While the emphasis so far has been on introducing the game to young players, Play Practice can be used to improve performance at every level of play. While it is possible for anyone to create and shape their own games by using the principles detailed earlier, coaches can use the following games to develop specific aspects of skilled play.
5v5 Long Soccer
With experienced players, it is possible to simply divide the normal pitch down the middle to create two pitches of 100 by 40 metres (330 by 130 feet) long. This long narrow pitch with big goals encourages players to make longer passes and to shoot from farther away. This in turn encourages them to lift their eyes to scan play 30 or even 40 metres (90 or 130 feet) away, a crucial aspect of passing in the full game. Note that although the theme is long passing, other aspects of play become important. For example, longer passes mean the ball will be in the air more often, so there will be many more opportunities for players to control high balls.
With 5 to 7 players on a team, long soccer is also an ideal game to help youngsters make the transition to the full 11-a-side game. This is because the additional space makes it possible for attackers to make longer passes and to play behind the defence. While it can be played with rush goalkeepers, there will come a point when some brave souls will decide that they would like to play in goal full-time!
Two-touch soccer is a game shaped by the rule that only allows players two touches of the ball at any one time. This eliminates dribbling, encourages good ball control, and forces players to become aware of potential receivers even before they get the ball. Above all, it encourages every attacking player to support the ball player intelligently and to use good calling to tell them how much space and time they have to control and direct the ball. This game, as well as the progression to one-touch soccer, prepares players to inter-pass accurately and quickly in the limited space and time near their opponent’s goal. Neither are games for beginners!
Four-goal soccer can be used to teach players to use cross-field passes to switch play away from heavily defended areas. With a large goal in each corner of the pitch, attackers facing a strong defence on one side can switch play to the other side for a more open shot at the goal.
The 2v2 game illustrates the Play Practice approach to the development of dribbling and ball control at the highest level. It is played in 10-by-10-metre (35 by 35 feet) squares, with 2-by-2-metre (8 by 8 feet) goals in each corner. The ball player now has only one potential receiver, who is likely to be closely marked, so passing will be difficult. Pressured by their own marker, ball players must learn to shield the ball as they look to pass the ball to another closely marked team-mate, shoot for a goal, or try to dribble past their defender (figure 7.13). This is a very demanding game that is only suitable for experienced players, and even they will only be able to play for short periods. However, it improves their ability to shield the ball under pressure and forces them to lift their vision while doing so.
Remember that it is possible to shape many other aspects of play at the elite level by changing only one condition. For example, if the condition is that goals can only be scored with the head, players will quickly work out that it is far easier to do this when the ball is crossed in the air from the flanks. This in turn encourages the use of width in attack and leads to more attempts by players to dribble past defenders so that they can create the space and time to make a good cross. The coach can then focus play on any of these elements. For example, they might work on near-post and far-post positioning for the header or continually stress the importance of taking on and dribbling past defenders. Instructors must reward every attempt to take on defenders and should never criticise players if they fail to beat their opponent.
If youngsters are to play the 11-a-side game, instructors should introduce a basic playing formation. Here, we recommend what is termed the WM formation. While it, along with the names of the playing positions, will seem old fashioned to many, this formation (figure 7.14) is perfect for beginners. In its basic form, it illustrates the principles of play, especially width and support in attack and depth in defence. It helps youngsters understand the importance of effective positioning and enables them to take on roles in the formation depending on their specific abilities. Note that this formation can be used very flexibly to create a range of other formations. For example, by moving one player, it is possible to turn it into the 4-3-3 commonly used by many elite teams.
The goalkeeper is a highly specialised position. While all students should be given an opportunity to play as rush goalies, they should never be forced to take on the full role in organised games. However, if youngsters do decide that they want to play in this position, they will need specialised training to improve both their positioning and agility.