The value of small-sided games is found in the details of the process.

I considered titling this article "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing" or something to that effect. The prompt for this article comes from a question recently posed to me; What are some good small sided games for teaching zonal defending?  I knew what the questioner wanted to hear, but I also knew what she needed to hear. 

Let's set the background before diving head first into the question.  The high school program I began with has been playing zonal defense for a couple of decades. They were the zonal defending pioneers in our area.  Great attention to the details within the process were stressed in those early days of defending zonally. At a time when Pressure, Cover, Balance were stressed as the pillars of defending we focused on Pressure and Cover.  Balance was a consideration for sure, but not emphasized as strongly.  There was implied necessity for balance and a general understanding of what it entailed through nomenclature such as (hockey) Stick and Arrow (head) whose descriptive qualities included both cover and balance positioning.

Small sided games seek to isolate specific game situations with a phase of play and train players decision-making abilities within that context. To this day, most of the zonal defending exercises and small sided games focus on pressure and cover with an implied consideration for balance. I stress this because when a team is just learning to defend zonally the breakdowns occur in two generally areas. One is balance. The other is secondary or high cover. 

As an old basketball coach I realized early on many players of the 1990's were well versed in on-the-ball man to man defense and cover,but balance was somewhat nebulous at best.  I began teaching the basketball concepts of back to goal Ball / You / Man and Man-and-a-half defending to soccer players.  This served to address overall defensive team shape including balancing the shape. This allowed our teams to define with purpose what the roles were within our zonal defending scheme. We added a better defined structure to the nomenclature of stick and arrow. 

That's all fine and dandy, but how does a team set about training to play in such a manner?

First and foremost the coach must define the defensive system the team will employ.  This goes much further than simply saying "we are going to defend zonally" and introducing any of the regular staple of drills and exercises for zonal defending one can find in books or on videos / YouTube. 

1) Select the shape or formation you wish to defend in.  Four in the back or three in the back are common.  There is a bit of a trend developing to play 5 in the back and I have even seen some alignments utilizing 2 in the back. 

2) Where on the pitch do you want to win the ball.  This can be "geographic" location and involve establishing a line of confrontation or it can be position / player specific within a teams shape and specific player positioning.

3) Design a small-sided game that focuses on the area where and the timing of when you wish to regain possession of the ball. These conditions will differ when focus is on regaining position in your attacking third as opposed to the middle third of the field to the defending third of the field.

4) Although utilizing a small-sided approach be sure to incorporate emphasis on team wide play related to the moment in lay you are directly coaching.

For instance, if I were training the outside backs to pressure in our zonal system while defending in the final third, I would utilize a small sided game with a strong focus on opponent flank play.  When an outside back moves to pressure the ball carrier what do we specifically task him with doing?

1) Stop or delay the advance of the ball.
2) Make the ball carrier predictable by channeling or forcing him in a certain direction.

Our general rule of thumb for the outside back is to force the ball carrier inside towards the help waiting in the form of a center back in  (hockey) Stick! positioning. There is "Balance" implied with the correct position of a second center back and / or remaining outside back.

For most coaches, this is where the thought process stops.

There are other considerations. 

For instance, if the midfielder assigned to provide high cover to the inside and in front of the center back providing coverage is not in place, forcing the ball inside might be an extremely dangerous thing to do in allowing the ball carrier to "load up" for a shot while moving centrally toward goal or allowing for a cross to the back post. 

So, if high cover is not available, then the ball should be forced outside. This presents an entirely different set of circumstances that must be dealt with. A tactical decision must be made on how to support the pressure defender (outside back) to the outside.  The easiest solution is bring the nearest center back further outside to be available in support or to double team.  However, in doing so this will stretch the back line and open areas in front of the goal.  So, a second tactical decision must be made on who will drop back into the back line to fill the gap in front of the goal or on the backside.

A good small-sided game to train the outside back will cover all these situations and more. It is why small side games or situational training remains an effective way of teaching the game to players. While the primary focus is on training the outside backs, the secondary considerations pertaining to nearest teammates and the team at large are just as important.  The point is simply if a small-sided game viewed in a book or on video / YouTube or perhaps witnessed at a coaching convention or course is just rolled out there for the kids to play it will at best only be marginally effective.  It is all the other details of the process that hold the true value of using small-sided games to train decision making in specific game situations.

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