You’ll see it in almost every grassroots coaching session.
Many coaches discuss every topic, every week, by using it.
But it sucks!
I’m talking about the ‘scrimmage’ or the all-in large scale match that opens or ends the vast majority of soccer coaching sessions at all levels of grassroots football. I used it mindlessly in the past and I guarantee that you can picture coaches from your league who rely on nothing else. But what function does it serve in a soccer coaching session?
Too many players, or too few.
If the purpose of a large-scale match is to create a game-realistic practice, then an all-in scrimmage fails on every account. Unless your session has 22 players involved, the dynamic of the game will inevitably be different to that of a matchday. In most cases the practice game has 7, 8 or 9-a-side and therefore the defenders, midfielders and attackers are all playing with less teammates and against less opponents in their area of the pitch.
If, instead, the purpose is to coach elements of positional play then it fails again. Jobs are replicated all over the pitch leaving players in positions where they cannot impact on the game. This negatively affects tactical understanding and motivation.
Worse still, under the pretense of match-practice, players are required to stay in allocated positions which limit their understanding of key concepts of the game. For example, in a large game the central attackers don’t need to learn about cover positions (so won’t) and right full-backs can play for hours without their left foot approaching the ball. These deficiencies persist even though we would all recognise how a centre forward or a right back would benefit (especially in their own position) from developing these skills.
Developing Creative Play
But the biggest problem with an all-in match is that the sole focus is the final scoreline. This creates a disconnect as developing soccer players cannot effectively analyse how their actions lead to the outcome they are focusing on. What is needed instead is a more direct relationship between a tactic and an outcome.
Small-sided games offer this simpler picture – our players’ task is to solve the single problem in front of them as effectively as possible – allowing players to develop ‘insight’ into which actions have which likely consequences. Insight is a concept famously espoused by Johan Cruijff. It describes a tactical understanding of the game, an appreciation of movement and space, and the opportunities that it presents.
In ;’Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football’, a (highly recommended) analysis of the great Ajax and Holland sides of the 1960s and 1970s, David Winner writes,
“Opponents were not seen as foes to be fought and beaten;
rather as posing a problem which had to be solved.”
- David Winner
In small-sided games the same picture is repeated again and again in quick succession. This creates the perfect environment for experimentation, for testing new skills and for developing imaginative creative play – the hallmark of Cruijff’s much-admired teams (and of their spiritual successors Barcelona and Arsenal).
Each picture in a small-sided game reflects a ‘moment’ that will appear in a full-size match. The final score of a match is ultimately the sum of the outcomes of these moments. If your team wins the majority of the 1v1, 2v2 and 3v3 battles during a game, the result will look after itself.
The major advantage of small-sided games, therefore, is in teaching our players effective strategies to ‘win’ more of the individual moments.
Technique and Touches
There are far more well-reported benefits to training with small-sided games:
Having so many touches rapidly develops strong technique and players grow quickly in confidence. In a match this presents as players asking for the ball, taking on opponents and losing possession less often.
The rapid interchange of positions forces players to incorporate new skills and to develop understanding of both attacking and defending principles. This creates well-rounded footballers who are comfortable dropping back to cover an advancing teammate or overlapping from defence to create goal-scoring chances. Further, our players will improve their attacking play by learning where defenders want to be, and perform their defensive duties better by appreciating where goals are most likely to be scored.
Small-sided games can be scaffolded so that players move from 1v1 upwards, adding more challenges and more decisions at each stage until the transition to a match is natural.
Using Scrimmages Effectively
There is one purpose that a scrimmage is ideal for; having fun. Let your players pick teams, then give them a ball and let them go at it.
But when it comes to soccer coaching – switch to small sided games.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below: