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System of play, style of play, player development

In this article – part of our series on 7v7 for the U9/U10 age groups – we’ll discuss the relationships between a system of play, a style of play, and an overarching model of player development.

Many coaches and analysts focus on a team’s system of play – the arrangement of players into a formation. In later articles, we will look at the 1-2-3-1 formation and the 1-3-2-1 formation.

The system of play serves as a platform for the expression of a team’s style of play – the ideas and philosophies that underly the behaviors of the players in various moments of the game. The phrase “game model” has been used as a shorthand for the collection of ideal behaviors of a team in different parts of the field and in different situations. For example, many teams in the modern game prioritize “building out of the back” – developing an attack from the defending third of the field using a combination of passes and coordinated movements as opposed to simply booting the ball upfield and chasing.

At higher levels, a game model will encompass the movements of combinations of players both to proactively attack and to force unwanted reactions from opponents. At the U9/U10 age groups, the “ages and stages” of the individual players should factor into the larger view of long-term player development.

"No one wins a World Cup at U-10"

Here are some points to consider:

  • At this age, players are transitioning from a “me and my ball” mindset to “me, my friends, and our ball” mindset
  • There is a range of abilities (physical, psychosocial, technical, tactical) – some players are advanced relative to others in one or more of these ability dimensions
  • One or two advanced players – especially physically – can dominate opponents and dictate results
  • Every player’s objective is to have the ball on their foot – and as coaches, we must provide an environment that encourages risks
  • Many players will naturally gravitate to the ball or where they think the ball will be

The concept of space is a foundation of the game, at all ages. Space is especially critical in the U9/U10 age groups. Our desire as developers of long-term soccer athletes is to support the relationship between the player and the ball – the ability to manipulate the ball under control and with intent. The use of feints, misdirection, and movements of the ball with various foot surfaces to create space against an opponent provides a platform for more advanced skills. Players unable to perform these actions often find themselves “ganged up on” and are forced to kick the ball away – into a different space with (hopefully) fewer opponents.

If we consider management of space as the basis of our style of play, then we will look for our players to perform these tasks successfully:

  1. Execute the series of skills required to create space against opponents (feints, moves, etc) when on the ball.
  2. Execute the series of skills required to take advantage of space (change of speed, explosive moments, dribble/run) when on the ball to potentially break line(s) of player(s).
  3. When on the ball and outnumbered, recognize the situation, determine a choice where the team is numbers-up, and execute the skills of passing the ball to a teammate – if necessary over a distance.
  4. When off the ball and our team in possession, identify advantageous supporting positions (versus running next to the teammate with the ball).
  5. When out of possession, determine advantageous defending positions – preferably with the concepts of 1st/2nd defender.
  6. In and out of possession, continually observe the positions of the ball, teammates, opponents, and space in order to analyze opportunities and threats.

This sounds like a “big ask” – especially with young players and most especially in regards to observation. Many players – even older players – are primarily fixated on the position of the ball.

Our response as coaches should be to simplify – providing pieces of the game as small chunks, helping the players identify patterns, and guiding players to potential solutions. The system of play can be used as a foundation for pattern development. Practice activities such as 1v1s/2v2s, rondos, positional play, and small-sided games can be used as a bridge to the larger game. Later in this series, we will provide some examples for team training.

A key ability – often misinterpreted by parents – is being able to intentionally and successfully play a ball to a teammate over a significant distance (15-20 yards or more). The phrase “Big Kick” is a staple of many U9/U10 parent sidelines along with the supporting cheer when their player boots a ball upfield. Although there may sometimes be an unexpected benefit to the Big Kick – especially with the team that has an athletic forward who can chase down the ball and score – there is long-term damage from this tactic.

The Classic Big Kick
Intentional longer pass to teammate

Players in these age groups that are trained to belt a ball upfield when under any pressure will never learn the abilities to create their own space through feints and movements on the ball. As teams get older, the attacking tactic of kick-and-chase is easily defended by organized teams.

Recall that we identified a desire to have the ball on their foot as a basic motivator for the players. Reinforcing kick-and-chase results in the exact opposite – players never have the ball on their foot for more than a moment, unless they are the “gifted forward”. However, the intentional decision and successful execution of passing to teammates over distance is a consequence of successful management of space. Helping our players understand the difference between hoofing and intentional longer passes should be part of each player’s education.

Longer passing requires successful technique. We often see younger players who can kick the ball 20 or more yards with ease and others (typically smaller) who struggle with 5-8 yard passes. Working on the passing/shooting technique – in conjunction with a development of the tactical awareness of when/where/why – must be a part of successful player development. It is especially important that we support and encourage our female players in the development of long passing skills.

An observation over the years is that younger players who struggle with longer passing sometimes are forced to develop superior on-ball management skills in order to create space. Eventually, these players will catch up athletically and technically – the result being a skilled on-ball technician. In contrast, the player that is successful at U9/U10 due to superior physical abilities – being able to kick longer/harder but who does not develop the on-ball skills – may be left behind at older age groups.

The inability to make longer passes results in bunch ball
The ability to make a 10-15 yard pass opens up the game
A style of play that encourages the development of the players, awareness and management of space, and embraces the ability differences within the team is most likely to result in successful outcomes in a longer-term. In our next article, we’ll discuss communication, expectations, and a definition for success in the 7v7 systems.