Out of Possession - Introduction / Principles of Play

"If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake." - Paolo Maldini

Having your players understand the general principles of play for the whole team when out of possession is key and something you will return to again and again. What do we mean by "Principles of Play" when we talk about it when we don't have the ball?

Killing the Space - Being Compact

Compact (as well as "narrow") is a word you hear a lot when talking about teams defending when out of possession. The word itself makes it fairly clear what you're looking for as a coach in these situations. We don't want big gaps that the opposition can play through, we want to limit their passing options into dangerous areas and we want to force them to be predictable and play the ball into parts of the pitch where they can't hurt us or to lose possession altogether because they panic or try to force something that isn't on through frustration.

If we have players either not working hard to help the team defensively or getting pulled out of position, then those dangerous gaps open up and we become easier to play against.

So in terms of "principles of play", when we don't have the ball, we want to limit our opponent's options by being compact and closing those gaps. Sounds simple!!!

Work as a Unit

Defending anywhere on the pitch, from forwards pressing the opposition defence to our defenders trying to stop the opposition creating shooting chances, is so much easier if you work together as a unit. Having the players understand this is key to successful defending.

It can be tough for young players to buy into this idea - they want the ball back for themselves and the idea of taking up a supporting defensive role where you are covering for a team mate with little chance of doing the fun bit (tackling, gettting the ball back and scoring) is a hard sell. But if you get your team to understand the importance of this, you're going to have a much greater success rate in terms of regaining possession.

Putting on practices where the focus is on blocking off passing options for the opposition group, stopping them playing through you rather than outright winning the ball, is a good way to introduce the idea of working as a unit.

The success that coaches like Jurgen Klopp have had with winning the ball back high up the pitch using intense pressuring of the opposition defence when they have the ball has been built on the foundation that the players "hunt in packs" and everyone works hard as an individual component of an overall unit, each with a specific role within that unit. There is no room for anyone to not do their bit, so watch out for the creative attacking players who think their only job is scoring goals!

Discipline - Don't Dive In!!!!!

The temptation for young players when they don't have the ball is to go hell for leather trying to get it back (because, quite naturally, they want it). A good attacker actually wants you to dive in to try and win the ball, because your momentum allows them to knock the ball past you and you can't recover. Teaching our players to wait until the right moment to tackle arises, because of a poor touch by the opponent, is important.


Always a difficult one, particularly for quieter children with less confidence, communication is something that can be referenced in almost every single training exercise you put together.

Communication off the ball is often a lot harder for children than communication with the ball. When a team mate has the ball, they tend to feel reasonably comfortable calling for it, which can then be used as a base for developing their ability to communicate with team mates in more effective ways (telling the player on the ball what to do with it for example).

But when they don't have the ball, communication is essentially an exercise in telling your team mates where to go and what to do.

Encouraging the goalkeeper and defenders to be the leaders in this department is a good start, as they can see the whole pitch in the way a forward can't. Having your players understand the idea of passing a player on who they were marking but who has moved into a different area of the pitch or getting them saying things like "cover me" or "you press, I'll cover" and so on is a useful place to start and can be introduced in basic 1v1 and 2v2 defending practices.

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