Movement and Reading and our Youth

A note about this post: the soccer software used is Tactics Manager by Soccer It is an excellent aid! Also, for simplicity I refer to players as male but there is no gender discrimination intended. Observations of girls play indicate that this post refers to both boys and girls.

A number of weeks ago, the Soccer Yoda watched a number of u-11 and u-12 teams. I wanted to get a view of the effects that the new youth soccer rule changes are having on our younger players. This past week it was time to watch older teams. These players grew up playing under the old youth rules, which were basically adult rules with (sometimes) smaller fields and a smaller ball. Do these players have adequate ball skills to play high level soccer? Are their tactical ideas sufficient to compete with teams around the world? Has long ball mania stifled the development of these youth players? I was very interested to get some answers to these questions.

As luck would have it, the USYS National League had a weekend of competition right here in Las Vegas. This is a competition in which many of the nation’s top youth clubs send their best teams to play against each other. The league is divided into divisions and division winners earn a ticket to the national championships held in the summer. Every team playing in Vegas was ranked in the top 10% of its state and many were their state’s #1 side. This competition was an excellent sampling of the best youth soccer in the USA. I decided to concentrate on the u-15 and u-16 teams as these ages are old enough and experienced enough to play high level soccer but are young enough to still be learning. This weekend the play was limited to boys teams.

Overall, I was impressed by the technical skill of the boys. Their ball control was very good, first touch to settle passes and interceptions was excellent and many times was used to set up a second touch shot or pass. I saw defensive heading, head passes and several goals scored off of air balls. Basic turning was also very good. One area that could use work was one touch passing in that there wasn’t very much of it. One touch requires skill, vision and tactical knowledge……it is certainly a high level type of play, but youngsters at this age are capable of one touch if they get enough practice at it.

But, the biggest opportunity for improvement and learning lies in the level of the tactics played by virtually all of the teams that I watched.

When youngsters start playing soccer they concentrate on two things…..where is the ball and how do I kick it? As they get more experience and better ball skills they learn to relate to their position on the field and also the position of their teammates. They learn to make choices as to what to do with the ball when they have it at their feet. These choices are dependent upon many factors, one of the most important being the position of their teammates. As players continue to develop they begin to consider the position of defenders in their decision making and the teams I saw are at this point. The next step in the progression to higher levels of play is to influence defenders and then play according to the movement of those defenders. And that step was missing from virtually all the play that I witnessed in the National League.

The basics of this concept is taught in a simple 3 v 1 drill:

In this drill, 3 offensive players position their angles so that the defensive player cannot cover both of the players who don’t have the ball (players B and C). If the defender moves toward one of the receivers (solid line -step 1) , the passer ( player A) sends the ball to the open receiver player B(dotted line -step 2).Then player B , seeing the open space created by the defenders movement, passes into the space. Player C runs to the space as soon as he sees the ball being passed to player B (solid line step 3). This seems like very obvious play but it requires player A to see both teammates and the opposition. He must react to the defender’s movement and his mates must position themselves to take advantage of the number mismatch and the space available. For youngsters learning the game, this takes thought, decisiveness  and the ability to make an accurate pass……and hours of practice to develop those abilities.

Now , lets expand this concept into a game situation. American youth coaches have a seeming love affair with the 4-3-3 formation ( 80% of the teams I viewed used it), so we will use it in our example.

In this play, the offensive right wing has checked back to offer the player with the ball a passing option (step 1). The defending left back has decided to move with him in order to keep pressure and prevent an easy pass (step 2). In doing so, the defender has opened up the space behind him and the offensive center forward, seeing that , is running into the open space (step 3). The player with the ball also sees the movement by the left back and plays the ball into the space for the center forward to run to. The ball should be played in front of the center forward to avoid offside and allow the forward to receive the ball facing the attacking direction. The right wing has created an attack by his movement and the other two attackers have read the defenders movement and played accordingly.

But, what happens if the left back decides not to stay with the right wing and instead remains back, refusing to be drawn up?

The left back has not followed the right wing (steps 1 and 2). So the center forward, seeing that the space he is moving toward has a defender in it, bends his run to offer another passing option to the right midfielder. Now the right mid has two choices to receive his pass, he can pick out either player. Whoever gets the ball (the center forward or the right wing) will have time to turn and can team up with the player who didn’t get the pass to attack the left back, as seen in the example below.

The right mid has passed to the right wing who received the ball, turned and dribbled a few yards (step 1) . He then passes the ball into space behind the left back (step 2). The center forward reads the left back and runs to the pass.

In either case, whether the left back moves or not, the offensive team has a play to beat him and advance the ball toward the goal. This type of play can be used all over the field. It follows simple concepts:

A. Offensive players without the ball move their position.

B.This requires defenders to make decisions as to what they do in response to the movement

C.Offensive players read the defenders and act accordingly.There is a play for each defender reaction.

There are some basic understandings surrounding these concepts……whether to move toward the teammate with the ball or to run to open space, when and where to pass the ball, etc. But the overriding concepts of off-the-ball movement, reading the defenders and acting in response to those defenders are fundamental to advanced offensive play.

So, where are our youth in regards to these ideas? They do move, but generally in a north-south direction, either straight to the teammate with the ball , or away from him. Far too many times players with the ball are looking at the backs of potential pass receivers. Lateral movement across the field , which can totally confuse defenses, is almost nonexistent. Players with the ball seldom check out the defensive players before deciding on passes. The kids have excellent ball skills and they are comfortable on the field. Their work rate is very high, perhaps too much so. International rules only allow 3 substitutions and one wonders whether American youth can pace themselves under that circumstance. But to the Soccer Yoda, the ability to force defenders into making decisions and then playing to take advantage of those decisions is the next step for our kids, and they are definitely ready for it. Can younger players perform at that level? Absolutely! Given the practice time to develop the physical and mental skills needed to pull off this type of play, teens are very capable and they enjoy it. It is time for our coaches to move our youth to this level.

4 Comments on “Movement and Reading and our Youth”

  1. Richard Loveland says:

    Excellent easy to read piece. Mahalo for the breakdown


  2. kevin dempsey says:

    Love the read! The graphics really help to “paint the picture”. Looking forward to reading more!


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