One of the themes on my blog is concern with an over-emphasis on quick passing and systems of play on youth teams, especially when other aspects such as dribbling, creativity, and risk taking aren’t also encouraged.
Last weekend I was able to observe an example of this up-close as a referee during a U14G NorCal NPL game between two local rivals.
The stronger team used a system of play focusing on possession through quick passing and movement. Think ‘FC Barcelona’, but with an important missing ingredient that I will get to later in this post.
The weaker team, knowing their opponent’s strength and style of play, used a classic counterattacking 4-4-2 formation, sat deep, and worked hard to press at the right moments, intercept passes, block passing lanes, and prevent shots on goal from near the edge of the penalty area. Their objective was to patiently work to intercept the opponent’s passing game in their own half and then quickly counterattack using one or two fast forwards.
The weaker team did well tactically and worked hard to prevent the stronger team from creating clear chances until the last five minutes of the game when one mistake by the central defender and a well-timed run and pass led to a goal for the stronger team. The game ended 1:0 for the stronger team.
Is this 1:0 win a good result? Some observations:
- the game could easily have ended 0:0 if it wasn’t for that one mistake – I do not recall another clear chance.
- the weaker team did not have a fast striker and/or fast left or right forward to truly mount a credible counterattack (the coach confirmed this weakness to me during a break in the game). Add one or two of those and the weaker team might well have scored a goal or two.
- there was no creativity, dribbling, technical skills on the stronger team that could have created additional scoring opportunities – it was basically only quick passing and movement; the toolkit seemed limited
- the weaker team is their club’s second team (EGSL), the stronger team is the club’s top team (ECNL) – the gap between a top team and a second team is typically considerable at this age. It should have been easier for the top team to win.
- how likely is it that the stronger team would have won against competition of equal rank (i.e. ECNL)?
Teams can’t just rely on a system of play and hope to eventually out-pass and/or out-run strong opposition. Teams need a larger toolkit than that. Teams have to be multi-dimensional to be able to overcome different kinds of opponents and game situations.
So when we try to emulate the FC Barcelona style of play on our youth teams let’s make sure we don’t just pick one part of their toolkit – the possession/quick passing aspect of their game. Let’s make sure we also include the creativity, technical skills, dribbling, and risk taking that players such as Messi, Neymar, and Iniesta often use effectively to overcome opponents that sit deep waiting to counterattack.
Our youth players need to learn which parts of a larger toolkit to use depending on what problems they need to solve during a game. And they will often make the wrong decisions, which is fine if it helps them learn and become better players over time.
And it might not be each youth player on a team needing a larger toolkit – it might only be a handful of creative players, but the team needs to be encouraged to use creative problem solving.
It surely can’t just be fixed roles and “pass quicker!”.