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Soccer Tactics – Breaking Down Defensive Teams

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

It has become more prevalent for the better soccer team that dominates a game in possession not to win or even lose. By better we mean a team with more highly skilled players who play their system well together. In international competition they typically end up in the final four and in league competitions they routinely occupy the top five spots.

Quite often their system of play has been innovative and they enjoy initial success. But once the competition adjusts they are less successful. Less successful in this context doesn’t mean they drop to the bottom, but rather that they don’t win the titles they used to win or defeat the “easy teams”. To illustrate a few prominent examples:

Spain

Spain invented the “tiki taka” possession game focussing on precise passing over short distances supported by quick runs into space. The opponents were chasing players and ball and eventually a space was created around the penalty box which Spanish players exploited to scorer goals. When their opponents had the ball Spanish players quickly closed in on the ball carrier with two or three players to pressure him into a mistake. At the same time a second layer of defense closed down all passing lanes. So the combination of high pressure and possession game was effective and led Spain to successive Euro and FIFA championships. But then the opposition adjusted by setting up defensive walls and essentially letting the Spanish pass the ball around without giving them space to penetrate into dangerous areas. When opponents gained possession they used super fast break counters to catch the Spanish defense out of position and get an attempt at goal. The result is that Spain has lost its domination and advances in tournaments.

Pep Guardiola

Pep was the embodiment, if not the creator, of tiki taka at Barcelona. He was successful with it in Spain and then was hired first by Bayern Munich and now by Manchester City to create dominant teams. In Munich he did create ball possession dominance but in three years struggled to deliver the success that the quality of the roster (and management) demanded. He did win three successive championships but was knocked out of the Champions league semi-finals three years in a row, twice in embarrassing fashion. Even in the Bundesliga his team faded in the second half of the season. Why? because everyone knew what to expect and adjusted to it with their own strategy. A similar pattern is emerging at Man. City. A solid season start with nine winning games at the top of the table has turned into mediocrity (at a high level still). Man City will not win the EPL.

Jürgen Klopp

One of my favourite coaches for enthusiasm and ability to quickly turn a team around. His stile isn’t tiki taka, it is high pressure, requiring lots of running, and a fairly direct play into the box to generate scoring chances. His teams play through the middle and down the sides, they switch play often enough. It is a game strategy this coach embraces, with one exception. Initially at Dortmund Klopp was very successful, then teams caught on, personnel changed, and results dropped. Now at Liverpool he has inspired his team early, charged up the table bringing Liverpool back into contention. As of late his team is in a terrible slump, particularly against weaker teams, losing against bottom EPL teams and lower league clubs in cup competition. Klopp’s game demand a huge physical effort to keep the high press up and to transition quickly to defense upon loss of possession. His players are marathon sprinters. They get fatigued in a game and as the season goes, especially if key players get insured. I wouldn’t play a permanent pressing game but allow the team some periods of rest and sitting back.

WHY DO WEAKER TEAMS SUCCEED?

With two exceptions the teams I have coached were the weaker teams in competitive youth and university leagues. I have coached against the Spains, Peps, and Klopps in  my world. I wasn’t surprised by their play because I scouted their teams and games and had a very good idea who they played and which players to watch for in particular. Good professional coaches do the same, so there is no surprise.

I had no choice but to move into a defensive mode. Here are proven soccer rules:

  1. If the clearly weaker team tries to ignore the strength of their opponent and play “their game”, they get slaughtered – Liverpool, Man City, Spain still generate lopsided wins.
  2. If there are equal strength teams on the pitch it becomes a very entertaining chess game as each will play to its strength and be successful in certain phases of the game.

So the clearly weaker team MUST move into a defensive shell and rely on counter attacks, without exposing their own defense while doing so. This usually results in a flat back defensive line of five or six players with a flat four defensive midfield  line 10 m or so in front of the defense. One or no attacker is kept up to challenge defenders or at least keep a couple of them back. The space here doesn’t allow to get into all of the tactical formations to accomplish this strategy.

The strong team now is forced to find a way through this tight defensive mesh and despite 70%-80% possession, gives up the ball 1 out of 4 times. This change of possession is the opportunity the weaker teams rely on the start a fast break counter attack quite often ending up in 2v1, 3v2, 4v3 advantage at the other end. The longer the game stays close the better the chance for the weaker team to snatch a point or a 1-0/2-0 win.

WHAT ARE THE STRONGER TEAMS TO DO?

First of all the coach must realize that the ONE game strategy has been adapted to by some teams. The moment they recognize this in a game (or even before a game) they need to be able to change game plan. Instead of setting up occupation outside the opponents penalty box and passing the ball sideways and backwards waiting for a gap in the defense, they must adapt themselves. The goal is to break the two defensive walls, creating spaces for penetrating passes through the middle or crosses from the goal line into the back of defenders. Here are some traditional ways:

  1. Take defenders on 1v1 with your best dribblers (thinking of Ribery and Robben at Bayern Munich). This draws out the supporting defender and starts to open up spaces for quick runs and passes into the back of the defense.
  2. Set up 2v1 to get by defenders, tried and true tactics are give & goes, overlaps. You’ll see them from good teams and they work.
  3. Switch the side of attack quickly.
  4. Move your attacking player around randomly to confuse the defense. Get your center forward to make diagonal runs to the wing and have a wide midfielder break to the center. It will distract the defense and open up spaces.

Additionally you can consider:

  1. Play the odd long ball just to send the message that it’s not all possession.
  2. Intentionally give the other team the ball and then win it back and launch your own fast break counter catching the other team out of shape and balance.
  3. Vary your style during the game.

Teams that you can study who are more or less successful AGAINST WEAKER DEFENSIVE MINDED teams are Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Arsenal, Real Madrid, Juventus, Germany,

The one thing is for sure – sticking to one formation and one style doesn’t work in a game, in a season, or in a tournament.

We have a great book to help you practice successful high-speed transition: Competitive Pro Fast Break Soccer Practice Plans & Drills

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Soccer Systems of Play

Something I observed watching Euro 2016 has carried into the beginning of the newly started European soccer seasons. It is commentators discussing a “new” formation, one with three central defenders and two wide players who both function as wide defenders and midfielders. It was noted about Italy’s play, about Germany moving to it for some games, and now about Bayern Munich experimenting with it.

In my opinion there is nothing new about this – I coached a 3-5-2 system twenty years ago at competitive youth and university levels. That’s not the only system I used, I coached many depending on the team’s ability, the competition, and even demands within a game.

So why is it hailed as something new? Maybe because those commenting are not aware of systems of play in general and/or their history. This leads me to offer a brief review, back to the basics so to speak. We do offer a book that reviews all major formations (21 of them) used including coaching tips and how to respond to the opposing team. Check it out , click: Soccer Formations

Other than the goalkeeper, there are three main functions in a soccer team:

  1. Defense (D)
  2. Midfield (M)
  3. Attack (A)

Each function has main objectives and occupies certain areas on the field.

Defense

The main objective of defenders is to prevent the opposing forwards from scoring. They need to be fast, good at reading the play, and good at tackling. Once defenders win possession of the ball, they are also responsible to initiate the transition to attack. Defenders do not stay in their own half, or defending third, all the time. They move up with the play but generally are behind all other players and between the opposing attackers and their own goalkeeper. In some formation the outside defenders are also asked to provide extra width and variability to the attack and hence make runs up the sides leading to crosses.

Midfield

Midfielders are the engine of the team. They typically have defensive responsibilities, particularly in the center of the field. They are generally responsible to receive balls from defenders and transition play from defending to attacking. Outside midfielders provide width and crosses, central midfielders can provide additional goal scoring power. Midfielders need endurance, speed, ball control, excellent passing, good shooting technique, and quick decision making abilities.

Attack

Attackers tend to be goal scoring and/or crossing specialists. They need to be fast, posess 1v1 moves, have excellent shooting and heading power and technique.

There are a few tactical variations to the above themes to throw the opponents off-balance. Outside midfielders pulling to the middle to create extra scoring threats, for example.

So we have three basic functions and 10 players to fill them. What all formations attempt to achieve is a combination of balance and an element of surprise for the opponent.

Distributing the 10 players as evenly as possible across the field lead to the very early, and still practiced 4-3-3 formation. I should explain that the numbering system starts with the number of defenders (D) – midfielders (M) – Attackers (A). Why put the extra player on defense in a 4-3-3 as opposed on offense in a 3-3-4? Originally because teams were first and foremost interested in not getting scored on and hence designated one more defender than the opponent had attackers. In this 4-3-3 there was a right defender, two central defenders, a left defender; a right/central/left midfielder, and a right/central/left attacker. Tactics were simple, the right defender was responsible to contain the opposing left attacker, midfielders neutralized each other, etc.

Then somebody wanted to break out of the traditional system and thought of a 4-4-2 system. The 2 attackers were central, i.e. one more than in the 4-3-3. The outside midfielders had to run up the wings to provide crosses, and the outside defenders had to cover for them. A variation had outside defenders overlapping and midfielders providing defensive coverage.

Without explaining the entire history of soccer formations suffice it to say that based on the need of 10 players to cover the entire field, the following holds true 99.9% of the time:

Defenders: 3-5

Midfielders: 3-5

Attackers: 1-3

Examples are 3-5-2, 3-4-3, 4-3-3, 4-4-2, 4-5-1, 5-3-2, 5-4-1. Don’t be misled by the very popular 4-2-3-1. It is really a 4-5-1 but the five midfielders are described as 2-3 to show that two have defensive roles (known as holding midfielders) and three have more offensive roles.

Typically the defenders play in a flat formation (lined up horizontally). The attackers tend to be variable up front, making all sorts of diagonal runs to get through the defense without getting into off-side positions. The midfield is most interesting in how it may be constructed. Midfielders can play in a flat line, a diamond formation, a 2-3, a 3-2, 1-3, 3-1, etc. It all depends on the overarching game philosophy and tactics of the team.

So, 3 central defenders are nothing new. All it is is the resurgence of the 3-5-2 system.

 

 

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Soccer Tactics: Possession vs. Fast Transition Play

Question:

The statistic most blended in during the broadcast of a soccer game is the % possession each team had. Is this a meaningful statistic?

Answer:

Let’s first review what the statistic means.It is defined as the % of elapsed game time each team was in control (possession) of the ball. It must add up to 100%.

The relevance of this statistic highly depends on what it is used for. Below are my opinions (some supported by personal hard research) of what the statistic can and can’t be used for.

Predicting Game Winners

I have conducted a study that definitely proved that a higher possession % does not correlate to wins. Analyzing an entire season –  every single game – of the German Bundesliga a few years ago showed that the teams who had the higher possession, on average, earned less points per game. In other words, possession superiority did not translate to more wins. Arguments have been made that coaches/teams who favour a possession game win more games, citing Spain, Barcelona, Munich, as key examples of teams who hardly lose while dominating possession. It is true that these teams lose very few games but it isn’t because they control possession. They simply have superior talent and would likely win no matter what strategy they used. It gets more interesting when top level teams play each other. Using Munich as an example, they lost the semi-final in each of the last three Champions League campaigns against Spanish clubs, even though they dominated in the possession stat.

Identifying The Better Team

How do you define the better team? The one that won the game? In that case we have already shown that possession does not result in more wins. I would like to define the better team in any particular game this way:

  • Obviously the team that won the game has a good argument for being better that day. And I agree, unless there was some extraordinary luck (other team hitting posts, bad refereeing, etc.) or circumstance involved.
  • If we go back to a very old truth about the purpose of the game of soccer, then the better team is the one that generated more quality scoring chances. If they convert these chances they would also win the game. But it is possible that the team that lost the game actually was the better team on the day.

Executing The Coaching Strategy

If your strategy is to dominate possession and you achieve more than 50% possession in the game, then the statistic validates successful execution of the game plan. If at the same time the opponent had a strategy of fast counterattacking and possession % doesn’t matter, then both teams successfully executed the plan.

In summary, I believe that % possession is only relevant to a team who has possession soccer as their strategy. The coach will have a clear measurement of whether the goal was met. So in order to appreciate the statistic while watching a game on television, one would really need to know the philosophy and specific game strategy of each team. It would be helpful if TV analysts did the research and provided that information in conjunction with possession statistics. Without that context, it is a meaningless discussion.

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Soccer Passing – Lanes & Channels

Soccer coach going over play on writing board

Question:

I hear reporters talk about passes into lanes and channels. I can’t figure out exactly what that means. can you help?

Answer:

It can be confusing, particularly since different reporters, AND SOCCER COACHES, mean different things when they say that, or they interchange the terms to mean the same thing. I personally think it is over-complicating some relatively simple concepts. Below are two diagrams attempting to explain what people really mean.

Passing Lane:

Lane2

Passing lanes used to be called “gaps between defenders”. It is a space available for a ball to be passed through, typically on the ground. The “gap” must be wide enough so that no defender can extend the leg to cut off the pass. Or the passing distance must be short enough and the pass hard enough such that defenders don’t have time to react. The purpose is to play a ball into space behind the defense for another attacker to run unto. If it’s inside the penalty box it will set up a great scoring opportunity. Anywhere else in the field it will open up space and keep forward progression moving.

What reporters mean when they say that a passing lane was missed is that for an instance the gap was there and the second attacker was ready to run in behind the defenders, or actually ran into that space. The player with the ball didn’t recognize the opportunity and missed the pass into the lane.

In our practice books we have a few drills showing how to create “lanes” or “gaps” and then pass the ball through them.

Channel:

channel

A channel is most commonly referred to as the space between the most outside defender and the side line. It used to be called playing the ball down the side or the wing. From a passing technical perspective the difference between passing between two defenders or one defender and the side line is that the side line acts as a passive defender. It restricts the space available, but unlike a person, it cannot move to intercept the ball.

In a previous post, Switching PlayI discussed the importance of attacking down the sides/wings/flanks to generate crosses and scoring opportunities.

If the situation is as in the above diagram, and the space down the side is available, a pass should follow to set the runner free and generate the cross into the penalty box. A pass on the ground will be easier to control for the receiving player, but there must be enough space to play the ball through. A ball over the top wouldn’t necessarily be called a pass into the “channel.

Conclusion:

It is easy to see how channel and lane can be used interchangeably. What matters is the concept of having space for a pass between defenders, or space for a pass between the most outside defender and the side line. Think of both as space or gaps when you listen to the reporters and you will recognize what they mean.

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Soccer Tactics – Switching Play

We wanted to make May a month in which we respond to questions from coaches.

Question:

When watching soccer on TV, commentators point out when teams are switching the side they are attacking from, or are wondering why teams don’t switch. But I don’t see the benefit of switching. It seems to slow down the attack.

Answer:

That is an excellent observation. Switching the side, or point, of attack is an execution strategy of two underlying objectives:

  1. Catch the opponent out of balance and out of shape
  2. Utilize space

Let’s start by understanding these objectives a little better.

Team shape means the way players are organized on the field, spaces between players are appropriate. For example if you play a zonal system with a flat back four and a flat midfield four, you will see a row of defenders with the right spaces between them and a row of midfielders at a certain distance in front of the defenders. Both rows will shift as needed, and single players may dash out to challenge an attacker.

Balance means that all players are in positions where they can execute their game plan – they have players ready to act or react, with the right coverage and support in place. In the previous example the player closest to the ball will have the defender next to him reasonably close to provide cover. The next defender will be a bit further away, and so on. Shape and balance are related. You want your team to be in shape and in balance, particularly when defending. That means opponents will have a very difficult time to penetrate into your defending third of the field and set up scoring opportunities inside the box. Conversely when you are attacking, you want to catch the opponent out of shape and balance. This will cause confusion in challenging, covering, closing passing lanes, etc., giving your team the opportunity to penetrate into the box and generate a scoring chance.

Space is very closely related. You want your players to have spaces they can enter without being challenged when they receive the ball and with as little pressure as possible when they dribble and/or pass. Space needs to be available for players to run into to receive the ball. And space must be available to play the ball through. It is difficult to pass a ground ball between two opponents who are just a few meters apart.

So when a team has possession on one side of the field (say the right side), and the play has been developing on that side, then chances are that the opponent is in shape and balance and limited space is available. A good tactic would be to have attackers on the left side to be close to the middle of the field, thus concentrating all players towards the right. This leaves a lot of space on the left flank. That space can be utilized by switching the play to the left, changing the point of attack. You want to do this as fast as possible so the opposing defense doesn’t have time to shift to the left – you want to catch them off balance and out of shape.

The strategy I prefer is to switch with ideally no more than two passes using two to four touches on the ball in total. And I prefer a diagonal switch towards the opposing goal line, not a horizontal switch. The diagonal switch can set up a quick cross into the box and into the back of defenders that are backtracking. This is the most dangerous flank attacking play.

What we see all too often is teams not switching at all, or switching too slowly. The latter just transfers the same attacking situation to the other side, no progress is made. Coaches with a possession game philosophy will either limit switching or move the ball to the other side horizontally. Many passes and touches are involved, often back passes to defenders or even the keeper. Coaches with a fast break or quick transition philosophy will ask their team to switch play with a couple of passes and diagonally forward.

If you are a coach we have a drill in our Youth Foundation soccer practice book. You can view the drill by downloading the sample practice here: Switching Play Drill. You can adapt the drill for either a fast transition or a possession philosophy.

So when you watch a game, consider the underlying objectives, try to understand the coaching philosophy, and then decide if the team is executing the game plan. This knowledge should enhance your soccer game viewing experience.

Happy Watching,

Coach Tom

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Soccer Tactics – Defending Corner Kicks

Red uniformed player kicking a corner penalty kick.

Corner kicks are the most common attacking set play in soccer, creating a scoring opportunity each time. Therefore defending against corners properly is critical. There are three ways to do this:

  1. Zonal Defending
  2. Man Marking
  3. Mixed Zonal/Man Marking

Let’s review each tactic relative to it’s use, advantages, and disadvantages.

Zonal Defending

Defenders do not have a direct opponent, each one is responsible for a certain area in the penalty box. The defender has a full view of the area and is able to attack it generating enough momentum for a high jump and powerful clearance. This is a preferred method for teams with players who are strong in heading the ball. It ensures all dangerous spaces are covered.

Advantages are:

  • Players need to focus on the ball only, they are only responsible for balls entering their assigned space. They react to the flight of the ball.
  • Body fakes and deceptions of the attackers are not effective.
  • Most goals after corners are scored from a central position which is now covered by strong defenders.
  • There is little need for defenders to move with attackers, tucking shirts or holding and risking a penalty kick.

Disadvantages:

  • Attackers have more freedom to run into the ball, hence generating momentum and height of their own.
  • While defenders are responsible for a certain space, they may lose focus of the player(s) entering their space. If two players attack their space they have a decision to make.

Man Marking

Each defender is assigned to a particular opponent, regardless of the space the attacker occupies or is moving into. This is useful if the opponents have players who are stronger in heading the ball.

Advantages:

  • Attackers cannot run into spaces freely and have a harder time getting a strong header on goal.
  • Each defender has an assignment and there is no confusion about who is responsible for a certain area.
  • Defenders cannot shift responsibility for action to a team mate.

Disadvantages:

  • Defenders need to keep an eye on their attacker and the ball, they may be distracted and miss the key moment for action.
  • The defender reacts to the attacker’s movement and has the mental as well as a slight timing advantage.
  • Attackers can use body fakes and create open spaces and unhindered headers.
  • The risk for a defender to commit a foul is higher.

Mixed Zone/Man Marking

Here defenders line up along the 6 yd box and near the goal line between the goal post and the side line (to defend low crosses to near post). Two or three defenders man mark the most dangerous attackers and prevent their free runs to powerful headers. This is an effective tactic for teams that are well trained, know each other, and are coordinated as a unit. It takes a lot of practice.

The advantages are a combination of pure zonal and man marking techniques. The disadvantage is that the opponents’ strongest headers must be identified and assigned to the strongest defenders. There is room for confusion, particularly if the opponent does the unexpected.

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Soccer Formations – Game Flexibility

tacticsSoccer formation or System of Play describes how a team is organized on the field. In 11 v. 11 there are ten available positions besides the goalkeeper. These positions are arranged into three basic groups, defenders, midfielders, forwards (attackers/strikers). How they are arranged can vary greatly. But typically:

  • 3-5 defenders
  • 3-5 midfielders
  • 1-3 forwards

Some of the more common formations are (D-M-F) 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 4-5 (2-3)-1, 3-5-2. Typically there are central defenders, outside defenders, central midfielders, outside midfielders, and central strikers. Central defender roles are fairly well defined and don’t change much with the formation. Outside defender roles may change to be more or less attack minded depending on the system. Outside midfield roles are fairly similar while the central midfield roles can change depending on the system. They can be holding/defensive, attacking right behind the strikers, or in a flat formation.

It is quite common for teams to settle on a main formation. It is typically the result of the coach’s preference, the team’s abilities, and the competitive environment. Getting to used to one formation and learning all the positions is essential and good practice. I have always advocated that this is only the foundation. Once individuals and a team have learned the building block formation, they need to learn other formations. Which means for key individuals they have to learn how to interpret their positions differently. Alternatively, you may have different players on the field depending on their suitability for a particular system.

Why do I advocate this flexibility? Because different competition or a different opponent may require a different game plan. It is best to have more than one weapon in your arsenal and be prepared to use it when required. Ideally you can decide before a game as part of your last practice and final game preparation and have the players ready. Sometimes it is necessary to adjust during a game. For example you may have started with a defensive 4-5-1 and recognize that the opponent isn’t as strong as you thought, and in fact is also defensive minded. You want to score goals and win so you may shift to a 4-3-3 or a 3-5-2. This should only require a quick communication with the team, and perhaps a substitution to implement.

What does it take? A lot of practice and a high level of game intelligence by players. Most people are good at doing one thing really well, and other things at acceptable levels. Especially in competitive soccer teams have to be able to “do” several formations really well. It’s easier than it sounds.

That’s why you hear TV announcers make special mention when they think a coach has made an in-game formation change. It is special. The one coach that insists on his teams being super flexible is Pep Guardiola, former Barcelona and current Munich coach.

We have a very good book that explains the essentials of most formations, from 11 v 11 to 6 v 6. It shows how to react to opponents and how one formation stacks up against another. An essential coaching reference.

Coach Tom

 

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Choosing The Right Tactics For Your Soccer Team

tacticsChoosing the right tactics for your soccer team is one of the most important decisions a coach has to make. It is also the most difficult decision and the one second guessed most often. Tactics start with the overarching game philosophy, such as possession soccer, fast transition, counterattack, high pressure, in other words the fundamental style of the team. From that flows a choice of formations or systems of play. This in turn drives the tactical elements of practice. Lastly, the next opponent will cause some fine tuning during game preparation.

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There are two fundamental ways soccer coaches can approach this for their team:

  1. Have a style/tactic/formation that is immovable. It defines who the coach is and rarely changes. This requires the coach to have the ability to choose players that fit their system and to have time before the season to practice it. It requires patience. It is suitable for professional or competitive amateur teams where the time and money exist. Sometimes it can take two seasons to get there. Examples of coaches who fall into this group are Klopp, Mourinho, Guardiola, Klinsmann.[separator top=”20″]
  2. Base your style/tactic/formation on the player personnel available, the competition you’ll encounter, and the time you have to train. This is suitable for teams with short pre-seasons and little flexibility in player recruitment. Certainly non-competitive teams (recreational, house league), school teams and to some degree college teams fall into this category.

Good coaches realize the situation and adapt to develop what’s best for the team. I have a general disposition towards a fast transition game, generating scoring chances quickly and working on converting chances to goals. Time of possession is less important. However, I have adapted based on players and competition. For example this past summer I coached a youth team that had more skill than the other teams (by sheer coincidence as the players were assigned by the league). If we had played “my regular” game we would have run up the scores, which I don’t like. So we played a lot of possession soccer and viewed it as an opportunity to practice passing and communication during the game. On the other hand when I coached a college team with inferior talent and experience, we decided to play a defensive, fast break attacking game. We didn’t mind the other teams having possession outside of our defensive third. Once they entered our defensive third we applied pressure and closed down passing/shooting options. We then had a goal of getting to the other end in seven seconds completing the fast break with a shot on goal. We had some very successful seasons.

The advice then is to do your homework as coach. Understand your preference. Take inventory of your season schedule, your competitive environment, and your players’ capabilities. Then select your style/tactics/formation and practice it with your team. A good overview of formations can be found in our book Systems of Play.

Coach Tom