Many tactical training sessions are based around a small-sided game theme. In fact, aerobic conditioning can also be achieved using small-sided games. The small-sided game is such an important tool for a coach, it is helpful to have in the “coaches toolbox” a clear understanding of how and why to vary the small-sided game to achieve different aims. I consider, and will use, the 4 v 4 2-touch possession game (20yd x 20yd) as the benchmark from which we will investigate the possible variations. I use this game in most, if not all, of my training sessions throughout the season. Many times it is used as a warm-up before a larger tactical game, but it serves as an excellent warm-up which also gets the players in the right state of mind and body before moving on to other more complex training.
Following are the many variations on the 4 v 4 theme which can be used to great affect:
- Field Size: Enlarging the field size while keeping the number of players constant will increase the aerobic demand on the players. It will be more taxing from a conditioning point of view. When changing the field size, however, a coach should always consider the 11 v 11 game as a model and make sure that the field size is realistic, functional, and practical.
- Field Aspect Ratio: Fields can be square (20 x 20, 30 x 30), wide (20 x 30, 30 x 40), or narrow (30 x 20, 40 x 30). A wide field can be used to work on switching the field of play and attacking down the flanks, or defensive shifting and pressing to the flanks. Narrow fields can be used to more direct attacking and defending games when you want lots of shots on goal. Square fields are great for general play, possession and passing, and build-up play. Always consider the area on the field when laying out the training area. It is helpful to the players if they are training in the area of the field in which they will be expected to execute the tactical work being practiced.
- Number of Players: Similar to changing the size of the field, adding or subtracting the number of players in the game will affect the aerobic demand on the players. Increasing the number of players (5 v 5, 6 v 6) while maintaining the same size field will decrease the aerobic demand as the players will be more densely packed and have less room to move. Conversely, decreasing the number of players (3 v 3) will make it more fatiguing. Also, teams do not always have to be equal in numbers. Unequal teams will stress the team with the lower number than the team with the larger number. Typically, the team with the lower number is tasked with defensive objectives such as pressing (attackers) or defending (defenders, midfielders)
- Neutral Players: The introduction of neutral players – players who only play for the team in possession – can add a twist to accentuate different tactical objectives. A 4 v 4 + 2 game uses 2 neutral players for the team in possession. This game is useful for training build-up play, central midfielder control and decision-making, under-strength defending, etc. Consider using only 1 or 2 neutral players. And as always, keep it functional and related to the 11 v 11 game. For example, the 2 neutral players could be 2 central midfielders, or a single neutral players could be the center forward who is instructed to “play in hole” and participate in the build-up. Neutral players can also be stationed outside the boundaries of the field to provide one-touch wall passes or crosses.
- Goals: There are 5 variations that are pertinent to the small-sided game –
- No goals – this is a passing/possession game suitable for warm-up or working on touch, control, passing and moving.
- Line goals – Typically used when the field is wide, the goal is the end lines of the field and a point is scored when the ball is dribbled over the goal-line. Alternately, the ball must be stopped on the line for a point to be scored. Also, to increase the difficulty or to work on other tactical objectives, the goal line can be shortened to a line between 2 cones. In this way, multiple goal lines can be placed on the edge of the playing area.
- Small goals – Use small goals when you want to work on accurate passing and shooting. Teams will have more functional defensive and offensive responsibilities. Also good when the goalkeepers are not available. Is usually more fun for the players than just possession games. On wide fields consider using 2 small goals on each end line to encourage wide flank play, or place 1 small goal on opposite sides of the end lines to accentuate play down the left or right flank. On large square fields, consider using 4 goals located in the middle of the 4 sides of the playing area.
- Large goals – Of course, large goals with goalkeepers should be used when shooting and attacking play is the desired tactical aim. Can be used with narrow, wide, or square fields. Also consider offsetting the 2 goals on opposite ends of the end line to accentuate left or right flank play. If you have enough goalkeepers, consider 4 goals on each side of a square field.
- Combination of goals – Finally, to really develop finely-tuned functional training, use a combinations of the above goal variations. For example, 1 large goal with a goalkeeper with 2 small goals on a wide field. This type of game is great for build-up and attacking/finishing, while also allowing the fullbacks on the team defending the large goal to work on attacking down the flanks.
- Number of Touches: This depends on the skill level of the players. I mainly use 2-touch for my college team. I feel that the ability to play 2-touch is imperative at the college level. You can use unlimited touches, 3-touch, 2-touch, or, the pinnacle of skill, 1-touch. Unlimited touches tends to work on dribbling and should be used with larger size fields or along with attacking objectives. Remember that you can have teams use different number of touches in a game. If you are using neutral players, you might want them to play with 2-touches while leaving the rest of the players to have unlimited or 3-touches.
- Field Divisions: Dividing the field in half to give each team an attacking and defending half can allow work on many tactical aims. You can require that the attacking team all be in the attacking half of the field for a goal to count. You can require that teams have 2-touch in their defensive half and unlimited touches in their attacking half. The variations are nearly endless. You can also divide the field length-wise to encourage flank play or defensive shifting.
- Work-Rest Ratio: Finally, to maximize the players time on the field and be as efficient as possible, remember that small-sided games are excellent tools for intensive intermittent exercise. Working with 3 teams of 4 can allow the coach to organize a 4 v 4 game of 8 minutes duration with 4 minutes rest. This game can be repeated for 4 sets to give an excellent functional conditioning exercise. With multiple teams, the game can be organized into 4 minute games with 3 minutes of recovery while the teams move to play different opposition.
I hope that these variations will give you lots of ideas and tools for your coaching. Remember that the overriding consideration is to make it functional and fun. Don’t get too carried away will complicated rules. Soccer is a simple game and the training should be simple, too.