Half Truths & Half Spaces
In 2008, U.S. Youth Soccer stated definitively that U12 is the "Dawning of Tactical Awareness." Really? Were they really telling us that kids between the age of 6 to 10 kids are hopelessly in the dark and incapable of learning tactical concepts? That's exactly what they were saying. But its a half truth. Perhaps less than half. The phrase "Dawning of Tactical Awareness" was quickly copied into youth soccer club curricula all across the United States. Google the phrase (Dawn or Dawning) and you'll see for yourself. Legions of coaches have simply accepted the notion that tactical concepts are beyond the grasp of their youngest players. And as a result, hundreds of thousands of young American soccer players have been deprived of important tactical instruction at the most crucial young ages. All of this is stunting our country's ability to develop larger numbers of intelligent and skillful players.
To be sure, youth training must take into account the way kids mature physically and mentally. This is what is typically referred to as "age appropriate training." There are good reasons to keep training age appropriate. We don't want to burden young kids with overly complex tactical concepts that will go over their head and that they have no capacity to execute. And of course, we want to keep the kids engaged, learning and having fun. So, the training session for young players must always strike a balance between being challenging and being achievable with an appropriate expectation of effort. Young players must experience success in order to build their confidence and keep them enjoying the game.
So, no tactics for kids below age 11, right? No, forget that guidance. We need a new and altogether different way of thinking about tactics, tactical concepts and the development of players between the age of 6 and 12. We certainly can and must teach them tactical concepts. The real question coaches should ask is what and how?
The answer is automatisms. Its a fancy word with a simple meaning. Automatisms are behaviors that occur by themselves without conscious thought or attention. They are developed and cemented in the brain and body by repetition. In soccer, there are many tactical concepts that can be engrained as tactical automatisms. Some are basic or rudimentary and involve a single player. Others, the team-based tactical automatisms, involve two or more players and involve complex patterns of movement, bordering on choreography. The club must first decide what its playing style will be, the formations that will be used at various ages (e.g. 7v7, 9v9, 11v11) and what kind of reflexive, instinctive actions it wants its players to execute in specific game situations. At the youngest ages, we are talking about the most basic tactical automatisms. The instinct to always receive the ball across the body on the back foot is an example of a basic individual tactical automatism, which is also a technique. What matters most is that the coach recognize and identify these tactical fundamentals because they are related to the club's specific playing philosophy and game model, and then intentionally design training sessions that are conducive to repetition and mastery.
Here is an example of a tactical automatism practiced by the Chilean national team and led by coach Jorge Sampaoli. The purpose of this particular automatism is training how to bring the ball out from the back.
Team-based tactical automatisms are more difficult to execute because they involve a greater number of variables. The movements of teammates and opponents, where the player is on the field, the location of the ball, weather, and the game scheme, these are all variables that a player, as the real-time decision-maker, must interpret in order to apply a tactical automatism entirely, partially or not at all. It is critical to understand that tactical automatisms are not inflexible commandments. We are not trying to develop robots. For that reason, a good coach ensures his/her players understand the tactical automatism is highly dependent on circumstances that may or may not exist. Players must be given the freedom to make their own rapid assessment of the actual situation and rely on their creativity and inspiration to find new ways to solve the problems presented.
Automatisms and Positional Play
From 2008 until 2011, FC Barcelona made soccer look so beautiful and simple. The entire soccer world was captivated by the way the players moved, passed the ball to each other and seemingly were always in the right place at the right time. It was mesmerizing and humbling. Barcelona achieved such high rates of possession that to spectators it really began to feel like a simple game of keep away. But it was really never that simple. Behind all of it, however, were players with incredible technical skill, a highly evolved level of game intelligence and a complex system of training and tactics known as Positional Play (Juego de Posicion).
“At the very least, Johan [Cruyff] installed our way of playing, an idea of continuity throughout the club. I could feel his DNA in my team. Every player knew the system already. It penetrated every part of the club. The success of La Masia has proven him right. Every time a youngster reaches that group or the first team, it’s a success that Johan is part of.” - Eusebio, Coach Barcelona B (2011-2015)
It is well understood that the success of Barcelona's first team enjoyed between 2008 and 2011 under Guardiola was rooted in its youth academy training. Football legend Johan Cruyff instituted the idea of a residential academy at Barcelona in 1979, with the goal of rooting the club's playing philosophy with its youngest players. La Masia, as the academy is called, was Cruyff's way of ensuring that Barcelona's playing style was the spine of the club, from the youngest academy player to the first team. The type of training provided to the youngest players at La Masia was entirely consistent with the philosophy, tactics and playing style of the first team. However, no theoretical tactics were taught to their youngest players. But that's not to say the youngest players were not taught tactical concepts, because they most certainly were. They were trained in a specific way that developed in them critical tactical automatisms without them even being aware of it. The coaches, however, certainly understood what kind of learning was happening. Open body positions. Receiving the ball across the body on the back foot. Two-footed-play for receiving and passing. The instinctive desire to keep the ball, as an individual and as a group. The habit of quickly trying to win the ball back immediately after losing it. Basic combinations of passing and movements by 3 or 4 players causes players to instinctively create the triangles and rhombus patterns of positioning needed to maintain possession of the ball. And, as you might imagine, young players at La Masia learn more complex tactical automatisms as well. All of these tactical automatisms are intended to develop young players in a specific way, preparing them to learn the more complex tactics of Positional Play.
Eagleclaw Football Club is organized around the ambition of Positional Play. We want to instill in our players the tactical automatisms that make an Eagleclaw player readily noticeable and identifiable. Of course, we know that our youngest players are not ready for the abstract tactical theories that the particular playing philosophy of Positional Play entails. However, we certainly can and do focus on the development of basic tactical automatisms that will lay the foundation for effective learning of more sophisticated concepts as the player gets older.
To do this, we require that every age group begin every training session with the 4v1 rondo. We've written a lot about the importance of this particular exercise. This game teaches all the important automatisms described above. Starting with the 4v1 rondo, Eagleclaw coaches layer on progressions of rondos and positional games that are directional and teach how individual players and pairs and groups of players should move and behave instinctively, automatically. When combined with the two hours of technical training Eagleclaw players in our Primary Academy receive each week, we are developing players with an extraordinary foundation of skill and tactical automatisms that are directly relevant to our Positional Play philosophy.
Let's be clear about one thing. At Eagleclaw FC, we teach Positional Play because its our ambition, but its hard to do. Let me rephrase that: Its extremely hard. Its hard because this kind of system requires players who are technically sharp, intelligent, quick decision makers and with extremely high visual scanning rates. It is almost impossible to teach this kind of system to players who have not developed sufficient mastery of the ball and fundamental automatisms. That's why at Eagleclaw our players begin their technical training at age 5 and get at least two hours of it each week to complement their weekly tactical training.
You may be wondering if this kind of training can be done with 6 and 7 year olds? The answer is absolutely! Simple rondos, like 3v1, 4v0, 4v1 and 4v2 can be played by six year olds if your expectations as a coach aren't high but your capacity for patience and perseverance is. You'll need to coach them to always receive on the back foot, to receive with one foot and pass with the other, to move in support and defend relentlessly. These will not be beautiful rondos, but if you master how to coach these rondos and keep at it, you'll be building important automatisms in your players that will prepare them for higher tactical learning at much younger ages than the prevailing soccer establishment would have you believe.
Below you can see a group of 6 and 7 year olds engaged in rondo training, learning tactical concepts and developing basic individual and 2-3 player automatisms.
In the video below, a squad of Eagleclaw U14 girls training with coaches from the Valencia CF youth academy proves the benefits of building an early foundation of technical skill and individual automatisms.
So far so good. Hopefully I've got you thinking about changing the way you train your 6 and 7 year olds. But what if you want your team of 10 year olds to learn more more more complex tactics of Positional Play? This could involve more sophisticated tactical automatisms. If your players have been properly prepared on the training ground from a young age, have sufficiently developed their technical skills (we've written about this as well) and have an engrained repertoire of tactical automatisms, then yes. It can be done. And you will find that such players are more than capable of learning and executing nuanced exceptions to the general principles of play taught in all the USSF license courses.
For example, when a team gains possession of the ball, is it correct or ideal that outside players must always and immediately move to wider positions? Maybe. That's what the general principles of play dictate. But what if you want a tactical system designed to achieve other goals such as numerical superiority in the attacking half, higher rates of possession, geometric positioning for support and attacking outlets? For instance, one key to Positional Play is teaching certain players who are normally conditioned to play wide, to instead move inside when their team is in possession and use the "half spaces". This exception to the general principle of play demanding that wide players "get wide" now requires players to think about who should provide width and and where and when. Are such tactical nuances beyond the cognitive abilities of 10 year olds? Not necessarily.
Let's start with an extremely brief overview of Positional Play. It begins with the idea that formations (e.g. 4-3-3, 3-4-3, etc.) are merely a starting point. From there, the core principle is the search for superiority. Numerical superiority, positional superiority and qualitative superiority are a few of the objectives. Regardless of the type of superiority sought, the key objective is to stretch the opposition's lines, draw opposing players out of position and then find the free man. Ideally, the free man is between the opposing teams lines. To achieve all of this, proper positioning on the field is the most critical task.
Pep Guardiola is the most famous Positional Play coach of all. To help his players understand and visualize positioning and where to achieve superiorities, Guardiola segments his training pitches and has the lines painted on.
"Those schematics [4-3-3] are nothing more than telephone numbers. It certainly isn't the most important thing. Its meaningless." - Pep Guardiola
Guardiola sees the field as 5 vertical spaces and 4 horizontal spaces. The most important areas are the vertical "half-spaces", shaded light blue in the image above. Every other space is further segmented. While Guardiola's teams may line up in a 3-4-3 or 4-3-3, the real tactical action is how his players use the spaces on his field. The players have specific roles and responsibilities in these spaces, depending on the phase of the game. And there are rules. No more than three players in any horizontal zone; no more than two players in any vertical zone.
The purpose of the "half spaces" is to create positional superiority. In its most simple implementation, the wide forwards, typically the #7 and #11, move inside instead of going wide. But how is this applicable to 11 years olds who play 9v9?
The 9v9 Positional Play System
There are many ways to play 9v9. For the Positional Play coach, however, there are a few concrete objectives that may be different than those of other systems. First, we will want high rates of possession, but not for the sake of possession. We use possession to control the tempo of the game and to shift the other team's players to create imbalances and open spaces for our team to attack. This means we need very technical players who are comfortable on the ball and can help us keep it. It also means our keeper will have a possession-first mentality and, in combination with our central defenders outside backs and holding midfielder (pivote) will play out from the back constantly with the goal of eventually allowing our team to drop anchor in the opposing half.
An ideal 9v9 system for teaching Positional Play is the 1-2-3-1-2. But, again, as Guardiola put it, any formation expressed this way is meaningless. The actual formation our team may be in at any given moment depends on situation and location. Do we have the ball? Where are we with the ball? Where are the opponents? As a group are we positioned correctly to keep the ball? The keys to this system are the #2 and #3 players, who will play multiple roles. They dictate whether at any particular moment in time we are playing 1-4-1-1-2, 1-2-3-1-2 or 1-2-1-5. Depending on the situation and the position of ball, they will be outside backs, midfielders or wingers. When the ball is played out of the back, they will essentially be outside backs. As the ball moves higher up the pitch, they will be outside midfielders and then possibly forward wingers.
Again, the goal of this system is to have 5 or 6 players in the opposing half when in possession. Against a typical U.S. youth soccer side, this will likely provide numerical superiority in the attacking half. If possession is lost in the attacking half, this system will leave 5 or 6 players in the attacking half who can counterpress and attempt to win the ball back while still high up the pitch. After all, we expect to lose the ball from time to time, so its better to lose it high up the pitch and far away from our goal.
To get 5 or 6 players in the attacking half requires that the #2 and #3 be the type of player that can defend, play supporting roles during the buildup and also be confident with the ball in the wide areas and higher up the pitch. The ideal player is fast, an aggressive defender and with excellent passing and receiving technique. As you can see below, when the ball is on the right side, the #2 moves higher up the pitch. To spring the #2 or #3 players and create proper superiority and geometry, the ball-side winger must move into the half-space, leaving the wide areas free for the outside back to cross the midfield line and join the attack. Its a simple move, but the winger must do it instinctively, fluidly and quickly. Done correctly, the use of the half space not only creates the proper numerical superiority in the attacking half, it also creates positioning that produces ideal geometry for support play and high levels of possession, as well as numerical superiority to win back the ball more quickly if possession is lost.
The Eagleclaw team in the video below are 10 and 11 year olds (2006). Have a look. (Navy blue. Just look for the team that has most of the ball!)
The first thing to notice is how high up the pitch the team is. The center backs are at about midfield. This means we have 6 players in the attacking half. The clip begins with a loss of possession, but the ball was lost high enough up the pitch that the players have time to win it back. The #6 presses and pokes the ball back toward the #4, who, with a clever bit of skill, cuts the ball back while the opponent races past him. Because of his tactical training, the #4 pauses recognizes he is in a 3v1 rondo with numerical superiority and spots the opening for a pass to the #11 in the wide area. Just as he was taught to do in training, the #11 quickly passes the ball to the #2 and then moves into the half space, leaving the wide area open for the #2 to advance. Obviously, 10 and 11 year olds can learn this kind of tactical movement. I just showed you! Note also how the #2 drives the ball higher up the right side side, then, finding no good option, plays back into the #4 who is in support and who then tries to switch the field. This is an example of a player understanding they are not required to execute the tactical automatism like a robot, and are free to interpret the situation and find solutions when the way forward is blocked. The #2 makes a good decision, recycles the ball to the #4, enabling the team to retain possession. The team is now ready to keep the ball and drop anchor in the opposing team's half so they can use possession to move the defenders and create better openings to attack the goal.
Its not perfect, nor executed anywhere close to the proficiency of a Barcelona or Bayern Munich squad, but it is proof that young players can be taught to attempt and execute somewhat complex tactical automatisms and tactical concepts. Don't let the the U.S. soccer establishment and orthodoxy tell you otherwise.