After addressing those technical qualities of “what a player needs to be successful in the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program,” it is time to start defining what tactical qualities the player needs to possess. One of the most essential tactical concepts necessary for the player is:

1) Understanding of transition play on both sides of the ball

a. Transitioning from Defense to Offense – Let’s first talk about transition from a team defending situation to now moving forward into the attack. The player needs to understand their role in this tactical situation, where their team has just won the ball back. Their team is now looking to possess the ball and wait for more numbers, or they could be looking for penetration of their opponent’s defense through passing or someone making a run forward with the ball. If the player is a wide defender, they need to know when to make a run forward to provide width and to give additional support in attack. They also need to know when not to make that run forward, but rather, when to stay back and pinch in providing additional defensive coverage for their team. If a counter attack opportunity exists, where the team can gain an advantage by quickly playing a ball in behind their opponent’s defense, the player needs to understand their involvement in this attacking movement.

One National Team program that has a phenomenal understanding of this transitional phase is the Men’s and Women’s National Teams from Brazil. Players from both programs understand the importance of quickly having supporting players around the ball the moment the ball is turned over to them by their attacking opponents. This tactical understanding of this transitional element allows them to play “the beautiful game” (having unbelievable technical abilities helps as well).

There are many in the soccer coaching ranks who feel that soccer has three phases of play and the outcome of most matches will be determined by the following:

– What happens the moment the team has lost the ball?
– What happens the moment the team has won the ball back?
– What happens during those moments when neither team is in possession of the ball?

Interesting, don’t you think? Two out of the three phases deal with transitional play.

b. Transitioning from Offense to Defense – Once the ball is lost, where does the team begin organizing its efforts to win it back, does it start with the player that has caused the turnover, does it start with the attacking players? These are questions that the player will often ask their coach. The answer to both of these questions is yes.

The first principle of defending is immediate chase. The player who has lost the ball, if possible, should make every effort to track down the player they have lost the ball to, and attempt to win the ball back or delay that player from attacking any further. Attacking players often times become the team’s first line of defense when the ball has been lost in the teams attacking half of the field. Attacking players have the responsibility of organizing the team’s defensive pressure in what we call the higher areas of the field, they have to make decisions immediately during these turnover situations of whether to help win the ball back right away or to delay and drop back towards their own goal.

When a team has sent several players forward into the attack, and then that team loses the ball, it creates counter attack opportunities for the other team. A player has to have an understanding of what their role will be during such situations, especially if they are one of the players who has been caught forward in attack. Players should understand the concept of getting numbers back behind the ball, and they should also understand what is meant by getting numbers inside the ball (getting back goal side). As much as we talk about Brazil and how great they are in attacking transition, they are also extremely good at this part of the game as well. They often do not get enough credit for how organized they are defensively as a team because they get back into defensive positions quickly, with numbers around the ball in a compact defensive organization; they now make it look easy when they go from defending to attacking.

How many times have we heard the phrase, “Offense does not win championships, defense wins championships”? This especially is critical to the sport of soccer. Transition play from attack to defense is not the fun part of the sport, it at times is called “doing the dirty work,” players have to make a choice—will they track back and win the ball back, will they sprint back to get back behind the ball and help their team get properly organized against the opponents attack?

The best players in the world understand the tactical concept of defensive transition; the days of the attacking player, or any player for that matter, just standing around and watching their team attempt to win the ball back at this critical moment of the game are long gone.

2) Speed of Play/Speed of Possession – These could be considered two different themes, but I feel they should be taught together. It doesn’t do the player any good if they possess the technical level to deal with pressure from space, opponents, time, etc., if they don’t understand speed of possession (rhythm of play to some). They have to understand how to move the ball around the field while their team is in possession. Sometimes the ball movement needs to be quicker than at other times. Sometimes the ball has to be moved to the left side of the field first in order to attack from the right flank. Sometimes it has to be moved backwards in the team’s defending third before the ball can be successfully possessed in the team’s attacking third of the field. There will be some teams who will have that special player who can serve as the playmaker and all of the attacking movements for their team are dictated by this player, but what if that player is injured, suspended or being closely marked during the game, what then? All of the players on the field should feel comfortable in their abilities to hold possession of the ball in order to achieve their attacking objective or even their defensive objective if they are trying to kill off the game for the win.

Some of the elements of this tactical quality, speed of play or speed of possession, that the player needs to be successful include:

– Effective short passing
– Understanding of transitional play
– Knowing when to pass instead of dribble
– Understanding of when to apply pressure on the opponent when defending
– Making a long pass to keep possession of the ball that then allows his team to open up the game
– Individual composure on the ball
– Understanding of depth and width in attack
– Understanding of compactness as a team when defending
– Effectively assisting their team in controlling the pace of the game

I know this seems like a lot to ask of one player, but if there is a weak link in this chain, you can bet that player will be exposed under pressure from your opponents as the level of competitive play increases.

One of our team goals, during training with the U17 Men’s National Team, leading up to the World Championships in 1999 in New Zealand, was to improve this tactical quality as individuals and as a team. We wanted to feel comfortable with any type of pressure that our opponents could throw at us – mission accomplished. I have always considered this tactical theme important enough that I always include a training activity in every training session to help improve this quality in the player.

3) Ability to read the game – Personally, I have made the statement on numerous occasions to, “Take what the game gives you,” while coaching at various levels of play. What exactly does the coach mean when making this statement to their players? Players both on the ball and those who are off the ball are faced with making split-second, tactical decisions in an environment that is constantly changing over the course of the game. The players who consistently make the right decisions whether they are on attack or defense are usually given the honor of being labeled as a “player who can read the game.”

On attack, these players:

– Understanding of when to hold the ball
– Know when to combine with teammates
– Know when to change position on the field either with the ball or in support of the attack
– Know when it makes sense to go for the quick counter attack versus the slow build-up
– Understand the importance of knowing what type of pass and at what pace the pass is needed
– Know when to change the point of attack
– Have an awareness of their role and responsibility to the team

When defending these players, understand the importance of how this is accomplished as an individual, in groups or as a team; they know the importance of communication with teammates during critical moments of the game, such as transitioning from attacking to defending, knowing when and how to close down an opposing players space, understanding the importance of delaying penetration or disrupting play of the opponent and being aware of the consequences of making poor decisions during the game.

A player who can read the game does not have to be the fastest or the fittest player on the field. This player usually has a solid technical base, is one who is comfortable on the ball and handles the pressures of time, space and opponents consistently well. You will hear comments about this player such as “the player has vision” or as Manny Schellscheidt (former US Youth Soccer ODP Boys Region I Head Coach and current US Soccer U14 Men’s National Team Coach) always likes to say “the player has a soccer brain”. This player does not have to be in the center of midfield, these qualities are essential to the development of all players.

4) Heightened awareness of the importance that restart situations have in determining the outcome of the match – Almost a third of all goals scored are a direct result of restart situations (set pieces). In the 2002 Men’s World Cup, restarts accounted for 45 of the 161 goals scored (28 percent) and during the 2003 Women’s World Cup, restarts accounted for 39 of the 107 goals (36.4 percent). So what does all of this mean to the player who is competing at the US Youth Soccer ODP level?

It means that as the competitive level of the event increases, it usually means that the result, often times, is generally determined by a single goal because of the increased technical and tactical abilities of the players involved. Now, players need to be concerned more than ever with the choices they make on the field during these higher quality games.

The two areas that need to be addressed during game preparations are:

– Player responsibilities when defending restart situations
– The consequences of committing fouls, giving away corner kicks or throw-ins in critical areas of the field

The players need to completely understand what their responsibilities are during the various types of restart situations (free kicks, corner kicks, throw-ins). Does the player need to be standing in front of the opposing player who is throwing the ball in, or does it make more sense for that player to step back and front an opposing player so the ball does not get played directly into that player’s feet? Do the player’s understand that they should not give any type of tactical advantage to their opponents the moment their team has to begin defending a restart situation?

In game-time situations, players need to know:

– How to stop the short corner kicks attempted by their opponents
– Whether their goalkeeper likes to have the near and far posts covered during a corner kick
– Know how to hold a defensive line on a free kick situation and who on their team is responsible when this situation occurs
– How to be disciplined enough to carry out their responsibilities in defending restarts, such as setting the wall and communicating with the goalkeeper, being the first player in the wall, tracking players, attacking the ball, etc.
– How to be aware of where and how they should clear balls when defending restart situations—there are times when the prudent action from a defending player is to give away a corner kick or throw-in to their opponent.

We have already mentioned that the outcome of the more competitive matches is usually determined by a single goal. With that being said, players need to realize the technical abilities of players are generally better in these matches. This means a single free kick, corner kick or even a throw-in (if the team possesses a player with a long throw-in) can win the game for a team.

Players must realize that committing a silly foul in or around your defensive penalty area can cost your team the match (this would also cover things such as players not being baited by their opponent into any action that can cause a mental lapse). To avoid these critical restart situations, some coaches have found that by challenging their team not to give up any restart situations within 30 yards of their own goal, it helps their players remain more focused and to show more discipline.