By Scott Martin
“My mission is not to teach you but to put you in a position to learn.” I’ve been following that credo as a coach, a teacher, and as a parent for a long time. Patience is in order, but when the concept of what you’re promoting becomes “learned” it’s a beautiful thing.
Last night was the second match for the Stevens Point Pacelli High School soccer team that I assist. I began presenting the concept of attacking not an opponent, but, instead, the space behind the opponent last year. It’s a slice-n-dice, samurai attack.
Before such an attacking style can be seen, old ways need to first be sanded away. We’ve all experienced the kick-and-run style of youth soccer. Hopefully, this develops into purposeful forward play that includes useful dribbling and passing getting the ball into a threatening scoring position.
Beginning with my days coaching at the college level, I’ve been tinkering with a style of play that starts with one single target: The space left open behind the opponent. We call this the “Green” which describes the large grass space between their back line and their goalkeeper.
There are two components that must be first accepted and then implemented. The first concept of drawing the opponent forward was accomplished last season. No, this is not an “olé” style of defending done by a bull fighter who allows the bull to pass. Instead, we force play into the area along our flanks which creates a feeling of comfort that tends to push defenses forward, creating whatever shade of green you most liked from that box of Crayola’s you cherished as a kid.
No, we don’t open a flood gate down our flanks. If a ball is left available, we tackle, strip, or do what is logical to start a counter-attack from that spot. In preparation for movement down our flanks, marks are called, hips are turned facing our opponent’s goal, and shapes are set by our backs and midfielders. You see, we play mathematically. We play a Las Vegas style of making sure percentages are in our favor. We defend with the understanding that the closer the opponent gets to our end line, the more likely they are to cross where we are waiting with a goalkeeper that is aggressive and players trained to clear the ball forward.
That concept became concrete last season though during our first match of this season we played without shape and ended with a 3-3 tie last week. But, like a caring parent that uses the “evil eye” to get a point across, our training sessions leading to the second match began with my stern demand that shapes would be kept and attacks would be started from those shapes. For this and all future matches, we would be organized and play with purpose.
The message was openly received as we entered halftime up 2-0.
But the purpose of this post isn’t just about reporting on a match, but to report that the glimmer of the second part of a concept was demonstrated last night: A no hesitation, no questions asked, no faking it, no BS, no holding back, all-out, all in, all committed, lightening fast attack on the “Green” space behind our opponent’s backs. Samurai.
Goal number one took seven seconds from the time we intercepted a pass just across the halfway line on our side. It included a one-touch 30-yard perfectly laid pass between two opponents to a sprinting, onside at the time, forward. It was like watching a touchdown pass from Joe Montana to Jerry Rice. Goal number two happened in much the same way but closer to four seconds. Ahhhhh . . . a teenager grasping a concept is a wonderful thing to an upper middle-aged guy like me. But was the concept purely learned? Had it become concrete?
After a few adjustments that were done in an open discussion format to allow our players to provide input, the head coach, Nick, and I watched a group of what was now a total of 13 players due to a rib injury take their final gulps of fluids before taking the field and hoped. We witnessed another such counter-attack at the 55-minute mark. Always the educator, my first congratulation was not to Charlie for nailing down the hat-trick but to Dakota for the pass to “Green”. As coaches, we must always remember how players learn. In an athletic setting, oftentimes learning is best done noting the breakthroughs — the “Aha!” moment for the player. This was not only for Dak but for the entire team. Oh, the time it took between Dak’s first-touch interception turned slice-n-dice from our half into “Green” and Chuck slamming a 15-yarder into the net was three seconds.
Charlie ended the night with four goals and Sam laid a 40-yard free-kick just past the keeper’s fingertips for a fifth. And our defense lost its shape on their lone goal for a 5-1 win. But I’m confident our defenders will play an organized match tonight against last year’s undefeated opponent. They must continue to show they understand the concept of playing with shape. Now, let’s see if the concept of attacking the space behind the defense shows signs of consistency.
Two matches in two days with a squad size of 13. This is not going to be easy. But I will look at it as part of their growth. As coaches, have we prepared them to manage a match themselves? That is the question we look forward to learning the answer to.
Let’s simplify the game.