Small-Sided Games: A Key to More Technical Players

By Don Norton Jr.

“Liverpool practiced small-sided games every day and it was high-intensity stuff. We used to do a very light warm-up, jog around the field a couple of times to loosen the limbs, do a few stretches, put the cones down for goals and then go into five-a-side or eight-a-side.

“It was the same every single day. There was no tactical work, none whatsoever. All the strategic stuff was done within the small-sided games. Liverpool believed that everything we faced in five-a-sides would be encountered again on match day. That was why the five-a-sides were so competitive. Liverpool’s training characterized Liverpool’s play -- uncomplicated but devastatingly effective.

“Practicing on smaller pitches, Liverpool was always going to play a short-passing game. We only trained with small goals so there was little long-range shooting. We passed the ball until we got close enough to score. The philosophy centered on passing, making angles and one-touch [soccer].”

-- John Barnes, Former Liverpool and English national team star.

A colleague of mine recently surveyed U-11 coaches that play 8 v. 8 in a travel league. The league is considering having those teams continue to play 8 v. 8 as U-12s. Comments such as the following were noted:

“No one plays small sided soccer.” ... "Real" soccer teams play 11v11.” ... “Small-sided soccer favors slower out of shape players which goes against the spirit of play.” ... “Players need to learn tactics at this age (U11), and they cannot do so playing 8v8.”  ... “It is easier to involve more players if you have more players on the field.” ... “Young players need to learn how to play soccer on the full sided field because this reflects the reality of their future games.” ... “The middle schools and high schools all play 11v11 and we are hurting our players by not preparing them for this transition.”

These and similar comments focusing on competition and winning demonstrate one example of the fundamental difference in the current U.S. approach to youth soccer and those of the European clubs and nations. One needs only to view the websites of US Youth Soccer and the 55 state association sites to see that there are countless articles on the merits of small-sided soccer. Not everyone is a fan for a variety of reasons. In the very near future, U.S. Soccer may nonetheless force the youth soccer community to open its eyes and join the ranks of those using the small-sided soccer game to train their youth.

The European Club Association (ECA) encompasses 214 clubs from 53 associations from across Europe. In February 2012, the ECA released a comprehensive overview of many of its members' youth academies. This 162-page report has very detailed and comprehensive information about those youth academies. The clubs in the report are from all regions of Europe and feature information about Real Madrid, Barcelona, Arsenal, Bayern Munich, Inter Milan, Sporting Club, Standard Liege, FC Basel, Panathinaikos FC, Shakhtar Donetsk and many others. One part of the ECA report that I would like to share are the findings about academy players and the type of small-sided games they play.

U5 to U9:
4 v. 4 -- 45%
5 v. 5 -- 40%
6 v. 6 – 5%
7 v. 7 – 10%

U10 to U11:
5 v. 5 – 4%
6 v. 6 – 5%
7 v. 7 – 55%
8 v. 8 – 23%
9 v. 9 – 12%
11 v. 11 – 1%

U12 to U13:
6 v. 6 – 1%
7 v. 7 – 14%
8 v. 8 – 7%
9 v. 9 – 25%
10 v. 10 – 1 %
11 v. 11 - 52%

U14 to U23:
9 v. 9 – 2%
11 v. 11 – 98%

The world’s top clubs are already utilizing small-sided games to develop more technical players in their youth programs, an approach that we here in America are slow to adopt. Stan Baker sums it up nicely:

“It all starts with the proper numbers of players at training and games for the specific age group at practice. For example, 7-9 year olds should play in a 3v3 environment, 10-11 year olds in a 5v5 environment and U12 players should play in a 7v7 environment. The youth academies in Spain such as Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid play games with player numbers no larger than 7v7 up to 12 years old. The size of the field is smaller and the ball is smaller so that the players can function according to their physical abilities. They have understood that the players are not yet adults.”

-- Stan Baker, coach and author of “Our Competition is the World.”

(Don Norton Jr. is the Men’s Assistant Coach at Rutgers Camden University. He has the USSF “A” license, NSCAA Premier Diploma, F.A. Ireland “A” license (UEFA “A” License) Scottish F.A. “A” Certificate and USSF National Youth License. He is a NSCAA associate national staff coach and a state national coaching school instructor for New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer Associations and has been published in international and national magazines. He has a BA from Gettysburg College and a MA from Rowan University)

17 comments about "Small-Sided Games: A Key to More Technical Players".
  1. R2 Dad, April 24, 2015 at 9:22 a.m.

    I agree completely, but you will also find that headless-checken coaching will find a way to ruin small-sided games as well. The leagues have to come up with rules to complement the big-picture goal: no keeper punts past the center line, limited substitutions, putting the ball on the ground, etc.

  2. GA Soccer Forum, April 24, 2015 at 9:52 a.m.

    once again, huge props to socceramerica for a great piece. not sure why its so hard to mandate small sided until u13. the race is on georgia for teams to play 11v11 way to soon! its driving me/us mad. they use it as a recruiting tool. hopefully US soccer steps in here soon, no reason for u11 kids to be playing 11v11. its crazy, but some here in georgia are!

  3. Andy Dalal, April 24, 2015 at 10:10 a.m.

    I also agree with the premise of the article. However, the issue in the US, at least in the mid-Atlantic area, is that all of the kids between the ages of 8 and 12 are all playing on the same size short sided fields. Therefore, a simple goal kick by a 12 year old, could reach the half way line. In Europe, the short-side field dimensions change as the kids get into the higher age groups.

  4. ROBERT BOND, April 24, 2015 at 10:47 a.m.

    besides, who has 22 kids on a team who all show up for practice, use what you got for games instead of endless cone drills.....

  5. stewart hayes, April 24, 2015 at 10:48 a.m.

    No mention in the article about when goalkeepers are introduced and most importantly at what age they begin to specialize in these european clubs. I believe in the USA it is done much to early ie U12.

  6. Kenyon Cook, April 24, 2015 at 11:07 a.m.

    Without US Soccer stepping in to stop this madness, the big youth club machine will continue to produce millions of players who after 10+ years of training still cannot function in tight spaces with any real comfort. Until players can function with their heads up and are thinking 2-3 steps ahead of the play, we will not succeed at the highest levels. Until players off the ball are in synergy with their teammate possessing the ball, we will not succeed at the highest levels. Until US Soccer has the courage to take control of true development of futbolers and not allow the insanity of pay to play academy soccer to dominate the youth soccer landscape, we will not succeed at the highest levels.

    I am a fan of the Spanish, the Dutch, the German, and Brazilian soccer development methods, but until we stop the massive influx of foreign clubs to set up shop in the US with their ID Camps, coaching clinics, etc.... we will not succeed at the highest levels. Since when did 2nd and 3rd level English clubs have the solution to producing top level international players? Unfortunately, it is all about getting a piece of the big American soccer pie.

    Getting back to the solution: Given the opportunity to play small sided games that are player centric (without the adult factor) in nature with some technical guidance, 90% of the youth players in our country would continue doing so as long as they could. Why, because it is fun and they are so much more involved with the activity. Then at the age of 13-14, introduce 11v11, where they will excel much better because of their comfort with the ball and higher Soccer IQ.

    Enter the World Futbol Tour (WFT), which is now in its 6th season as a 3v3/6v6 tour that operates primarily in the off-season to complement club soccer programs in GA, NC, SC, TN, VA and MD. We are known as the "Players' Tour" where the players rule and the adult factor is removed from the play on the field. The WFT 3v3 game is played by the U6-U14 ages. The WFT 6v6 game is played by the HS U15-17 ages. Starting at U11 and above, the teams are self-coached by the players with a Designated Parent on the bench.
    The beauty of it is that our players are growing "their game" using "the game" as the teacher.

    Why WFT 3v3?
    - 200-300% more touches on our smaller fields and using the dribble in option,
    - more 1v1 play,
    - more creative attacking play due to 2 foul limit per half that is punishable with a 60 seconds power play on the 3rd foul,
    - more decision making,
    - MORE FUN!!!!!!!!!!!

    All of our events are by Open Invitation, no qualifying for WFT Regionals or 3v3/6v6 World Cup. Players love WFT small sided futbol because they "Own the Game".

    Join our mission to give the game back to the players so they too can naturally experience the game we all love.

    For more on the WFT, visit our website:

    Thank you,
    Kenyon Cook
    President, WFT

  7. Kent James, April 24, 2015 at 11:57 a.m.

    As the comments above suggest, SA is preaching to the choir (and it is good, and right to do so!). The only thing small-sided games does not do well is shooting from distance; while finishing is more important (and small sided games generally develops this well), has the kids become adults, more attention needs to be paid to this important part of the game. But for kids (and much of adult play, as John Barnes suggested), small-sided games are it!

  8. Raymond Weigand, April 24, 2015 at 12:25 p.m.

    Get a bunch of kids together with a couple of soccer balls and watch the progression turn from kicking it around to games with small goals. Probably there are some parents that do need convincing ... but the kids are already sold. (For those stubborn parents ... just introduce them to Horst Wein ... this guy has been successful the world over for 25+ years teaching soccer coaches how to teach kids soccer the way they would naturally learn on their own)

  9. cony konstin, April 24, 2015 at 12:44 p.m.

    We need to build 600,000 futsal courts in our inner cities and suburbs. We need to create a playing environement for kids to play 7 days a week, 3 to 5 hours a day, 365, for free and no adult interference. We need radical change. Brietner said this at the NSCAA convention. "The coaches in the US are creating robots." If we want magical players, special players, genius players it is not going to come from a coaching environment. Futsal can be our version of streetball. That is what are kids need and that is a sandlot/play ground experience where the kids are constantly being challenge to see who is going to be the king of the court. I have been all over the world. I leave to EQ. Guinea to share futsal with their FA. It is time that the sleepy giant is awaken. No more gimmicks and smoke n mirrors. Lets give the kids meat and potatoes. FUTSAL will make our soccer players better. Soccer is the king of Sports. Futal is the Queen of Sports. Futsal is part of football. This is the mantra of FIFA. Lets embrace it and sit back and watch the development of players come naturally and not robotically.

  10. cisco martinez, April 24, 2015 at 1:17 p.m.

    One of the main reasons it good to use small sided games is you can see who has technical ability and tactical ability. in the US ODP and college coaches main priority is speed and athleticism, not technical ability, tactical awareness, speed of play, when to play and when to dribble, creating space; playing 4v2, 6v2, or 6v6 are basis when playing 11v11. When defenders have the ball in there defensive third playing a flat back 4, if we have 2 forwards trying to defend, we can teach our four to keep the ball and we can also teach our two how to tactically defend by pushing the ball wide.

  11. Raymond Weigand, April 24, 2015 at 2:07 p.m.

    Cony: I think it might be more economical to put out a few markers / cones ... No need for all of the infrastructure / rules / constraints ... of course, if you would like to invest in a pilot program you are encouraged to do so! My city has futsal ... we have two centers ... $60 per hour ($5 per player) ... and the owner is not doing so well ... it's hard to compete against the park or the tennis courts / etc.

  12. Ric Fonseca, April 24, 2015 at 2:17 p.m.

    Well son-of-a-gun! Kent James said it best: SA is preaching to the choir, but alas, not to the whole congregation, simply and because the whole congregation doesn't attend regularly... Get what I mean? And jeepers weepers, back in '71 when I attended the first of several US Soccer Coaching clinics, the first twoby Detmar Cramer, he even then emphasized small sided games, I'm surprised that no one mentions (or did they?) that Leo Messi learned small-sided games in Argentina before he went to Barcelona. Watching the recent Euro Champions games, I was - and still am - amazed at the closeness of play while advancing, interspersed with a long ball down the wings, or the middle, while sadly while watching the recent U23 game, it left me for wanting. One thing though, I wish Cony would just forget that we will never build 600,000 futsal courts, it'd be nice to have, but as the old saying goes, "never happen!" How about just letting the kids play as espoused by the article above?

  13. Bob Ashpole, April 24, 2015 at 4:32 p.m.

    A good coach can set up a SSG to practice any skill, including finishing and long passing. SSGs including futsal can be played on any flat surface. You don't need to build special courts for futsal. As Ric points out, the way to develop good players is not a secret and has been known for many years. The problem has always been that very few youth coaches and clubs are interested in developing good players. They look at the sport through a microscope instead of seeing the larger view. The normal practice is to create winning teams by selecting superior players based on current performance rather than potential.

  14. Scott Johnson, April 24, 2015 at 7:44 p.m.

    Small-sided games are great. The spring league run by the Portland Timbers, incidentally, bans goalie dropkicks; goalies are required to either throw the ball or to place it on the ground and then kick it. (No changes to GK rules though).

  15. Thomas Brannan, April 26, 2015 at 5 p.m.

    Those who just won't play small sided must be made to do it. IT STARTS AT THE TOP. ENTER - SUNIL GULATI. MANDATE. After that for the older kids, after the growth spurt, in training SSG continues as per Verheijan.

  16. Kevin Sims, April 28, 2015 at 10:43 a.m.

    It is a bit embarrassing that this matter of SSGs is still in need of advocating ... DO IT ALREADY! MANDATE IT ALREADY! ... If coaches were really coaches, no mandate or policy would be in order.

  17. Thomas Hosier, May 17, 2015 at 8:28 p.m.

    I guess I have missed something here .... I have been watching the youngsters play small sided organized games for years and years. Goalies are not allowed until U10 where I am from and the fields are still small and the sides are 7 v 7.

    My big issue with U12 and above 11 vs 11 games is Referees and AR who allow grabbing, shoving, and tripping to go on unchecked to the point that there is not much point in developing technical skills as the thugs and the muggers dominate the game.

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