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Making Adjustments to Your Opponents

Game time - but you don't know anything about your opponents (or, when you scouted them, it turns out that 2 of their best players were missing, so it looks like you may have goofed in your assessment of them). What do you do now? If you are an experienced coach, you might want to go to the Checklist for a list of factors which you will want to assess in the first 5-10 minutes of any match. If you have less experience, keep reading for some more detail about what to look for and why.

When you don't know anything about your opponents, you normally will decide to play somewhat defensively at first. Start with your better players towards the middle/back in order to get a feeling about the relative strength of the opposition before getting burned with an early goal which might demoralize your kids. If it turns out that you thought that they were weaker than they are and you miscalculated, then you will need to make some rapid adjustments early. You will probably need to rotate 1 or more of your stronger players to the back line which will buy some time while you analyze the attack more closely.

In general, the order in which you are going to want to assess the teams are as follows: first, assess your own defense. Because the whole point of the game is to score more goals than the opposition, you don't want to give up lots of easy goals, so looking at your own defense is always the best idea. Secondly, look at your own offense, and see if there are any obvious weaknesses in their attacks. Third, check your opponent's defense for weaknesses that you can exploit. Fourth, check your opponent's offense for weaknesses that may help your team defend against them. Fifth, assess the referee team to see if they will be a negative factor in the game. For example, you probably will not want to use an off-side trap if you do not have quality ARs - or have no ARs at all.

A.How is my team holding up defensively?

You need to assess which team is dominating the game. By this, we mean which team seems to always have possession of the ball (either constantly or by regaining possession very quickly). In particular, pay attention to whether your opponent is getting constant attacks on your goal in the opening minutes, as this is a clear signal that adjustments may be needed.

If your team is on the ropes defensively, this is usually due to one or more of the following factors:

  1. Your defense is trying to play too flat against opponents with very good speed, and is coming close to losing some footraces because of lack of depth.
  2. There are some individual mismatches (size/speed/skill) within your defensive group, so that there is a "hole" in your defense.
  3. Your defenders are not marking well, and are allowing attackers to gain possession and turn towards goal without pressure.
  4. Your opponents are marking very tightly, and playing very high-pressure defense to try to win the ball back immediately if lost, which is rattling your players.
  5. Your opponents have one player who has spectacular ball skills, and he seems able to out-dribble at least half of your defense when he gets the ball.
  6. You have a player who is "off his feed" for some reason, and is making silly errors which were not expected.
  7. You have put a new player into your defensive group, who is not doing well.
  8. Your defenders are diving in and using very poor defensive technique, even though they know better.
  9. Your defenders are doing fine, but your midfielders are not getting back, so that the defensive group is constantly defending from numbers-down positions.
  10. Defenders and midfielders are doing fine, but the keeper is having problems.

Some quick-fix ideas

If your team is on the ropes, you need to act quickly and decisively before situation gets beyond repair. So, if the opponents have already scored, or had some scary scoring runs, don't hesitate to make rapid adjustments to try to fix the defensive problems.

Sometimes, of course, the situation will be utterly hopeless - because you are facing a team which is entirely composed of the younger brothers or cousins of Pele, Ronaldo, Denilson and the rest of the Brazilian National Team's top stars. If this happens, and keep in mind that it happens to every youth coach at least once or twice, the absolute best fall-back plan is to praise your opponents to the skies. Tell the kids that, if they work hard, they can get as good as these guys. Admire the shots; admire the great ball work; admire their awesome dribbling/passing skills; and promise the kids that you will work very hard to get them to be as good as these guys, but it is going to take awhile. Reassure your players that the only problem is lack of experience and training. Heck, if these other guys have been playing soccer for 5 years, and your kids started just 3 weeks ago, there SHOULD be a big difference. Admit it - and give your kids some way to rationalize their "failure". Tell them that, against a team which is this good, you will be pleased if you get 1 shot on goal per quarter (or limit the score to 3 goals per quarter).

And, if the reason that you are getting beaten is because your team is tiny or young compared to the other guys ,which often happens where clubs use 2-year age breaks, point this out. Tell them that you are sure that they will do much better next year, when they are the older players. In short, reassure constantly; praise individual good effort; try to find some goal that is achievable; and reassure yourself (and your parents) that kids have very short memories and will be ready to play again within a day or less. Turning to the immediate fixes, here are some instant cures that can help:

  1. Weak goalie - put several strong defenders in front of him until you can sub him out. If necessary, pull your entire front line back to help out even if this means that most of your team is playing defense.
  2. One awesome player - put a tenacious player who listens well on this player and tell him that his only job is to stay with him and get in his way, so that he cannot get the ball. This dedicated marker does not have to be your best player. Anyone who has enough of an attention span to never lose his mark will work fine and even a below-average player can work well in this role. If he is truly spectacular, consider putting 2 players on him to be sure that he doesn't get the ball. Often, teams that over-rely on one superstar become helpless if they cannot get the ball to him.
  3. Size/speed mismatches are easy to fix assuming that you have somebody available who is comparable. If you do not, then put a tiny tenacious player on a big player - as refs will over-call fouls on big players in size mismatches, which should work in your favor.
  4. If you have a new player in your defensive group who is doing poorly, consider moving him to the opposite side of the field before rotating him up. In general, most attacks will come down the left side of your defense, meaning to the left of your keeper when facing upfield, so new defenders normally belong on the right. Sometimes, of course, you will find a team with a very strong left-footed player who will come down your right side, so you have to adjust.
  5. If your midfielders are not getting back, carefully try rotating them (one at a time) with your defenders. Usually, if a player knows that he is a fulltime defender, he will stay back - and the more defensive-minded players who enjoy defense anyway will automatically look to go back, so this cure works in many cases. If you have a defender who is straying too far forward, you often can appoint your CD or sweeper to watch out for him and call him back. Also, in order togive time for the midfielders to recover, tell your defenders to opt to kick the ball out of bounds (even for a corner) in order to give extra time for their teammates to catch up.
  6. If your defense is pushing up too far, or playing too flat to be able to contain a speedster on the opposition, you have the choice of switching to the use of a deeper sweeper or putting your own speedster on him.
  7. If your defenders are diving in, or not marking well, you can do some gentle reminders from the bench ("Don't Dive" or "Contain", or "Find Your Marks" and "Mark Up"). For kids who are more easily distracted than the average, it can help to tell them that they have to count and look (1-2-3-Look, 1-2-3-Look) in order to keep track of their marks while still doing some ball-watching. You can even do this counting for them from the sidelines until you see their lips moving, and see them starting to count. However, remember that kids are easily distracted by nature, so do not have expectations that are too high. This is a very hard task for them and it takes awhile for them to remember to do this.
  8. If you are on the ropes because the opponent is using very high pressure defense to try to win the ball before your players have time to settle it, your best option is to tell your kids to follow the motto: "When in doubt, kick it out." While this will concede a throw-in to the opponent, your team then has the chance of turning the tables and applying hard pressure as well. Also, remember that high-pressure defense requires quite a bit of energy, so these teams often tire in the last quarter. Help to tire them out by sending some long balls up-field which they have to race to get. Consider rotating kids forward who will be out in the last quarter anyway, and use them to wear out the best players of the opposing side. Ultimately, of course, you will want to train your kids to play a good 1-touch short passing game. However, as this takes at least a season or two to get well-developed, there is no way that you are going to be able to fix this mid-game. Instead, if your players are rattled by pressure, use this knowledge to plan some shielding and ball-possession practices for the next few sessions.

B.How is our team doing offensively?

Once you are satisfied that your team is holding up against challenges well, then it is time to focus on how you are doing offensively. You will want to take a look at three areas: what you are doing immediately after you get the ball; how quickly the attack is being mounted; and what approach is having the most success.

It is very important to look at what your defenders and/or midfielders are doing with the ball when they regain possession - because you need to maintain possession for a reasonable amount of time in order to mount a successful scoring drive. Are they blindly whacking it up-field, or are they taking enough time to find a target? When they look for a target, is anyone bothering to get open - and call for the ball? Are they carrying the ball themselves if no pressure is applied? If a defender is carrying the ball, is his supporting mid dropping back to cover?

You also need to look at how quickly the attack is being mounted. Often, young players want to streak off towards goal as soon as they get the ball and this means that the forwards and defenders are ending up in footraces. Unfortunately, there are going to be lots of times when the other team will have players who are as fast or faster than yours or will stay deeper than yours, so they have a head start. In general, it's foolish to base any attacking strategy entirely around winning footraces unless you have an exceptional speedster. Even then, you should be careful to avoid over-reliance on one player(as smart coaches can figure out ways to shut him down. In order to build an attack, however, it is necessary to slowdown the attack to give the midfielders time to recover - and to give the defenders time to push up and support the attack. One of the best ways to get this extra time is to pass the ball to the sides, or to pass back to another player who can switch the point of attack to the other side.

In addition, you need to look at whether your team is varying its approach if their initial efforts are not working (i.e., taking the ball down the opposite side or going down the middle if one side seems to have an exceptionally strong opponent). If they are not, you need to suggest this at your earliest chance (but, obviously, do this quietly). If your team has varied its attacks, which ones seem to be the most productive?

C.How is their team doing defensively?

After looking at your own defense and fixing any problems, and then looking at your offense (and making adjustments needed), it is time to look at the weaknesses of the opposition. Experienced coaches may be able to do this while making their assessment of their own players - but newer coaches may find that it is more productive to look at their own team's weaknesses first, then look at those of the other team.

Obviously, the first thing that you want to find out is whether they have any obvious holes in their defense. Has the opposing coach put a slow-poke or lazy player on defense? Which side does he play on? Do their mids bother to recover or just watch from the midline? Is the keeper clumsy (drops balls frequently)? Does the keeper have particular problems with certain types of shots (ground balls or air balls)? Does the defense play anyone deep, so that you might be able to capitalize on offside? Does the defense push up too far? How is the defensive speed when compared to your offensive speed? Do any of their defenders tackle well? What do their defenders do when beaten (just stand/watch or keep hustling)?

Based upon your observation of the weaknesses of the opposing defensive group, you will be able to make suggestions to your players about where and how to mount attacks that will have a higher probability of paying off.

D.What are the offensive weaknesses of the opponent?

After looking at these other factors, you will want to assess any obvious weaknesses in the attack of the opponents. Look for predictability. Who are their obvious "go-to" players? Who are the obvious ball-servers? Do their attacks always come down one side of the field? What type of support is provided to the attackers? How many attackers are usually being sent forward?

This information can be very helpful to you in deciding if you need to tell certain midfielders to mark X more tightly, or if you need to move your defenders around to take advantage of attacking weaknesses. Be sure to look at what the attackers do when your team is on a scoring run. Do they come far back into their defensive half to try to get the ball? Do they leave anybody at the midline? If all of their forwards drop back, you will want to drop your defenders with them - and maybe just leave one player near the midline to apply immediate pressure if any balls start heading back out. By allowing your defenders to guard the opposing forwards deep in their defensive half, you substantially increase your chances of winning the ball back in scoring distance of their goal - which is usually worth the risk if your defenders are trustworthy (and will stay with their marks).

Match Analysis for the Intermediate/Advanced Coach

As a beginning coach, you learned to do a quick analysis of the game during the first few minutes, starting at the back and working forward to see if you had any glaring weaknesses. You then went back and looked for areas where your opponent was clearly weak and/or your team was clearly superior. Here is a checklist of questions that you may wish to ask yourself, as you go through this analysis.

  1. Which Team Is Establishing Overall Control Of The Game?

    1. Is it territorial (i.e., control primarily limited to one part of the field)?
    2. Which team has greater ball possession?
    3. Which team has had the better chances?
    4. Are there any glaring technical defensive issues (marking or diving problems)?
    5. Are there any glaring size/skill mismatches?
    6. Is either team making significant unforced errors? Where? Why?
  2. What Are The Tactical Problems Of Our Team/Their Team?

    1. To what extent are the principles of play being applied?
    2. Is there depth and compactness offensively and defensively?
    3. Does the attack show variation?
    4. What is the apparent attitude of the teams towards regaining possession?

Is Either Team Committing Common Tactical Mistakes?

  1. Are defenders failing to compact and support midfield and front players?
  2. Are attackers failing to retain compactness with midfield and defenders (rushing in on attack)?
  3. Are attackers running away from man with the ball?
  4. Are defenders retreating too soon and too quickly?
  5. Is immediate pressure being placed on ball?
  6. What is the work rate of the team and key individual players?
  7. What is the tactical pattern of the team?
    1. Who are principal feeders?
    2. When do they get the ball?
    3. Who are the main receivers?
    4. Where do they move in order to get the ball?
  8. If opponent is dominating, is this through team rhythm and effort? Can we disturb them?
  9. Is dominant side being given too much time or space, or both?
  10. Which players receive tight marking?
  11. Which players fail to contain? Why?
  12. Where does team try to penetrate from?
  13. What method is used in the penalty area?
  14. Is the penalty area attacked late or early?
  15. Do they attack a wide front?
  16. What are the strengths and weaknesses of individual players?

    To What Extent Are The Referees A Factor?

    1. Can the ARs and CR keep up with play?
    2. Are we having any problems with offside calls?
    3. What is the attitude of the CR towards fouling?
    4. What type of control is the CR taking of the game?
    5. Are there any problems which need to be called to the CR's attention? How quickly?

    (See also "Dealing with Officials".)

Updated 1 April 1999
Overview | Principles | Resources | Guidelines | Practices | Game Day | Very Young | More Reading