Soccer Coaching Blog | Professional Soccer Coaching Advice


Play like Spain’s Carles Puyol

David Clarke

By David Clarke

Barcelona’s captain Carles Puyol is known for his intense commitment and strength as a defender. According to Barcelona’s head doctor, Puyol is "the strongest, who has the quickest reactions, and who has the most explosive strength".

Love him or loathe him, he is the sort of player who gives everything for the cause, who prides himself on being alert to wave after wave of attacking threats in and around the box. He is also the sort of player who is not afraid to put his body in harm’s way. And he’ll grab you the odd goal or two.

Ensuring that your players are back on their feet after a good tackle or clearance and ready to combat a second wave of danger is essential.

To keep them alive and reactive, here’s a defensive move that asks for quick reactions and tireless commitment to the cause.

Who knows, maybe it’s this "British Bulldog" mentality that may one day see one of your lads emulate the onfield achievements of the England captain?

How to set it up:

  • Create a playing area measuring 10×10 yards.

  • The drill requires four servers and one designated defender.

  • Each server starts on a different side, with a ball.

  • Place your defender in the middle – his job is to react to a different serve from each player around the area. After each serve, his task is to keep the ball within the box.

Getting started:

  • Starting on the left-hand side, server 3 throws the ball up for server 1 to head into the middle. The defender tries to stop the ball from going out of bounds.

  • Immediately, server 2 passes a ball towards the opposite line. The defender must now react, running to slide and stop the ball from crossing the line.

  • Now server 3 dribbles onto the pitch and attempts to get to the line opposite. The defender tries to stop him.

  • Finally, server 4 throws the ball over the defender’s head and attempts to run around him to win it back. The defender’s task is to shield the ball, letting it run over the line. If the ball stops dead before the line, he can then kick it clear to the left or the right.

  • Now rotate so that a different player acts as the defender.

Why this works:

Adopting the mindset that a defender’s job is rarely complete is absolutely vital if players are to counter all of the threats on a match day. After each phase of this drill, the defender needs to be alert to a new test, reacting quickly to each ball and clearing the danger.

Each test offers a new skill, and provides you with a quick-fire snapshot of where the defender’s game can be improved.



“Don’t let them play!”

David ClarkeI’ve heard a lot of things shouted at soccer games in youth leagues, but something that I was confronted with at our game last weekend was a new one for me.
It was hot on the heels of a meeting I’d had the day before where the blueprint for youth soccer in England had filled my world with hope for the future of the game. But the positivity and fair-mindedness that I’d experienced was quickly stifled in the reality of an Under-11s match.
We were playing against a strong, tough-tackling, hard-kicking team who were hitting balls at our defence with alarming regularity. Supporting this extremely hard-working team were a group of parents intent on winning, and winning whatever it took.
We adjusted to the pressure and at half-time it was 0-0. We now had the slope of the pitch in our favour. Our slick passing and movement began to gain us the upper hand, and the through-ball exercises we had been working on earlier in the week were looking as though they might pay dividends.
It was at this point one of the opposition parents, obviously realising his son’s team were losing their edge, began shouting warnings. Nothing unusual in that, until a final instruction came: “Don’t let them play!” he screamed. “Stop them playing!” This ‘tactic’ was promptly followed up by other parents. They were trying to end this absorbing game as a contest.
I remarked to the parent how much the players were enjoying the tactical battle, and that shutting down and stifling the game was a real shame… but of course I was ignored and the bluntly shouted instructions continued. This tactic actually allowed us to switch play more easily, and as my players began to pick off the tiring opposition players we found better chances to score. Late on, we finally found the net.
We held on to win the game, and the post-match atmosphere between the two sets of players, if not the parents, was good. It was our opponents’ first loss of the season and those around the sides of the pitch took it badly.
But what they failed to see was that it was a good close game. And it might have been even closer had they let the players continue in the same manner with which they’d approached the first half.
At the end my players said they had enjoyed winning 1-0 much more than the previous week when they’d triumphed 8-0, but I think even they felt the spirit of the game had gone in those final phases. That was a shame, because up until then there had been two styles of play cancelling each other out, providing a platform for an abundance of skill all over the pitch.
If only the parents hadn’t got involved…



Midfield magic – play like Frank Lampard

By David ClarkeDavid Clarke

Combining pace and aggression going forward with the wherewithal to track back, this is a move inspired by one of the best in the game, Chelsea ‘s Frank Lampard. For over 10 years, the England man has proved a pivotal force in the centre of the park, so here’s an opportunity for your players to try out some of that classic Lampard box-to-box play.

How to set it up:

Play 3v3v3, in an area of 30×30 yards. There are three goals, two in each of the corners and one placed on the opposite side in the middle. One player from each team acts as goalkeeper.

Getting started:

  • The practice starts with one player from each team attacking the goal to their left – unopposed dribbling and shooting in turn.
  • Players must concentrate on controlling the ball and approaching each goal at an angle.
  • At the end of each attack, the two attackers move clockwise around the playing area, ready to attack the next goal. Goalkeepers remain where they are.
  • To advance this, add defenders to the practice so your attackers have an additional obstacle. l Make sure you rotate players so that everyone gets a chance in each position.
  • You can also switch play by attacking each goal from the right-hand side.

The key elements:

  • The focus is on individual skills such as dribbling, shooting and 1v1 attacking and defending.
  • Highlight those players who are using good technique and creating space.
  • Don’t be afraid to stop the game, pointing out to your players what they are doing right and wrong in terms of technique and positioning.

Why this works:

Play is centred on a tight area that represents the compacted nature of the midfield. Therefore players are forced to make quick and efficient decisions in attack and defence. Rather than undertake an exercise that encourages a player to pass, this is a great move whereby taking on an opponent can be shown to have a much more dynamic effect on the game, something that is good for players to recognise in a full match situation.



How to get every player playing every week

David ClarkeOne of the experiments I’ve been trying at my club is to run extra teams who play friendly matches. This is so that players who have been substitutes the previous week get a full run-out the following weekend.

It has worked really well. Parents have shown a lot of interest because it provides a great outlet for those players who find themselves sitting out the majority of matches for the main team.

It’s also a good way to integrate any new players into the club. There’s a huge benefit for the coach as well, namely that it’s an ideal way to watch and monitor talent, keeping the kind of check on their development that you just wouldn’t be able to get normally if you only saw them in training. After all, game time is essential for any player looking to really ‘find’ their game – it gives them something to aim for.

On Sunday morning, I went down to watch a couple of new players in one of our friendly teams. The match was against a strong local side. They lost, but you wouldn’t have thought so when you saw them after the game. The players were full of energy and self-confidence and were thrilled at having achieved a full game for our club.

I’ve only had one negative comment so far.

This was from a parent who didn’t want to pay the same amount of money as other parents whose children played in what he called ‘proper’ matches – “Why should I pay for friendly games?”

I explained that the coaches involved still have to turn up and organise the friendly games. Then there’s a referee, and someone to book pitches. Everything else is the same apart from the kids get more out of the experience.

The player named Man of the Match in the friendly will play in one of next week’s league games as a result. It showed all the other kids that putting in the effort really does pay off – and we can use it the other way around with ‘first-teamers’ not giving it their all.

But the best element it is that around 20 boys in each age group are all playing regularly, and that can only be a good thing.



Welbeck and Cleverley can hit the target every time

David Clarke

How often do you watch your striker reach great attacking positions only to then delay his shot, offering enough time for defenders to get back and put in a tackle? It’s a frustrating part of the game and something that’s certainly not exclusive to youth football!

It’s important to give players the confidence to shoot from all parts of the penalty area rather than them trying to walk the ball into the net. So below I’ve put together a great practice that, quite simply, encourages players to shoot at the earliest opportunity from all areas of the pitch.

How to set it up:

  • You will need six target cones and seven balls, plus additional cones to mark out a pitch. You’ll also require bibs and a goal.

  • Create a pitch measuring 35×25 yards.

  • Three yards in from each end touchline, and halfway up the area, place three cones in a triangular shape.

  • Each cone has a ball placed on top of it.

  • The game can be played either 3v3 or 4v4.

Getting started:

  • One team starts on the left, one on the right. Each defends the cones as they would do a goal in a normal match, although there is no keeper.

  • Players must try to knock the balls off the cones at their opponents’ end of the pitch while defenders need to ensure their own cones do not come under threat.

  • If a player shoots and gets a "strike" (knocks all three balls off with one shot) the team gets six points, otherwise it’s one point scored for each ball.

  • Should all three be dislodged, the balls are set up again before resuming.

  • Play for three games of six minutes, ensuring that players are ambitious in their attacking play and do not hang back crowding around their cones as a defensive tactic.

Developing the session:

If you have three or four teams, play so that the side getting a strike knocks the opposing team out, and another comes into play. Teams waiting on the sidelines act as ball boys.

Note which teams are the best at winning a strike – undoubtedly this will be because of the frequency of shots and from all distances – and point out to the other teams why they are so successful.

How to advance it:

  • Put a goal and a keeper at one end and set up a bowling alley-style group of six cones with balls on at the other end.

  • This is a straight knock-out, with one team trying to knock all the balls off the cones and the other trying to score three times past the keeper. Which team will fulfil its task first?

Why this works:

The initial practice encourages players to shoot at targets from all areas of the pitch. Teams defending cones will also be pushing forward trying to attack, so the scoring options should be plentiful.

Direction and power are of course vital to a team’s success, while the set-up ensures that players are aware of the need to shoot quickly and positively. Should they not, a tackle could see the other team attack and complete their task first.



Youth players gain experience by playing in different postions

David ClarkeA lot has been discussed lately about how coaches and managers should be using their players when it comes to positions in matches.
Certainly at younger age groups – Under-9s and below – where most matches are friendlies, you can switch players around without any fear of causing problems on match day.
I make sure that in every match I change the positions of three players. This works by giving them experience in other positions without altering the tactical make-up of the team. They swap positions after each third of the game, thus allowing them a significant amount of time in each role.
I also make it clear to those players that because I am going to use them in three different positions they will not be substituted during the game. In their minds then, they lose out in not having a set position, but on the plus-side they can play knowing they’re in action for the full duration.
Last weekend we were up against a strong side, but even in this game I made sure I moved players around, targeting my right-back, right winger and left-sided attacker. They swapped positions during the game and had to adapt to their new positions. For the first third they started in their ‘normal’ positions. Then I swapped my right-back with the right winger – a logical move. My right winger went up front as a left attacker – still attacking but from a different side and further up front.
And finally, in what might have seemed a slightly illogical move, I put my left attacker into the right-back position. That right-back slot is all about sitting deep then supporting and blocking counter-attacks, and is one of the vital roles when the team loses the ball.
The changes worked, and as I had hoped, my attacker was badgering me after the game to let him play in defence again because he liked seeing the game being played out in front of him!
That’s evidence enough that players are never completely ready for you to brand them with a position before they have tried each one out themselves! But the important part of the exercise is in making sure your players are gaining experience of playing all over the pitch. That gives them a greater sense of the game and what other players have to do.
And sure enough, all three players came off the pitch looking pleased with themselves. They had just done their bit for us, and helped us to win a particularly difficult game playing defence, attack and on the wing.



Creating a stylish strike force the Italian way

David Clarke

I started my coaching session this week with an attacking drill inspired by the game between Palermo and Inter Milan last season in Italy. The two main men were Diego Milito and Fabrizio Miccoli – an M&M exhibition.

It creates situations that will keep a frontman’s mind active – switching between measured approach play and first-time shooting.

How to set it up

  • Create an area measuring 30 yards long by 20 yards wide. Use two goals,
    two goalkeepers, a striker, four servers and plenty of balls.

  • Position the four servers, one on each corner of the square,
    numbering them 1 to 4, anti-clockwise from the top left.

  • Place a cone in the centre – this is the starting point.

Getting started

  • Server 1 plays the ball into the centre where the striker
    controls with his first touch then shoots with his second.

  • The striker then turns and moves quickly to a pass from the
    opposite side of the area and repeats the task, as in the top picture.

  • He then returns to the centre for a pass from server 2, but this
    time the striker must dribble and go 1v1 with the goalkeeper. He
    then quickly turns for a pass from server 1, controls and shoots in the opposite goal, as in the middle picture.

  • In the final test the striker must shoot first time from passes by
    servers 3 and 4. No controlling touch is allowed as in the bottom picture.

  • At the end of the sequence, rotate all players.




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