum shifter.

What about Carvahal’s early loss to Madrid? He is a key defender on the right side, an integral part of Madrid’s back four. I observed coach Zidane actually grinning when he replaced Carvahal with Nacho. Almost like he was saying “I wanted to start Nacho anyways, now I got the lineup I wanted”. I am sure that’s not what he was thinking, but from a mental perspective Carvahal’s loss didn’t affect Madrid at all.

Granted, relatively speaking Salah is more important to Liverpool than Carvahal is to Madrid, but the teams dealt with their respective losses quite differently.

What about Karius’ first error? A technical or a mental issue? Recall the play: A long ball is played by Madrid to an off-side Benzema. Karius picks up the ball and Benzema finishes his run right to the keeper. Next, Karius bends a bit wanting to roll the ball to his right defender. Benzema, still there, reacts and sticks out his left leg. The ball hits his leg and rolls into the net. There wasn’t anything technically wrong with what Karius was doing – no error in his throwing motion or direction. The issue was he shouldn’t have released the ball at all. Goalkeepers are trained to do a 360 scan before releasing the ball. Some keepers do it quite visibly every time, some only when they know there is an opposing player near, some scan imperceptibly. The problem here is that Karius didn’t scan at all. He didn’t realize the presence of Benzema. He deviated from the routine of scanning – a clear mental error, a lapse of concentration.

Benzema on the other hand demonstrated some of the Seven Speeds of Soccer:

• He perceived that Karius didn’t scan
• He anticipated Karius’ attempt to distribute the ball to the right
• He decided to stay close to Karius and go for the ball
• He reacted to Karius’s motion
• He acted with incredible speed and got his foot on the ball

Technical Skills

The second goalkeeping error was clearly a technical issue. The ball was struck from nearly 40 m by Bale and came towards the goal in a predictable flight path and at an obvious high pace. Initially Karius got into the right position with his body behind the ball. The decision he had to make was between catching the ball and punching the ball. I have seen both techniques in situations like this and while punching the ball may look unorthodox it is a valid option.

Karius chose to catch, so far no problem. But for some inexplicable reason he put his arms out in front of his face as if he wanted to catch the ball about 6 inches in front of him. His fingers were up and his palms extended towards the ball. With that hand position he would not have caught the ball, he would have blocked it and it would have dropped in front of him. He would have likely tried to dive on it to recover it. Now some coaches advocate this technique, I think it is flawed. In this case Karius also moved his head away from the ball so there was no body part behind the ball when it struck his hands. The force of the shot actually bent his hands and the ball deflected into the net.

I teach goalkeepers to always have their body behind the ball if they attempt to catch it, and in the process of catching it get their hands on the ball at the same time the ball contacts the body. In this case Karius should have jumped and caught the ball on his chest, cradling it in with his hands. If he wouldn’t have jumped then at the very least his head should have been behind his hands so that there is backing in case the ball slips through the hands. Goalkeeping is about ultra-quick decisions and reactions. If Karius thought the ball came in at high-speed and an awkward height for a catch then he should have punched it out. Check our Soccer Goalkeeping Practicebook for great goalkeeping drills and tips.

The key technical error was trying to catch the ball with his arms extended in front, palms out, and no body part behind the ball. Pure and simple.