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What Makes and ODP Player?

By Tom Turner

Many young soccer players are probably wondering what it takes to become an “elite” player at the State Regional or even National ODP level. While some players have good technical skills, others have speed, and still others can kick the ball a long way or are strong in the air. Is it any one thing, which makes a player get noticed?

The answer of course is yes… and no! While some elite players have impressed coaches by doing one or two things better than their peers, others may have impressed by simply being good over a wide range of abilities. The key component for all elite level or ODP players, however, is the ability to control the ball and be comfortable with it when in possession. This is the first thing a coach looks for when evaluating talent: what can the player make the ball do?

The “yes” and “no” answers can be illustrated by comparing the following two teams. The first team has 11 players who work hard to get the ball, but do not have the individual talent to take advantage of their possession and therefore struggle to win games. The second is loaded with individual talent but has no one willing to do the hard work in winning back the ball when it is lost.

This team also struggles to win matches. Finding the right blend or balance between the two teams is the key to choosing select team rosters. There needs to be players who work hard to win the ball and there need to be players with the individual talent to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them.

Choosing rosters for the Olympic Development Program, like any other team, is in part a question of balance. Coaches must try to blend the “workers” and the “players”, the consistent with the brilliant. The following is a list of terms which identify what coaches look for in “elite” level players. While each coach has his/her own preferences in looking for talent, these components will all be considered in selecting players for ODP teams.

TOUCH ON THE BALL: Does the player have control over the ball with both feet? Can he/she make the ball do what he/she wants while in possession? Does the player look comfortable with the ball under pressure?

BALANCE: Is the players in control of his/her body? Is the player able to change direction in a controlled manner with the ball?

TECHNICAL SPEED: How fast does the player control the ball and play it? Does the player have the ability to use good skill quickly?

COACHABILITY: Can the player carry out a directive from the coach? While many young players are tactically weak, a good player will be coachable, and therefore have the ability to develop good habits?

WORKRATE: Is the player willing to push him/her self to the limits? Does the player attack and defend?

AWARENESS: Does the player see good opportunities to pass/dribble/shoot? Does the player have vision of what’s happening on the field or does he/she make the game difficult?

REACTION TO FAILURE: How does the player respond to a bad call or a mistake? Does failure result in a drop in performance?

LEADERSHIP QUALITIES: Does the player communicate to others? Does he/she demand the ball? Will they take charge when the game is on the line?

PHYSICAL SPEED: Is the player fast? Does the player have enough speed to be effective without being exploited by opponents?

SIZE & STRENGTH: Is the player physically able to play with bigger opponents? Is the player’s size the reason for his/her success (especially at younger ages)?

As you can see, there are many components, which can go into making an “elite” soccer player. Different positions call for different requirements in players’ abilities. During the State Olympic Development Program camps, you will learn many new ideas about soccer. It will be a chance to compare your abilities with other players of the same high standard. For those who advance to the

Regional teams it is another step towards national team recognition.

Tom Turner is a U.S. Soccer National Staff Coach, Region II Women’s ODP Coach, Ohio North State Director of Coaching and Assistant Coach US Women’s Pan Am Gold Medal Team.

Restarts

By Tom Turner

Given the paucity of goals in soccer, restart situations often present some of the best scoring opportunities in close games. Accordingly, it is almost standard for the top teams to utilize live and still image technology in their scouting to prepare for upcoming opponents. Nothing is left to chance, particularly at the club level, where time will be appropriated to restarts prior to each game.

There are five formal restart situations and three special situations that must take into account. The five formal restarts are goal kicks; corner kicks; indirect free kicks in the defensive, middle and attacking thirds; direct free kicks in the defensive, middle and attacking thirds; and throw-ins. The three special situations are drop balls; “ceremonial” restarts, following an injury or other non-foul stoppage; and the goalkeeper’s punt or kick from open play when a quick release is not desired or possible. Obviously, each situation requires more or less training time, with restarts inside and around the penalty requiring considerably more preparation than, for example, drop balls, which may never feature in a formal training session.

In Closing…

The purpose of this article was to explain soccer in terms of its tactical phases, or parts. It is hoped that the descriptions can impact both spectators and coaches.

For the casual parent-spectator, the intent is to help cultivate a more mature youth soccer crowd that can better-appreciate the developmental value of “good” soccer. In striving to replace “kickball mania” with an appreciation for Pele’s “Beautiful Game,” the “better” teams may still lose a few contests to tactically limited opposition, but the overall quality of the soccer spectacle, and the passion of the participants will surely be elevated above today’s average fare.

For coaches, the natural extension of this article relates to team preparation and the degree to which their players are capable of understanding and executing a sophisticated tactical approach to soccer. By helping each player understand their positional role and responsibilities within a system during each phase of play, the obligation to think and act under pressure can be transferred from the coach to the players… Ultimately, if coaches work towards developing independent thinkers who understand the game, we will all enjoy some relieve from the prescription coaching that is a demotivating plague on our youth.

One final thought. As Rinus Michels pointed out in Teambuilding, the process of molding a competent team starts with the preparation of young players many years earlier. Good technical players who can solve small-group tactical problems will always be capable of playing different styles of soccer, as we can observe from the global nature of the top professional leagues. It remains a truism that the goal of youth soccer is to produce generations of passionate, insightful players with a comfort level for the ball in the hope that a few special players with exceptional individual qualities will emerge. As Jay Hoffman would take pains to remind us, talking tactics is important, but the three most important cornerstones of any tactical discussion will always be technique, technique, and technique!

Tom Turner is a U.S. Soccer National Staff Coach, Region II Boys ODP Coach, Ohio North State Director of Coaching. He can be reached at coaching@oysan.org.

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Part II: The Defending Phases

By Tom Turner

(If you missed them, you can read the introduction to this series and Part One)

Defending Against the Counter-Attack.
Knowing that the counter-attack is a pivotal tactic, good teams will look to develop transition skills that slow or stop an opponent’s immediate forward progress. This is achieved by immediately pressuring the ball to force sideways or backwards passes; and by keeping the midfield and defensive lines well balanced positionally and numerically. Importantly, this continual defensive organization takes place during the building-up or attack. Teams that wait to defend until after the turnover are much more likely to be punished for their ball watching by good counter-attacking teams.

At the moment of transition, players in attacking positions are often on the wrong side of their immediate opponent and out of position to cover their own teammates. This is why immediate pressure on the ball can be so critical. However, where the turnover occurs on the field and whether the risk of counter-attack is high or low, will, in part, dictate how a team should react to a loss of possession.

The Pressing Dilemma
In addition to factors such as weather, fitness, field conditions, and technical range, the time remaining, the score, and the importance of the match situation to any competition impact where teams start to defend. Counter-attacking situations aside, if, for example, a team is losing, or needs an additional goal, the onus is on that side to increase their defensive tempo and chase the ball. This results in pressuring the ball closer to the opponent’s goal.

When a defending team chooses the right tactical cues, pressing can be a very effective tactic; however, it does bring risks. Pressing can be perilous because the defensive block must move forward and towards the ball. If this movement does not happen at the right moment and with the players reacting together, there will be attacking spaces left open within the block, or behind the block, or on the flanks. With defensive players committed forward without being organized, a quick build-up may produce dangerous attacking opportunities and break-a-way situations for the opponent. The defensive application of offside tactics also becomes important, as pressing teams can’t also effectively protect the space behind their back line. This is one reason why goalkeepers must play out of their goal in pressing situations.

Defending From Behind a Line of Confrontation
Pressing makes sense when the ball can’t easily be played over or through the defensive block. When pressing doesn’t make sense, teams can either force the issue by pushing players forward and taking greater risks, or they can drop back a little and start to defend closer to their own goal. When this strategy is employed, the team may still press when the right moment presents itself, but will otherwise drop back behind a pre-determined “height”– such as 25-30 yards from the opponent’s goal, or to the top of the circle on the opponent’s side, or behind the half-way line — before attempting to regain possession.

When a line of confrontation is established during the match preparation, the basic strategic approach is for the team to drop back in transition and begin defending when the ball reaches the confrontation line. However, the moment of transition creates a few more tactical dilemmas for players to assess. What if the closest defender doesn’t pressure the ball and a counter-attack results? Or, if the closest defender correctly pressures the ball, should his/her teammates still drop back to the line of confrontation? Or, what if two defenders are in the vicinity of the ball and both are needed to eliminate a counter-attack or a quick forward pass. And, how do these decisions affect the reorganization of the defensive block?

Bunkering
At the extreme, a team may simply defend “en masse” behind the ball in their own half and attempt to score goals with as few passes and as a minimal number of players committed to any attacking foray. This strategy of “bunkering and counter-attacking” is often chosen when one team is significantly overmatched by their opponent; are playing numbers down because of a red card, fitness, or injury; are playing to protect a lead; or attempting to keep a clean sheet. Ironically, this strategy can also work well for a good team playing against a tactically naive opponent, or a counter-attacking team that must secure a result.

Next: Restarts

Tom Turner is a U.S. Soccer National Staff Coach, Region II Boys ODP Coach, Ohio North State Director of Coaching. He can be reached at coaching@oysan.org.

The Better Team Lost! Exploring Soccer’s Phases of Play: Part 1 – Attacking Phases

By Tom Turner

Part I. The Attacking Phases

Attacking and Building-up
Soccer is a game of passing and dribbling, with the objective of scoring more goals than the opponent. In terms of individual decision-making, the first thought any player should consider when in possession is whether they can score a goal.

How often, for example, do we see young players creatively attempting to beat the goalkeeper from distance? If scoring is not possible, the player should assess whether an assist is possible. If an assist is not possible, they should look to move the ball forward towards the opponent’s goal. In most circumstances, looking to advance the ball forward is preferred to moving the ball square or backwards. However, when a forward option is not available, the objective is to keep the ball in possession until a forward dribbling or passing option, or a shooting opportunity, becomes available.

As the options to attack the goal become more limited, either because the ball is too far away, or the opponent is too well organized, the better teams will look to circulate the ball and maintain possession. This is called building-up, or the build-up, and it is the phase of play most lacking and perhaps least understood in American youth soccer.

Transitioning From Build-up to Attack

At any moment during the build-up, a pass, dribble, or shot may signal that a goal scoring opportunity is available and the tactical phase has changed from build-up to attack. When an attack on goal is possible, the speed of play will often increase significantly as individuals take initiative, or a small group of players attempt to gain a numerical advantage around or behind a defender(s).

Given these definitions of building-up and attacking, the distinction between the two can often be quite blurry. For example, the build-up may be as simple as a long throw from the goalkeeper to a forward when the opponents are caught in a poor defensive posture; to a long pass over the top of a flat back line by a quick-thinking full back; to a quick transitional pass by a midfielder to a forward following an interception close to the opponent’s goal.

More likely, the formal building-up phase will involve forward and backward and side-to-side passing and dribbling. It is also true that the build-up will take two very distinct forms depending on the position of the ball.

Building-up in the Defensive Half

In cases where the goalkeeper or a defender has secured possession and the opponent is not pressing, the better teams will take the opportunity to slow the game down and circulate the ball into attacking positions. This tactic of building from the back helps save energy and, as the ball is advanced, provides the attacking team with shorter distances to run with the ball or play penetrating passes.

The tactical advantage is simply a function of numbers, with the vast majority of system match-ups providing for the defenders and the goalkeeper to outnumber the attackers. For example, when both teams are playing 4-4-2, the four defenders and the goalkeeper often play against only two forwards, ensuring a high probability of maintaining possession and successfully advancing the ball.

When building out of the back against a retreating defense, the flank players will create space by moving as wide as possible; the forwards will create space by getting as far down field as possible; and the central midfielder(s) will provide the defenders with time and space by initially moving forward. If this space is not created, the team that attempts to build out will find themselves under pressure and in danger of turning the ball over in a very dangerous part of the field.

Playing out from the defensive half does not always include a formal choreographed build-up. Many times, the goalkeeper can initiate open play with a quick release to a teammate in space; the same is true of any player who gains possession in the defensive half. Sometimes these passes result in a counter-attack; most often they simply force the defense to retreat into their own half and allow the build-up to take place further forward.

Building-up in the Opponent’s Half

When a defending team deliberately bunkers in, or is otherwise pegged back in their own end, the attacking team is faced with a very difficult problem, as there will be very little space behind the defense and very little space between the defenders. Even on a regulation-width field of 72-75 yards, the challenge of creating goal-scoring chances demands skill, mental patience, and a high degree of tactical discipline. The team that possesses good dribblers may succeed; the team that possesses the ability to pass the ball with pace and accuracy and length may succeed; the team that can quickly combine in tight spaces may succeed; the team that can score with shots from outside the box may succeed; the team that can score from wing play may succeed; the team that can score goals from restarts may succeed; the team that can change their formation and style may succeed; the team that can add a “dimension” player, such as a tall striker, may succeed. But nothing is assured, and history is replete with examples of courageous defensive performances resulting in famous results being secured against very long odds.

To build-up effectively when an attack has stalled, or patience is required, individual players must have the dribbling skills to keep the ball and the passing skills to warrant teammates spreading out from back to front and from side to side. With the offside law restricting how far forward a team can expand, the onus is often on the defensive line to drop off from the midfield to create time and space at the back of the team. This is often achieved in the defenders own half of the field and is one of the primary reasons why the lingering practice of positioning “goalie guards” – those who are required to stand on top of the penalty box — is so abhorred by youth soccer observers. By restricting the forward movement of defenders to support the team during the build-up, coaches are destroying these players’ natural and necessary connection to their teammates and to the most enjoyable phases of soccer.

The Moment Of Transition

In any soccer game, teams will find themselves in and out of possession, and the most dangerous moments during open play are often found when the ball transitions from defense to attack and from attack to defense. When a team is building up, the players are usually spread out from back to front and from side to side. The opposite is true of the defense, whose organized shape will be very compact, as players move towards the ball from the sides and from the front and back. While a good attacking team will have wide players as much as 75 yards apart, and will have committed defensive and midfield players forward for attacking support, a good defending team will try to move as a tight block in order to help create layers of help around the ball.

Counter-Attacking

In the seconds immediately following a change of possession, two opposing dynamics come into play: The counter-attack and defense against the counter-attack.

The team that has just regained possession will look to exploit the spaces between and behind their opponents before the defensive block can be organized. At the higher levels, the team that can effectively counter-attack is often the more successful and therefore a premium is placed on speed of recognition and speed of play. The counter-attack can be carried out with any combination of dribbling and passing movements, with the point of origin generally impacting the likely tactical solutions.

Because attacking spaces are more available when counter-attacking, under-pressure defenders are often forced to take greater risks with offside tactics. This, in turn, pressures attacking players to better appreciate how, where, and when to run into shooting or crossing positions. Players who understand the value of lateral and diagonal running in these situations often become the game breakers; conversely, players who run in straight lines often become offside.

Sometimes, what starts as a promising counter-attack opportunity quickly peters out as defenders recover goalside, or technical/tactical lapses kill the impetus of the moment. While the initiative for an attack may still be regained, it is more likely that teams must abandon the counter-attacking phase and revert to formally building-up.

Next: The Defending Phase

Tom Turner is a U.S. Soccer National Staff Coach, Region II Boys ODP Coach, Ohio North State Director of Coaching. He can be reached at coaching@oysan.org.

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