The topic of the day on this Friday evening is how to play soccer. Not, that is, how to make the muscular motions of kicking a ball around a field, or running, or slamming your forehead into an aerial cross. This little sequence of sentences assumes that you actually know the basic fundamentals of this sport, in all of their glory. If not, I recommend as a player that you immediately head out to the nearest open field with a soccer ball and juggle it with your feet (you do know what that means, yes?) ad nauseum until you can at least hit twenty or thirty touches on a regular basis.
So now, I am covering here what you should actually do out on the field, in a tactical and strategic sense. How you should be looking to defend and distribute the ball, and that kind of thing. It is broken down by position, except for goalkeeper, because I’m not qualified to speak on the subject of how to play goalkeeper in a soccer game. And for example here, I will start out with the realm of central defense.
One of the most important things about playing central defense is to always be aware of the offside line. In most formations, there will be two central defenders, with few exceptions. The two of you must pair up to keep a consistent offside line at all costs. If you line up in a lopsided fashion, you are simply asking to be abused by the opposing forward, who will slip in behind the player who is further forward and gain an immediate advantage towards goal.
Where should the offside line go? That is a tactical decision, and you should be working with your coach on making this decision. There are pros and cons to keeping it far up, closer to midfield, or further back close to your goal. If you and your partner in defense are clearly faster than the opposing forwards, than your coach should be telling you to keep your offside line as far forward as possible. IF however, you are facing one of those players who is a burner, who can torch either one of you, then you must be more conservative. It is a pretty easy goal for the player that can get behind both defenders for an easy one-on-one with the goalkeeper.
In any case, once everybody is clear on where the offside line should be (this is when you have the ball in the opponent’s half, and you have the opportunity to set up anywhere you wish), you must stick to that line religiously. Keep your concentration up and be ready to sprint backward in the case that a long ball is played. Again, if this were American football, you are playing safety. Do NOT let some get behind you in an onside position.
Now let’s examine the scenario where the opposing forward has the ball, in front of his team, in a counterattacking situation. The possession has likely just changed, due to a mistake by one of your midfielders or an interception, or a lucky long ball from an opposing defender. In this instance, unless you are VERY confident that you can easily strip the forward of the ball (this will only happen if you on a much better team than the one you are playing against), then you should be aiming to lay far off of the forward and prevent yourself from being beaten by a one-on-one dribbling move. I would personally play about four or five yards off in this case. What you are trying to do tactically is to negate the advantage of space that your opponent temporarily enjoys, and to allow your teammates in the midfield time to draw back and join into the defense. Success in this case is if the forward is forced to pull up with the ball, or if they must make a back pass to one of their midfielders. Your primary objective is not to steal the ball at this point, you are simply trying to put your team in a better position to make a serious, organized defense.
The only exception is if you are outnumbered. If there is a 2-1 or 3-2 breakaway, do anything you can to get between the dribbler and their teammates, and then be aggressive. Try to force them to the sideline. Be aware of potential passing lanes and try above all to stay in those lanes. A 3-2 breakaway is far from an assured goal, but it is a very dangerous situation and you cannot play for time as much you could if the numbers were even.
If the opposing team has had the ball for longer, it is probably quite crowded in the final third of the field. Now your objective is to deny the opponent a shot on goal. You must play very close to your mark, keeping an arm on their back if possible. If they receive the ball and turn to face the goal, play closer to them now. I myself would stay about a yard away, and bias my positioning towards the stronger foot of the forward (usually their right foot). Since you are the last line of defense, you still shouldn’t make a reckless attempt at a tackle if the dribbler is not moving forward. If they do, however, make a strong move towards the goal you must be extremely aggressive and try anything to get a good tackle on the ball. If you must poke at the ball instead, never do so in a way that sends the ball across the face of goal. If you can get the ball going towards the sideline, that is ideal.
When your mark does not have the ball, try to stay between them and the dribbler, within reason. If someone is dribbling up the right sideline, or cutting in from that direction, you should not be playing on the right shoulder of your mark. You should be playing on the left shoulder, and preparing to jump a weak pass i the dribbler makes that mistake.
When another forward has the ball, other than the one you are guarding, you should try to slide over as much as practical, without losing sight of your own person. You should also drop a few feet behind your teammate, such that if the dribbler breaks through you will be in a position to somewhat contest their progress. Remember though, this is a SUBLTE change in your positioning. You are not to lose sight of your man or move all the way over on the assumption that your teammate will be beaten. If your teammate is not as skilled as the player they are guarding, they should be assisted by a defensive midfielder, not by the other read defender. Neither course of action is desirable, but the latter is disastrous if it results in you leaving a wide open forward in the box.
As to when you receive the ball, either due to a tackle or an intercepted pass, or when you rebound a deflected shot or whatever. You must be very adept at avoiding turnovers. At the more offensive positions, you can afford to take changes in the hopes of making a great play, but in your own third a turnover is a disaster. You should have a good feel as to whether there are opponents in your area. If the other team has possessed the ball for a minute or two, and been working it around your third, it is a safe assumption that you do not have a lot of time to make a decision with the ball. Look and see if there is a wide open teammate towards the sideline — usually the left or right fullback. If so, great. Pass them the ball and let them make a decision on how to start the attack from a safer area of the field. If you notice a central midfielder positioned in a good outlet spot, nearer to the halfway line, make a strong kick in their direction, making sure to get the ball airborne. If you look around for more than a second and don’t see any open teammates, just kick the ball as hard as you can downfield, preferably someplace where it looks like your team has a decent shot at winning the 50-50 ball.
If you intercept a pass and there aren’t a lot of attacking players in the area, you can be much more discriminating in your pass selection. However, you are a central defender. You aren’t trying to make the outstanding pass or break the game open. You are simply trying to get the ball moving upfield. If a defensive midfielder or central midfielder is open, give them an easy, accurate pass. If the middle of the field is too crowded, look to the sidelines. You may have some time to dribble, but don’t do anything fancy with the ball. As a central defender, you have very little leeway in this regard.
You should also be adept at defensive headers. Being skilled at this aspect of the game is more important for a central defender than for any other position, with the possible exception of a defensive midfielder. If you play central defense and are not good at this aspect of your game, work on it a lot. It is essential.
Next is the flanking defender. Your skill set in this position is substantially different, if you are to succeed. First of all, you will be doing a lot more running, and you will be dealing much more with one given player in your games (in central defense, due to overlaps and so on, you may be guarding a different player every couple of minutes). Usually you will be matched up against a very specific flanking midfielder, and you need to assess your abilities in comparison to theirs. Are they faster than you? Are they more effective at dribbling, or can you easily dispossess them of the ball? Can you dribble around them easily? Are they good at finding teammates, or can you force a turnover if you keep them on the sideline?
Your default defensive stance should be very much off the ball. Most of your help defense will be congregated in the middle of the field, and it is entirely up to you to make sure that your opponent does not get around you and obtain a clear path to goal. Oftentimes, the flanking midfielder you are facing will be one of the opposing team’s fastest players. Get in a good defensive stance and prepare to do some sprinting. Another reason it is hard to make a clean tackle is that the sideline is usually very close. You will often make a good touch on the ball, dispossessing your opponent, only to see it roll out of bounds for a throw-in.
If the opponent has dribbled into the corner, you can start to get a little more aggressive on the ball. Now you want to deny them the chance to cross the ball into the box, which you cannot do if you are laying off too much. The risk of being beaten on a long dribble is reduced, although you should still be aware of how skilled your opponent is in this regard. If you have a choice between being beaten to the endline, or beaten along the edge of the penalty box, force the opponent inside towards the middle of the field. You should have more help in this direction, and there is a decent change that a dangerous, in-swinging cross would have to be delivered with your opponent’s weaker foot (i.e. a left footer will usually be playing left midfield. If they cut inside of you, their cross will have to be delivered with the right foot, and frequently they will shank it, or mishit it in some fashion).
When your opponent does not have the ball, you are still probably marking them man-to-man. Your speed vs. their speed should entirely dictate how much of a cushion you give. And also, never stand behind your two central defenders. This will make their job considerably more difficult, and could lead to a disastrous breakaway if you extend the offside line for the other team.
As to when you have the ball, you have more leeway than a central defender. Attacks will usually start up the flanks, and you must be good and pushing the ball forward to a flanking or central midfielder. If there are no opponents in the area, it is usually best to dribble forward until someone begins to approach you. This should open the field up and increase the chances of you finding a teammate.
When the ball is in the center of the field or on the other side, and your team is in possession, it is probably best to assume a good defensive position and simply make sure that a freak series of events doesn’t lead to a breakaway on your side of the field. However, if the ball is being held by a midfielder or a forward on your side of the field (“side” being left-to-right, not forward-to-back), then you can make some off the ball runs which may be helpful, but only in certain circumstances.
Suppose that you are playing right back, and the right midfielder is dribbling the ball and makes a cut to the inside. The opposing team’s left back is probably cutting inside too to guard him. If you overlap in this case, you might get a good dribble into the box, or a chance to cross. If the midfielder is dribbling up the sideline, however, it is probably best to just assume a good position behind them, in case they need to deliver a back pass. Overlapping in this case will usually just unbalance the formation and lead to the chance of a breakaway if either of you turn the ball over.
You should be doing a lot of sprinting and dribbling exercises. This is one position that does not forgive the lack of speed.
Defensive midfielder is a rather unglamorous position that requires very good heading and tackling ability. When your team has the ball and is attacking, you are often the difference between a retrieved errant pass, and a continuation of the attack, or a full-on counterattack by the opposing team. There are talented defensive midfielders who only score one or two goals per hundred games, because the primary responsibility is to slide in behind the attack, act as an outlet for back passes, chase down sloppy clearances, and immediately attempt to win the ball back if it is turned over.
Unlike a central defender, you will not be trying to play off of the ball holder if they dribble into your area. You should be making very aggressive moves to try to win the ball, because you should have two defenders behind you if you do not succeed. If the central defender is equivalent to the safety in American football, you are equivalent to the middle linebacker. You should be lifting a lot of weights and generally making sure that you are one of the strongest players on the field, so that you can maneuver in between the opposing central midfielders and forwards, and the ball.
At the same time, you need to be smart about ball distribution. Your objectives in this regard will vary widely depending on what part of the field you are in. If you are in your own third and the opposing team has been attacking for some time, you are not much different than a central defender. Look to make a quick outlet pass to the central midfielder or someone on the sideline, and if nobody is available, hammer the ball as hard as you can.
That is where the similarity ends. If you are closer to the middle of the field, you should be trying to find a center or attacking midfielder, and you should be moving the ball up to them. If you are an accurate passer over long distances, you can even be looking to see if a forward is making a promising run. If nothing is open in the middle of the field, look to either sideline. If there is still nothing open, look to one of the flanking defenders. If there is still nothing open, pass it back to your goalkeeper or the central defense. In other words, unless you are being heavily pressured in the exact moment that you have the ball, preferably by two or more defenders, then do not simply kick the ball downfield with no objective. If one opponent is marking you, dribble away from them and still look for a pass. If they are coming from the left, dribble to the right and look for your right midfielder. You should be getting the idea here.
If your team is on the attack, you should be even more discriminating. Oftentimes, the vast majority of the players on both teams will be in front of you. Maybe your team was attacking a moment ago, and the defense was able to somewhat clear the ball to where you were standing, backing the attack up. Maybe someone made a back pass to you because there was no obvious attack lane in their area of the field. However you received the ball, you should have plenty of options as to how to distribute it. Look left and right and see if anybody is wide open on the sidelines. If your team has already been attacking, and the defense has become disorganized, this will frequently be the case. If you confident in your long-range shot, and there is nobody coming out to mark you, dribble towards the edge of the box and shoot if there is a window to do. Be honest with yourself, however. Nothing is more infuriating to a team than a long, wild shot when they have five attackers in the penalty box.
Whatever you do, however, do not allow yourself to be stripped of the ball. Having a forward pass intercepted is not a disaster here, so you can take chances trying to hit someone on a through ball. However, if you get tackled, there will be eighty yards of open space behind you, and only one line of defense. Successful counterattacks frequently originate from a turnover by the defensive midfielder.
Above all, hit the weights. If you are consistently being pushed off of the ball as a defensive midfielder, you will not be successful. You either need to get stronger, or find a position that rewards finesse and ball skill more than brawn.
The central midfield is one of the most complicated positions to occupy effectively. The demands are extremely varied and the decisions are innumerably complex. You must have a very good idea of your teammates’ strengths and weaknesses, and in what positions they are most effective receiving the ball in. If you have a tall forward who prefers to play the aerial game, then you should be looking to find an open midfielder on the flank, who can more effectively make service into the box. On the other hand, if you have a skillful forward, there can be a lot of changes to engage in 1-2 combinations. If they are more of a goal-poacher, then you yourself may be generating many of the shots.
The flow of the offense is your responsiblity. If you are not able to receive a pass, turn and examine the field, and make a good pass to an open teammate in a threatening position, then you will not be successful as a central midfielder. And if you are not successful, your team will not be either. A poor flanking midfielder or defender can be hidden through tactical sleight-of-hand, but a bad central midfielder will make it very difficult for a team to gain any traction offensively.
If you are good with dribbling and beating players one-on-one, you will have latitude to use this skill. One of the first things you should do in a game is to size up your adversaries (the opponents’ central midfielder and defensive midfielder). If you can beat them on the dribble, then you must do so frequently. This will pull the defenders way out of position as they are forced to move up to stop you, and your passes will have a much greater chance of success with the space you open up.
On defense, you should be doing anything you can to deny service of the ball to the central midfielder of the opposing team. They are presumably one of the opponents’ best players, and your job of defense will be much easier if they never get the ball in the first place. At the same time, you can afford to go for interceptions, and you can afford to stand between your mark and a defender with the ball. You should have two layers of defense behind you, so allowing the occasional pass behind you is ok, as long as you are usually forcing the other team to start their attacks up the flanks, rather than up the middle.
By preventing the opponents’ attacks from starting in the middle of the field, you will be making the job of defense a lot easier for your teammates. The tactical flexibility of a team is greatly reduced when they are dribbling the ball up the right or left sideline. Your defenders will be able to focus more on one side of the field, and their defense will be tighter because of this. Sure, the opponents have the option to “switch fields” and attempt a long pass to the opposite side, but these passes are very difficult to hit accurately. Even a good pass across the field will take time, and your team will use this time to readjust their positioning.
On the other hand, if the opponents can consistently dribble up the middle of the field, their job will be much easier. Your teammates will be forced to spread out much more on defense, and this will inevitably leave openings for a good run, or for a player who is good at shooting from outside. Your defenders will not be able to mark as tightly because they will have more field to cover.
Ball skill is very, very important for the central midfielder. So is intellect and the ability to make good, crisp decisions with the ball. There will often be a fleeting chance to break a defense down if you can see the right play and execute it. If you miss these chances because you are too busy trying to control the ball, or because your passes are inaccurate, then your effectiveness as a central midfielder will be greatly reduced.
Flanking midfielders, or wingers, are often the “prima-donnas” of a soccer team. The skills that allow for success at this position almost guarantee that fact. A flanking midfielder who can size up a defender one-on-one, and beat them off the dribble is a very dangerous player. Speed and agility are other paramount qualities. With the exception of a striker, the flanking midfielder can take the more risks with the ball than a typical soccer player can. If a flanking midfielder is able to beat their defender on the dribble even one third of the time, then they should be trying to do so all day long. The rewards of a breakthrough, clear on to the goal, are simply too large to pass that opportunity up. This is why people who malign players like Cristiano Ronaldo or Kevin Prince-Boateng are often mistaken. These players do turn the ball over frequently, but in those cases when they beat their defender the rewards are very great for their teams, and frequently lead directly to goals or corner kicks.
That being said, you shouldn’t be a kamikaze. You should also be looking to play good crosses into the box for your forwards. And you should be honest about your limitations. If you are unable to beat your defender by dribbling, you should be looking to take the ball inside more often, to make passes to the central midfielders, and to allow a skilled fullback to overlap behind you.
On defense, your primary responsibility is to track back and make sure that your flanking defender is never put in a situation where they must defend 1 against 2. You must be extremely alert for give-and-gos and other tricks that would attempt to spring an opponent down the sideline, unmolested. That being said, your defensive responsibilities are not as intense as they are for some players. When your team wins the ball back, you will frequently be the outlet for an attack. You must be good at receiving the ball on your side of the field, somewhere around the midline, and from that point being able to press the attack and either beat your man on the dribble, or distribute the ball to one of your forwards, or to your central midfielder.
Speed, dribbling, and crossing are your most important skills. Although every player should be proficient at heading the ball, it is probably less important to be good at doing so as flanking midfielder than it is from any other position.
Finally we reach the role of striker. There are conflicting names for this position, and many people call it “central forward” or simply “forward’, but I feel that striker more accurately describes the responsibilities of the position.
It can be said that all good central defenders are alike, but each good striker is good in their own way. In fact, there is so much variation that I think it is probably better to explain a few famous players individually, rather than go into the general skills of a striker, because there is little that can be universalized beyond the ability to score goals.
Lionel Messi – Messi is one of those rare players who is allowed to run anywhere on the field that they feel like. Messi could do chin-ups next to his own goalkeeper, and the manager would dismiss it as a psychological tactic. What makes Messi great is his exquisite touch, which allows him to dribble through world class defenders without turning the ball over too frequently. Because Messi is so good at dribbling, he prefers to receive the ball outside of the penalty box in many cases, so that he can generate momentum by the time he is in a position to shoot. He is also good at sneaking around in the box and getting open for tap-in goals which he rarely fails to convert.
Messi can shoot in a variety of ways. Whatever angle he is dribbling in relation to the goal, there is always a shot that he is able to execute with the technical skills at his disposal. He can also shoot from long distance, which makes it difficult for defenders to lay off from him to guard against his dribbling skills.
Messi also has excellent vision and is able to distribute the ball even within the box. It is not uncommon to see him beat two or three defenders, and then pass the ball to an open teammate only yards from the goal line, rather than take the final shot himself. This ability makes it hard for a defense to organize against his team, and frees a lot of space for other players to take shots.
However, Messi is relatively short and is not known for his aerial game. If unmarked, he is good at putting headers onto the frame, but one would not build a team around making crosses into the box if Messi was their forward. He also lacks the strength of most defenders. You will rarely see him trying to post a defender up in the box, or muscle his way to a header. If he was not such a good dribbler, he would be a very average forward.
Edinson Cavani – Cavani is also somewhat of a technical player, and an outstanding goal scorer, but that is where his similarities to Messi end. Cavani is a very tall, skinny, lanky player, and very quick. These qualities make it extremely difficult for a central defender to track him in the box when there are many other players in the area. He has very good ability to bring down the ball and control it, but he not quite the passer and dribbler that Messi is. He is a very good shooter however, and this includes ability on volleys, scissor kicks, and even bicycle kicks. On a typical Cavani goal, he will not possess the ball for more than a second or two. He uses his outstanding off-the-ball abilities to generate space between himself and a defender, and when he receives the ball he is immediately trying to shoot onto the goal.
Cavani is also rather tall and good at using his head to generate shots. If Cavani’s work rate and stamina were lower, and if he wasn’t so good at using his body to create space, then he would be a much less effective forward.
Didier Drogba – Drogba is a different kind of forward altogether. He is much bigger and stronger, and much more of a bruiser. He loves to post up, unlike Messi or Cavani, and hold the ball for several seconds. Some people use the term “target man” to describe this type of player. Drogba is exceptional at winning 50-50 balls and holding onto them while the rest of his teammates catch up to the action.
Because his game never did rely on speed, Drogba has had a very long career and mantained a high level of play well into his thirties. It is difficult to imagine a player like Cavani being effective at Drogba’s age, because so much of Cavani’s game relies on quickness and off the ball movement.
Drogba is a very good dribbler and shooter. Often he can post up with the ball, make a turn, and clear just enough space for himself to put a vicious shot onto the target. Where Cavani creates space for himself before he gets the ball, Drogba will usually receive the ball, then create space for himself with his strength and dribbling finesse. He is also excellent at heading the ball and can score this way on corner kicks.
He is not fast enough to beat multiple defenders on the dribble. While Messi is usually trying to receive the ball outside of the box so that he can maneuver on the dribble, Drogba will usually just lay the ball off to a teammate if he receives it too far from goal, so that he can maneuver into a post position to receive it again. He is also a great defensive forward, causing turnovers in the opposing team’s third which lead to good chances on goal.
While Drogba’s peak was about five years ago, he has managed to last a very long time in the highest levels of the game.
These aren’t the only three ways to play forward. The point is that one can be effective in a number of different ways. The keys are having a nose for the goal, and some ability that you are able to exploit to generate good shots. You can take a lot of chances with the ball and are expected to do so. You will go long periods of time without seeing or touching the ball. And when you do get the ball, you won’t score with it four out of five times and you’ll still be a great player.
And one last thing. Stay onside.