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Activity variables – players

In designing an activity, the coach should know who the key players are and the learning opportunities that the activity should provide. Typically, the group of key players will number from 1 to 4. In the full game, this is often represented as a functional unit (midfielders, strikers, wing players) but can also be considered in the context of positional play (for example, 4 players in possession versus 2 opponents in a portion of the field). Here are some basic tactical concepts for various groupings – each additional player builds on the concepts prior:
1 player attackingAttempt to beat opponent line, feint to misdirect and off-balance the defender, combine with teammates if available
1 player defendingDelay, avoid the opponent penetrating the line either with the ball or through pass or shot and look for an opportunity to win the ball
2 players attackingAttempt to isolate one of the defenders and beat the line
2 players defenderOne player takes pressure role on the ball, and the other takes cover, try to isolate the ball carrier from their teammate, and avoid the opponent penetrating the line
3 players attackingLook to form triangles, attempt to find a numbers-up situation, try to beat opponent line, 3rd man provides support or penetrating runs
3 players defendingPressure/cover, 3rd player provides balance
4 players attackingLook for form double-triangle (diamond) shape, maintain width, depth, and length
4 players defendingLook for opportunities to isolate and double-team the ball; the "weak side" defender rotates back in support
Using a 3v3 small-sided game (SSG) as an example, the coach may elect to focus on combinations of play in the attack, which would mean that the players in possession are the “key players.” Or, the coach could focus on the technical and tactical details of pressure/cover defending, which would make the out-of-possession players “key.” Or, the activity could be designed as physical conditioning and preparation activity, in which all players “key.”
3v3 with depth
An alternative to developing general abilities across the squad is to focus on individuals who occupy specific positional responsibilities in the game. This is common on advanced teams where players have been selected for particular positions. A classic example is an activity designed to work with the goalkeepers. Another example is an activity that works on the movements and decision-making of central midfielders through positional play. In these cases, the coach will decide which individuals will occupy the key roles within the activity.
4v4+3 positional play - focus on midfielders (shaded)
The use of patterns of play – where the coach is training the team for a specific set of movements – and phases of play – where the coach is training the team in alternatives given a scenario – are also examples in which players occupying certain positions have key responsibilities.
Counterattacking pattern of play

For many coaches, especially at grassroots and sub-elite levels, there is a challenge in having a consistent number of players at practice. Even at elite levels, the key individuals for whom an activity is designed may be missing or unable to train due to injury or other reasons. It is desirable to have all of the players at a practice participating in all activities in many environments. As a result, coaches must redesign an activity or redeploy players to create the desired learning opportunities and ensure full participation.

There are 4 types of activities that we will consider here:

  • Rondos
  • Positional play
  • Small-sided games
  • Shaping the game
Rondos are a valuable tool in developing the concepts of distance, lines, angles, and timing. Players can receive many repetitions within the rondo structure both on and off the ball. Altering the conditions within the activity – number of touches allowed, spacing, the shape of the grid, number of opponents – creates different learning opportunities for the players. Rondos directly correlate to the environment within the 1v1 encounter.
4v1 rondo
1v1 encounter

Typically, the focus in a rondo is on the attacking players. However, the coach may provide direction for the defender(s) to improve the quality of pressure – for example, in a 4v2 rondo working on the communication and cover position of the 2nd defender.

4v2 rondo

Common numbers for rondos are 3v1, 4v1, 4v2, 5v2, and 6v2. When a training session has “odd numbers,” players can be distributed in uneven numbers. For example, with 14 players the rondos could be divided (3v1), (4v1), (4v1) = 14. In this example, the grid used for the 3v1 would likely be smaller than the spaces for the 4v1s to result in roughly even player-space ratios throughout the activity. The coach might consider using fixed time limits to rotate players through different rondo grids to expose players to different groupings. Although the attackers are generally considered the key players, coaching points can be developed with the defenders.

A positional play activity differs from a rondo – besides the outside attacking players, one or more attacking players will occupy space with defenders in the middle of the grid. Generally speaking, the intent is to develop the technical, tactical, and physical abilities and combinations of play associated with a space occupied by active defenders.

In a 4v2+1 (4 outside, 1 central vs. 2 defenders), the central attacker must work to find pockets of space, receive the ball under control, and either turn or play the ball back. Outside players will attempt to move defenders through ball movement and feints to create opportunities to play the ball through the middle. In a 4v3+2, the two central attackers will be working off each other and reading the defenders to maintain possession and move the ball. As in the rondo, the key players in the positional play will be the attackers – specifically, the players in the central roles.

4v2+1 with interior box

In the examples above, the number of central attackers is less than the number of defenders – when combined with the outside players, the overall number of attackers is greater than the defenders. Typical combinations (attackers versus defenders) in the central grid are 1v2, 2v2, 2v3, 2v4, 3v3, 3v4, 3v5, and 4v5. Commonly in positional play, when the defenders gain possession, the central players are tasked with regaining possession – creating a scenario in which the outnumbered attackers must work in a defensive role. The former defenders in possession will need to spread and find combinations of play to retain the ball.

Because the focus is on the interior players in positional play, the “odd numbers” problem can be addressed by adding a player (or players) to the outside of the space. Thus, with a squad of 15, the players could be divided into two groups: (4v2+1), (5v2+1) = 15. A whole squad progression could be a 7v5+3 – with the 7 outside players assigned in roughly the positions of a 4-3-3 and the 3 central players forming the midfield triangle.

7v5+3 - 10v5

As noted above, altering the number of key players (the players in the central grid) will change the basic tactical concepts. In other words, the tactics in a 4v4+2 differ somewhat from a 4v4+3 due to the addition of the additional attacker in the central grid. Opportunities for third-man movements in the interior and the defenders’ demands to pressure outside players and account for the central attackers will influence the flow of the activity.

4v4+2 - 6v4
4v4+3 - 7v4

Small-sided games (SSGs) can be utilized in various configurations to support all of the dimensions of player development. The SSG can have even numbers (same number of players on both teams), uneven numbers, and may include neutral players and goalkeepers.

If the SSG is prescribed for fitness, the duration of the activity (sets, repetitions, work/rest periods) and the number of players and allocated space must be carefully evaluated to meet objectives. The use of goalkeepers and neutral players will influence the fitness demands of an SSG.

Generally speaking, small numbers of players will result in higher intensity activity levels. The use of waves, flying changes, having players take turns, and rotations provide a rest period between bouts of activity. In the case of rotations, having a third team serve as neutrals and rotating on a score is one method of allowing for recovery between work periods.

4v4+4 - end players are neutrals, switch with defending team when goal is scored
When working in numbers above three, the coach must consider whether to assign positional roles to players or allow them to self-organize. In this 6v6 example, players may be given specific roles (backs, midfielders, forwards) or maybe encouraged to flow with the game.
6v6 line game - ball must stop on line for point

The addition of goalkeepers will change the work rate requirements of the game, decreasing the load on the field players. The coach will need to consider the goalkeeper’s role in conjunction with the type of goal that is being protected (mini-goals versus full-size goals). With smaller numbers – 4 and 5 – the goalkeeper may take a more active role (“sweeper/keeper”). With larger numbers, the goalkeeper may take on a more traditional role within the club/program’s game model.

The use of neutrals will also influence the work rate requirements for the field players. In many cases, coaches choose to solve the “odd number” problem by using a neutral in the game – for example, with 11 players, utilizing a 5v5+1. It may be more beneficial for player development to utilize uneven numbers – 6v5 – and attempt to balance the teams competitively. In the real game, it is often the case that a team will be numbers-up or numbers-down. Providing this environment in SSGs encourages the players to engage in the task at hand rather than complain about a lack of fairness or being uncomfortable when outnumbered.

When neutrals are intentionally utilized, it is crucial to consider these two use cases:

  • Neutrals as a facilitator for key players or desired patterns of play
  • Neutrals as the key players in the activity

A common use of neutrals is to create an attacking overload – the key players being the team in possession. Here are two examples – one with even numbers plus neutrals, the other with the neutrals outside the activity.

4v4+2 with mini-goals - Red players are neutrals
2v2+2 - Blue players are neutrals
Another use for neutrals is to support a desired pattern of play. In this example, the neutrals occupy wide channels and help relieve central pressure and provide crosses.
Neutrals may also be the key players in an activity. In this example, the neutral players take the role of central midfielders, and the remaining players take other positions.
6v6+3 - Yellow players are neutral midfielders

Once again, the coach must consider the “odd man” problem – if the intent is to develop a midfield triangle, a 6v5+3 activity would be preferable to a 5v5+4. In general, if the objective is to utilize neutrals as key players, the number of neutrals should equal the number of key players used in the full-sized game in that role.

In a Shaping the Game (StG) activity, a game-realistic environment is used in which a problem is presented. The intent is to develop solutions to the problem, generally in the context of the club’s technical and tactical principles of play. In an StG, the numbers are usually preset, and – since the activity is structured as a subset of the real game – neutrals are not used. There is flexibility to add players to an StG, but there should be a minimum number to preserve realism. In the StG, specific roles and patterns of play are worked through, with the key players taking the roles to support the patterns. For the activity to be realistic, it is desirable to utilize the section of the pitch in which the patterns will be used in games. Here are two examples:

Overlap of outside backs
Pressing movements of forwards

In summary, the coach has the flexibility to deploy players in a variety of configurations to develop specific learning opportunities. Small changes within the activities can provide new problems for the players to solve. Many activities provide an environment to coach both a theme and a countertheme. The coach should be observant of the players’ responses and be prepared to make adjustments as needed.