Category: Training Theory

How to Best Utilize the Play-Practice-Play Methodology Outside of the Grassroots Level

A few years ago the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) decided to reorganize most of their coaching education methodology, which included launching their new grassroots coaching pathway in an attempt to rejuvenated player development across the country. The focus of their new launch was the creation of the Play-Practice-Play (PPP) Methodology, based off new research in child and adolescent development. PPP sets out guidelines for grassroots coaches to structure their practices in hopes of maximizing players time on the ball, for players to enjoy the game, and to make practices as game-like as possible.

Although PPP can be fairly controversial, depending on who you talk to within the United States, and has some shortcomings, USSF admits this is not the one-all methodology. Rather they hope for it to be a foundation methodology to get all grassroots coaches across the country on the same level with federation down coaching education.

Also important in understanding what PPP is, is acknowledging it is directed for grassroots level soccer. For the USSF this is defined as a team with vastly different ability where most players are new to the sport. It should not be taken as the methodology that USSF wants every team in the country playing.

So below I want to briefly describe what PPP and what areas of the methodology are particularly interesting and could benefit coaching a team in a competitive result-based environment.

What is Play-Practice-Play?

As mentioned above, PPP is a methodology aimed at creating a foundation for grassroots coaches across the United States. The methodology has coaches break down the game into four phases, attacking, attacking to defending, defending, and defending to attacking; but at the grassroots level the focus will be on the attacking and the defending phases.

Each practice is centered around one phase of the game and 2-3 age appropriate player actions (example at U10s: create passing options, create 2v1 during the attacking phase). PPP is not a curriculum, therefore the methodology does not have an overarching structure of practices and topics for a season. Rather grassroots coaches are encouraged to assess what player actions need to be practiced based off how much players are learning in the previous practice or match.

PPP’s most unique feature is how the practices are structured. Under PPP, each practice is divided into three 30-minute phases. The first play phase, the practice phase, and the second play phase. Lets break down each phase and what the expectations and characteristics are.

First Phase

The first play phase is how each practice should begin, by immediately placing arriving players into small sided matches. This could either be 2-3 fields of either 2v2 or 3v3. The purpose of this is to, first maximize the time on the ball for each player, and second to begin introducing the topic and key questions for the session. These first questions should not require an answer from players, instead the goal is for them to begin implementing them in their small sided games through self-discovery and exploration.

Next, based off observations, takes players aside individually or as a group and give brief feedback. This is an opportunity to relate observed actions and behaviors and connect them to the key questions for the session. This is the first opportunity to engage players and listen to their answers or thoughts on the desired actions and behavior.

Second Phase

The second phase of a PPP practice is the practice phase. This phase is a training drill that replicates a game but is modified to emphasis where on the field the desired action should occur. If the topic is attackers 2v1 and creating passing options during the attacking phase then the drill should be placed in one of the attacking third of the field with the defending side having a goalkeeper in the appropriately sized goal.

This phase looks typically like a traditional practice. The coach is expected to make adaptions based off the players behaviors, possibly making it easier or more difficult to achieve the desired behavior. The coach is also encouraged to stop play and make adjustments on player’s actions. The key area in this phase is making sure the coach sticks to the same key questions and topic that has already been introduced. Its fine to briefly address a reoccurring defensive error but coaches should be aware to not change the entire focus of the practice.

Third Phase

The third and final phase of the methodology is another ‘play’ phase, like the first phase, and is the phase that could potentially be replicated for a competitive result-based team. The core of this phase is essentially an end of the practice scrimmage. The team is split into two even teams with goalkeepers on an appropriate size field and there are no additionally rules, players play according to the laws of the game. The players just play a game, 11v11, 9v9, 7v7, which ever works best for the players at your session and age group.

However, there are a few key focuses for the coach in this phase. The first, unlike a traditional approach, the coach in this phase should not seek to stop play and correct a players decision. Instead, the coach should be replicating a game-like atmosphere and conditions in which the coach is simply observing their players’ decision-making and actions. The thinking behind this approach is that it allows the players to implement the session’s objectives and desired action in a game-like scenario, without a coach holding their hands and pointing out mistakes. If a coach is stopping play each time a player makes a mistake and the coach is now making the decision for the player and does not allow for the a player to development through self-exploration. Further, since this hands-off approach promotes self-exploration, players will be forced to improve this decision-making and problem-solving skills.

This approach also gives the coach a chance to assess themselves and ask important questions such as how well is the coach communicating the desired actions. There is a gap between teaching an action to your players and them learning. Sometimes this gap is overlooked but by allowing time to let your team play in a match like atmosphere without the coach interjecting, you can assess the learning that has been done by your players.

Implementation

This can be implemented either at the end of a single session or purposely placed throughout your season depending your game model, goals of your players, and the cycle of actions you are teaching. For an example, if a coach haas a team that are looking to build out of the back through your defensive midfielder, the coach can organize 2-3 small sided fixed games throughout the week where the coach can stop, give players immediate feedback, utilize leading questions, and communicate desired actions. At the point in which you are ready to move into the next cycle, let’s say attacking the final third through your wingers, you want to check how well your previous concept has translated to your players.

This is where making a planned session and effort to create a game-like atmosphere without the immediate feedback from a coach can allow a coach to see how much the players have learned from the coach’s teaching.

An alternative to the above example could be, if a coach and team are in a result-based environment, implementing this hands off session can allow a coach to see if players have understood the tactical adjustments made in relation to an upcoming opponent.

To conclude, although Play-Practice-Play model is intended for grassroots teams, the third phase of the methodology can be translated to teams in various environments. The ability of a coach to differentiate the gap between their teaching and the learning of players is crucial in successful player development. Further, for a coach to create a hands-off approach and allow their players to play in a game-like atmosphere to evaluate the players understanding of desired actions creates a productive environment for an entire team.

Conditioning a practice to suit session objectives

The 3-team transfer possession exercise is a commonly used practice for several coaches and has a number of technical, tactical, physical and mental outputs that makes the practice effective.  Within this article I will provide alternative conditions, that I have watched or coached, that allow for different tactical or technical elements of the game to be more prevalent. 

Basic set up

Basic set up

As shown above the most basic set up of the exercise is to have three even teams working in a rectangle, split into three zones.  Two teams work together to retain possession (blue and red) and a pressing team (yellow) will attempt to stop transfers either through regaining the ball in the box where a team is building possession, or through intercepting an attempted transfer pass.  In order to make a successful transfer, the team in possession must complete a set number of passes before being able to play through, round or over the opposition interceptors.  I have seen a variety of conditions within this basic set up to promote certain behaviours or technical/tactical ideas.  In my own coaching, I have had a pressing team defend for a set period (90secs – 3mins depending on desired outcome) with a score given to the defending team for how many times they allow a transfer. In this case, the lower the score the better.  Alternatively, the practice can run for a set period of time with the defending team transitioning to an in-possession team should they successfully regain the ball and the team relinquishing possession then becoming the pressing team.

Considerations

Before using this practice, I would always ask myself the following questions

  1. What are the objectives of the session?
  2. How can I progress the practice to further challenge the players individually and collectively?
  3. How do I ensure the scoring system reflects the objective of the session?

With these considerations, it can allow the coach to structure the session based on a number of elements.  It may relate to a specific element of a game model that you wish to implement or could relate to a strategy that may be used on a specific match day.  By knowing your desired outcomes this practice, and the detail the coach provides can allow for players to improve individually and collectively.  

Constructing the attack to play through

Receiving behind the line of pressure

In this exercise the scoring system is based on the number of transfers the defending team allow. The objective for the team in possession is to make a set number of passes to then play into the middle zone to a player in the red team, who has to receive and play into his own box.  Within the practice four goals are added on the outside of the pitch to promote behaviours on transition.  If the defending team (yellow) regain possession they look to score in any four of the mini goals. A goal for the defending team results in a point deduction from the score.  It is the coach’s discretion to organise the extent of the pressure from the defending team.  This practice demands a number of technical skills to be executed properly, specifically the passing skills of the team keeping possession and the receiving skills of the team looking to receive in the central zone to then release into their own zone.  

When constructing passes in the first box, the team in possession should look to make the pitch as big as possible through providing depth and width.  However, what is beneficial about this practice is that the possession must have an outcome.  During this phase of possession, the team keeping the ball need to constantly scan forward to see who is free between the lines, how the opposition are defending in the middle zone and how they can play through as quick as possible to a player who is able to turn.  The body shape during the build-up should allow for the blues to see the furthest away red player and by doing so, they are then able to see more passing options. The technique of playing through is one that players need to execute effectively.  Passes through the lines should be firm and if possible should have an element of disguise.  As demonstrated in the diagram, when the blue player receives he opens up his body to a play straight pass down the line.  By adding disguise to the pass, it can move out individual players and create bigger gaps between defensive units to play through.  To ensure that the pass is effective it should be played into the receivers furthest away foot, allowing them to turn whilst receiving possession and speed up the next phase of the attack.

The receiving team (red) must remain disciplined, focusing on the timing of the movement and the ability to receive and break out the middle zone as quickly as possible, either through a dribble or pass. When the blues are building possession, the reds need to recognise the moments to drop into the middle zone as by being stationary in the zone for a prolonged period, they can become easily marked.  A general rule that can be added to ensure players are not stationary is to promote ‘show and go’.  If the player is in for longer than 2/3 seconds they need to get out and rotate with a teammate and in doing so test the organisation of the screening players in the central zone.  When dropping into the middle zone, the player receiving needs to trust the blues to find them in positions that they are able to turn freely and play into their own box.  As demonstrated, playing behind the line of yellow defenders eliminates them when the pass is played through the lines making it easier to turn and escape pressure. When receiving the player should allow the ball to run across his body onto his back foot and if possible, receive on the move.  As the ball travels players should be encouraged to check their shoulders to ensure they are aware of the space around them, along with potential pressure from opponents and passing options to teammates.

Playing through in a 4-3-3

Within this exercise the coach can structure the possession players to replicate their positions on match days.  As demonstrated the structure of the possession teams could replicate a 4-3-3 with a 4-1 set up for the blues and a 2-3 for the reds.  The reds may initially be positioned in the middle with an onus on the front 3 to know when to drop into the middle to create a 3v2 against the two yellow screeners.  This structure can develop a number of relationships including the CDM with the two centre midfield players as well as the relationship between the centre midfield players and the striker.  The CDM will need to work on his movement and positioning to allow the centre backs to play through into the striker with the centre midfield players playing with a body shape that allows them to see both goals and can open up passes into the striker.

Playing through in a 3-4-3

Alternatively, this can be done through using a 3-4-3 with the blues operating as the three centre backs and two pivot players with two red wing backs occupying the middle zone.  By splitting the pitch in three vertical zones it can create a visual for players to better understand principles or rules that you wish to apply in a match day.  For example, in the back 3 you may ask the centre backs to occupy all three zones, allowing them to work the ball across the pitch better and stretch the 3 yellow pressers.  In doing so it can potentially open up passes to the centre midfield players to turn to play through or round the two screeners.  It can also strengthen relationships between the box in midfield and work on creating combinations of passes inside from the wingbacks.  By playing with two pivots, it allows them to work on their relationship and opening up passing lanes through the two CAMs through moving away from the ball.

Creating space to play round

Playing round the opponents

In this exercise the middle zone is split into 3 areas, with the wider areas (shaded) for the possession players to carry the ball into the middle zone, either driving through or combining to then play a pass to a red.  Similar to the previous exercise, a point can also be scored by transferring through the central zone via a red dropping in to receive and turn.  If the defenders regain possession they can look to score in the four mini goals placed on the outside. This again promotes behaviours on transition, including regaining the ball quickly through suffocating the player in possession and the passing options that they may have.  Once again, if the defending team manage to score this can reduce the score of the transfers they allowed or instead reduce their time defending.

Within the exercise the focus shifts towards the players playing in wider areas of the pitch and their decision making of when to carry the ball, and when to release it quickly to exploit spaces elsewhere.  The players situated in the wide areas should have an open body shape facing in the pitch to allow them to see where pressure is coming from and also where they can look to take their first touch.  When they receive possession, they should look to explode forward early, limiting the time the yellow screeners have to get across and recover possession.  When keeping the ball, the team in possession should still look to scan forward and see the spaces in central areas and look to play through when possible. However, to stretch the screening players, the team in possession need to circulate the ball quickly.  

The team not involved in the build-up phase of the exercise now have decisions to make when they see a blue player drive with the ball in a wide zone.  They need to assess whether the player in possession can dominate the 1v1 without support or do they need to get across to potentially become a ‘bounce’ pass option round the defender.  In order to free up spaces on the side of the pitch, their movement into the central area can attract the interceptor’s attention and potentially force them to narrow in, meaning that when the ball is switched it is harder to them to cover the space and defend the wide zone.  

Rotation on the switch of play

Once again, this exercise can be applied to a team shape and in this instance, focus on rotations as the ball moves from one side of the pitch to the other or on potential ways to exploit the opponent once the ball is in the wide area.  As shown above it can promote rotations such as the centre midfield players bouncing out to the side to take up a fullback position, the fullback going high and the wide player playing on the inside.  By doing this it can allow centre midfield players to receive naturally facing forward and have more passing options to break the defensive organisation.  It can strengthen the relationship between wide players and fullbacks, with the fullback knowing when and how to overlap when the wide player steps into the middle zone.  The purpose of any rotation is to find a free man who is able to receive and play forward.  If the coach allows the yellow team to have more freedom in how they press it may encourage the yellow screeners to follow players on rotations, meaning centre backs need to have an awareness as the ball travels to them to ensure they can find the free man quickly.  Timings on the rotation is also important and can be reinforced through this practice. If the rotation takes place late (on the centre backs first touch), it means players will not give themselves time to be set to receive and understand the picture round them. Alternatively, if they rotate early (before the pass is played by the left back), they will be stationary for a prolonged period making it easier for the defenders to control the situation.  

Combinations in wide areas

Once the ball reaches the sides of the pitch, it can challenge the players to make the right decision as multiple options are available including whether to play directly through or round the defender. Whether it is a quick combination to play round, via the right winger, or going directly to the fullback, this situation allows players to work on playing first time passes under pressure as well as taking positive touches to speed up the attack.  What this exercise does repeatedly is allow the team in possession to better understand when to attack down the side or when to circulate the ball back round the pitch.

Third man runs

Promoting third man runs

In this exercise there are two ways to complete a transfer. The first is through a player being able to receive on the half turn in the middle zone and play through. The second is by springing a third man run into the shaded area as shown above.  Similar to previous practices the use of small goals on the outside can be a target for the defending team once they make a regain, which prompts a reaction from the teams who have lost possession to try and regain the ball as quick as possible.  In this exercise you can also award a point if the yellows are able to make 2 passes on a regain which promotes quick reactions to suffocate the man in possession as well as the passing options, whilst also being aware of the goals on the side of the pitch.  

Due to the dimension changes this encourage players to look forward and find passes into the middle zone.  With this condition and more passes likely to be played into this central zone, it will encourage players underneath the ball to be ready to support when players receiving can’t turn due to pressure from behind.  Another consequence of playing more forward passes in tighter areas is that players will need to receive under pressure and be able to protect the ball.  This then promotes the receiving technique with pressure from behind and encourages players to either bounce the ball back if receiving square, or to be inventive and to beat the defender to then play through.  Furthermore, with passes more frequently being played into the middle area, the movement into these areas needs to be timed and if players do not receive in that area, can they rotate out quickly to free the space for others.

Pressing a specific player

Pressing a “target” player

In this exercise the focus can now turn to the defending team and working on how they structure their press.  The scoring system remains the same with the team in possession looking to play round or through the pressers, gaining a point for every successful transfer.  Again, if the pressing team make a regain, they look to score in any of the four small goals.  However, there can be greater rewards for the pressing team depending on how and when they press.  For example, awarding the pressing team two goals if they manage to make a regain in a certain area of the pitch or from a certain player and then score from that position. 

In the example highlighted above the emphasis is on forcing the play onto a certain player in the opposition (this may be highlighted from an opposition analysis).  Prior to the exercise the coach may only tell the defending team who is the “pressing target”.  This then allows the coach to see if the teams in possession recognise who that player is and how they may change their strategy to prevent one player being exposed in a certain area of the pitch.  The defending team in this case need to be patient in how they press and force the ball into the player that they can intercept from.  When pressing the “target”, the timing needs to be precise.  If the pressing player jumps out their slot early they may leave themselves to be played through or over.  The speed of approach will be determined by the body shape and awareness of the “target”.  If the receiving player has his back to goal and has not scanned behind, it can allow the presser to be aggressive and approach with speed.  However, if the receiving player has a good body shape, the presser should slow down sooner on approach but still get close enough to try and force the receiving player to play back or sideways.  

Forcing to an area

Regaining in specific areas of the pitch

When focusing on regains in certain areas, it allows the defending team to force play into an area of the pitch and make the possession teams play predictable.  In doing so, they can then create opportunities to be aggressive and win the ball back in areas that allow them to go and score quickly.  Firstly, the pressers will need to communicate effectively to ensure that they are structured as a narrow front three to force the game into wide areas.  This exercise can encourage the screening players to give information to the players in front about when to press and how to angle their approach.  Players also have to decide the right moments to go and press with the intent of winning the ball, as well as knowing when to slide across to protect the space.  As shown above, the yellow centre midfielder leaves his slot to press the blue in the wide zone.  There are a number of factors that determine when to press and when to stay and delay. Firstly, the centre midfielder will need to assess the weight of the pass that gets played into the shaded area and if they can get out quick enough to put immediate pressure on the first touch. When doing so, they also need to decide the angle of the approach and ensure they block forward passes in order to slow the attack down.  Furthermore, these moments also trigger movements from the rest of the defending team and how they provide sufficient cover round the ball to be in a position to intercept a pass or pick up a loose ball.  A rule that can enforce compactness is that the defending team must be in the two zones closest to the ball when the ball is in the shaded area and all players must be in the central zone when the ball is that area. 

Promoting counter attacking actions

As demonstrated above, a progression to this practice would be to create an end zone behind both possession boxes gives the pressing team a counter attacking focus when they regain the ball.   What this does, is allow the team that win the ball to focus on transitional moments and how the defensive structures can enable them to break quick and exploit the spaces vacated by the possession teams. In this exercise the coach may put a time limit on how long it should take to score once a regain is made and allow the players to figure what is the quickest way to goal.  It can encourage players to show composure on regains to make the right decision whether to pass or dribble and it can also improve the understanding of the strikers and the spaces to exploit once the ball is won. By adding in this transitional element, it allows the players to connect the out-possession work to reactions on transition, allowing transitions to become structured rather just a reaction to winning the ball.  

Chaos

Some of the best learning that players will get is when the session and the structure of the session is chaotic.  A way to create the chaos is to allow the defending team to press the way they want by sending as many players into the buildup boxes as possible.  Points can be awarded to the possession teams when they manage to either play round, through or over the pressing team.  Further chaos can be added to the defensive team by allowing the possession side to connect with the other possession team immediately, without any pass limit. 

Committing opposition in a block

Depending on the defensive structure, the team in possession will have to process quickly the spaces that can be exploited.  If the defending team press aggressively, the possession team will need to find solutions quickly to play over the press through making the pitch as big as possible and looking to open passing lanes into the middle channel.  In order to make effective decisions, players must have an awareness of the spaces available, passing options in possession and creating angles of support should they not receive the initial pass.  If the defending team are more conservative in their approach, it means that constructing possession may be easier. However, playing through, round or over the defending team may be more difficult.  As highlighted above, a method that can be used in this case is for players to step in with possession and entice the press from one of the screeners which can then create space in behind for players to move into.  Isolating an opposition player in the ‘block’ alongside clever movement can allow you to create an overload round that player to through. 

For the defending team, giving the players full autonomy on the defensive structure means that communication and co-ordinated pressing is of paramount importance.  To ensure that this is done with clarity, the coach may select a ‘captain’ whose job is to communicate the strategy to his teammates prior to the practice beginning. The pressing team have the freedom to adapt their strategy during the exercise which will enable the coach to see who are effective communicators and who can read the game and change the strategy if required.  Initially, what can happen is that the pressing team will start with aggression and look to press with a high intensity.  What then becomes important is how the players react to breaches and how they recover back to a narrow and compact shape before pressing, as if players press in small numbers they are likely to be played round and exert energy.  This can often lead to players having to think about game management, selecting when and how to press and being ready to turn and react to balls that are played over the press.

When players have full autonomy, it is important that the coach reflects with the players and questions their rationale for their adopted approach.  In doing so, it can create opportunities for the coach to provide clarity on the finer details of using a certain strategy.  

It can also allow the coach to reflect on an individual basis to see how they felt in certain moments and relate it back to how they may face a similar scenario in the game.  Again, it can allow the player to understand finer details of how to press, receive under pressure or play a certain pass related to their position.  

Conclusion

In summary, the 3-team possession practice is adaptable and can be used to suit a number of objectives.  In order for this practice to relate to the objectives of the session, the coach must ensure that the conditions and the scoring system encourage behaviours and actions that promote the objectives.  For example, if the aim of the session is to work on playing round the opponent the dimensions may be slightly wider than usual with zones in wide areas that promote dribbling and combination play.  What makes this practice applicable in a number of ways is that although there can be a primary focus (i.e. playing through), there is a still an objective for the defending team on how to press and regain possession.  This dual focus then allows for every player participating to gain something from the session, making it effective and enjoyable.

How to train fitness in football

It is a hot August evening in the north Hessian village landscape and I am, as so often, on the road with my mountain bike. River, hills and the one or other place sign are passed, in the middle of the dusk, you can hear loud screaming.

Step by step I get closer to this shouting, knowing that it must come from the nearby sports field. C – Youth, 13 – 14 years old, it is summer preparation and the sun hits the heads of the young footballers with all its energy. The exhaustion can be seen on their faces, their gaze is agonizing and sweat is pouring over their strained bodies. Accurately placed on the pitch are hats, coordination ladder, cones and medicine balls. A round of running with the most diverse tasks.

“Another 20min, then you have done it. Go ahead. These are the important grains that will bring us to the championship,” is the echo of the crowd. That this sport is actually called football can only be guessed at best.

A round ball, which does not necessarily weigh 3Kg, can only be seen at the edge, wrapped in a ball sack. The children seem very strained, 16 in number, and become noticeably more tired and slower. The only fun seems to be the long, lanky boy, who runs round and round and laps over.

I keep standing at the barrier and wait anxiously for the next training exercises. “You see here the passing exercise, which is to be performed at the highest possible speed! Breaks are not allowed, absolute will and concentration, boys. This has to be done on an assembly line. Station A passes first to B, then back to A, who passes to D, who claps at B, while C runs behind, etc…”

Here I had to get off, too complicated to follow attentively, mind you, without a 25-minute endurance run with obstacles and medicine balls. The exercise does not go as desired, the coach has to intervene and rebuke several times, the concentration has dropped to a minimum, the fun, if any, probably too.

A fictional story, which however is still a hard reality on many sports fields in the Federal Republic of Germany. Sometimes more or sometimes less extreme as the one described above. Even while writing, I gradually lost more and more the desire for football, just by the thought to be driven through such an ordeal. Half-knowledge passed on training routines or even false role models are the templates of such training units.

Not much has changed since the 80s, even the DFB promotes this through training articles, for example in the section “Training online”. Several foreign coaches who have worked in the Bundesliga in the last few years have shown that it can be done differently. Pep Guardiola, Peter Bosz etc. are just a few examples who used different approaches to get their team in shape, but never lost focus on the essentials, namely the game and the associated equipment.

In the further course of the article, I will talk about different possibilities of “fitness training” in football and at the end, I will also show forms of games, which can be used to train different aspects of fitness in football by playing football. In the centre of attention will always be the game itself.

Football fitness through playing football

Raymond Verheijen is one of the world’s most famous coaches in the field of football fitness and has shown remarkable success with the South Korean and Russian national teams during various World Cup and European Championship tournaments. His successes were so extraordinary, especially because his teams ran very much and especially very often, very fast, that there were often rumours of doping in his former teams.

Verheijen represents a holistic, match-oriented approach to fitness training in football and distinguishes between four performance factors: communication – tactics – technique – football fitness.

“Everything has to be football-related”.

Raymond Verheijen

These four performance factors are inseparably linked to the game of football and must be trained holistically. In order to understand and grasp the complexity of football, it is necessary to look at the fitness requirements of a player during a match, preferably position-specific.

Roughly speaking, a footballer runs at the top level in a normal game between 10 and 12Km, of which he sprints about 800m to 1200m, accelerates 40 to 60 times and changes the running direction every 5 seconds.

In addition, there are strong requirements for shooting, passing and especially in duels. For these actions the body logically needs energy, but this is only available in the body in a limited way.

cf. training control by Marco Henseling (read carefully!)

I don’t want to give a complete repetition of the energy metabolism here, but at least summarize the essentials.

In order to set yourself in motion, you need muscle contractions. The energy required for this is supplied by ATP (adenosine triphosphate) and KP (creatine phosphate). The ATP – KP system provides energy for short and high-intensity exercise for up to 15 seconds. If exercise lasts longer than 15 seconds, other energy sources are required, including carbohydrates and fats.

As mentioned before, soccer actions are mostly intermittent and acyclic, which brings other challenges than running cyclically for 10 minutes. Most actions are rather short and explosive, requiring ATP and KP. Creatine phosphate is replenished without oxygen, but oxygen is needed to replenish the ATP storage. Thus the oxygen system plays a particularly important role in the recovery phase between peak loads.

In the comparison between top-level football and amateur football, it is striking that the pure running performance does not show any major differences, however, the occurrence of intensive action in football at top level (Premier League etc.) is significantly increased, but the duration and distance of intensive action at top level is lower, this is explained by improved tactical training.

In this respect, it still seems logical that the training of condition, technique and tactics cannot and must not be considered in isolation from each other.

You have to train what the game demands on the weekend: I am prepared for every fast and constantly changing game situation by variable training of decision behaviour.” – Bernhard Peters, national team coach in hockey

In addition, the question arises why waste time with separate technique training at all, when this can be trained holistically. For a pass it first needs the perception of a situation, this is immediately analyzed by the player and an action plan is designed. A decision is now made and finally executed, whereupon the reflection takes place.

The pure execution, that is the technique, is one of the last points in this chain. The tactical experience and guidelines accelerate decision making and finally lead to motor execution. The condition is responsible for ensuring that this process can be repeated as often and as well as possible in the long run. Thus, a match-oriented, holistic training seems to be an optimal symbiosis for the best possible training design.

The necessity of breaks – in the game and training

The footballer goes through phases of action and regeneration in a game again and again. The fastest possible regeneration in a game between actions is crucial for the quality of the execution. For example, it is not possible to perform several maximum sprints within a few minutes, retrospective energy supply, but the energy budget must be replenished as quickly as possible in order to be able to perform the next intensive actions.

This should not only take place between maximum actions during a game in the best possible way, but the fast regeneration in the breaks is also of crucial importance in order to be able to perform maximum actions at the end of a game, which should at best be performed in still good quality.

If we take this back to training, these demands of the game must also be reflected in training. The size of the field, number of players, different rules, etc. can be used to control the intensity and the conditional requirements quite well in order to feel the different strains of the game or, finally, to train in order to be prepared for the game in the best possible way.

To be able to integrate this into the daily training routine, a suitable periodization is needed to train all conditional requirements.

This was my own weekly schedule last year with my U16 team. The main stress day was on Thursday because this training was between the respective matches. The day after our game we had an active regeneration and then two days off to regenerate even more.

Here, too, the requirement was always that every player can achieve maximum performance in a training session or in the game without extreme fatigue, which would massively increase the risk of injury. This also applies to the season, for example, after a long, exhausting season you should take a break to regenerate.

After this break, however, you should not train with the same intensity as before, but slowly approach the old training intensity in order to get the body used to it again. So, there is a steady development of the intensity during a season or maintenance during the season, if you continue training with similar intensities during the course of the week, in order to be able to achieve best performances at the end of a season.

cf. training control – Marco Henseling

This table by Marco Henseling shows wonderfully how to train different fitness requirements by playing in small groups. The more actions in a small space, the higher the intensity. The larger the space to be played and the more players, the fewer actions and the less intensity.

“For example, first you do a certain exercise on certain pitch size, and then you make the pitch size smaller and then smaller. The same exercise but less space, less time, increasing the demands, and that is how you improve players. “

Raymond Verheijen

Looking back to Barca in their prime time, we see that this was also a team that was almost perfectly capable of recovering through breaks in the game. These breaks resulted from their incredibly high level of ball possession and the resulting “rest”, or “active regeneration”.

Challenges of fitness training in small-sided games

There are some challenges faced by coaches who choose to do their fitness training almost exclusively in small-sided games. Above all, one has to reflect well on oneself whether one is able to drive the players permanently, to give them incentives to keep the intensity high enough to have a positive effect. There is definitely a danger that there will always be players who rest from time to time, and therefore the use of this method is not optimal.

“You need 20 absolutely willing professionals (players) for this and you also need to coach them well from the outside to encourage the players to be constantly on the move. And that’s where the difference between theory and practice quickly becomes apparent”.

 Raymond Verheijen

Furthermore, it requires a high level of expertise on the part of the coach to be able to coach the players correctly in the intensive, fast games, it is also about the right moments when coaching is appropriate.

I very reluctantly interrupt the flow of a drill but prefer to let them play and coach them during the breaks or to give them the opportunity to coach themselves. To create an incentive from the beginning, it is always about winning, it is always about achieving goals.

A game is played in order to make it victorious in the end, the way should be reflected by the reproduction of our common strategy, by the implementation of our game principles. This is done by defining the shape of the field or rules and the possibilities to score points.

As in most cases, far away from the professional field, there is no possibility to control the fatigue of the players, special attention has to be paid to how long the players can keep up the intensity of the small-sided game. If the quality of the actions and therefore the speed of the game decreases rapidly, it is certainly necessary to take a break before the game to give the players the opportunity to recover.

Furthermore, too low quality of the game could cause problems. If the technical quality in connection with the quality to make adequate decisions is so low that the ball stays in the game only for a very short time, no intensity can be built up and the specific fitness training by playing forms would only be possible to a very small extent. Furthermore, there are certainly few clubs in the amateur sector that have the luxury of one or even more co-trainers.

Here you can divide tasks and above all divide a large group into 2 groups. Otherwise, you would have to leave one group to its own devices or train only in large game forms, which do not train essential parts of the fitness requirements of the game.

“Some coaches propagate that endurance training in football should be done with a ball. In fact, several studies have examined the effects of HIIT with the ball on endurance performance (19, 45, 51, 67). Training with a ball is just as demanding on the cardiovascular system and metabolism as interval training without the ball (47). An increase in oxygen uptake of 7-9% after 10-12 weeks can also be expected from endurance training with a ball (51, 67). (…) Ultimately, the intensity of forms of play with the ball depends on the target position, the number of players, size of the playing field and the support of the coaching staff.

Sperlich B, Hoppe MW, Haegele

small-sided games for fitness training

2 vs. 2 with offside

à intensive interval method – anaerobic endurance

field size: approx. 12m x 24m

Duration: 0,5min to 2min

Repetitions: 3 to 5

Series: 1 to 3

Break length: 2min

Characteristics: many duels, many short kicks, many ball contacts, many dribblings

Coaching: especially depth staggering – mutual protection – always generate pressure against the ball – keep mini-goals in the shadow

3 vs. 3 + 1 – play into the depth

à extensive interval method – aerobic/anaerobic endurance – speed endurance

playing field size: 3 zones each 15m x 25m

Procedure: 3vs.3 +1 in the middle zone – 5 passes, after that you can play in one of the end zones – lines serve as offside line – play in the end zones only by passing – 2 attackers and 2 defenders can follow – fast continuation of the game by the coach with new balls

Duration: 2min to 4min

Repetitions: 2 to 3

Series: 2 to 3

Break length: 1min to 1.5min

Characteristics: freewheel behaviour becomes more important – short sprints into the deep – narrow space = many duels

Coaching: Off à Formation of triangles/rhombuses – quick offering to the ball – depth runs/ communication between pass giver and pass receiver

Def à Use of the cover shadow – Pressure the ball carrier – Compact organisation close to the ball

5 vs. 5 + (2(2)) – ball holding vs. switching

à intensive endurance method – aerobic endurance

playing field size: 25m x 35m in the zone – when switching the field opens up to the goal and in the width up to 16

Procedure: One team plays on possession of the ball with the 4 neutrals (green and pink) with 10 contacts each =1P – If the other team wins the ball, they play with the pink outer players on the big goal. Green defends with the team that was previously in possession of the ball. After the counterattack, the game begins with possession of the ball with the team that had previously counterattacked.

Duration: 5 to 8min

Repetitions: 2 to 3

Break length: 2min

Characteristics: Quiet ball circulation alternates with switching torque. This results in a rhythm change between short, fast movements and long maximum sprints.

Coaching: Ball possession team – Formation of triangles/rhombuses – own superior number close to the ball – game shifts – passes into the foot – immediate counter-pressing after ball loss – compact organization close to the ball

Defensive team organize compactly close to the ball – isolate opponents – use cover shadows – generate pressure against the ball à offer vertical options after winning the ball (depth runs) – find development players in-depth or anchor players in width to develop counterattacks

8 vs. 8 + 3 Holding the ball vs. goal finish

à extensive endurance method -aerobic endurance (recovery between actions)

playing field size: 50m x 55m

Procedure: A team plays 10 contacts =1P on possession of the ball. If the team chasing the ball wins the ball, they have 5 seconds to score a goal, after the 5 seconds of possession

Duration: 15min to 20min

Repetitions: 1 to 2

Break length: 3min

Characteristics: Large playing field with many players, therefore less action. Intensive actions alternate with “pauses”, which means that regeneration during the game takes place between the actions of the players, this is very close to the real game.

Coaching: Ball possession team à involvement of the goalkeepers in the ball possession game – formation of triangles/rhombuses – diagonal play stations – fanning out in ball possession

Defensive team à organize compactly close to the ball – isolate opponents – use cover shadow – generate pressure against the ball – quick orientation to the goal – zone change after winning the ball – alternatively on possession of the ball

Conclusion

For too long football was dominated by the scientific foundation of other sports. For too long, players ran round and round with no apparent purpose for the weekend game. The sport of football is so complex that there has long been a need to gather our own scientific knowledge about the sport.

Swimmers do not usually train for long runs but spend most of their time in the pool, so the footballer should not waste his time in training by stupid running, but should always have the centre of the game, the ball, in the centre of a training session. Technique, tactics, athletics and psyche are all factors that have every action of a game in common and therefore should be trained holistically.

To break down a football action into individual components and, for example, to let the pass be trained only in its technical execution would leave out too many important aspects and, above all, would not do justice to the athletic requirements of the game at all. Especially in the younger age groups, there are motivational reasons to rely more on forms of play.

The fitness training through game forms does not even have to be clearly stated as a goal in front of the players. The coach’s expertise ensures that the fitness of the players is improved by using game forms in training. Furthermore, it is still possible to increase the intensity during the game form through more emotional coaching. Basically, few football players would object to running less and devote more time to the game.

“P.S.: Stop letting your children run laps. Stop telling them to “stand closer to the man”, “cover opponents”. Let them play football instead. Keep it up. Always.”

Eduard Schmidt