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SOCCER WC 18 – MATCH DAY 1 REVIEW

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.

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Champions and Europa League Semis set

After some dramatic quarterfinal rematches the semi-finals are set.

Champions League

After a 2-1 win at Sevilla FC Bayern coasted to a 0-0 tie at home to qualify. The same can be said about Liverpool who skillfully administered it’s 3-0 home win against Manchester City with a 2-1 away win at Man City.

There was drama in the other two quarter finals. Roma beat the odds and after a 4-1 first leg loss at Barcelona was sure to exit the competition. But in a brilliant home return match they downed the star studded Spaniard 3-0 to advance on away goals. An even more improbable feat happened in the Real Madrid -Juventus return match. After winning 3-o at Juventus Real looked like a shoe in to advance. But brilliant tactics with a bit of look had Juventus ahead 3-0 in Madrid. The game looked to go to overtime when the referee awarded a highly questionable PK in Real’s favour on the last attack of the game. Ronaldo scored and Juventus was elimnated.

The semi finals have FC Bayern hosting Real on April 25, a game many have hoped for as the final.

The other semi has Liverpool hosting Roma on April 24.

My fearless prediction calls for a Bayern-Liverpool final.

Europa League

The quarter-final pattern was similar to the CL. Arsenal maintained a strong 4-1 home victory at Moscow and the 2-2 tie assured their advanced. Not surprisingly Atletico Madrid overcame a 1-0 away defeat with a 2-0 home win against Sporting Lisbon.

The drama happened in the other matches. Leipzig extended a 1-0 home win by scoring early at Marseille to go up 2-0. This meant Marseille had to score three goals to advance, which they did before the first half was over. Leipzig replied to make it 3-2 meaning Madrid had to score again. They scored twice for a 5-2 win and a trip into the next round.

Even more improbable was Salzburg vs. Lazio. Down 4-2 coming home Lazio needed to win by 2 goals to advance. But Lazio scored first going up 5-2, meaning Salzburg needed four more goals. And they got them in minutes 56, 72,74,76 to book their spot in the semi finals.

Here Marseille will take on Salzburg and Arsenal will play Atletico. My fearless prediction calls for a Salzburg –  Atletico final.

Watch as many games as you can, it’s a great lead up to the World Cup.

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Coaching Soccer Goalkeepers

An icon of a soccer goalkeeper making a save.

I came across a very interesting interview with Raphael Schaefer, former professional goalkeeper and licensed goalkeeper coach for German second division club Nuremberg. Here is a summary of some key questions and answers.

Which basic characteristics must a goalkeeper have?

RS: that depends on age. Below U14 keepers should have natural flexibility, the courage to dive, and jumping ability.

How important is height?

RS: Height is important for professional teams. At U14-U19 it is less important because height deficiency can be compensated with technique and jumping power. At this level stopping balls and performing within the team is more important.

What are your priorities in goalkeeper training?

RS: Mastering the goalkeeping basics. 90% of goalie work is still using the hands. 10% is using the feet.

How do you integrate goalie training with team training?

RS: I coordinate the training with the coaches of all age groups to plan training sessions. We also review the past week’s performance of the keepers with video analysis to direct the efforts. We also record all training sessions so we can provide specific feedback. In our club we target to develop three keepers in each age group with the goal of leading the best to our professional squad.

For goalkeeper training drills and practices, check out our Soccer Goalkeeping Drills & Practice Plans

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Soccer Field Sizes For Youth Teams

Icon of a clipboard showing a page with a soccer strategy.

I had the opportunity of attending a soccer coaching licensing program recently. One of the topics was soccer player development in the context of practices and game play. There was much discussion about the number of players on the field for certain age groups and the corresponding field size. By coincidence I had also just reviewed the FIFA Youth Soccer Training Manual as well as Youth programs in England, germany, USA and Canada.

Before sharing my findings I would like to reflect on the game when I was a youngster playing soccer in Germany, and later in Canada. At all age groups organized soccer was played 11 v. 11 on full size fields and practices were on the same full size fields. Organized team soccer started at age 8, in today’s terms U9. Before that age soccer was played in school yards, in parks, just about anywhere one could fabricate goals and kick an object (not always a ball). Even while playing organized soccer street soccer was played every day after school. From a very high level point of view one could say that most of the skill, physical, and mental training happened outside of organized soccer. Arriving at U9 the training focus shifted on formations, player’s roles in the formation, and team play (i.e. passing, using space, etc.). Certainly skills were maintained and fitness improved, but the assumption was that the base was built between age 3 and 8 on the street.

Fast forward to today where the street soccer development doesn’t happen so much anymore, certainly not in the developed world. Therefore organizations and countries have had to rethink how these basic skills are developed. What I am seeing is that organized club soccer is now available from U3 up. Coaching curriculums have developed all over the globe and from a high level perspective they are consistent. The emphasis is giving kids maximum touches on the ball in practice and fostering the same during games. Fields and goals have been scaled down for games to allow 3 v 3 to 7 v 7 play. This philosophy has extended to U 12 as well where fields are about 3/4 size, nets are smaller, and play is 9 v 9.

The concept behind smaller fields is to allow more opportunities to touch the ball by restricting the size of the playing field. At U13 every country I have observed is playing full field 11 v 11. Here is the complication. Most European soccer countries start their national youth teams at U15 with international competitions. USA and Canada start national youth programs at U14. Now to be identified, invited, and selected for these national team takes a few years, you typically don’t just walk up for tryouts. This means that in North America players have had one season of full field soccer (U13) before they are supposed to be ready for U14 national teams. In Europe they have two years. I am not sure how a player can scale up the skills and learn game systems and formations in that short a time. I am also not convinced that the players being scouted are able to demonstrate their full potential.

So I reflected on the rationale for smaller fields – more opportunities to play. I made a point in the last 12 months to watch many U3 to U12 games and I could not convince myself that there was more action for each player. Recall that the training objectives for these ages (and up to U12) are skill development, not strategy or tactics. The kids are encouraged to apply these skills in games. Not surprising then is that the more skilled players still “hog” the ball and unlike in the past, no coach is encouraging them to pass. All the other kids move around a lot but they don’t necessarily get to touch the ball much. On top of that, with the smaller teams kids spend most of their time off the field. At U6, for instance, a lot of clubs play 3 v 3 but each team has 10 or more players. By definition the kids spend 2/3 of the game on the sidelines. At U12 and 9 v 9 rosters are often up to 18 players and kids play half a game.

I am not convinced that the basic premise for small fields is working. I believe the number of touches are generated in practices, not so much in games.

I do believe in playing on smaller fields and nets up to a certain age, probably up to and including U8. But even there I would encourage teaching players positions, line-ups, and team play so that they understand it’s not about the most skilled player running with the ball. I would also try to find a way to ensure that kids play at least 75% of the allotted game time. This may mean smaller rosters, split squad games, or other means.

Starting at U9 I would transition to full field with regular size nets. It isn’t as difficult on the goalkeepers as it might seem because chances are that the shots aren’t all coming in under the cross bar anyways. This would allow at least four or five years to get ready form the national U14/15 programs.

To recap:

We moved from playing full field 11 v 11 soccer at U8/9 with national teams starting at U18 to starting full field soccer at U13 with national teams starting at U14. Ten years of learning full field soccer to one or two years.

Food for thought ??

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UEFA Soccer Nations League

The draw for a brand new competiiton, the UEFA nation’s league has just been completed. Here is what this league is all about (adapted from http://www.uefa.com/uefanationsleague/index.html#/)

What is the basic format?

  • The format of the UEFA Nations League will feature promotion and relegation. The 55 European national teams have been divided into four leagues (A-D)in accordance with UEFA’s national association coefficient rankings on 11 October 2017.
  • League A includes the top-ranked sides and League D includes the lowest:

League A

  • Teams will be split into four groups of three, with the group winners then contesting the UEFA Nations League Finals (semi-finals, third-place match and final) in June 2019 to become the UEFA Nations League winners. One host country will be appointed in December 2018 from among the finalist teams.
  • The four teams that finish bottom of their groups will be relegated to League B for the 2020 edition.
  • The top four ranked teams that do not qualify for UEFA EURO 2020 will enter a play-off in March 2020, with one finals place on offer.
  • GROUP 1

    •  Germany
    •  France
    •  Netherlands

    GROUP 2

    •  Belgium
    •  Switzerland
    •  Iceland

    GROUP 3

    •  Portugal
    •  Italy
    •  Poland

    GROUP 4

    •  Spain
    •  England
    •  Croatia

League B

  • Teams will be split into four groups of three.
  • The four group winners are promoted to League A, with the four sides that finish bottom relegated to League C for the next competition to be played in 2020.
  • The top four ranked teams that do not qualify for UEFA EURO 2020 will enter a play-off in March 2020, with one finals place on offer

GROUP 1

  •  Slovakia
  •  Ukraine
  •  Czech Republic

GROUP 2

  •  Russia
  •  Sweden
  •  Turkey

GROUP 3

  •  Austria
  •  Bosnia and Herzegovina
  •  Northern Ireland

GROUP 4

  •  Wales
  •  Republic of Ireland
  •  Denmark

League C

  • Teams will be split into one group of three and three groups of four.
  • The four group winners are promoted to League B, with the four sides that finish bottom relegated to League D for the 2020 edition.
  • The top four ranked teams that do not qualify for UEFA EURO 2020 will enter a play-off in March 2020, with one finals place on offer.

GROUP 1

  •  Scotland
  •  Albania
  •  Israel

GROUP 2

  •  Hungary
  •  Greece
  •  Finland
  •  Estonia

GROUP 3

  •  Slovenia
  •  Norway
  •  Bulgaria
  •  Cyprus

GROUP 4

  •  Romania
  •  Serbia
  •  Montenegro
  •  Lithuania

League D

  • Due to a decision of the UEFA Executive Committee, Armenia and Azerbaijan cannot be draw in the same group.
  • The four group winners are promoted to League C for the 2020 edition.
  • The top four ranked teams that do not qualify for UEFA EURO 2020 will enter a play-off in March 2020, with one finals place on offer.

GROUP 1

  •  Georgia
  •  Latvia
  •  Kazakhstan
  •  Andorra

GROUP 2

  •  Belarus
  •  Luxembourg
  •  Moldova
  •  San Marino

GROUP 3

  •  Azerbaijan
  •  Faroe Islands
  •  Malta
  •  Kosovo

GROUP 4

  •  FYR Macedonia
  •  Armenia
  •  Liechtenstein
  •  Gibraltar

When will the UEFA Nations League take place?

The UEFA Nations League will take place as follows:

  • The UEFA Nations League group games will be held over six matchdays, during the ‘double-headers’ in September, October and November 2018. The UEFA Nations League Finals competition for the teams that win the four groups within the top division is scheduled for June 2019.
  • For the UEFA Nations League Finals, the group winners of UEFA Nations League A will play in a knockout format (semi-finals, third-place match and final) in June 2019 to become the UEFA Nations League winners. One host country will be appointed by the UEFA Executive Committee in December 2018 from among the finalist teams.
  • The play-off matches will be staged in March 2020 (see below).

Will qualifying for the UEFA EURO change?

 How the play-offs for UEFA EURO 2020 work

The changes to UEFA EURO qualifying will make it more streamlined. The equation is now simple: ten groups with the top two teams in each group qualifying automatically, and the other four places being awarded to European Qualifiers play-off winners, in which the 16 group winners of the UEFA Nations League will be in contention.

The UEFA EURO 2020 qualifying draw will be made after the completion of the UEFA Nations League and allow for the four UEFA Nations League Finals participants to be drawn into groups of five teams.

But the key principle of the qualifiers remains: that every team can play every team.

  • The European Qualifiers for UEFA EURO 2020 commence in March 2019. There will be two matchdays in each of March, June, September, October and November 2019. In total, there will be five groups of five teams and five groups of six teams (ten groups in all) playing over ten matchdays (the same number as now). The winner and runner-up in each of the ten groups will qualify automatically for the UEFA EURO 2020 final tournament (June 2020).
  • The last four EURO places will be won through the European Qualifiers play-offs, which will take place in March 2020 and which will be contested by the 16 UEFA Nations League group winners.
  • If a group winner has already qualified via the European Qualifiers, then their spot will go to the next best-ranked team in their league. If a league does not have four teams to compete, the remaining slots are allocated to teams from another league, according to the overall UEFA Nations League ranking.
  • Each league will have a path of its own and each path will feature two single-leg semi-finals and one single-leg final. The winner of each path will win a ticket to UEFA EURO 2020.
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Soccer Pro vs Soccer Club

There is a very interesting battle going on between professional soccer clubs and their players, mostly in Europe. It is a battle over who controls the player.

With the increasing amount of transfer fees, players are becoming key investments and assets for professional clubs. They are meant to pay dividends in several ways

  • through winning championships and therefore bringing in significant money from competitions such as the Champions League
  • from increased merchandise sales
  • from increased TV revenues
  • from selling the player at an even higher transfer fee

With these investments clubs are very keen on protecting the health and capabilities of their assets. After all an injured or unfit player does not perform and their revenue potential for the club drops. So clubs have developed a plethora of increased rules and conditions to ensure the performance of their players. For example:

  • Nutrition – clubs prescribe what players can eat and drink at what times
  • Sleep – how much and when players sleep, at home or on road trips
  • Use of cell phones and devices – not in the bedroom, during team meals/meetings/etc.
  • Medical tests – daily blood tests and analysis, saliva analysis, weight
  • Recreational activities
  • Training requirements during the off-season
  • Analysis – players are “wired” during practice and games and information on heart rate, speed, distance run, breathing, etc. are fed instantly into data bases

There is not much left in a life of a pro player that is not controlled.

Players also benefit financially. Their salaries have risen exponentially somewhat in line with the transfer fees. But at the personal level some players are struggling with all the control by the club and they are acting out. Drinking binges, absences, unauthorized travel with and to friends and family. I believe that as humans they are struggling with the lack of control over their personal lives, not unlike children with strict parents acting out.

Clubs and players interests come together in the contract between them. Contracts stipulate the obligations of each party as well as minimum future transfer fees for which players can be sold. This is the key – can be sold. The club is under no obligation to actually accept an offer.

So why are more and more players provoking a transfer by acting out against their club and the contracts they signed? Let’s look at a current example. Top Borussia Dortmund striker Aubameyang is rumored to be in touch with Arsenal for a transfer. He has a few years left in his contract, but he wants to go. Why? Because Arsenal is offering him a higher salary and he believes there are fewer restrictions on his private life, not as much discipline. Dortmund wants to keep him, at least until the end of the season in order to achieve the club’s competitive and financial goals. But he wants to transfer now. So what has he done? Skipped practices, came late to meetings, went on unauthorized trips, etc. The club took disciplinary action and benched him for the last two games. The focus of the team has shifted from competition to the conflict. The fans are upset, team mates are split between supporting the club and Aubameyang, the media are having a field day. The result? Two ties in the last two games against lower opponents scoring just one goal. That does not help anyone.

But, the club has to be careful. The less he plays the more his transfer value declines. The player has to be careful as well. The less he plays and the more his value declines, the lower his salary potential gets. So it becomes a very tricky dance until the situation resolves itself – most likely in an immediate transfer. I should mention one other key fact: At the end of the contract players can transfer for free, the club gets nothing. So it is in the club’s interest to extend contracts and sell a player before it’s expiry.

It is a sad situation that players would essentially blackmail their club to get an immediate release. Some players at least wait until the end of the season and come to a reasonable agreement with their club. But it is an understandable situation and the clubs are not without fault for escalating the financial parameters.

The questions are: Has soccer become too much of a financial business? Has it moved away from being a sport? Is it any different from any other pro sport?

I don’t have the answers but what concerns me most is that it has become more about money than the game. And that is not a good model for our children to grow into.

Maybe it is time to scale back a bit on controlling players’ lives, on making them less of a machine that is tracked and analyzed every minute of every day. Is it all really necessary or is it done just because clever entrepreneurs have developed the tools and information systems to facilitate the controls? Time to determine what is actually essential and relevant and cut out the rest. At the same time the transfer fees need to be held in check and a mechanism needs to be developed that prevents clubs making more money from clever transfer strategies than from playing good and successful soccer.

FIFA is trying with their financial fair play program – a good start. I look forward to its success and to FIFA taking the holistic view and also look at standard contracts and enforce their application. There are professional leagues who are more successful – no transfer fees (trades), salary caps, penalties for breaking contracts, etc.. Although FIFA is the largest and most profitable sports organization in the world, it can learn from its peers.

 

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Pep Guardiola – The Best Soccer Club Coach Ever?

There have been long club winning streaks in the top European soccer leagues, and Pep Guardiola (currently Manchester City) has been involved in a few of them. Here is a quick overview:

ENGLAND

It is 16 straight victories and counting for Manchester City.

Under Pep Guardiola, City has won every league game since snatching a 2-1 victory over Bournemouth on Aug. 26 thanks to Raheem Sterling’s goal in the seventh minute of injury time.

A 2-1 win at fierce rival Manchester United on Dec. 10 made it 14 in a row, a record for a single English top-flight season, and beating Swansea three days later gave City the mark for consecutive victories in any English league.

Having beaten Tottenham 4-1 on Saturday, City now faces Bournemouth, Newcastle and Crystal Palace — teams currently lying in the bottom seven of the league — to round off 2017.

SPAIN

Fittingly, Guardiola set a record of 16 straight wins in the Spanish league while coaching Barcelona in the 2010-11 season. Real Madrid equaled that mark under Zinedine Zidane in 2016.

Barcelona went on to win its second Champions League title under Guardiola that season, in addition to its third consecutive Spanish league.

 

GERMANY

In the 2013-14 season, when Bayern Munich dominated the Bundesliga like never before to clinch the title in March, the team did so on the back of 19 consecutive wins culminating in the 3-1 victory at Hertha Berlin that sealed Guardiola’s first German championship.

Bayern was unbeaten at the time and had racked up 25 wins from its 27 games. The streak started on Oct. 19 and ran through March 25.

 

ITALY

Inter Milan holds the Serie A record at 17 straight wins, established during the 2006-07 season under Roberto Mancini.

 

FRANCE

Defending champion Monaco holds the record for consecutive league wins with 16, starting in late February and crossing over into early this season.

 

In every league Guardiola has coached he has set the record. I haven’t always been a fan of his questioning some player selection and tactical decisions in key games. These decisions came in Champions League games and potentially cost titles. But there is no doubt that he has taken top teams and delivered better season results than his predecessors. In watching Manchester City games this season it is also commendable that Guardiola has moved away from his “carved in stone” possession and ball control/circulation style. I am seeing a good balance of fast transition soccer, vertical play and ball circulation. Even at his relatively young age, Guardiola is certainly amongst the best club coaches in history. It would be interesting to see him coach a national team.

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Soccer Formations – Recycling 3-5-2

Icon of a clipboard showing a page with a soccer strategy.

If you’re watching soccer on TV frequently you will hear a lot of talk about three center backs in a 3-5-2 formation. Teams all over the world are (re)inventing this system of play.

Historically the 3-5-2 was played with a sweeper and two central defenders. There were three central midfielders, typically one of them being a defensive, or holding, midfielder. The outside midfielders, also called wing backs, provided attacking width when in possession and tracked back to be outside defenders when defending. The two strikers were central.

Today the three defenders are playing in line, zonal, no more sweeper. The three central midfielders are arranged either with a defensive midfielder, in line, or with an attacking midfielder. While the execution of the 3-5-2 has changed a bit, the advantages and challenges haven’t.

The advantage is that the central defensive zone is typically packed with three defenders. That makes it difficult for the opponents to penetrate and provides lots of coverage. The same is true for central midfield. When attacking this system offers a lot of punch with typically 4-6 players being deep in the opponent’s end, or in the penalty box. Variability can be provided by strikers and outside midfielders exchanging positions or central midfielders and outside midfielders.

The challenges are a few. The outside midfielders do an enormous amount of running up and down the sides, with little support, turning the formation into a 5-3-2 when defending. Rarely do the central defenders overlap and thus offer a bit of a break for the wingers. When defending against a team playing with a flat back 4 the 3-5-2 is vulnerable to being doubled up on the wings by overlapping defenders. This will draw a central midfielder or central defender wide for support and open up holes in the middle for opponents to exploit with quick passes and switches. And finally, the 3-5-2 will become predictable and easy to defend and exploit.

All these challenges are reasons why the system fell out of favour.

I believe coaches are looking to change their shapes to challenge the opposition, which is good. I have always advocated to coach teams to be able to change formations within a game and not hold on to a static system of play. In that context the 3-5-2 is best as an in-game option, not as a sole and permanent tactic.

For a review of ALL systems of play and their advantages, challenges, and responses to opponents check out our book Soccer Systems of Play & Strategy

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Cognitive Soccer Skill Development – Exerlights

In our Seven Speeds Of Soccer I emphasize the importance of four cognitive skills (perception, anticipation, decision-making, reaction) and their speed. Our Soccer Drills & Practices incorporate the development of these critical speeds into training programs for all ages.

When the technical, tactical, and physical fitness components of the Four Pillars of Soccer have been developed to the near optimum level for individuals or teams, then the difference will be in the mental, or cognitive area, of the game. This is a realization of many national and professional team coaches. What this implies is that cognitive development lags the others, regardless of age and competition levels of the teams and players. This is why so many teams have benefited from our practices.

We have just leaned about a brand new and revolutionary training tool from Germany called Exerlights. Typically players wear pinnies to create small groups or designate roles within soccer drills (blue vs. red, green player is target, etc.). Exerlights uses LED strips on players with the ability to change colours instantly. There are also LED strips that can be attached to goals, again with goals changing colours instantly. All the activity set-ups are programmed into an App which is controlled from the coach’s handheld device.

Here is how it works:

Imagine a small sided game, 4 “red” vs 4 “blue”. There are four goals, two at each corner of the playing area. Team Red attacks the blue lit goals and team Blue attacks the green lit goals. So far it sounds like a typical soccer practice activity. The coach may introduce variations, such as asking teams to attack the other goal now, introduce a neutral player, rotate players between teams etc.

Exerlights has pre-programmed changes to both player and goal colour. If a player’s colour changes, they now belong to the opposite team. If a goal colour changes, teams have new targets. This forces players to always scan their environment (360 degrees) to be aware of which team they belong to, which goal to attack, which function to perform. At the same time they may be moving with or without the ball and make regular game action decisions. It is easy to imagine how the cognitive skills are first challenged and then developed.

Watch a You Tube Video and be amazed.