SMALL-SIDED GAMES: 1 V 1 TO 4 V 4

Small sided games:

1. Include one or both of the most important experiences a player can have: scoring goals, and challenging  someone else for the ball.

2. Simulate game conditions; they are examples of "real" soccer; there are teammates and opponents.

3. Involve technical improvement intrinsically. And they teach essential tactical lessons:  correct positioning on and off the ball, when and where to pass, and likely movements and responses of teammates and opponents.

4. Provide opportunities for - and demand - decision making, problem solving, and independent thinking.

5. Ensure participation and many play-contacts, many touches of the ball. Improvement of techniques depends on repetition: the players' proximity to the ball means that they will use all their techniques frequently. 

6. Do not stereotype a player by position - as a real game can do.

7. Are easy to organize and supervise.

8. Develop playing rhythm, composure, speed, confidence, and imagination.

9. Are easy for the players to understand because they involve fewer people and less space. One of our tasks as youth coaches is to simplify the game so that it is comprehensible and still retains its essential character and meaning. Small games are less visually complex and easier to understand.

To the extent that is possible, we should try to simulate the real conditions of the game itself. To use two phrases which come to us from Dutch coaches, small games should present "real resistance" and should reflect "soccer's own meanings."

An expression which has gained popularity in the last few years is "street soccer" --the proposition being that we should create a street-like environment at our practice sites. That may seem like a laughable suggestion.  We can perhaps imagine kids playing soccer in a side street in Lagos or Naples or on a village street in Chile or Japan.  But in our town, or in Boston?

In fact, that idea is excellent: the essence is the suggestion that practice should be largely spontaneous, free, and player-directed. Certainly it is we coaches who organize games and activities--but then we should step back and let the players PLAY with a minimum of interruption and intervention. The game itself -- and these small games in microcosm -- present all the necessary lessons for our players.

From 1v1 to 4v4:

For young players, at least those up to U-12, practice should be a simple proposition.  After a warm-up and some stimulating activities or games - which are intended to improve technique - practice should consist of small-sided games and generally, a "real game" with the appropriate number of players (six or seven or eleven) on each team.

Here is a simple progression of games, building from one versus one to four versus four. Each of these games is a valuable learning environment, a useful "form" - but each should be considered, ultimately, as a means to an end. The end is effective, excellent, skillful play in an eleven-a-side game, when the kids are 12 or 13 years old.

Your players can play one or more of these games each practice, before the "real game" at the end of practice. For example, they could play one versus one for 10 minutes, then three versus three for 15 minutes, then a seven versus seven game. Or, for example, they could play two versus one for 10 minutes and then have a four versus four "tournament" with four teams of four for 20 minutes (three five minute games) before the "game" at the end of practice.

One versus One to Two Lines:

An essential challenge of the game...

Two players stand behind the end lines of a rectangle 20 yards by 10 yards, (those dimensions are, as always, variable, depending on the age and skill of your players), facing each other. One player dribbles into the rectangle; the other comes into the rectangle from the opposite end and tries to tackle the ball away. If the player without the ball can win it, he or she tries to counter-attack to the opposite end line. Play goes on until one of the players dribbles the ball across an opposite end line or the ball goes out of the rectangle. Then those players go to the opposite ends of the rectangle or start the next "game" in the opposite role.

Can you outplay your immediate opponent?  All players should learn how to stop an opponent from dribbling past them.

One versus One to Two Goals:

Simply make two small goals on each end line with cones set two or three yards apart. Now the attacker can shoot any time to try to score into the goal.

Play fast! Try to score!

Make a chance... and SHOOT!!

You can also play this 1v1 form with this condition, which gives all the young players the opportunity to practice goalkeeping:

As soon as the attackers enter the rectangle, the defender may use his or her hands any time he or she does not have the ball. For example, if player 1 dribbles into the rectangle and shoots, and player 2 makes a save, player 1 may use his or her hands at any time to try to save a shot or regain the ball.

Two versus One to Two Lines:

Same organization as "One versus one to two lines" - except that here two attackers confront one defender. The two attackers try to keep possession of the ball by dribbling or passing and then dribble it across the opposite end line. If the defender wins the ball, he or she counterattacks (one versus two!) and tries also to dribble across the opposite end line.

Two versus One to Two Goals:

On a field 20 yards long and 15 yards wide put goals four yards wide on the end lines. One team of two begins the game with the ball: they attack the opposite goal, defended by a defender and a goalkeeper. Whenever they lose the ball - either by losing possession or by scoring, the roles of the players change instantly. The defender and the goalkeeper immediately become attackers; one of the players who just lost the ball sprints back to the goal to play goalkeeper, and the other becomes a "defender."

The situation on the field is, therefore, always two versus one plus a goalkeeper.

There are no throw-ins in this game. Play is restarted by a kick-in from the sideline.

Think fast! Make decisions quickly!

This is a fantastic game to help the players learn to change from attack to defense - and the reverse - INSTANTLY. As soon as I win the ball, my friend and I attack! When we lose it, the one of us who is closest to the goal sprints back to cover it, and the other defends.  INSTANTLY!

Players on both teams should be encouraged to communicate their intentions. "I have the goal!", "I have the ball!", etc.

Two versus Two to Two Lines:

Players need to be good dribblers and attackers.

Pairs of players on a field 20 yards long and 15 yards wide; the object is to dribble the ball across the end line. If one team succeeds in dribbling the ball across the line, they step on it, leave it, and come back on to the field. The other team (pair) brings the ball back on to the field and play goes on.

This is a great, concentrated game which introduces players to a simple tactical learning environment. 

Restarts are with kick-ins.

Two versus Two to Two Goals:

Simply make two small goals on each end line with cones set two or three yards apart.  Now the attackers can shoot any time to try to score into the goal.
Shoot every chance you get!

Three versus Three and Four versus Four:

Two important points:

An added benefit to playing 3v3 (and 4v4) is that coaches (or "activity leaders") can more easily assess the strengths and weaknesses of players. A coach may notice that passing technique is poor, or that none of the players is comfortable dribbling the ball, or that very few shots are on target. There's so much action and so many "real situations" in such a small time! Then the coach can organize activities which focus on specific weaknesses.

By changing the size and shape of the field, you can provide different problems or challenges to your players. A bigger field generally favors the attacking team, bigger goals generally promote more shooting and scoring, etc.

For a thorough, superb explanation of the 3v3 form, we recommend Coaching 6,7 and 8 Year Olds and the videotape Micro Soccer, from Tony Waiters, the most compelling, thoughtful, dynamic spokesman for the 3v3 format, a former England goalkeeper who went on to coach the Canadian Olympic and World Cup teams. He is now devoting much of his time to youth soccer.

Three versus Three:

We strongly advocate that part of every one of your practices should be a period of 3v3 or 4v4 play.  If 3v3 or 4v4 games become the standard weekly "game day" format, so much the better for our players.

There are many compelling reasons to favor 3v3 or 4v4 rather than games with more players on each team. All of them are based on the needs and capacities of these young children.

As with everything in soccer, we should begin by considering the needs and abilities of the children we coach.

Why play 3v3 or 4v4? Each child gets frequent ball contacts and "play involvements."  These are the basis of learning the game. There are so few players that every player is always "in the game"--making decisions, solving problems, thinking creatively, playing with the ball.

In this age range, children generally gravitate to and play naturally with two or three friends rather than a large group. That's why the smaller game seems quite natural to them.

Young players do not grasp the subtleties of speed and space and movement that they will begin to understand as they get older. To them, the 3v3 or 4v4 game is more fun, because it is easier to understand.

Two of the most important experiences a player can have -- shooting at the goal and challenging an opponent for the ball -- occur constantly in these games. Everybody gets a chance to shoot.  Does this happen in an 11 v 11 game? No. Less than half the players shoot even once in the average full-sided games.

Tony's book, Coaching 6,7, and 8 Year Olds, written with Bobby Howe, The US Soccer Director of Coaching Education, is a splendid explanation of the 3v3 idea and a valuable resource for any youth coach.

3v3 games are excellent forms in which young players can develop their techniques, gain fitness, and begin to "read the game".

Three players naturally make a triangle, which is one of the basic units of play in soccer.  Other essential tactical lessons are taught constantly by a 3v3 game. Children instinctively learn correct positioning on and off the ball, when and where to pass, likely movements and responses of teammates and opponents.

Players are never stereotyped by position, as they may be in a bigger game. Each has lots of opportunities to attack and to defend. 

The most important considerations for young players are ball contacts (how many times they touch the ball), play involvements (how often they're involved in "real soccer situations") and the opportunity to play freely and spontaneously.

To play:

1. Set up a field 30 yards long and 20 yards wide with goals, made out of cones, which are four yards wide.
2. Restarts can be kick ins or throw ins from the sidelines; there are regular corner kicks and goal kicks.
3. You can either mark out an area (say, five or six yards from the goal) in which the goalkeeper can use his or her hands, or you can tell the 'keepers:  "Use your hands only right in front of your goal."

There are many possibilities of play:

1.    Free play: two teams playing a "regular game."
2. No passing in the front half of the field. If a player in the attacking half passes to a teammate, the ball is given to the other team. Only shooting or dribbling up front.
3. No passing at all! Only dribbling and shooting. This form promotes aggression (aggression is good, hostility is not), self reliance, and instant switches from attacking to defending and vice versa.
4. Only one team may talk; the other must be silent. Sometimes it doesn't seem to make any difference, which is when we can stress how vital communication is. We can also talk about terms and body language.

Four Versus Four:

4v4 is a real contest, a match where the players get to touch the ball a lot and where there are a lot of goals. We coaches should consider this 4v4 game mainly as a means to an end - but for the players, the game is always an end in itself.

There are many forms and possibilities for 4v4 forms: goalkeepers or no goalkeepers, various field shapes and sizes, etc. All the forms and variations present different opportunities and problems for the players: by choosing various forms we coaches can focus their attention on a particular situation or problem.

In general, these are the essential rules:

1. Field is about 40 by 20 yards
2. Goal size is flexible 
3. No offside
4. No goalkeepers
5. Kickoff from midfield - then after a goal, dribble or pass in from the back line
6. No throw-ins, kick-ins instead
7. Free kicks are always indirect, and opposing players stand back three yards
8. Regular corner kicks and goal kicks
9. Penalty kicks from the center spot, no goalkeeper
10. No "referee":  the players control.

Suggestions for play:

In general, the players should play a "diamond" formation:  one back, one left, one right, and one "deep" or "up". On attack, the back and deep players stretch the length of the game field; the left and right players stretch the width of the game. Interchange of players is encouraged, and communication among players is stressed. Ball possession, until a good shooting opportunity materializes, is EVERYTHING!

On defense the team tries to make itself compact, it pressures the ball and fights hard to win it back.

4v4 is a fantastic environment to observe and coach the three "main moments" of the game: possession of the ball by your team, possession of the ball by the other team, and the transition between the two.

Remember: this is the children's world!

Fun!
Enjoyment! 
Lots of goals!
Real soccer situations over and over!

Four versus four is another natural, helpful game form: another excellent playing environment. At its most organic, 4v4 happens when eight friends get together in a park, at recess in school, etc., throw down some sweatshirts for goals, and start a game. 4v4 (or 3v3) might be though of as an international analogy for our American 2v2 or 3v3 pickup basketball games at an available hoop.

In the last several years, the 4v4 form has been gaining popularity and acceptance as a practice - and even Saturday game - form. This might have evolved here naturally as people looked for more appropriate forms of games than 11v11. But thanks to the Dutch, we have a superbly developed scheme of 4v4 training forms and excellent guidance as to how best to organize 4v4.

Final Words:

Children come to soccer practice and to games to PLAY. They want to touch the ball, to get the feel of it, to master it; they want to see their friends and socialize; and they want to learn and compete and to face challenges. They generally do NOT come to soccer practice (or to the games) to stand around, to listen to long monologues, or to watch. They want to move, to score, to talk, to overcome challenges, to succeed, to learn to PLAY.

Our practices should promote all those desires - not frustrate them. If our practices start briskly and "warm up" the players physically and mentally and then involve them in one exciting game after another, the players will have a great time and learn plenty. We should aim to control the structure of the practice - but not the play itself. We should allow the players the maximum amount of freedom of thought and action.