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Understanding Small Group Attacking Principles

The importance of learning the basic principles of small group attacking cannot be over-emphasized. The basic patterns which are involved in 1v1, 2v1 and 3v1 (or 3v2) attacking are the cornerstone of all other attacking patterns. As a result, unless the player has developed an understanding of basic small group attacking patterns, he will be ill-prepared to work within a larger group setting.

The move by many clubs to small group play at the lower age levels is a direct result of the recognition of the importance of developing an early awareness of fundamental small group attacking principles. In upper-level games, it is quite common that most players will not touch the ball for more than 2-3 minutes in an entire 90 minutes of play, yet they will have played extremely hard for the full 90 minutes. How? By making a huge number of supporting and covering runs to assist teammates, as well as doing his/her part to control the ball and play it correctly when in their possession. Their individual skill work will prepare them for their actual time on the ball, while their small group work will prepare them for their time off the ball (by showing them when, where and how to make proper supporting runs). In a nutshell, most of small group work teaches a player how to move when he doesn't have the ball.

When Are Players Ready For This Work?

When are young players ready for instruction in small group attacking? When they have reasonable ball-handling skills and have spent enough time to grasp the basics of individual attacking (and individual defending). Typically, most players will not be ready for significant work on 2-man attacking patterns until after 1-2 years or more of basic soccer training. The reason for this is that group attacking skills require that the player has basic ball-handling skills, as well as the confidence to take on and beat a defender.

Until the players have the ability to pass between one another with reasonable accuracy, as well as the ability to dribble and shoot with some proficiency, their ability to work as a group is going to be minimal. If group attacking work is attempted before these skills are adequately developed, passes will go awry; those passes which are executed properly will be poorly received; and, even when received well, the receiver will get so flustered by the presence of any opponents that he will be fearful to look up to find a teammate (even if someone else is wide open).

It is important for new coaches to be aware that it is not uncommon for coaches to be forced to go back to the basics, even with a team of older players, if those players never developed good ball control when younger. As a result, just because a player has played for X seasons (and theoretically should be ready for more advanced work), the coach should not assume that the skills actually are there. As a result, if you try one of the combination drills and it keeps falling apart, it may not mean that the drill is terrible or that you did a bad job of presenting it. The truth may be that the players just are not ready yet.

Other factors also may affect readiness to begin small group work. One factor is mental/emotional development. Before around age 8 or 9, children tend to be so focused on themselves that they do not see teammates, so they may not be ready yet to work cooperatively. Another factor is the time spent in practice, as well as the quality of prior coaching instruction and prior exposure to the game. For instance, the youngest brother in a family of 4 soccer-playing boys is likely to have been exposed to fairly competitive soccer since birth, and to have competed regularly against older siblings, so this child may be far ahead of other children who are the same age.

Still another factor is relative physical development and general body control. Coaches must be alert to the natural variation in growth rates, which may affect coordination, speed, agility and other ÏathleticÓ qualities. For example, if a number of players are going through a growth spurt at the same time and experiencing temporary trouble with ball control (because they have no idea where their feet end), this may not be a good time to introduce new topics where ball control is highly important.

So, what is the best way to judge if your team is ready for this work? If they get their heads up on a regular basis when dribbling; if they can receive balls on the ground and then move purposefully with the ball for a few steps; if they have started to watch out for each other, and talk somewhat (even if it is just ÏmineÓ or Ïwatch outÓ); if they can pass accurately to someone who is stationary, as well as someone who is moving; and, finally, if they can link together 5-6 passes in basic 4v1 or 5v2 keepaway. If they aren't ready yet, the coach should just keep working on the individual skills. As a practical matter, when they finally start ÏseeingÓ teammates and have the skills to pass/receive balls accurately, they likely will start using teammates on their own without any prodding from the coach.

Learning the Importance of Support

In the individual attacking training, the players already have learned that the first decision when the ball arrives (or even before the ball arrives) is whether they have a decent chance of a shot. If the answer is Yes, then they shoot. If the answer is No, the next question is whether they can easily dribble to a place where they will have a decent shot. If the answer is Yes, then they should dribble - unless they have a teammate who is in a better position than they are. As a result, they already know that the on-ball player is the one who makes the final decision about whether or not to keep the ball.

Now, they are ready to move to the next stage of understanding - and realize that most of the actual decisions of the on-ball attacker are going to be Ïmade for himÓ by the supporting attacker(s). How can this be? Because, unless the supporting attackers move into positions which help the on-ball attacker to keep possession (either by drawing some defenders away or by actually accepting a pass), the opponents will gang up on the on-ball attacker and easily strip him of the ball. Secondly, unless the supporting attackers talk to the on-ball attacker - and act like extra eyes and ears - the on-ball attacker is much more likely to lose the ball to an opponent coming up behind him. Finally, unless they help him, he also is much more likely to fail to see an open teammate in an excellent position to score, which hurts the team. As a result, at this stage, it is time to impress upon the players that the OFF-BALL PLAYERS ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT PEOPLE ON THE FIELD in more advanced level play.

So, how do they learn their roles and positioning so that they can stop playing as individuals, and start to play as a team? During beginning keepaway games, the players began this process when they learned to establish and maintain immediate safety outlets for the ball. They learned that this meant moving to a place where the ball could ÏseeÓ their feet - and to a place where the on-ball attacker could see them with no more than a slight turn of his head. They also learned that the on-ball attacker needs to have at least one close support player within easy passing range of the on-ball attacker - but that this close support person needs to be far enough away that he can receive and control a pass before a defender can shift over to him. They discovered for themselves that this usually meant setting up close support around 15 feet away, unless they were sure that the on-ball attacker could look up long enough to see them when farther away and could pass accurately to them. They also learned that at least one support player needed to stay fairly close, but that the others could provide pressure outlets by getting farther away into wide open space, and that they could keep the ball longer if they quickly relayed the ball to this open player if the on-ball player passed to them. Finally, once the safety outlets had been created, they learned that they needed to provide feedback and instructions to the on-ball attacker to warn him of an opponent coming from behind, as well as to help him to decide where to pass the ball next.

These same principles will be used in teaching movement with a purpose (i.e., movement towards the opposing goal in order to get into scoring range). While keepaway games are great for developing passing and receiving skills, as well as comfort on the ball, they are just the beginning stage of possession play and are a prelude to exercises which involve moving the ball forward towards a goal through the combined efforts of 1 or 2 other teammates.

The basic two-man combination attacking patterns can be divided into 4 basic categories, including passes to the side of the defender; passes behind the defender; passes in front of the defender; and faked/trick passes. The basic passing patterns are as follows:

  1. Passes behind the defense

  2. Passes to the side of the defense

  3. Passes in front of the defense

  4. Faked passes and other tricks

The basic slotted pass is the easiest pass to learn. In this pass, the supporting attacker is running alongside and slightly to the rear of the on-ball attacker, at a distance of about 10-15 feet away. The on-ball attacker head directly at the defender, in order to commit the defender to him. Then, when about 2-3 yards ahead of the defender, the on-ball attacker slots the ball into space to the side of and behind the defender to his teammate to run onto, and then runs around the back side of the defender. The coach can set up a series of cone or flag ÏdefendersÓ in a zig-zag fashion, so that A1 takes on the first cone and passes to A2, then A2 takes on the next cone and passes to A1. Later, the coach can add a series of defenders in a Tunnel of Death (see practice plans), but initially will want to anchor or restrict them in some way in order to insure success. In the next session, the coach will want to include a weaving pattern to the combination, so that A1 takes on the ÏdefenderÓ and passes to A2; A2 then moves to the inside (into the path which the defender might take), while A1 loops behind him to the outside - after which A2 takes on a defender and passes to A1, and the pattern is repeated. This is a common pattern used to run the ball along the touchlines, and also makes a nice warmup.

The next pattern which the coach may wish to introduce is the give-n-go, because the patterns are very similar to the previous patterns. In the give-n-go, the object is to pass the ball to A2, who immediately passes the ball back into space behind the defender, so that A1 must make a quick sprint around the defender to pick up the return pass. The give-n-go is also a very useful technique to move the ball along the touchlines. Once again, requiring players to string together a series of give-n-goes makes for a challenging warmup in future practices, because it tests their ability to do 1-touch passing and receiving while on the move. Because of this challenge, there is some chance that the coach may need to drop back and work on 1-touch passing/receiving before the players achieve much success in this technique.

Once these techniques are mastered, the coach will want to introduce the wall pass and the diagonal run, as well as the overlap. The wall pass is similar to a give-n-go, except that A2 is usually stationary along the touchline, so that the ball is played to him for a quick return much in the same manner as if his feet were a wall on a building. The diagonal run is a looping run away from the on-ball attack, which is very useful when longer passes are contemplated, because the diagonal nature of the run makes it easier for the receiver to pick up the ball anywhere along the diagonal (so he is more easily able to adjust to a less-accurate service).

The introduction of the overlap is an important step, because it introduces the concept of drawing a defender away in order to create space for a teammate - and illustrates to the players that the dribbler actually has power to rearrange the defenders by his own movement. This is the cornerstone of upper-level play, in which a player may be said to have done a first-rate job for the entire match without ever touching the ball, simply by creating valuable space for teammates to run into. The concept requires the ability to think abstractly in two or three dimensions, and it will take time for players to fully understand how valuable it is to be able to create space for teammates and why the runs which they are making are not ÏworthlessÓ just because they did not get the ball.

After these passes have been taught, the coach will move to square balls, checking runs, drop balls, take-overs and dummy runs. A square ball is a pass which sends the ball laterally across the face of the goal to a teammate who is running alongside the dribbler (usually a couple of steps behind), and the first touch of the receiver almost always should be a shot on goal (normally by a pass with the inside of the far foot). It is often difficult for younger players to master the footwork involved in making square passes until they have developed good coordination, so this technique probably should not be attempted before around age 9 (unless the players have exceptional footskills).

A checking run occurs when the runner makes a run as if to accept a long service behind the defense, which tends to pull defenders towards their own goal. As a result, a large space typically opens in the territory which the defenders just left - and the runner simply checks back into this space in order to receive a ball without immediate interference from the defense. In checking back for the ball, the runner usually will have his back towards goal - so it is common that he will execute a drop pass, which is simply a back-pass to a teammate who is facing goal. The drop can create excellent scoring chances, because the player accepting the drop usually is coming in at speed and the transfer of his extra momentum to the ball can result in wicked shot on goal. Furthermore, because the drop is going against the direction of play, the defenders frequently are facing in the wrong direction and never even see the receiver until it is too late.

The take-over run is simply a quick switch of the ball to a teammate going in the opposite direction in order to confuse the defense. The on-ball attacker dribbles the ball close by a teammate and continues on running as if he has the ball, while leaving the ball for his teammate to pick up and go in the opposite direction. The dummy run is a similar type of ploy, in which a runner makes a hard run to a certain space (often making a lot of noise to draw attention to himself), while the actual play goes down the opposite side. These techniques are very appealing to players in their early to mid-teens, and this may be the best time to introduce them, after the players already have developed solid skills and re ready for a bit of finesse and trickery.

All of these are valuable techniques - and it is likely that it will take several seasons to fully explore them in a progressively realistic defensive setting. One of the things which young players often have a hard time in remembering is that, when the ball is passed, they switch roles with the on-ball attacker and instantly become the support player once they have passed the ball. It is not uncommon for them to simply forget that they need to be moving to provide the next support angle or pass option. Once again, patience is needed to prod them along, while reassuring them (and yourself) that they are making progress.

In the course of teaching these basic 2-man attacking principles, the coach also will want to devote time to training the players in the following additional principles:

Moving to 2v1 Finishing Work

As the players learned during their earlier training on the phases of individual attacking, the object of any attacker is to hang onto the ball and to keep possession until the ball can be moved into scoring range. Because the alleys down the sides of the field are the least crowded, supporting player most usually will be running along the touchline (or fairly close to it) in order to provide a safety outlet for the ball. The inside player, on the other hand, will constantly be on the alert for openings to make a run towards goal, and will want to probe and push at the defense so that he can take advantage of any lapse which opens shooting space in the central area.

Just as with individual attacking, safety stops being a major consideration when the ball is moving into scoring range. At this point, the job of the Support player is to find the best space behind or to the side of the last defender(s) where he can receive the ball for a decent shot on goal. Because most younger players cannot control air balls very well, or serve air balls with any accuracy, it is usually best to start training the players in finishing opportunities which can be created through passes on the ground. Thus, the Support player will need to get into a position where the ball can ÏseeÓ his feet (or, later, into a position where the ball can ÏseeÓ space which he can reach ahead of the keeper or defender).

Here is a common training scenario. Assume that you have 2 attackers coming down the right side, with the attacker about 15 yards inside and his Support player running near the touchline. Once the attackers get about midway into the opposing half (or slightly deeper), they will want to move the ball into the central goal area (because shots have a higher percentage rate in the central area). The final pass before they head towards goal usually will be to the inside player in a 2v1 attack and, as soon as the pass has been made, the Support player will sprint to overlap behind the on-ball player and head towards the goal, using a curved run so that he can see the other attacker and accept a dropped pass if one is sent. Ideally, the Support player wants to be able to get to the far side of the defender, so that the defender (and the keeper) cannot watch him and the on-ball attacker at the same time. However, because he wants the ball to be able to see his feet, the Support player probably wants to stay at the top of the PA in order to keep the drop option open until another option (such as a square pass) becomes more likely from the angle and positioning of the dribbler. Simply by his presence, the Support player is likely to draw the defender towards him (because he is so dangerous in the central area). As a result, there is a big possibility that space may open up on the back post for a shot by the dribbler. The coach will have to exercise judgement in deciding whether to restrict players from taking obvious shots and, if such restrictions are imposed, look for ways to release them as quickly as possible so that finishing continues to be encouraged.

The coach should realize that decisions to shoot or pass are made in split seconds, as are the decisions to stay put or make a run. Miscues will be common in the early stages, and it is easy for the coach and players to become frustrated or to conclude that this stuff doesn't work. This is a time when the coach must become a cheerleader, and constantly look for ways to praise the effort and to praise the idea, even where the execution leaves something to be desired. With practice, the players will grasp these concepts, and start to make impressive scoring runs of which everyone will be proud.

Moving to 3v1 Finishing Work

When you add another player, the objectives and positioning remain very similar to those used in 2-man attacking. During the field possession stage, the two support players will form a moving triangle with the on-ball player. One will tend to get to the space to the side/rear of the defender (i.e., will move into the typical space occupied if there was only 1 supporting attacker), while the additional support player will try to assist in penetrating the defense more quickly by taking a more forward position. If he is faster than the defense and the ball is in the opponent's half, he will want to get to a position which allows the ball to be played into space behind the defender and give him an unobstructed run towards goal. However, if he is slower than the defense or the ball is in his own half, he will simply take position ahead of the ball which allows him to provide adequate support.

This triangular positioning involves the same concepts used in keepaway and allows the ball to be moved past the defenders through short passes. The coach will want to emphasize and reemphasize the importance of these triangles, as the ability to quickly set support triangles is the litmus test for really good teams.

Once the 3-man group has successfully maintained their triangles and have moved the ball into scoring range, the rear player in the supporting triangle typically will peel off to make the looping run to the far post (i.e., he will make the same run as the supporting attacker in a 2-man combo). The other support player typically will move to take up a position in the vicinity of the near post (although he normally will be stationed at the top of the PA in order to be able to serve as an outlet player if needed - or as a shooter - or as a relay to the far post attacker). Thus, when in position, the supporting players continue to form a triangle with the ball - and continue to allow the ball to see their feet. The only difference is that, instead of trying to provide outlets for the ball into ÏsafeÓ space, they are now trying to provide outlets for the ball which will permit an immediate shot attempt.

Some examples of three-man combination patterns are:

How These Principles Relate to Larger Group Attacks

All movements in soccer "key" off of the actions by this primary group of 3 players around the ball. To illustrate this point, let's say that you are going to work on 6v4 attacking (something which occurs often in a game setting of 11v11). The fundamental need for the support triangle will still be there, so the nearest 2 players will serve the role of close support. The remaining 3 attackers usually will be allocated by sending two to provide deep penetration options (near/far post) and one to act as a pivot player/defender. By doing this, the team can more quickly get the ball into scoring range without loss of possession - and already will have players in place to make near/far post runs. Thus, the additional players simply make the game go faster because other players already are in the necessary space - and also cuts down on the number of runs needed from the close support players (so they don't get as tired).

Thus, once the players understand how the 3 primary attackers players should move, they will know where to move themselves (as it will be instantly clear when they are simply filling in and making the same run to the same place where they would have gone in a 2-man or 3-man attack). In turn, this makes it easier for them to ÏreadÓ the other players, and to automatically know where their help is needed.

Most coaches will not introduce 3-man patterns until around u12, instead devoting the early years to work on basic skills and 2-man attacking patterns. However, this brief discussion is included in this Manual, because it is important for new coaches to understand how the basic 2-man and 3-man patterns link together (and why small group work is so important for the long term development of their players).

Updated 12 March 1999

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