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Think on Your Feet – Soccer Strategy & Tactics

The beauty of soccer is that it’s a complex game where the possibilities are endless. Your proficiency in soccer not only depends on your physical coordination, but also on your ability to read the game, make quick decisions, and communicate with your teammates. No matter how crisp your dribbling, shooting, and passing skills may be, it’s all useless without strategy.

Luckily, the objective at the heart of soccer is simple: keep the ball moving and put the ball in the net. But, there are a million and one ways for you to get from Point A to Point B. How well you do so hinges on how rapidly you can assess your situation on the field, weigh your options, and choose the one most likely to achieve a goal.

The best way to improve your strategy is to play with and against the best. If you play a good team and you’re constantly put under pressure, you’ll be forced to play the ball quickly. Whether you’re playing professionally or with your friends at the park, try to play at a game-like intensity all the time. Don't do things that you know you wouldn't get away with if you were playing a good team. This kind of discipline will keep your mind sharp.

Playing with a wide variety of people will also expose you to new strategies and techniques. Be a conscious and observant player so that you can add these experiences to your strategic artillery. Even carefully watching the pros at work will make you a better player, as long as you make a real effort to understand how teams get a winning edge and look for an opportunity to apply that strategy yourself on the field.

Although strategy is best learned on the field, there are several principles that you can benefit from becoming intimately familiar with…

Back to the Basics

Soccer is ultimately about getting the ball into the right person's feet: the one who has the most time and space (i.e., faces the least pressure) and is in the most advantageous position to score (or make that goal scoring pass).

The key to playing good soccer is to keep the ball moving by playing one and two touch soccer—that is, passing and moving off the ball and being creative. The ability to do this goes back to a good first touch, using your body to shield the ball, and knowing what you want to do with the ball before you get it.

Generally, you want to spread out on offense and become a compact unit on defense. On offense, use the entire field to break up the defense, creating gaps and spaces to attack.

The best way to open up spaces in the opposing team’s defense is to keep the ball moving. Let the ball do the work. Play it into the forward’s feet, and then have him or her lay the ball off to someone making a run through towards the goal or, if the forward is covered, lay it back to the midfielder, who plays the ball wide. The wide midfielder then tries to get a cross in, or switches the ball back to the other side where there is more space.

Your strategy, when you play the ball to the forward who is tightly marked, is to draw the defense into this player. Once the forward gets a touch on the ball and holds the ball up with a touch or two, the midfielder can get the ball back and pass to another player who’s now open, since the defense has collapsed around (or at least shifted their focus on) the forward. The pass can then be made behind the defense to get them chasing the ball with their heads turned.

In general, switch play and keep the ball moving on offense, so your opponent cannot close down your space and make it difficult for you to make a pass, and so you can find holes in their defensive structure by stretching them out. In moving the ball laterally, you can find time and space and pick out a teammate in a goal scoring or advantageous position.

On defense, you want to do the reverse of what you do on offense: stay compact as a team unit and defend with numbers. For instance, if the opponent is attacking down the right side, then the far right midfielder can move into the middle and help out, since the opposing player on the far side is not as dangerous as those attacking with the ball.

Of course, he or she must still be aware of the player they are marking, but they must gamble, in a sense. If the opposition makes a long pass to the far left winger, he or she needs to be able to get there before the ball does, and then the whole team will have to shift positions to the right side. If the far right midfielder ventures too far into the middle, they won’t be able to adequately cover their marked player. But if he or she gauges it properly, they’ll be able to arrive before the player has time to control the ball and attack down the line.

Whether you’re on the offensive or the defensive, you’re going to have to become adept at moving through the field. Keep in mind that the better you are at cutting through the opposition when your team has the ball, the better you’ll be at defending against such tactics when you’re on the defensive.

The Run-Down

The important thing to remember is to make runs that lead to goal scoring opportunities or open up space for a teammate.

If you make a run in behind the defense, for example, and that doesn’t work out, check back to the ball, get the ball and lay it off and then make that run behind the defender again, so the midfielder can chip or loft the ball to you in the air. Or, if the midfielder on the left side has the ball, you (as the center midfielder) can make a run down the line to receive the ball or open up space for the left sided midfielder to take his opponent on the dribble and move into the open space in the middle.

If there’s an opportunity to take the defender on, go for it. If not, lay it back to the center midfielder and break down the line again to receive the ball. The center midfielder can also make an overlapping run. The right sided midfielder can play a one two with the forward who is posting up. There are numerous options if everyone on the field is looking to put themselves into position to receive the ball and help one another.

Team Work

To execute these types of exchanges (a give and go or overlap) you need to lead the defense into believing you are going in a different direction. Keep them on their heels; lay the ball off at the right time. You can always start over. If one side of the field is too clogged up and crowded, then switch the ball to the other side. It could be two square exchanges of the ball and then on the third pass, someone breaks into the open space to receive the ball in behind the defense.

Starting over can mean making a run to get yourself open or setting up your defender for a return pass. Dart down the line, checking back to get the ball. Make an angled run into the middle, then checking to the outside. Essentially, this is making space for yourself by taking the defender with you into the middle and then breaking to the outside. Draw the defender away from the space you want to receive the ball in – and then check back into the space you just opened up. It could even just be walking five yards towards the sideline and then breaking back to the middle. Check back to the ball at an angle. This way you will have more space to turn and see the field, as your body is already half turned. You can check back to the ball side on so you can see where you want to play the ball next, and keep your body between you and the defender (control the ball with the outside of your foot).

Here are some specific techniques that’ll keep the opposing team guessing:

Running Without the Ball

If you make a run towards a teammate with the ball but don't receive it - break into space to drag the defender with you. For example, make an ambitious run towards the goal for a through ball just to draw attention to yourself and open up a play for someone else—a decoy run.

Give and Go or Wall Pass

You almost need to sucker the defender towards you, as though he or she is going to be able to intercept the ball, then play the ball and go, accelerating into the open space to receive the return pass.

The Cross Over Exchange

This is where you dribble the ball towards a teammate and exchange the ball with him or her. You can also fake the exchange and keep the ball if the defender has read the play. Exchange the ball with same foot as your teammate, meaning that if the player dribbling is using his or her right foot, then their teammate will pick the ball up with their right foot, since they are coming in the opposite direction. This enables you to shield the ball from the defender with your body.

Exchanging Positioning

This is another good way to open up space for a teammate and confuse the opposition. For example, as outside midfielder you can exchange positions with a center midfielder. If the opposition ends up in close proximity when making a run or when exchanging the ball, this switch may confuse the defense for a brief moment and give you an opening. The outside midfielder makes a run into the middle, receives the ball, makes a pass to the forward who holds the ball and then lays it back to the outside midfielder who sends it down the line where the center midfielder has made a run.

This kind of movement can take place all over the field during a game. As long as you fall back into your position and make sure each position is covered, your team shape remains intact.

Back Door Runs

Make an exaggerated move back to the ball. Then break away to receive the ball behind the defender, who has now overcommitted to the play since he or she thought you were going to receive the ball in front of you.

Wide Angled Runs on the Outside

When making a run on the outside, as a winger, outside back or midfielder, widen your run so it’s easier to run on to the ball and strike a cross, shot or pass. With a wide run, close to the touchline, you have more space to work with and gives the player making the pass or space to play the ball.

As always, change of pace is key, both when dribbling and when making a run. Go at a slow jog, away from where you want to go or disguised by moving into a different position, and then make a quick movement towards the area where you really want the ball. You need to bring the defender away from where you want the ball played. Push up the field so you can break back towards the ball, or do the opposite: bring the defender back to the ball, so you can break in behind him or her, and your teammate can play the ball through and behind the defense.

Here are two more reminders to keep in mind:

· When going at a defender on the dribble – make the defender commit to you and then lay the ball off.

· Angled runs are harder to defend – and you can use your body to better protect the ball you are receiving.

· Attack quickly when there’s an advantage or an opportunity. Don’t hesitate. Try to keep the ball moving as quickly as possible. If there’s a chance to break – break with a few precise and crisp passes.

While fine-tuning your strategy depends greatly on how the players move through the field, the attitude behind your decision-making can play a critical role, as well…

Don’t Play it Selfish

No matter who’s on your team, selfish play becomes contagious. When someone is dribbling all the time, others will pick that up and do it themselves, or at least not be as active in the play and stop making runs. The great thing about soccer is that this will usually correct itself because the game doesn’t allow you to play that way. The team that moves the ball around and shares the ball the most makes things the easiest for themselves and will have the most scoring opportunities. If you play selfish soccer, you will not be successful in the long run.

You not only need to think about what you’re going to do with the ball, but you also need to think about what the person you’re considering passing to can do with it. Before you play the ball, when picking out a player for a long pass or serving the ball in from a long distance, you should have a plan in your mind of what is going to take place next. The player you are making the pass to should have someone to lay the ball off to or time to turn, or you yourself should support the pass if nobody is available. Picture a series of plays that are going to take place when sending a long ball or starting a play. Try to always think of where the ball should go next. That way, you’re making good decisions and setting up your teammates by putting them in advantageous positions.

Let’s say you want to play the ball to your teammate’s left foot and they have someone covering them on their right side. You want to lead your teammate with a pass that puts them in the best possible scenario to make the next successful play or pass. If they are making a run through towards the goal, you want to put the right pace on the ball so they don’t have to break their stride. Bend the ball into the path of the player or, if they are better on their left foot, then play it to that foot; or, play it to the space where your teammate can make the play but the defender can’t.

The important thing to keep in mind is playing the ball at the appropriate pace. You can’t serve the ball in to a player from thirty yards away without striking the ball crisply and solidly. If you send in a soft lofted ball, it is likely to get intercepted by a defender. Again, a driven ball is easier to control and redirect, on to goal or to another player. It is in this way that you should play soccer: see the next play that should take place before you make a pass. You want to give a directive via the pace of the ball.

As long as you’re constantly evaluating the game and reading the movement of both the players of the ball, you’ll be better able to respond in a way that increases your team’s likelihood of scoring a goal. The only people who can master soccer are those who understand that it demands that you use your mind as much as you use your legs.
Running without the Ball

If you make a run towards a teammate who has the ball but don’t receive it, break into space to drag the defender with you. Make an ambitious run towards goal for a through ball just to draw attention to yourself and open up a play for someone else. The midfielder behind you can then sneak into the free space you just opened up.

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