Driving with the ball is a fundamental skill in soccer. Sometimes referred to as carrying, or injecting, it is particularly effective for teams playing out from the back. Here is an example of how it can be effective when there is space in front of a centre-back, who travels with the ball into the midfield zone to create opportunity to play forward, or create a free player who can then receive to face or play forward.
Driving with the ball is a critical behavior for teams that seek to play positional play or dominate possession, because it enables teams to break through lines of pressure. The player carrying the ball forward also attracts opponents which in turn creates free players in midfield/attacking positions.
“You have to provoke situations so that a rival comes out of the next line, and so you can create numerical superiority.”
A context-specific example of this is a team playing out from the back in a 4-3-3 formation, against a team defending in a 4-5-1 and man-marking in midfield. Assuming the wingers stay deep, tracking the full-backs of the team in possession, this creates an overload at the back in favour of the team in possession, with two centre-back against a lone 9.
If the centre-backs can get the 9 to one side, and then switch to the opposite side (possibly using the keeper), that can be a moment to drive with the ball. When this occurs, it creates an overload centrally, with the man-markers forced to decide between staying with their direct opponent or applying pressure on the ball. In the event of the former, it creates opportunity for the player on the ball to continue travelling forward, or, in the latter, theoretically creates a free player as one man-marker leaves their man to close the ball.
This moment is described by Xavi below.
In that case, Puyol goes up, up and up until a rival comes up. If the one who tries to stop him is my marker, then the free man happened to be me. If the Iniesta marker comes up to him, Andrés is the free man. And so we seek superiority in any area of the field. You make a three against two, you win and you have the free man.
Putting it into practice
One way of coaching players to drive with the ball might be to recreate the moment above as realistically as possible, using what is often termed a ‘game training’ or ‘phase of play’ session design. This would involve a modified 8v8 game wherein players play in their positions, the defending team are coached to elicit the desired moment, and the attacking team are given specific tasks and cues in order to achieve the solution desired.
This aligns with contemporary coaching theories regarding representative learning design and the constraints-led approach, as the practice itself would ‘look like the game’ and the coach would be utilising task constraints on the opponent to create emergent behaviours in the game that allow the intended tactical situation to be constantly repeated.
However, explicitly coaching or prescribing players to drive in this particular moment may remove their ability to recognise all tactical situations in which driving with the ball may be effective. It may not also give them the ability to recognise when not to drive with the ball. This, of course, may be explored through questions and problem-solving during a practice design as described above.
An alternative approach may be to design small-sided games with uneven numbers (e.g. 4v3) and asking them to problem-solve and discover how best to take advantage of this numerical overload. Whilst not position specific, this may help players better understand the variety of situations in which to drive, and what cues and informational sources they should be attuned to in order to make effective decisions about when to drive. Alternatively, locking players to zones can create position-specific scenarios in a small-sided game setting.
Crucially, the development of driving with the ball relies upon key sources of information within the game, such as the type of defending, the structure of the opposition defence and the positioning of teammates. Hence, driving with the ball should not be taught as an isolated skill (e.g. in a drill-type scenario where players constantly repeat the action of carrying the ball) but rather in the context of the scenario in which it is used. This is particularly important because the decision of when and why to drive with the ball is as important to the execution of the drive as is the actual technical action of touching and moving the ball at speed.