Soccer Coaching Blog | Professional Soccer Coaching Advice

My best switching play session

By David Clarke

David Clarke

I keep this session in my little black book of ‘must-have tactics and how to coach them’. It is a great way to show young players how to move the ball to find space.

When their team is on the attack, young players need to be alert to the possibilities of switching play from one side of the pitch to the other.

It’s a tactic relied upon by every professional football team and takes craft, vision and confidence.

It works so well because of the need for defending teams to play a pressing, compact line in the modern game. That makes them susceptible to the switch and the potential of being caught out.

That’s why it’s crucial for attacking players to know when and how to switch – either by a long pass or a series or quick, short balls from one side of the pitch to the other.

In this exercise your players first have to work out how many ways they can get the ball from one end man to another. They will then move on to put that technique into practice to score points.

How to set it up:

  • For this practice, you will need bibs, balls and cones. The session uses three teams of four players.
  • Create a 30 yards long by 15 yards wide area, split into three equal zones.
  • In the middle zone, mark out three cone gate goals along each line across the pitch.
    These should be one yard wide and evenly spaced along the line.

Getting started:

  • Start by getting the teams to work out all the combinations of play that can ensure the ball moves from one side of the pitch to the other in their groups… so either a long ball across, passes to each man individually, etc.
  • Get them to switch positions.
  • Practise this for five minutes.
  • Then split the middle row of players into two teams of two.
  • One team defends the three gates towards the top of the area, while the other team defends the other three gates towards the bottom.
  • The outside teams must pass the ball within their area and score points by putting it through an empty gate, but any scoring effort must be passed through the gate, not struck hard.
  • Rotate teams every five minutes and play for a total of 15 minutes, seeing how well attackers switch play and defenders cope with the demands of a versatile strikeforce.

Developing the session:

  • In a 36 yards long by 20 yards wide area, use a goal and goalkeeper at each ends. Play 4v4 with two neutral players who run the lines but cannot go onto the pitch.
  • Teams play a standard game but must involve a neutral player in every attack.
  • Play for 10 minutes.

Why this works:

Getting players used to switching play encourages them to use the technique in matches, and in this session, you are showing them how and when to make the correct decision.

In the main game, having three goals protected by only two defenders means attackers will always be keen to hunt out space in which they can score.


The power of praise

David ClarkeOne of my newer players is driven by a constant desire to be the best at everything he does; and when he’s not, he becomes a handful.

He has an elder brother who is captain of the school rugby team, and the rest of the family are sporty as well, often supporting one another. For instance, his parents and brother turn up to watch him play his football… they even bring the dog sometimes! As the season has progressed they’ve grown into the heart of the club, and I offer them weekly reports as to how their lad has settled in and how he is responding to playing in my team.

And responding he really is. That’s because I have given him praise and responsibility – I’m some way short of offering him the captaincy, but he has a role in the team mechanic and that means a lot to him.
Now some players will find themselves motivated more than others by the words of their coach, and you might think that this lad is particularly receptive because he has a family who support and challenge one another. But in my experience absolutely anyone can benefit from positive encouragement… whether or not they’ve got an elder brother, a supportive family and an overactive canine!
And it doesn’t take much for a coach to say the right thing. For instance, when players do something wrong, I praise them instead for what they have done right, steering them away from the negatives. And sure, some respond better than others, but as a whole, they’re much better footballers as a result of this approach.

Indeed, back to the lad in question… he has even started to lose some of the backchat and boasting that he rocked up with at first.

In addition, his parents have noticed how much he wants to come to training and how much he talks about the team. They are surprised because he has never been like this before. He’s been rewarded at home with new boots and shinpads – he really is a different boy and it’s great to see.

For me, there are two key things here:

  1.  The power of praise
  2.  How successful working with parents can be.

Parents can be one of your best allies when dealing with disruptive kids. They get a lot of stick for doing the wrong things – such as shouting at matches or offering their kids bribes – but when it comes down to it you need the parents on your side.

Even his brother has started to be more positive on the touchline and regularly comes over to talk to me about how well his younger brother is doing. It helps me to create a great atmosphere at training and on match days without the tears and tantrums.

The game becomes the focal point and the players can have a much more enjoyable time with their team mates.

Barcelona team playing basketball at training on Saturday

Think attack, think advantage, think win

By David Clarke

David Clarke

Young players often find it difficult to make quick decisions during a game, so getting them used to thinking quickly and smartly should be part of any coaching schedule.

There are lots of ways to do this and it’s always good to add a fun element.

This session gets players making decisions and scoring points for their team – specifically in overload situations but also in 1v1s – with the use of five cards.

Players must react quickly to the instructions on the cards in order to score points or prevent opponents from doing so.

You need to make five simple cards with player combinations and points on them.

So the cards might work out something like:

1v1 = 5 points

3v2 = 4 points

4v2 = 3 points

2v1 = 2 points

3v1 = 1 point

How to set it up:

  • Create an area measuring 40×30 yards. For younger age groups, reduce the size.

  • You’ll need balls, bibs, cones and goals.

  • Put a goal at each end with a keeper in each.

  • Split your squad into two equal teams – one attacks while the other defends. The defending team must divide itself into two groups, positioned at opposite ends of the pitch.

  • The attackers stand to one side near the halfway line.

Getting started:

  • You need a captain for each team. The attacking captain holds the cards and decides what combination of attacking players works best for each situation. This involves looking at the defenders at each end and deciding which players he would favour his team going up against.

  • The captain hands you the card for the combination he has chosen. His team earns the points shown on the card for each goal scored.

  • Play the ball to the attackers and inform defenders of the chosen formation. Defenders approach once the attackers begin.

  • If a goal is scored, the team attacks the other end in the same combination until it fails to find the net. At this point, attackers return to the halfway line and a new card is drawn.

  • Play until all the cards are finished, then swap each team’s role. The team with the most points wins.

  • Each player must be involved at least twice, and make sure you change captains.

Why this works:

This is a session that requires players to be alert across a number of very different "attack versus defence" scenarios.

And while a 4v1 overload would rarely occur in any game, being able to use every player, stretching a defender and offering forwards a number of passing decisions is good practice.

Sometimes, having too many players in an overload can actually be distracting because players hide away from taking responsibility.

Simple practice to keep the ball – use the space

David ClarkeA lot of the basic exercises that teams work on in training involve passing to a team mate. So once players are proficient in that, it’s time to coach them in passing into space.

One of the great things about passing teams is that they know how to use space to maximum advantage, and the effects can be devastatingly good.

Even as individuals, the ability to anticipate where a team mate is moving to is an important part of player development – and one that initially takes a while to master. While this can be frustrating for coaches, rehearsing and practising using space will eventually work, so always persevere.

The size of the playing area is important in this practice, because the bigger that area the easier the task is. Therefore, start off in a space measuring 20×20 yards, then make it bigger or smaller depending on how your players cope.

 How to set it up:

• In your 20×20-yard area, mark a halfway line to create two boxes.

There are three attackers and two defenders.

• In one box it’s 1v1, while the other has two attackers and the remaining defender in it.

Getting started:

• The idea of the game is to have continuous 2v1s in each box. So for their team to retain possession, one of the attacking players has to move each time the ball changes boxes.

• Start the game in the box that contains two attackers. They must combine before passing to their team mate in the other box.

• As soon as the ball is passed, one of the two players must move into the other box to create a new 2v1 overload. All other players must remain in their designated box.

• While attackers must always be on the move, looking to create space for the pass, defenders are more cautious. They defend passively at first, so can only intercept or force an error, rather than tackle. If they do succeed in winning the ball, they simply put it out of play.

• Time to see how long the attackers can keep possession of the ball.

• Play for five minutes then swap teams around so each player has a go at both attacking and defending.

• Award extra points for feints or skills that create space for the pass.

 Developing the session:

• You can develop the session by instructing attackers to make three passes before sending the ball into the other box.

• Encourage attackers to produce a two-touch game so that they control and pass in one fluid movement.

• Allow defenders to tackle.

Why this works:

To retain possession of the ball, attackers must create space to pass into, at the same time sending the defender the wrong way. They need good skills and sound technique to prevent defenders from winning the ball. This is a skills workout that makes players think about moving, and how their movement creates space that the defender cannot defend. You should see signs of improvement in your players if this session is run over a handful of consecutive weeks.

Red Card Roy – insight into the pressures facing young players

Red Card Roy, the autobiography of Roy McDonough … A must read… put this on your Christmas reading list.

David ClarkeIt’s such a glamorous life being a professional footballer… every young player’s dream to be given a contract to play football every day of your life. Just like Balotelli or Beckham or Torres or van Persie…

… but not like Roy McDonough.

Because the hero of Red Card Roy collected his first red card at 16 for trying to strangle the referee in a schools cup final and went on to clock up a British record of 22 red cards.
And yet he could have lived the dream – Roy could have been a hero at Chelsea.
Roy’s autobiography is full of insights into the pressures facing today’s young players – from the heartbreak of release from Birmingham as a youngster to a desperately lonely spell at the famous King’s Road club.

I get a lot of emails from readers of my youth coaching publications who ask me for advice on how to get their young players signed up by the big boys… here’s a reason to keep them away.

This is a tale straight out of Chaucer… The footballer’s tale.

Booze, birds and football… what more could a young man wish for? But the pressures he faces day in, day out, culminating in the suicide of his strike partner at Colchester, John Lyons, show the other side of the coin that players face as they struggle to become a David Beckham or a Clint Dempsey. Anger and loneliness are no strangers to Roy McDonough.

A book that is compulsive reading on many levels.

There are some great footballing tales. McDonough was brave enough to dump legendary Liverpool hard man Tommy Smith over the touchline into a pile of snow and vengeful enough to get sent off after seven minutes of an FA Cup tie for planting a kung-fu kick in Stoke manager Tony Pulis’s ribs.

It’s also a fabulous X-rated romp through the different leagues in England. I recommend you read it because I couldn’t put it down as I rollercoastered between sadness and open mouthed astonishment at what went on in Roy McDonough’s world.

How Celtic beat Barcelona – the counter attack

David ClarkeWhen Celtic beat Barcelona the amount of possession tells a very strange story. Barcelona had 89% of the ball. That gave Celtic very little chance of keeping them at bay let alone scoring two goals.

But they did score two goals, and they used the counter attack to great effect.

In youth football, constructing a good counter-attack often comes down to one team being quicker than the other – a case of who can control the ball and combine before the opposing team has managed to recover its position. The quick counter-attack requires players in a team to react with speed and concentration, and often the most important man will be your striker, who receives the ball under pressure from a defender.

He must control it and either shoot at goal himself, or be aware enough to lay it off into the path of a supporting attacker. Speed is vital because the opposition players will be recovering their positions at pace as, often, a lone defender holds up play. Using this exercise, you can replicate counter-attacks in training, perfecting the process using recognised support and teamwork, rather than just raw pace.

Counter-attacking talent is as much about routine and teamwork as it is the ability to control and pass. By rehearsing this move, attackers become accustomed to knowing the right areas to run into, and when to make their move.

Defenders must also practise getting back at pace, watching all the time the movement of their lone team-mate in order to prevent the attack. Counter-attacking talent is as much about routine and teamwork as it is the ability to control and pass. By rehearsing this move, attackers become accustomed to knowing the right areas to run into, and when to make their move. Defenders must also practise getting back at pace, watching all the time the movement of their lone team-mate in order to prevent the attack.

Practice makes perfect, and although workmanlike in training, the counter-attacking move can prove hugely valuable and visually brilliant when played out in a match situation.

How to set it up:

• Set up a playing area measuring 30×20 yards.

• There is an 8-yard zone at each end of the pitch. At the near end this is marked by cones across the pitch, while at the far end it’s best to use a pitch marking or cones on either side to denote the line.

• There is one goal, with a goalkeeper in place.

• Put two teams of three players in the near end zone – one acts as attacking support, the other as defending support.

• Place a striker in the middle area of the pitch, and a defender in the zone near the goal.

Getting started:

• The coach serves the ball out to the striker.

• As soon as that pass is played, the attacking support can move.

• When the lone attacker controls the ball, the defending support can move, as can the defender in the far end zone.

• Attackers must work together to move the ball forward and finish with a shot on goal.

• Replay the move so that players become comfortable in their roles, but going forward, experiment with different conditions to keep the counter-attacks challenging.

For instance, change the time between defenders and attackers moving by calling out “attack go” and “defence go”. Also try varying the number of players in the near end zone in order to favour either defence or attack. This also means you can involve all members of your squad at once. • Rotate players often so that everyone samples the demands of each role.