Friday, 27 April 2012

Creating Chances to Score When Attacking Options are Limited

This following blog entry could in a way be viewed as a continuation to last month’s previous entry on Forward Defending. It was discussed how to position defenders higher up the pitch and what role they should implement as to still maximise the use of their defending abilities.

The below entry could easily be applied to the nagging question to Defensive Forwards or any team of limited attacking options; how exactly do we create chances to score?

For the more skilled players, creating chances in small sided football begins as soon as your side is back in possession. The athletic, quick, skilful strikers can have a field day in this format of football, as they use quick bursts of pace and acceleration to beat an opponent, precise one touch passing and a knack for finishing from anywhere in front of goal. However, for players who may not possess all (or any) of the skills above, may find their team employing some (or all) of the below strategies to goal:

Route One Football
The days of Wimbledon tactics, the long ball game; the hit and hope and route one football seems to have become less of a more accepted variation style of play to a more largely frowned upon bad habit by the Football purists. As much as some may argue that launching the ball from the back to the big guy up top gives hope that he’ll see the ball into the back of the net, it typically produces some of the dullest football for any spectators; surely at times frustrating for fans of Stoke City or Blackburn Rovers. West Ham United are currently being tortured by having to endure this style courtesy of Big Sam Alladyce, prompting the regular chants of “We’re West Ham United, we play on the floor”. Needless to say he’s stubbornly stuck with his philosophy.

Route One, in small sided football, requires a goal keeper with attention to not only what’s going on in front of him, but also on his attacking forwards in relation to his opponents positioning down the other end of the field. It is a fantastic opportunity to simply throw the ball up field in the hope that the striker will latch on it and ideally be presented with a 1 on 1 goal scoring opportunity with the opposing keeper. The ideal striker for this will be a tall target man, able to win the aerial challenge and maybe hold the ball up in order to lay it off for a teammate.

 Building Attacks from the Back

 If the previous blog was Forward Defending, this style of play would be Deep Attacking (which maybe we’ll revisit as a separate blog entry somewhere down the line). This is the complete opposite to Route One with the ball generally staying on the floor. Rather than the keeper hurling the ball up top, it requires rolling it out to feet to a nearby team mate. From here, rather than playing any sort of long ball, the deep players should be looking for the nearest possible pass, and in turn to provide the nearest possible passing outlet for any team mate in possession (see Barcelona or Swansea City). The idea here is to keep a hold of possession at the back, with short, quick, patient passing in order to frustrate the opposing players who are holding their positions. This will eventually lead to the opponents being drawn out of position, leaving an exposed spaced further up the field, allowing your team to get in behind the strikers / midfielders creating space to exploit the gaps which will have now appeared in midfield and allow you to supply assists for your most forward players.
Drawing Opponents into your own third - creating spaces in behind to attack
It also forces your opponents to chase the game, press higher up the pitch into your own third which in the long run should prove tiring for them, allowing your team to capitalise on this towards the end of the game.

 Goal Hanging

There was always one kid at school, playing football in the playground, so intent on taking the glory of the goal than rather than even attempting to appear to be willing to get involved in play and help out in midfield, he would simply be quite content to stand in his opponents area, safe in the knowledge he was immune from any offside call, and be there to tap in the finish. As futile as this strategy might be in 11-a-side terms, in small sided football, with a team who are struggling to create chances, it may not be a bad idea. It does of course have its disadvantages of there being one less man to track back and defend when your team is under attack, but it does mean that there is always at least one passing outlet in a great position in front of goal for the entire game.

 Gung-Ho – all out attack

Although, depending on how confident you felt, it would not be recommended to implement this strategy throughout the game. The time and place for this would be when in need of one precious point rescuing goal and only one minute left on the clock. Throwing everybody forward can create a very opportunistic counter attack which can’t be left unattended by the opponents and will force them to commit players to the back to defend. It does however leave you open to being caught out with one ball over the top and a speedy forward to outpace any defenders desperately tracking back.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Forward Defending

Unlike a previous blog entry which covered a predominantly defensive 1-3-1 formation to simply stave off a strong attacking threat; the following looks at the different approaches required to be taken depending upon the positional preference of the personnel, but ultimately playing to win. In this case the preference is defence.

So, you’ve registered a new team. You’ve got your players together. You’ve made a note of the essentials; player’s names, mobile numbers, and weekly availability. Then when it comes to the most important managerial question “Which position do you play?” problems can sometimes arise. Ideally you’ll be given a broad spectrum of replies “versatile defender / defensive midfielder”, “wing-back / attacking winger”, “attacking midfielder / striker”. However sometimes a shared self opinion of one’s limitations can sometimes come in the reply of “just stick me at the back”; and suddenly you realise you’ve signed a team of centre-backs use to playing route one football with a skill-set that extends to hoofing the ball the length of the pitch.

Although at this time, as manager, you may now wish you’d done a little more pre-season scouting before you embarked on assembling this seemingly very one dimensional outfit; by simply applying the correct tactics you can at least assign your defensive players to alternative yet still effective positions other than patrolling in front of your own area.

We’ll take it as a given that you have had a willing (or reluctant) volunteer to don the gloves and go in goal. Ideally they’ll possess the skills needed for Small-Sided Goalkeeping (which we may cover in a later blog), but at the very least you’ve now got one less position to worry about.

For those that have read the earlier blog on the 1-3-1 formation (An Effective Formation for a Struggling Team) will have hopefully taken on board that although those players were playing in the positions that they needed to be in, it wasn’t to suggest that any of the players were highly skilled in any of the roles or indeed much suited to them. It was merely the most effective team system to employ with the safest formation to avoid being on the wrong end of a cricket score.

Taking the scenario that we are presented with a team full of defenders, we can already safely assume that at least a couple of the outfield positions at the back are taken care of as the correct positions are being occupied by players with the correct skill set. This is because these players are suited to those roles. But to ask a defender to play ‘up front’ and to give him the instructions of “take people on, use your pace and to try get a goal out of something” may not be advisable. This is not because our defender is playing in a far more forward position than they are use to, but because they would be trying to play the role of the ‘attacking forward’. In this sense they are not suited to the role that’s being asked of them.

What Manager and Player need to remember in this case is that although being deployed in an “attacking” position, the player is not an attacker and we want to make as much use of his defending skills as possible. Here we are using him in the role of a Defensive Forward.

The term and role may be nothing new to the modern day 11-a-Side footballer. Many attacking players at the top level who possess precise passing, good finishing and generally a keen eye for goal will also have the ability to competently fulfil defensive responsibilities from the front. This may be as little as closing the opponents defence down and minimising their space to as much as chasing and battling for the ball until possession is won (the latter would be typical of Park  Ji-Sung or Carlos Tevez).

Player A, B & C are examples of advanced defending roles
The above diagram demonstrates how Player A is closing down the space. He’s pressing the opposition high up the pitch in the final third making it harder for the opponent’s defenders to create passing options for one another. The situation that the blue “left back” finds himself under is one of constant pressure. Player A, rather than picking up another man and taking away one of the blue “left-back’s” passing options or standing off between “left-back” and a fellow team mate anticipating the pass and trying to intercept, he instead goes and closes down the opponent, in this case at a very opportunistic time being as he is in the corner. Although it’s still possible for the “left-back” to find another outfield team mate to pass to, with the tight angle that our Defensive Forward has now created, the odds wouldn’t favour his pass finding someone. The blue’s options would be to hit and hope down the line where maybe he does have a very skilled forward of his own to get it under control or at worst the balls goes out for a kick-in; try and win a kick-in off Player A; or utilising his precision passing and fire back to the safety of his Goalkeeper. The flip side to these three options is that as none of them our guaranteed they may all end in our defensive yellow team winning possession. The long ball may find a yellow opponent. Attempting to play it off Player A, if he controls it well, can be handing possession to Player A and allowing him to turn and run with the ball. And finding ones Goalkeeper can be especially tricky if playing in a 6-a-Side League that implements the Area Rule (Goalkeepers are not allowed out of the area and no outfield players are allowed in the area). If this pass isn’t exact and is instead played just half a yard in front of the area, with the Goalkeeper powerless to intercept, it opens up a chance for a yellow opponent to pounce on the opportunity and have a shot on goal. Affectively, in this scenario, Player A has indirectly created a goal scoring opportunity for his side without even touching the ball. This has all come about with Player A pressing high up the pitch, closing down the space, putting the opponent under pressure and forcing him into making the mistake. This is our most forward defender’s role; to harry the deep lying blue players. His other role, but this can depend on his size and build, is to hold the ball up and bring others into play. Presuming it’s a defender whose frame is what you would expect of a typical centre-back, he would be ideal to receive a lot of ‘Route One’ long balls from the Goalkeeper’s throw. It’s not through skilfully slick passing or patient build up play, but the desired effect of getting the ball up top and keeping it there for at least a little while would favour our Forward Defender getting it under control rather than it would a small skilful striker. Once he’s held it up, he can look to release it to any team mates who have pushed on into the opponents third of the pitch and allow them to have a pop at goal (this would be much the same way in that England and Liverpool used Emile Heskey).

Then we have Player B who will play an almost lost-art of a defensive role, the Sweeper. When most hear the term ‘Sweeper’ they think of the classic sweeper from years gone by who would play in behind the two centre-backs and clear up any danger. The Modern Advanced Sweeper instead sits in front of the defence protecting the defenders (much like the Makelele Role) but also can slot into that back line when others have pushed forward (in which, currently, Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets is revolutionising this role).

Finally we have Player C. It seems that more often than not my own team comes up against a team who in terms of man to man we can sometimes certainly match, but there’s always one who simply plays us off the park (or Astroturf in this case). There always seems to be one player of outstanding quality who has had the whole team built around him. He’ll drop deep, he’ll bomb forward, and he’ll take people on and unleash a thunderous shot or provide that killer pass and put it on a plate for his fellow team mates to score. All attacks go through him. This player is going to be Man Marked out of the game. In a sense it’s giving Player C licence to roam around the pitch but only in that he must roam where our opponent’s star player chooses to roam. Sometimes the most skilled player can be the most athletic player and the game will be an exhausting exercise for our Roaming Defender. However, as much as he won’t be able to prevent every pass or every attempted shot from the opponent, his job will be to simply make a nuisance of himself for the duration of the game. Track the opposing player around the pitch and limit his creative freedom. It will too be a frustrating game for Player C as he will not be in a position to receive passes or indeed be too much involved in play. But if he’s persistent and doesn’t neglect his role at the temptation of getting involved in play himself he’ll be able to neutralise (as much as possible) a big part of the opponents attacking threat.

The Forward Defensive roles will not do much in terms of achieving many numbers in the ‘Goals Scored Column’, but it does offer other positional options for a team full of defenders as opposed to playing ‘5 at the back’.

Friday, 16 March 2012

The Rise of Small Sided Football over its 11-a-Side Cousin

I should make note this entry is not to discourage anyone from enjoying the beautiful game in all its 11-a-Side glory. Be it taking part or watching, nothing could deter me away from settling down to watch a ‘Super Sunday’ offering or taking to the grass based surface and trying (and failing) to emulate the pros. However, one cannot ignore the fact that more people are playing small sided football (5, 6 & 7-a-side) than ever before where as many amateur 11-a-Side leagues have dwindled. This article is to highlight how 6-a-Side still gives players their weekly football fix, but without all the strings attached hassle that comes with the 11-a-side game.

All weekend footballers have been there; stood on an away side’s pitch (which has taken an hour to find after someone forgot the Sat-Nav), and when we say pitch, it’s really just a field with barely visible lines, goal mouths without a blade of grass, maybe the odd dog foul on the wing and goal posts desperately needing a lick of paint having been on the grounds mans ‘To Do’ List for a few seasons too many now. The showers are cold, the changing rooms are smaller than the referee’s room and there isn’t enough deep heat to apply and assure there won’t be one ache or pain tomorrow as you drag yourself out of bed. And this is before we even get to the game itself. Being 6-0 down, with a player sent off, as the wind lashes the rain into your face and being told by the referee there’s still 20 minutes to go is nearly enough to make anyone hang up their boots there and then. And when the match is over and you make the long trip back home, you return with a very empty feeling inside yourself. You might have won, you might have lost, but for 5 hours out of your Saturday, some who would have needed to negotiate a “pass out” from the W.A.G; the feeling of regret that maybe your weekend football wasn’t quite worth the bother lingers in the back of your mind. Granted that is the worst case scenario for any game of weekend football; only twice have I played with dog foul on the pitch. And this is without mentioning the nightmare that is Sunday morning football. It’s not necessarily the football, it’s the being woken up with a banging hangover by the phone call of your angered manager informing you there’s only half an hour till kick off and they’ve only got 10 men!

‘Small prices to pay’, some may say, in the grand scheme of things; with the main aim of the day in being able to get out there and play your football. But with 1600 teams down (as of December 2011) from over 3 seasons the stats would suggest that the cons are starting to outweigh the pros. However, the 11-a-Side game’s loss is the small-sided (5, 6 & 7-a-Side) game’s gain. Due to the change in lifestyles, with people working longer hours and with 11-a-Side restricting players to only Saturday and Sundays; the small-sided game offers more opportunities for football throughout the week in the evenings under floodlights, which many 11-a-Side pitches may not. This is not to say that small sided football has taken away players from 11-a-Side Leagues, but 5, 6, & 7-a-Sides are offering an alternative to teams whose leagues have folded and are either forced to register with the next closest 11-a-Side league elsewhere, which could be miles away, or not play football at all.

But what else other than travelling, day and kick off time convenience does small sided offer?
Put simply, it’s just all about the football. There’s no travelling to away grounds as every week it’s at the same venue. There’s no rigmarole for managers to fill out weekly team sheets with only one main squad list needed at the start of the season and then free to sign up any additional players throughout. There’s no volunteers needed to wash the kit with less stricter rules on teams kit only requiring teams to bring matching colours. There’s also no need to sweep the changing rooms afterwards, although one would think it unnecessary after only playing on all weather pitches as opposed to bringing half the natural pitch back in with you on your boots. And forget ever having to clean your boots again for the following week.

Small Sided Football requires teams to turn up, pay their match fees and get on with the game.

Taking a look at the amount of towns and cities the length and breadth of the country at will show exactly why this is becoming the county’s most popular recreational sport.

But again, all this is to not negatively criticise the classic format of football. Over the next four years the FA is to invest £200m in grassroots football; this will include improved access and quality of pitches. Hopefully this will lead to the participation of numbers in men’s 11-a-Side teams going the same way that recent numbers of women’s teams and referees have been, over the past couple of seasons, with encouraging increases.

Friday, 24 February 2012

An Effective Formation for a Struggling (6-a-Side) Team

After spending many years playing for 6-a-Side teams whose main and only aim at the beginning of each season was to “try and not finish bottom”, one obtains a certain experience with how to be beaten. And not just beaten, but being well and truly thrashed. You begin to get to see firsthand the movements that are catching the defence out, the positions that should have been taken up and reasons why the opponents over all play is simply better than yours.
                This could be put down to a number of factors; being out skilled, outpaced, out muscled and generally out played by the opposition. Taking up, what would be the full back position, as a mini-Cristiano Ronaldo comes bombing down the wing stepping over the ball, once, twice, a dummy to the left, a drop of the shoulder to the right and before you even have time to turn and track back, your hapless Number 1 is already picking the ball out from the back of the net.
                A tempting, yet naive, solution to counteract this reoccurring scenario would be to “park the team bus in front of goal” and have all men behind the ball in a sturdy flat back five in a 5-0-0 formation. Although this would prove frustrating for the quick skilful strikers who rely on bursts of speed and acceleration to outpace the beaten defender, it is giving license for the opposing 5 players to have a half hours long range shooting practise session, with the law of averages dictating that a few of these will find the target and result in a goal or two (or more!).
                Some may tell you to always keep two at the back. This can work to certain extent, but it usually leads to two in midfield in a 2-2-1. If a defender, who has pushed forward to support a midfielder, is beaten, then this leaves too many gaps at the back, asking too much of the one other defender to cover.
                The trick is to find the right balance. Keeping enough players behind the ball to defend yet keeping attacking options higher up the pitch in order to force the opposition to commit numbers to the back themselves. Below is the 1-3-1 formation which does just this.
The 1-3-1
Firstly there has to be a recognised defender who isn’t interested in roaming forward with the faint hope of putting his name to a goal and taking some glory. His job is to sit at the back, rarely leaving his own third of the pitch. Generally this position is reserved for the veteran of the team whose quickest days are behind him and now lacks the pace to track back from his opponents half. But what he may lack in pace he’ll require in concentration and patience to maintain that position throughout.
Then there are the two “wide” men in the -3-. These two positions are the most important for the formation to work as effectively as possible. They have to understand their role better than anyone. Think 11-a-Side Full-Backs / Wing-Backs. Without possession in their own third, they’ll be required to sit level with the central defender at the back and turn the formation into a 3-1-1, but when their team has possession, they’ll push further up offering support and attacking options higher up the pitch. But, much like our central defender, they will have to be patient not to wander off down the wing on a run or looking for a cross field ball. Once caught out this will have exposed one side of the defence, which can sometimes be salvaged by the central defender pushing over to the exposed side and the ‘2nd wing-back’ filling in at the centre. Unless at least one of the “wide men” has exceptional fitness levels and has the pace to create the role of full-back/wing-back/(attacking) winger then by all means allow this player to roam. But ideally they’ll understand their role of when to defend and when to push up offering a passing outlet for the central midfielder.
Thus we come to the man in the middle of the midfield trio. The perfect player for this would possess the talents to play a hybrid role of the defensive midfielder (often known as the Makelele role) protecting the back -1-, but also being able to bring the ball out from the back and find our two “wide” men who’ll hopefully be in position or find our lone striker up front. And, when the moment occurs he’ll play in the hole. Just behind the front man, creating chances, supplying him with the passes to score or looking to play off him and take that all important shooting opportunity himself. Granted all that may be asking just slightly more than any ‘middle man’ will be expected to play, so for our ‘middle man’ he may have to pick just one of those roles, but seeing as this is a struggling side a more cautious approach with emphasis on defending and spreading the ball to the flanks would be best.
And so we come to the -1- up top, the striker. This will be a frustrating evening for him. He won’t be provided the service he so desperately requires. He won’t be delivered the frequent balls into feet or chances to play one-two passes. He may not see too much of the ball and will probably feel like his match fee hasn’t been best well spent tonight. If he’s patient and keeps a sense of optimism that with every time the team are back in possession is another opportunity to receive the ball and create a chance on goal then he’ll find he’s alert and ready. So for when those few precious moments where the ball falls to his feet and he’s allowed to line up a shot on target, he’ll have the best possible chance of getting a rare goal for this struggling side. He needs to also remember not to get caught drifting in too deep. The further up field he holds his position; the deeper one more opposing player has to hold their position as well. This takes one more man away from your own third and giving the opposing team one less attacking option.
The above description of the system to employ with this formation is a rough guide. However, it is tried and tested. It may not work for your team, but it certainly worked for mine. We didn’t go from taking the wooden spoon to silverware glory, but achieving a respectable mid table finish was better than our usual start of season expectations at least.