Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Pushing In All Your Chips While Walking a Highwire

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By Scott Martin

There are times in coaching that we need to make a decision whether to hold or fold the hand before us. This situation happened to us during a tight match last night.

If you’ve read my recent blog posts you know that I assist with a small high school team in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. And you’re aware that I have been implementing a style of defensive play based on mathematics and geometric shapes. Because the game changes so frequently and percentages change constantly, I understand that our players are in the process of learning how to calculate situations and adjust. Though their learning of how to play according to shapes and how those shapes may be changed as the match flows has become concrete.

As coaches, we’ve ll been in the scenario that I am now going to mention: When I entered the bus for our ride to an away match, the head coach, Nick, gave me a pouty grin that caused me to respond “Now what?” Starting the year with a slim roster of 14 we lost a player to a rib injury during our opening match last week. “Yeah.” He replied. We’re down one. “That puts us at 12.” I solemnly confirmed.

After giving ourselves a minute to grieve, Nick pulled out his board and provided me with his scouting report on our opponent. “How deep are they?” was my first question. “They’re plenty deep.” Nick quipped. Which made me follow with the obvious phrase “Sprint steps must be managed.”

Nick does a great job of analyzing a team’s strengths and weaknesses and he did the same in this case. “They attack with a core of three players starting with their center midfielder and two attackers that rarely move wide.” After a moment to ponder, I concluded that our use of a diamond in the middle which included a central mid, two supporting midfielders and our center back, would match well and keep our sprint steps at a minimum. Issue number one solved.

Now, on to the second item. “Their center back plays deep, almost like a sweeper.” Nick went on to demonstrate on his green board and black wipe off marker. “Okay. We adjust where we play the ball forward. The “Green” space is now in front of the center back rather than behind him. Max will play high and Charlie will play low in the middle.” I concluded.

“However . . .” Nick dramatically paused then went on. “They like to man mark and with Chuck scoring six goals in our first two games, he’ll surely be marked tightly.”

We entered the match with an understanding that we would need to find a weakness and begin to attack that. With only one substitute we knew the soccer gods would also need to look down favorably upon us as well. Then, during our first full attack forward, Nick picked up on a cue. “Their goalkeeper gets lost inside the posts.”

The word quickly went out to Charlie and Sam, our central mid that can hit from 40 yards. “Do you guys see confusion in the goal?” Both smiled and returned a firm “Yes!”

Playing with shape and limiting sprint steps and with “Keeper Sam” as I refer to our goalkeeper with the some name stopping their lobs toward our goal, play was going as anticipated. Then a miskick of a shot struck the ankle of our central defender, Bennett. The clock was stopped, Nick was beckoned by the trainer, and Bennett hobbled off as our lone substitute entered the field.

To counter the injury, midfielder Sam slid into the center back spot where he played on the select team that I coached during the summer of 2019. But this brought Max back into the midfield from his attacking position which left Charlie more alone up top.

The first half ended with us down 1-0. Our halftime adjustment included Bennett’s return but into the midfield due to his now slowed agility and Max acting as a link to Charlie. Play was going well. Chuck was able to get off a few lobs that made the goalkeeper backtrack onto and bobble, but with no result. In all, our defense held shape and denied high percentages opportunities.

Then came the opportunity to move all our chips into the pot when we were granted a corner kick. With Charlie serving, we moved Sam into the mix, pinched the two backs, and pushed a hobbled Bennett a bit more forward. As Charlie approached the ball we held our breath. But the service went directly to the goalkeeper who quickly threw a 40-yard outlet that began a counter-attack that had them up 2-0 within what seemed like only a moment.

During the bus ride home, both Nick and I agreed that we would do it again. We calculated the odds in our favor. We knew legs would tire as the clock moved forward. We went all in and lost. Well, we play again tomorrow.

Let’s simplify the game.


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