It Pays to Win On Defense: A Game-based Soccer Training Approach to Developing Highly Effective Defenders


It Pays to Win on Defense

Recently named to US Youth Soccer’s Recommended Reading List, “It Pays to Win on Defense” is a book for soccer coaches who are looking for the most effective way to engage all of their players all of the time in order to teach them how to best keep the ball out of their own team’s goal! The book provides an all-encompassing framework for instilling the skills and mindset necessary for highly effective defenders. By combining educational theory and making everything a competition, coaches can maximize their practice time and teach that defending concepts are not just limited to certain players (e.g. the centre backs or the defensive midfielders). As I tell my teams, when we don’t have the ball, EVERYONE is a defender. Therefore, EVERY player on your team needs to know how to defend and defend well!

Positive Change in US Youth Soccer


Beginning in August, 2017, there are changes coming to US Youth Soccer…

Recently, the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) announced changes to encourage youth soccer development. You can read the official press release here

The two key changes are as follows: 

Birth-year registration

  • Will now be aligned with the calendar year (January to December) rather than school year.
  • The example given is that “a U15 player (players 15 years old or younger) would have a birth year of 2000 for the 2015 registration year.”

  • This applies to all age groups and is being done to combat the “relative age effect” which has been shown to give competitive advantage to players who are physically older than their peers. 

Number of players and size of the field

  • The field dimensions for players in the U6-U12 age groups will be smaller than they are currently, as will the number of players on the field.

  • The size of the field and the number of players on the field will increase from 4v4 to 7v7 to 9v9 until players reach U13 when they will play 11v11. 

In this post, I will focus on the second change – that of smaller fields and fewer numbers on the field. 

This doesn’t mean fewer players get to play; on the contrary, now a coach can set up 2 games happening simultaneously to get more players more touches on the ball. 

Click here for the USSF analysis of why small-side match standards will benefit players. In short, though: 

  • Fewer players on the field means more touches on the ball and increased touches translates to more individual skill.

  • Players who are more skilled may become more confident and comfortable when in possession of the ball.

  • The ratio of players to field size is designed to assist players with making the right kind of decisions and improving awareness.

  • This approach builds on itself as players get older and start playing with more players on bigger fields.

  • And as players get older, the building block approach also allows them to better integrate into a team model where they develop partnerships with the other players that make up the team.

Why this might be a great idea

Manchester United recently completed a study of playing 4v4 rather than 8v8 in youth soccer. The results are staggering and have profound implications for youth soccer coaches.

On Average 4v4 versus 8v8 had:

  • 135% more passes
  • 260% more Scoring Attempts
  • 500% more Goals Scored
  • 225% more 1v1 Encounters
  • 280% more Dribbling Skills (tricks)

If you are looking for some ideas on how to better integrate small sided games into your practices, check out my books, both of which employ a game-based soccer philosophy.

Planning your soccer practice


In the next few weeks, I will be exploring how people might and do go about planning their practice sessions.

Topics and questions I will be considering are as follows:

How do you determine what to work on in practice?

  • Have a curriculum that you follow (your own or someone else’s)
  • Base it something that you saw (or didn’t see) in a game
  • Decide the week’s practices all at one time based on a progression of some sort
  • Ask the players
  • See what happens when you get out there

How do you put together a practice?

  • Full written plan with diagrams and coaching points
  • Full written plan with coaching points, but without diagrams
  • Diagrams with coaching points but no other annotations
  • Names of drills/activities with coaching points
  • Names of drills/activities without coaching points
  • Coaching points
  • “Theme”
  • All in head/nothing written

What is the purpose of the practice?

  • Fitness
  • Team bonding
  • Technical
  • Tactical
  • Team shape
  • Set pieces
  • Don’t know

What are the different types of practices?

  • Technical 
  • Tactical
  • Day before a game
  • Day after a game
  • High intensity
  • Low intensity
  • Medium intensity (mixture)

What stage of the season are you in? 

  • Pre-season
  • Early season
  • Mid season
  • Playoffs/end of season

How do you reflect on practices?

  • Keep detailed records of what was done, what worked, what didn’t, etc.
  • Keep basic records 
  • Keep no records 

Of course, I may need to refine/change some of these as I write; however, if you have some input or would like a question answered, please feel free to ask.