Crawl, Walk, Run

I recently conducted a coaching clinic for a soccer organization. I gave a brief presentation on the idea of practices being preparation for matches with very little instructional coaching actually taking place on game day which is reserved for match (and training) analysis.  We then had an open question and answer period.  As is often the case many of the queries were about advanced skills and tactics.

One coach wanted to know how to teach shielding the ball from an opponent. I have seen her team play and to be perfectly blunt about things, they have trouble gaining possession of the ball. She has a bunch of go-getters that are often first to the ball which is different from actually winning the ball.  In order to shield the ball one must first be in possession of the ball, correct? 

I did not call out or chastise the coach in front of her peers.  I discussed the general concepts associated with shielding the ball and explained a couple of drills and ssg's designed to work on shielding.  I felt somewhat conflicted about this but 30 years of coaching experience has taught me coaches tend to be a strong willed tunnel vision lot.

As I drove home afterward the idea of soccer being a series of 1 v 1 battles with the winner usually being the team who wins the majority of these came to mind.  In the modern game, I do not believe this has the credence it once held.  Gone are the days of man-marking defenses that lent themselves to 1 v 1 confrontations all over the pitch.  Today's game requires attacking zonal defenses and that is usually accomplished by overloading a defender and creating numbers up situations for the attackers. And on defense pressing has been the trend which is being numbers up around the ball when defending. With this in mind, I once again considered the art of shielding the ball. 

In today's game the target forward probably shields the ball more than any other player on the pitch. Backs will shield the ball when running at their own goal, but running at your own goal is taboo in zonal defending so this should not be a regular occurrence. Checking back towards a ball being played to his feet the target will often have a defender in close proximity. The target must either sit in a post up position or come sideways on to the ball looking to immediately drop the ball back or self pass.  In either case the act of shielding is part of the act of receiving. Therefore, being first to the ball cannot be the entirety of the thought process. The target must be thinking of sustaining possession of the ball for his team.

Zonal defenses are designed to intercept "passes" and are by-and-large not tackling defenses. Pressure and support around the ball cutting off forward advancement. Intercept a pass and counter.  When tackling in a zonal defense the art of dribbling (not to be confused with running with the ball) is often the strategy of choice. This in and of itself might be considered a form of shielding, sort of.  I teach players to think of it as winning the ball to be followed by the execution of a safe pass to secure possession of the ball.

This brings us back to the coach wanting pointers about shielding the ball.  Regardless of whether we consider the game of yesteryear or today's modern game before we can shield the ball we must gain possession of the ball.  It stands to reason then, players must be taught how best to gain possession of the ball before learning how to maintain possession of the ball which shielding is a useful tool for doing. 

When I conduct a camp on attacking soccer one of the first questions I ask of a coach is, "where on the pitch is your defense designed to win the ball?"   Many coaches are taken aback by this question but it goes directly to what your team's style and system of play will be.  I can guarantee you this, if forethought is not given to this consideration your team's style of play will be direct - win the ball and go to goal.  Heck, winning the ball might not even be the primary consideration giving way to simply getting the ball moving towards the opponents goal which requires only being first to the ball.

Babies learn to crawl before they learn to walk and eventually run.  The same holds true in soccer.  The basic FUNdamentals need to be learned first.  How to gain possession of the ball considered before maintaining possession.  How to utilize possession to manipulate the defense comes after winning the ball and securing possession.  Can we really expect soccer athletes to understand and execute advanced techniques and team tactics without first having a solid foundation in the basic FUNdamentals? 

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