Last fall, the Cape St. Claire Soccer Association reduced the size of Senior Clinic games and eliminated goalkeepers. This change was made at the recommendation of US Youth Soccer, the largest player-development organization in the United States.
Small-sided games were pioneered in the Netherlands, a country that stands beside Brazil, Germany, Italy and England as one of the powerhouses of world soccer. The tiny nation’s success on the world stage is due to innovative approaches to both tactics and player development.
Dutch coach Wiel Coerver analyzed film of the world’s greatest players. He broke their feints and maneuvers down into a series of simple moves that he could teach systematically to young players. These moves (called “Coervers”) are taught by many coaches today.
The Dutch soccer association took a similar approach when it decided to improve its youth development policies. As Bert van Lingen wrote in Coaching Soccer: The Official Coaching Book of the Dutch Soccer Association, “the technical staff of the association analyzed all aspects of the soccer learning process. This resulted in, among other things, a renewed appreciation for street soccer.”
Street soccer is how kids once learned how to play the game. But even in countries where soccer is the most popular sport, kids no longer spend endless hours kicking the ball around in the street; soccer must now compete with homework, piano lessons and community service hours (not to mention the internet, telephone and video games).
Street soccer accelerated the learning process, in large part because it was played in small groups. Rarely did more than a dozen players participate, and usually far fewer. The small sides allowed each player to touch the ball far more often than in large groups. And the more a player touches the ball, the faster she learns how to control it.
The small sides also developed game intelligence, as they required every player to participate in every play. If a player didn’t have the ball, she was spreading the field or cutting off a passing lane.
As Bert van Lingen wrote, “In a game such as basketball the player in possession is protected, and therefore every pass and movement can be rehearsed. Soccer players, in order to play effectively, must rely on their ability to recognize certain situations.”
The Dutch soccer association decided the best way to emulate street soccer was with small-sided games. And they decided four players to side was the perfect size, as it allows the ball to be passed forward, backward and from side to side. Three players would remove one of those options, and five would only duplicate one.
But what about a goalkeeper? As it primarily involves using the hands, goalkeeping is easier to teach later in a player’s development. It is more important for young players to learn how to use their feet. Moreover, the lack of a goalkeeper allows younger players to score more goals, which immediately reinforce an effective tactic or technique.
Since the Dutch discovered the importance of small-sided games, the idea has taken on worldwide. Manchester United, England’s most successful professional team, uses 4v4 games to train their developing players. A Manchester Metropolitan University study compared that format to the outmoded 8v8.
The study found that the number of passes increased 135%, 1v1 encounters increased 225% and goals scored 500%. Furthermore, dribbling skills (as judged by the number of moves each player mastered) increased 280%.
As USYS says, “In the past it was not uncommon for small-sided games to be played in the streets and in vacant lots with uneven numbers and mixed ages. Now the streets are too busy and the vacant lot is too dangerous. Thus, it has become the responsibility of the soccer club or youth organization to recreate the small-sided environment.”