Consider these two scenarios:
In scenario one a nine, ten, or eleven year old defender without an easy/obvious forward passing option and attackers closing in simply passes the ball, without fail, back to his goalkeeper (or simply kicks it up the field to relieve the pressure). This defender very rarely loses the ball and never concedes a goal.
In scenario two a nine, ten, or eleven year old defender more often than not attempts to dribble past the attacker (or attempts to use a first-touch past the attacker) and/or dribbles up-field in search of a passing option. Half the time he/she fails and it leads to turnovers and even conceded goals and lost games.
Picture this young defender on your son’s or daughter’s team for a moment. What would go through your mind if you observed scenario two during practice scrimmages or league games?
I suspect for many of you it would be something along the lines of “what is he/she doing? Don’t dribble there – it’s dangerous. Just pass it back to the goalkeeper!”
In my view, this is where what we see the pros do on TV and a conscious or unconscious preference for ‘winning’ clash with true player development. Here’s why:
That defender in scenario one can develop into a solid player. Simple passes, little risk taking, and probably a focus on athleticism using his/her body to defend against attackers. He/she will probably rarely be accused of directly conceding goals. Reliable and solid.
But also very predictable and with a limited tool kit. And as the standard of play increases over the years a simple pass back to his/her goalkeeper or another defender often won’t be the right decision. But it’s pretty much all he/she knows.
For example, when faced with high-pressing opposition there simply won’t be time or space to pass back to the goalkeeper. That would be the worst decision to make because it puts the goalkeeper under enormous pressure to ‘solve the problem’. So while the goalkeeper might technically concede a goal it was actually the defender who tossed the ‘hot potato’ to the goalkeeper. The defender needs to be able to creatively overcome the pressure and figure out how to work the ball up the field.
Another example is learning to work the ball out of your own defensive third when the opponent has lost the ball during an attack. In these situations it is often the case that, say, 14, 16 or even 18 players crowd your team’s defensive third which makes any easy pass to the goalkeeper or another teammate unlikely. A quality defender needs to be able to help work the ball up into the middle third with many opponents close by.
And in these situations the defender needs a larger tool kit, including the skills and confidence to dribble, fake movements, pass accurately in very tight spaces, and overall solve problems creatively and unpredictably. He/she has to be much more than just a reliable athletic risk-averse passer.
So which of the two young defenders will have a larger problem solving tool kit when they are fourteen or sixteen? The one in scenario one or two? I hope you agree that this is more likely going to be the defender in scenario two.
And keep in mind that teaching a skillful and creative fourteen or sixteen year old defender to be more risk-averse by passing back to the goalkeeper more often is much easier than teaching that defender in scenario one to be more skillful and creative to solve the much more challenging problems he/she will be facing as the quality of opponents increases.
In fact, it is probably fair to say that, for all practical intents and purposes, it is impossible to teach a sixteen year old player to be more skillful and creative. This part of player development needs to start when the player is just five or six and then intensely cultivated as the youngster grows up.
It is difficult to teach an old dog new tricks, and sixteen is ‘old’ when it comes to skills and creativity development in soccer. And the more skillful and creative those tricks, the more difficult. But teaching a skillful and creative fourteen or sixteen year old to pass back more often is orders of magnitude easier.