Why 4 v 4 should be a staple of training.

If I could change one thing about youth soccer in our area it would be to teach the four basic elements of the game – penetration, depth, width and mobility.  
Some years ago I introduced 4 v 4 spring soccer league in our local school district. Four field players with no goalkeepers. We utilized 4’ x 6’ goals with a 5 yard restraining arc around the goal for safety purposes and to prevent “guarding” the goal. 
4 v 4 is the fewest number of players that can represent penetration, depth and width around the ball carrier without duplication.  Every season I ran this league, each and every team eventually settled on a diamond or 1-2-1 alignment on the field.  It can be helpful to think of playing in 3 lines with a forward, two midfielders and a back. Or simply as having penetration, width and depth present.

Tactical development within the 4 v 4 game should focus on teaching the individual players the roles, responsibilities and possibilities within the diamond formation. These tactical truths will remain constant as players are gradually added to reach a full-sided 11 v 11 game.
Center Back passing options:
Look to play forward / penetrate.  Our striker needs to remain pushed forward and present himself as a back to goal target. A key coaching point is “make the farthest successful pass possible.”  Basically we want to defeat as many defenders as possible with a pass.  Passing forward can accomplish this.
The second option is to pass diagonally wide.  Square passes from a back can lead to interceptions and quick counters to goal and so should be avoided.  After making a diagonal pass wide the center back should move to support the wide player.  A return pass to the center back, along with corresponding movement from the forward can open up a lane for a forward pass when the ball is returned to the center back.
When the center back has possession of the ball, the wide players should remain heels to the touch line with their movement being a shuffle enabling them to keep the majority of the field in their vision and by extension provide the greatest number of options to receive and play the ball when it is passed to them.  They should take their defenders away (penetrate) and then check back along the touch line to the center back to receive the ball.
In delivering the ball the center back must read the wings defender and deliver the ball to the proper foot.  We prefer passes to the “back foot” or the foot farthest from the center back when possible.  This pass will allow the wing to keep his hips open to the field enabling him to maintain as many options for play as possible.

Passing that originates from the center back position can lead to combination passing. Therefore teaching / learning the cues for basic combination passes such as an overlap, give-and-go, double pass can be easily achieved while playing 4 v 4 soccer.
Options for the Wing Players:
If the pass can be received on the “back foot” the wing should look to take on the defender.  Forward if possible but moving inside can also be helpful as we will discuss shortly.
If the defender has taken up an inside position before the pass is completed a wall pass combination might be on.  In order for a wall pass to be successful the defender should be even with and to the inside of the wing.  The center back jab steps to the middle and then cuts across the face of his defender and makes a run that will place the remaining defender between himself and the wing.  The return (wall) pass should be one touch from  the “back” foot of the wing and played behind the defender.
If the defender plays the wing straight up and the wing takes the ball inside, this is a cue that an overlap by the center back might be on.  The center back should make a looping run outside the wing as the ball is being carried inside. The calls are “Hold!” and when he is ready for the return pass “Now!”
If the wing must close his hips to the pass being made and shield his defender from the ball a double pass combination can be utilized.  The wing makes a return pass to the center back who has moved to support the wing. After making the return pass the wing pivots to the outside (away). If the defender turns to follow the wing takes the run diagonally inside to receive a return diagonally forward pass from the center back.
If the wing remains with his hips open to the field but finds himself shielding a defender with his body he should play the pass from the center back with his front foot. This is called a Self Pass.  The self pass utilizes the outside of the foot to touch the ball away from pressure. If possible the wing should use the separation gained to turn and face up on the defender then take him on.

If the front foot reception is not successful in gaining enough separation to turn a face up, a back pass to the center back should be utilized.
A second type of Self Pass that can be utilized when both of the wings hips are squared to the on-coming pass and he is shielding a defender is to jab the toes of the receiving foot down into the ground at a slight angle and under the ball. The resulting deflection and spin will play the ball “backwards” to the side and behind the defender allowing the wing to execute a spin move and take the ball on the dribble or take a shot.
Options for the Forward:
If the forward receives the penetrating pass he should look to utilize either of the Self Passes described above looking to face the goal and take a shot or take on the defender
If a self pass is not possible, the forward needs to shield the ball from the defender and look for teammates moving forward in support.  The first options should be a pass wide. The next option is a pass back to relieve pressure.
If the forward does not receive the penetrating pass from the center back he should adjust his position as the ball is played wide to a wing.  If the ball is played wide to the forwards right, the forward should drag his defender away from the space that wing wants to play in by moving to his left. 
Or if the wing moves inside with the ball a run towards the line the wing has just abandoned might be in order dependent on the movement of the center back. If the center back is overlapping the forward will need towithdraw wide assuming a  position away from the action as the remaining wing must move to the depth position being vacated by the center back.
Another possibility is to exchange places with the remaining wing player.

Everything described here applies directly to the full-sided 11 v 11 game of soccer. From receiving and taking on a defender 1 v 1 to employing passing combinations to isolate a defender and create numbers up situations to self passes to create room for a shot or space to play in.   The 4 v 4 game and its variations, 5 v 5 with goalkeepers and 8 v 8 without GK's and 9 v 9 with GK's should be staples of any teams training. 

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