We wanted to make May a month in which we respond to questions from coaches.
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.
That is an excellent observation. Switching the side, or point, of attack is an execution strategy of two underlying objectives:
- Catch the opponent out of balance and out of shape
- 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.