When Plans Go Awry

Here is west central Ohio it has been a difficult winter to prepare for the spring soccer season. As we approached our first tournament we had been able to get outside exactly one time. Such was the snow and cold weather this winter.  I'm not complaining. We played indoors and practiced in gyms as we could.  As the weekend of March 15 & 16 approached I made formational, system and lineup plans as best I could.  They night before the tournament began I went so far to script the line ups and rotations for each of the three games we would play that weekend knowing full well I would not stick to the script.

Our first opponent had already played a few games so we were playing catch up from the start, so to speak.  Although they had a much better run of play early we found ourselves up 1 - 0 on a penalty kick.  The opponent quickly asserted itself and won the match 1-3.  They were certainly ahead of us at this point in the season so the loss itself was not disappointing. They way we played did concern me though.

To be honest, there were so many issues to address I struggled to find a starting point.  Thankfully we did not play again until the next day so there was some time to gather my thoughts.  I spoke with various team members and listened to their input, but still struggled with where to begin addressing things. So, I did what I often do in such situations - I said my prayers, went to bed and slept on it. 

When I awoke in the morning I did not go off script, no, I tore the script up and started over.

I had had it in my mind that we would play a 4-5-1 formation with a zonal system defensively and a wide open counter attacking style of play.  We have the wings to do this both in quality and in quantity.  It just didn't click in that first game and the question I ended up struggling with was whether to stick with the script or scrap it in favor of something else.

I had to consider the experience level and soccer IQ of the players we were dealing with.  I do not think I over estimated either, but I also did not factor in the rather limited experience playing in different systems.  "My" system was far different than what most, especially the new additions, were accustomed to. I allow a huge amount of freedom of movement and play. The exchange is the players must take on a huge amount of responsibility for this freedom. In hindsight, I was too ambitious too early in the process.

So, my solution was to scrap the formation while maintaining the zonal defending system. The freedom of movement remained but the rotations were also simplified by reverting to a 4-4-2 formation.  This is a formation predicated more on channels or lanes to align in than is the 4-5-1. It is far easier to understand and requires less thinking in the moment.

We begin clicking in the second game of the tournament.  Although we lost 0 - 2 it was light years better than the first game with credit going to the "new" formation and simplified play with in it.  I would go so far as to say, we were the better team in many facets of the game. Just not in the one that counts the most - the scoreboard.

The third match of the tournament went our way. We played our best match of the tournament against an opponent that had fared well against our two common opponent. We ended up winning 1-0 and generally controlled the run of play. The opponents generated too many chances for my liking, but our goal keepers were up to the task. Our attack missed too many chances but converted on the one we needed to for the win.

A week later we played our first league game.  We were able to practice outside twice and that undoubtedly helped. Still, I was nervous about the match.  To make matters worse we would be missing 4 key players for this match.  We came out strong and although the match was tied 0 - 0 at half there was little doubt about who the better team was that day. The second half things began to click as we scored 3 while maintaining the shutout. 

The point I seek to make to fellow coaches is simply this - when things are not going as expected you face two basic choices: 1) persevere with the belief that what you are doing will work with time or 2) go ahead and admit you might have had it wrong and change things up.

I recall a coaching mentor early in my career who never changed formations or systems of play. He steadfastly believed in "his" way.  Any changes he made were to try different combinations of personnel in an effort to find the right combination.  It quite literally took almost 4 years of discussions before he decided to finally change formations within his program. It didn't seem to matter that current personnel were better suited to playing something else.

I also witnessed another coaching colleague who changed formations and systems of play on a match by match basis which was no good either.  His players were largely inexperienced and his reason for the constant changes was in trying to find a competitive edge against each opponent.

My reason for change was grounded in the recognition that nothing was working as I had envisioned. Even when I narrowed it down to a few specifics to focus on improving I realized the players were likely lacking confidence in what I was asking them to do.  The formation and system were fine. They players are sound. The two just were not as good of match to one another as I had thought. No problem.  It was easier for me to change than to ask eighteen 17 & 18 year olds to do so.

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