Today I wanted to discuss the different Style's of Play we have within the Offensive Phase of the game. The first one being Combination Play. Here, a team looks to attack by keeping possession of the ball. The team looks to move up the field progressively as a unit, and patiently waiting for the open spaces by circulating the ball on the ground. This Style of Play requires a great elaboration and coordination between all of the team members. The second is a Direct Style of Play. This is when a team looks to play the ball forward (mainly through the air), in order to reach the opposing goal as quickly as possible. There is little elaboration with this approach as there are a limited number of passes and players involved. Finally, we have the Alternate Style of Play. Like the name suggests, it is an alternation between playing with ball possession and carrying out direct attacks. Teams look to combine a small number of passes in order to attract the opposition. This creates space behind the defensive line and allows the team in possession to find the forward pass and create a vertical attack.
All the different offensive approaches are respectable and each one has its advantages and disadvantages. This game can be played in so many ways and situations in soccer are not always black or white, most of the time they end up being gray. Meaning that often the answer lies somewhere in-between. It is up to us as coaches to determine where that middle ground is, and which Style of Play is best suited for our group of players.
When it comes to youth development, I am a strong believer and supporter of using the Combination Style of Play. Of course, I understand that players of a certain technical level are needed. They must possess a good first touch to control the ball and then perform many passes with great accuracy to elaborate the positional attack. One misplaced pass and the team can quickly go from attacking to defending. I can think of two big disadvantages that we have to be aware of as coaches:
It is common for teams who play with this style to be in advanced positions high up the field as they normally look to progress together and attack with great numbers. The amount of space created at the backs of the central defenders who are normally positioned at the halfway line once you have progressed to the attacking third can make you very vulnerable to receive counterattacks if the ball is lost. It also generally forces you to defend with low numbers once possession has been given away as many players are normally positioned high up the field.
The Combination Style of Play generally looks to initiate the attack from the goalkeeper by using short passes to find the defenders then the midfielders, and finally the attackers. This could create immediate danger if the ball is lost in your own half due to the proximity that your own goal has from the spot where possession may have been given away. Teams are usually looking to take advantage of this moment to quickly create a counterattack. Your players are also generally positioned very high and wide within your own half when playing out from the goalkeeper which exposes you defensively if possession is lost. Even though there may not be much space behind your defenders, there are many gaps in-between the lines that could be made use of by the opponent.
Once we are made aware of the potential risks that come along with playing with ball possession, it is equally important to discuss the benefits – especially at youth level – that your players can obtain.
This type of offensive play involves every single member of the team starting from the goalkeeper to every single defender, midfielder, and attacker. Everyone must be in sync and be aware at all times of their positioning, the positioning of their teammates, the positioning of the opponents, and most importantly where the ball is. There is no hiding here. Players must take responsibility to offer support and ask for the ball when the moment is indicated. This creates players who take initiative and want to have the ball at their feet. It forces them to find solutions on the ground rather than just kicking the ball forward and chasing after it.
Soccer is all about decision-making. Perception is the first step in the decision-making process. Players must be constantly perceiving their environment and taking in information as to where the next possible pass is once they receive the ball. The more information a player can take in, the more possible solutions he will find. The second step in the decision-making process is to take the decision itself before moving onto the final step which is the execution of the action chosen. The higher the level, the less time and space a player has to go through the decision-making process of perception/decision/execution. Soccer is a game where the player must decide on his own. There are very few moments in which a play is predetermined. It is a game more of pattern plays than set plays. Meaning that certain patterns can reappear within the game itself without them having been predetermined.
All these factors allow the players to have a better understanding of the game which is ultimately our job as coaches. We need to give them the confidence to play with the ball as well as allowing them to make mistakes in order to improve. We must develop players who possess a great understanding of the game because this is the determining factor that will allow them to reach their potential as they mature.
The beauty of the game is that there are multiple ways to play as well as many different approaches to youth development. There is and will always be discussion as to which one is the best approach to take. The important thing is that we as coaches have a clear idea as to what we are looking for within our own Style of Play and adapting it to the context in which we are in and the players that are available to us. I leave you with a clip from our last match - WAFA vs. Asante Kotoko - this past weekend. Here you will be able to see a clear example of a Combination Style of Play. Enjoy!
Guillermo Hamdan Zaragoza