5 Tactical Solutions To 5 Tactical Problems

Building on last month’s blog post of “5 Technical Solutions To 5 Technical Problems”, it’s only fitting that this month we focus on the “5 Tactical Solutions To 5 Tactical Problems”. Below are five main issues that we see within the youth game today. The main goal here is to express how important it is to have good tactical awareness in all parts of your game. As you get older, the game starts to become more about soccer IQ and intelligence, and the smarter players begin to take over. Don’t get left behind, constantly think about “what’s next”!

    1. Awareness – The single biggest tactical issue for me watching youth soccer players play in games and in training is their lack of overall awareness. Let’s say that you are playing with a teammate who is on fire the whole game, they are doing everything correctly, their passing is on point, they don’t lose the ball on their first touch, and they are constantly pressuring and winning the ball back, and it seems like every decision they make is the right one. I guarantee more than anything in the world, that on that day, your teammate was more aware than everyone else on the field. They were constantly aware of where defenders were, where their teammates were, where to take their first touch, where the open spaces/lanes/channels were, when to shoot, when to take players on, and etc. You get the picture. Moral of the story, they understood more than you, they read the game better than you, and they wanted to be the best more than you, simply because they were more aware of their surroundings at all times. Constantly be looking around the field so you understand everything that is going on. You’ll be able to make better decisions. You’ll catch yourself, when looking around, asking the following question: “if this happens, then I do this”, or “if this happens, then I go here”. It’s a constant game of “what’s next” and the better players are solving those problems on a more consistent basis than everyone else and it’s due to one reason. The more aware you are means you will be more informed, and in life, the better informed you are the better decision you can make. Stop reacting to situations and try and see them before they happen. Get your HEAD UP, look around, and solve hypothetical questions, WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE THE BALL!

    2. Positional Relationships – Watching our teams play, our players have a good understanding of what positions they are playing. When you watch an NLSA team play you can tell what formation they are playing. Whether its a 4-3-3, a 4-5-1, or 4-4-2, a fan of that game can pick up on a distinct positional set-up. However, I think our players need to increase their sense of positional relationships (usually the teammates playing in the positions closest to you). For example, the left center back, in a 4-3-3 usually has 5 immediate relationships: the right center back, the left back, the goalkeeper, the center defensive midfielder, and the center midfielder. The left center back should always be spatially aware of their personal spacing between all of these players. Leaving a gap that’s too big or too small can ultimately affect your team’s ability to keep the ball or invite the other team to attack through your inability to be spatially aware. Regarding these positional relationships you should be constantly asking questions such as: Am I too far away from this player? Am I too close to this player? Am I a good distance to be able to cover behind my teammate? Am I a good distance away so when I receive a pass I have the time and space to make an impact with my next soccer move? Should I be stepping up to close the gaps and be in a good support system? Should I be dropping back because I am too close or too high in relation to the person in front of me or next to me? I truly believe that being able to ask yourself constant questions in relation to your positional relationships will enhance the impact you can make on a game or training session.

    3. Defensive Mindset – I don’t think players spend enough time thinking about how to defend to help their team win the ball back. Soccer is the most situational sport on the planet due to the size of the field and the constant decision-making needed. For us, there are three important questions that need to be quickly assessed:

      1. Where Are You On The Field – Knowing if you are in the attacking, midfield, or defensive third will usually help make a decision on how fast to apply pressure. If we are in our attacking third and we lose the ball and most of our team is still up in that space, we pressure the heck out of the ball so we can stop the counter-attack and win the ball as high up the field as possible. If the ball is in the midfield, we apply pressure that allows us to get numbers and team shape behind the ball. If we are in our defensive third, we are winning our 1 on 1 defensive battles, applying high pressure, and forcing the ball into an area where we have good numbers in hopes of winning it back or turning it over

      2. How Is My Team’s Current Shape? – Can my team’s current spacing/shape withstand a counter-attack? We should be thinking about numbers down situations here. That’s really the only question you can ask yourself. It’s more about risk assessment here than anything else. And based on your answer to that question, you can decide on the application of the necessary pressure.

      3. How Fast Is This Counter-Attack Coming? – If your team cannot handle the counter, someone needs to pressure the ball to adjust the opponent’s decision-making as soon as possible. If you feel your team can handle a counter, then your focus should be getting more numbers behind the ball.

Notice how I never once talked about pressuring to WIN the ball, it’s all about applying a level of pressure that’s going to affect the opponent’s decision-making.

  1. Communication – I firmly believe that communication on a soccer field needs to have two specific pieces of information that can help the decision-making of players around you (both offensively or defensively). Your communication needs to help give players a sense of DIRECTION. Here are a ton of buzzwords that go along with this: turn, through, split, switch, back, behind, right, left, check, feet, wide, forward, diagonal, drop, slide, etc. Your communication needs to also help players UNDERSTAND the pressure around them. Buzzwords that go along with this are: Man on your right/left, man on, watch the runner, time, turn, and etc. It’s great to be able to get both of these concepts across during your communication. Your communication should be done WAY BEFORE a player is about to go into a soccer action because by that time, they’ve already made a decision. For example, if you release a pass, and as you’re releasing it you say to your teammate “turn and take your space”, the teammate will be more inclined to do the action because they trust you and you gave them that information early enough. The timing of your communication is very important, but when you do give it, make sure it is useful to help your teammate, not hurt them.

  2. When To Move – The last tactical problem that we see a ton of is a player’s inability to effectively move to exploit, create, or close space. In today’s game, we have too many players that react instead of “reading the game” when the ball is in play. And this concern is on both the attacking and defensive side of the ball. When you are attacking, your movement should be happening when the defender least suspects it, and as you move you use a communicated buzzword that helps the passer know where YOU want the ball. Your movement off the ball also needs to happen when passers can and can’t see you. When the passer isn’t looking at you, are you moving to bait the defender so that as the passer turns or picks their head up, you then pounce on that opportunity. For example, the ball is on the opposite side of the field and you’re the right winger. You sense the ball might start moving this way so you start to backpedal towards your sideline in hopes the defender stays inside or gets dragged out. If the defender starts to drag out while the passer is turning, run in front of the defender’s body and say “(insert teammate’s name), through”. You used initial movement to create initial space from the defender when the ball is NOWHERE near you, or you’re not even involved directly in the play yet. You then move in relation to the defender’s next decision. If they get dragged out and they leave a gap between themselves and the center back, you exploit that space and tell your teammate what kind of pass to play (through). On the other hand, if the defender does not get dragged out and stays tucked inside, your initial movement off the ball puts you in a good spot to receive the ball so that you can go 1 on 1 with that defender.

My message in this blog is to be aware, figure out ways to read the game, have a better understanding of your defensive mindset, be more direct when communicating with teammates, and the earlier you can move the better. These are all individual “what’s next” and “if this, then that” tactical observations that our players can always use help with. Start thinking smarter, earlier than your opponent, and your decision-making will continue to become more consistent.