Session plan: Recognising styles of play

The aim is to play a match where each team is playing in a distinctly different manner, and encourage players to identify how the opposition is playing, and how best to counter that style of play. The purpose of this is to encourage your players to cognitively engage with the game, giving them more context and information which promotes better decision making. It also gives them knowledge that is transferable when they watch matches or play FIFA, so they can connect their off the pitch activities with their on the pitch activities.

Session should be as close to match day experience as possible, so full size pitches, and larger team sizes. Teams should be split up as early as possible, and be given separate instructions. Each team has a different style of play, and can score bonus goals for achieving aims that meet that style of play, for example one team may score by winning the ball in the attacking third. These bonus goals are kept secret and the score is hidden so teams have to analyse what their opponents are aiming to do. Normal match day rules apply.

Ideas for creating a style of play:

  • Manchester City – Keep possession in the opposing team’s half for 15s
  • Liverpool – Win the ball back within 5s of losing it
  • Leicester City – Receive a pass behind the last defender without being offside
  • Juventus – Block a pass into your final third
  • Tottenham – Fullback successfully finds a teammate with a cross into the box
  • Russia – Striker receives in an advanced area and plays in a runner
  • Bayern Munich – Centre back dribbles through the first line of pressure successfully
  • Burnley – Back into shape within 5s of losing ball

Before the first match, each team should spend some time considering what needs to happen to meet their aims. For example, if you were given the Russian style of play you would need a striker who could receive under pressure and hold the ball up, and midfielders drawing out the opposing midfield to create space for your striker.

At regular intervals, teams should get a break to discuss how they think the opposing team is playing. To further encourage cognitive engagement the coach can give a bonus goal to any team that correctly identifies the opponent’s style of play. Then teams need to discuss with each other the best way to counter that style of play.

During analysis the coach should give as little input as possible, but some guidance may be necessary. For example, if playing against Russia, you may want to play a pressing game so that they don’t have time to play an accurate ball to their striker and end up playing inaccurate passes that gift your team possession. But if you tell the players that and it doesn’t end up working, all they’ve learned is that you’re wrong, not that the method is wrong. If they decide upon their own method they will learn how to adjust it to adapt to the opposition.

Questions to guide your players:

  • Who is the opposition’s most dangerous player?
  • Which areas of the pitch are they aiming for?
  • Which team has more midfielders?
  • Which team has more time on the ball?
  • Where’s the space when we have the ball?
  • Can we predict what they’re going to do?
  • Can we stop them doing it?

Players should be looking for patterns that they can take advantage of. Often when you give players ownership over their session, the most confident individuals will step up and lead the rest of the group. This can neglect to take into account the perspective of the shyer players, who deserve just as much ownership as the confident players. I try to get an opinion from each player at every interval, with everyone else listening when it’s not their turn. You can even make one player the ‘player-manager’ and have them decide roles, which can help teach lessons about favouritism and fairness.

This session is best related to an important match, for example a cup final that all the players will have heard about and will be watching. The Liverpool – Manchester City matches in the Champion’s League were an excellent example, and because your players should be aware of the players involved they should get a better idea of how the style of play relates to their position and role. For example, a player may take the CM role for Liverpool and find that they have to make a lot of decisions about when to press, and find themselves way out of position when the press fails. This raises a lot of challenges and questions for them to answer, which create learning opportunities and a greater understanding of the game.

And of course, the best part is when you tell your players at the start of the session that you’re playing matches all day!

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