Going from soccer player to soccer coach has taught me so much about the game. Stepping back from the mentality of "how am I playing and impacting the game" as an individual to looking at team trends and concepts has been challenging and is affirming why my previous coaches who were successful spent so much time emphasizing certain things. While there are many, here are 4 things that are so important for winning soccer.
1. Staying Focused On Transitions and Locating Free Players
When the ball goes out of bounds or a whistle is blown for any reason, many players think they can disengage from the game and zone out. Perhaps they are thinking of their crush, or what they want to eat after the game, but whatever it is, their guard is down and it is the punch not seen that delivers the knockout.
When the ball goes out of bounds or the whistle is blown, or a goal is scored (we have all heard the statistic about how the first 5 minutes after a kickoff or a goal is when teams are more vulnerable to get scored on) is the time to hustle into a good team shape and locate marks whether zoning which is most likely these days, or man marking. Failure to do so can lead to a quick throw in down the line to a cross and finish, a free player getting in behind, and more not good things for your team. Similar to the clever players who create dangerous plays with quick restarts offensively, the same mental sharpness must be applied defensively.
2. Not Giving Up Free Kicks Near Our 18 Yard Box
Free kicks and corner kicks are dangerous, While an "upper v" effort is rare from outside the 18 yard box, especially at youth levels, there are still rebounds, follow up goals, and corners that result from have a free shot on goal from not that far out. Heroic efforts to make a tackle often lead to diving in and fouling. Instead of moving the feet with the hips low and chest up, players will lunge, slide, and chop from behind giving up these dangerous chances. My college coach would literally sub players out of the game for committing these fouls, and after coaching for awhile now I have a bit more understanding as to how frustrating it can be as you sit there biting your nails, praying, and bargaining with the soccer gods.
I am not discussing the "smart foul" where a failure to end a play has a high likelihood of leading to a scoring chance, I am talking numbers back, good defensive shape and still committing a foul near our goal. Pk's of course are game killers.
3. Smart Back To Goal Choices During a Defensive Effort
A good relationship with the keeper and the backline is huge for bouncing or rolling balls that are in that space between them. Do we head it back to the keeper or kick the ball out of bounds? It just depends. One thing I have seen is defenders start to juggle the ball to get a good clearance by kicking it back over their head. During the juggling attempt a sly forward will jump in the way and bring the ball down either leading to a shot or a dangerous possession. One strike clearance is safer while facing your own goal but I like to see the following when possible: Play keeper and the center backs keep dropping. One center back opens while the outside backs open. Keeper has options to roll short to one center back, or wide to outside backs. If nothing is on short, outside backs pinch in, and we go long. Of course you need guys who can play a bit in the back for this.
Mostly, I like to see the minimization of just kicking it out for a long throw in or a corner kick. Skillful players can shield the ball, turn it up field and at least hit it off the opponent for a throw in of their own while they try to keep the ball in play. An outside back should really look to play their center back or goal keeper before kicking it out of bounds.
4. Good Weight And Angle Of Final Passes
As we just discussed, the space in behind the backline and the keeper is dangerous territory. If a player over-hits the pass it goes out of bounds or a good keeper will pick it up. If it is under-hit, it usually gets cut out by a defender leading to a counter attack or at least possession (unless the player who intercepts has pressure on them and continues to dribble versus just give a simple pass- dribbling after winning a ball with pressure often leads to another turnover).
Offensively you can see how important the weight, or the amount of power placed on the pass and the angle are in order to hit a runner on the mark. Being a good soccer passer is very much like being a quarterback in football. A perfect pass means the runner doesn't even have to break their stride. One tip is that if the runner is making their run vertically, a straight or vertical pass won't work unless it is a chip over a defender or a short touch to a player higher up the field who is onside. Usually with a vertical run the pass has to be angled towards the corner flags. Similarly with an angle run the effective pass will either be vertical or the opposite angle which you are facing. Its a cut back pass against the grain or flow of play. In the pic above, notice an angle run for a vertical pass. Brilliant.