A common approach in ‘modern’ football is the implementation of a clear and specific tactical game model. Often, this game model is linked to specific principles or patterns of play. Generally speaking, this can be seen at the highest level in the methodology of coaches like Pep Guardiola, Antonio Conte and Jurgen Klopp. Their teams have a distinct and identifiable playing style that is taught in a methodical and explicit way.
In Australia, coaches are encouraged to bring a specific playing style to life using a tactical, game-based training approach. The National Curriculum defines this particular playing style as the starting point for youth development programs at both national and club level.
The key characteristics of this playing style are “proactive…effective possession…creative individuals…quick transition and intelligent collective pressing”.
The Curriculum also suggests that the 4-3-3 formation is most appropriate for the desired playing style. The Curriculum does not explicitly mandate that all youth teams must use this formation (which is often how it is interpreted and has led to the argument that Australia is developing players who do not have the ability to play in alternate formations). The Curriculum does, however, strongly suggest the 4-3-3 as a preferred formation.
The National Curriculum also clearly articulates a ‘coaching process’ as the creation of a series of team and player tasks to be delivered within a game-real session design. Sessions involve a progression from passing practices to small-sided positional games and concluding with large-sided match-play.
An example of a session objective in this coaching process is:
‘improving the ability of the back third players to progress the ball forward from the back and get a teammate on the ball facing forward in the middle third’.
Within this process, the session objective is clearly defined and gives an objective outcome in which coaches can assess the effectiveness of their session.
As the FFA coaching process specifies the deliberate design and instruction of team and player tasks, solutions to the ‘football problem’ as defined in the session objective are explicit and coach-led. Therefore, this typically involves the coach deliberately instructing the players towards a predetermined solution (rather than, for example, presenting the objective as a problem to be solved).
Task-oriented coaching is a valid methodology for implementing a clearly defined game model, as it provides actionable behaviours and cues for players to perceive and act upon in the context of a playing style. The key, though, to ensure transfer to the match is the representativeness of the session exercises. In order for players to be able to understand and bring to life the team/player tasks, they must be able to train in an environment & exercise that looks and feels like the real game.
Below is a visual example of how a large-sided game can be constructed to achieve the aforementioned session objective (“improve the ability of the back third players to progress the ball forward from the back and get a teammate on the ball facing forward in the middle third’). To demonstrate how the FFA’s coaching process is not necessarily restricted to a particular formation, this session design focuses on build up in a 3-2-4-1 formation.
The specific moment involves the attacking team building up from the goalkeeper, against an opponent where the two wingers have tracked our wing-backs, the 9 is instructed to press the centre-backs to one side, and the midfielders are man-marking.
A possible team task can be for the attacking team to:
‘move the opposition to create the opportunity for a defender to play a killer pass into the middle third’.
From this team task, specific player tasks can be developed to allow the players to achieve the task. The back three can be directed to isolate the opposition 9 to one side, to create space for a centre-back on the opposite side to receive a switch pass to then play a killer pass. This links to the team task – move the opposition (their no.9), then circulate the ball to find a teammate who can play forward. This could be reinforced through a short, concise phrase such as ‘shift, switch and slice’.
As the session progresses, and the coach ensures that the exercise remains representative of the football problem, more detailed cues can be provided for the players. For example, the centre-back on the opposite side to the 9 (shift) can be given a cue to ‘look up as the ball travels towards you’ (switch) to see if the passing lane to the 10 is open (slice).
Other players can also be given tasks. For example, both wing-backs can be instructed to stay in a position as high as possible to occupy the opposition wingers, while staying in a line of pass with the centre-backs. Another key task can be for the two 6s to avoid blocking the passing lane into the 10s, while also being in a line of pass if the opposition block forward passing lanes into the 10s.
Naturally, there are countless possible tasks in this scenario. Through repetition of the football moment, and through prior knowledge and understanding of the key principles of the playing style, the players could be able to adapt dynamically to different variations within this football moment. This would depend on the delivery and overall methodology of the coach.
To reinforce the players understanding of a task-oriented game model, common language should be utilised across all components of a session (passing practice, positioning game and game play) – for example: “shift, switch & slice”, “break lines”, “stay connected”. Video feedback can also help reinforce desired outcomes.
This short example hopefully provides some detail into the importance of a playing style & team model, using Football Federation Australia’s National Curriculum as an example.