Germany wakes up -- more dribbling and touches for young players

When I referee amateur soccer games at the weekend, both men's and youth, they follow a similar path for the first few minutes. From the kickoff, the ball will be played back to the defenders. The defenders will then pass the ball among themselves, involving maybe the goalkeeper and a central midfielder. Lovely stuff. Tiki-taka. Pure Pep. Flawless soccer, on the ground, straight to feet. The other team doesn't get a sniff of the ball. Possession stats for the first two minutes: 100 percent to zero.

Then the opposing forwards decide to put some pressure on the team in possession. Does the ball then move up the field in perfect triangles in a series of wall-passes before we see the first chance of the game? No. At the first sign of stress, the hitherto assured defender or goalkeeper has only one course of action in mind. Hit it high and hit it long. To hell with the plans of your coach, Pep Wannabe. Safety first, even if that means our so-far carefully nurtured possession stats are in the bin.

There's an alternative to pretty passing and ugly long balls, of course. It's called dribbling. In amateur games, however, for every player you see dribbling the ball out of defense, you'll spot a coach on the touchline jumping up and down and screaming from the top of their tongues: "Pass the ball! Whack it long!" For me as a referee, the two minutes of quiet time are over. The following 88 will be all speed, pressing and shouting. Plus, a lot of heading and hectic errors.

That doesn't just apply to amateur soccer. On Tuesday night, I watched a level-three (League One) English professional game between Cheltenham Town and Lincoln City. The object of the game seemed to be to keep the ball as far away from both goals as possible. I don't recall a single player embarking on a successful dribble. The dire, dispiriting game got the result that it deserved: a 0-0 tie.

And yet, what do we want to see as spectators and lovers of the game? Artists with flair, naturally. Players with imagination and style. Yet sadly, we no longer expect it. Should it happen, it's treated like a bonus novelty. As though we'd gone to see our favorite band from the 80s who had pledged to only play "the new material." You stand there wanting to like it, but it's only an approximation of the reason why you're a fan. Then, as an encore, they play one of the old hits after all. Finally, you're entertained!

"I go as often as possible to the soccer field," the German federation coach Hermann Gerland told kicker magazine this week. "And what do I hear from coaches: 'Pass! Pass! Pass!' or 'Press! Press! Press!' I never hear 'Dribble! Dribble! Dribble!' That's blocking creativity." Gerland is one of three coaches the DFB has appointed to develop a new plan for coaching youth soccer. As witnessed by the national team's group stage exits at the last two World Cups, the lack of effective strikers and exciting wide players (including defenders) goes all the way to the top of the German game.

And who were the two most exciting players at last year's tournament, who led their teams all the way to the final? Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé, who are not revered around the world for their ability to track back, knock it long or go in hard. It's their elegant motion and their nimble agility that spectators yearn to watch. We love nothing more than to see a feint, a trick, a touch or a surge that leaves a defender on the floor.

Given that soccer is so fixated on marketing itself nowadays, you wonder why more clubs and federations are not focused on this aspect of actually entertaining the people who pay so much to consume it. Look — here are two wonderful, mesmerizing sportsmen. Everyone who loves soccer loves to watch them. Why don't we encourage more young players to thrill the stands, rather than focusing purely on methods that will yield results produced by effective but dull and forgettable teams? Keywords: Mourinho, Jose. And a million youth team coaches who think that showing trophies to the parents that pay their wages has priority over developing players who can do more than run very fast and play for safety first.

Gerland is charged with implementing a youth training concept that moves away from what he sees as the current obsession with rondos, to offer more all-around practice sessions. His colleague Hannes Wolf, coach of the German U-20 men's team, says, "It's important to leave behind the 7-v-4 or the 8-v-8 group tactical training. With our concept we want to teach all skills, for all positions. We've incorporated in our training plan 53 playing elements from around 60 that are important in soccer, with less emphasis on high balls, crosses and headers." Almost all of the drills are conducted in small groups.

"If you have two fields at practice playing 4-v-4, every kid gets 200 touches," says Wolf. "With 8-v-8 on a big field, maybe 50. What's more fun for the player? What's more effective? Multiply that by 10, 100 or 1,000 training sessions. Which will ultimately be the better player?"

He'll need to get back to us on that 10 years down the line. I suspect, though, that we already know the answer.

28 comments about "Germany wakes up -- more dribbling and touches for young players".
  1. cony konstin, March 9, 2023 at 1:11 p.m.

    Futsal can help revolutionize global football. I have been saying this since the early 80s. Spain figured this out in the early 80s by setting up futsal in every school in Spain. As street soccer disappears futsal can become a version of streetball. Glad for the Germans to realize that kids need to become more creative. 

  2. Toby Rappolt, March 9, 2023 at 4:10 p.m.

    Thank you, Ian. 

    What is the definition of dribbling as an action in the game?

    I'm just curious because I've heard many different definitions. 



  3. Travis Smith replied, March 10, 2023 at 7:55 p.m.

    fantastic article. 

  4. stewart hayes, March 9, 2023 at 5 p.m.

    That's right Ian.  I've been screaming at the TV for years, take 'em on, take some chances.  Enough of the possession.  But you need help from the ref's.  Yesterday, Messi got a wake up body check, that in my book was a clear yellow.  

    Although, most of the tackles were fair and Messi had a pretty dismal day, missing a clear yellow like that was a signal to Bayern, keep roughing him up.  

    At the youth level one can only imagine the hurt that the dribblers will suffer unless the attitude toward the dribbler changes. 

    But I could not agree more.  The biggest roadblock are certainly the coaches.  Imagine Messi growing up in Germany!  We would have never had a Messi.

  5. Mike Lynch, March 9, 2023 at 5:16 p.m.

    I recall reading somewhere one of the greatest passers of all time, Fran's Beckenbauer was a ball hog as a youth player so much that he was often benched for too much dribbling. Most all the great ones are dribblers who can pass unbelievably too. In the youth game, dribble, dribble, dribble must be the mantra. With comfort on the ball under high pressure comes passing brilliance too. The reverse is not true. Dribblers can develop into great passers but passers can rarely develop into great dribblers. Teach, encourage dribble first to our youth. 

  6. George Miller, March 9, 2023 at 6:43 p.m.

    Even Messi does not dribble in def third

  7. Thomas Freker, March 9, 2023 at 7:13 p.m.

    Keyword Johann Cruyff

  8. Kent James, March 10, 2023 at 1:24 a.m.

    Passing, dribbling, finishing...even kicking it long are all important parts of the game. There's a time and a place for everything. That's what keeps the game fresh.  Dribbling against opponents is difficult, and that's one area I think at the highest levels there has bee a sea change; most players at that level are good dribblers.  There are special players (like Mbappe and Messi) who can regularly beat players on the dribble.  With modern defenses that swarm the ball, dribbling is that much harder (1 v 2 or 3 instead of the old-school 1 v 1), so it's even more impressive that modern players dribble as much as they do.  Sometimes they have to dribble a bit to get open enough to even make a pass.

    When I first learned how to play, I was taught that passing was better that dribbling because the ball can move faster when you pass it than if you're dribbling it (and teamwork was also strengthened by passing more than dribbling).  But later I realized the power of a player beating a defender on the dribble, since that unbalanced defenses and forced teams to shift, opening up space to exploit.  And while I became pretty adept at the technical aspects of dribbling, I learned it too late to ever become a natural dribbler.  It is vital that young players learn to dribble early.  I think it's easier to teach a good dribbler to pass than it is to teach a good passer to dribble.  

    So I agree, especially at the youth level, dribbling should be encouraged.  On the other hand, I'm not a fan of professional goalkeepers making moves on players attacking them when they have the ball...the risk/reward equation does not work, though I guess maybe the risk/entertainment equation does...

  9. Bob Ashpole, March 10, 2023 at 1:40 a.m.

    I don't understand what the fuss is about penetrating. It is easy to do with combination passing. I have taught 8 year old novices how to do it.

    It is something I did without thinking as a fullback almost 40 years ago. Pass and move. The key is the first through pass into the gap behind the opponent's fowards. Then you are playing 10 vs. 7.

    Plan B was a slow build up, but with a 433 we never had to go with Plan B.

    I assume that it is not as easy against teams that use positional play, but in over 800 adult matches in the US I never faced an opponent who used positional play. When I played against college teams in the mid-80s it was really easy because they simply sprinted up and down the field leaving open space everywhere. So no one could rapidly and effectively counter-press. It is something not often taught by US soccer coaches. (I learned pressing playing HS basketball.)

  10. frank schoon, March 10, 2023 at 10:27 a.m.

    Thank You Ian, for this article. " GERMANY WAKES UP...MORE DRIBBLING ,MORE TOUCHES FOR YOUNG PLAYERS"....This is obviously a long post ,so I would recommend for some of you not to bother reading for it might go over your heads...

    Guys don't you get the FEELING that you're watching the movie "Groundhog Day". Every 10 to 15 years we get suggestion that our youth development is not going in the right direction. I remember back in 2006 German Coaching School realized that youth player development was boring. Obviously that was not a surprise to other countries for that has always been a criticism of german soccer all along the past 30 years. The Germans needed a change, and decided to follow the Dutch way of developing players. I remember when the Dutch were going through their doldrums stating that Germans in WC 2014 played more dutch style than the dutch themselves.

    I remember back in the early 90's Johan Cruyff complained how the youth of Ajax, the flagship of youth development ,was terrible and blamed van Gaal. Cruyff predicted the downfall of dutch soccer 20years ahead of time. Everyone laughed at Cruyff because Ajax won the Europena Cup in '95 with van Gaal...

    For those who can see the bigger will notice, "Ground Hog Day"... Why is it that every 10-15years someone with half a brain realize the youth are not being developed right ,for instance they lack enough touches on the ball.  You would think by NOW that the Coaching Academies would have learned their lessons from the past  that the youth need FREEDOM not STRUCTURE in order to develop.

    The BEST environment for youth development that ever came about , as stated by Cruyff and Rinus Michels, is PICKUP soccer, "street soccer". Having grown up in that environment in Amsterdam, myself, I realized how lucky I was to have been developed that way.  All the kids developed on the streets, later they would join a club, in my case it was Ajax. My development ,like the other kids was 80-85% pickup and 15-20% club. In other words, INDIVIDUALISM is the mainstay with TEAM oriented functions or structure as the supplement.

    Playing so much Pickup develops the following for a youth: 'Pride' in what you accomplish, you're forced to hone and perfect one's skills to compete.  you improve on and learn from better and older players. So that technically, and tactically as you grow, you're growing as a player. 

                                                            NEXT POST...

  11. Bob Ashpole replied, March 10, 2023 at 3:19 p.m.

    I agree Frank. I read everything I could find published in English during the early 80s. Most of it was written in the 70s and it laid out the classic method to train youth. Emphasis on learning by playing and including lots of touches for all players. I used those methods to self train and then to coach youth in the mid 90s. I also drew heavily on the coaching methods used by my high school basketball and football coaches, because they were the only examples I had available. (Never had a soccer coach until I was 34). Worked very well.

    No need to reinvent the wheel as far as development or principles of play. I think the problem is that most coaches simply repeat what their coaches did. If you had great coaches, then that is fine. That's a big "if". Too often the coaches think they already know how to coach so they never develop themselves.

  12. frank schoon replied, March 10, 2023 at 4:44 p.m.

    Bob, you're absolutely right...."Reinventing the wheel", each time.

  13. frank schoon, March 10, 2023 at 11:27 a.m.

    A player feels he's getting respect from his competition by how he's developing. You get more cockier, ego-tistical. In my days the best kid chooses teams, or is captain. A hierarchy of respect is develops. READ ZLATAN'S BOOK, how he fought the battles in pickup soccer and what he could learned.  He didn't even join a club until his late, late teens. He went home and watched studied Ronaldo of Brazil on video to copy much of his style. Kids in pickup copy better players, andwork on the moves.  What kids learn in those pickup setting can NEVER BE TAUGHT by some licensed copies. "LEADERSHIP" is another aspect the youth develop in order to survive the competition. A hierarchy comes where each individual youth player gains respect from those who are below him on the ranking scale of development.  This is why today's players lack leadership qualities on the field, because they lack the necessary technical and tactical know-how that was gained on their own in pickup soccer. INDIVIDUALISM, is the FOREMOST QUALITY a player gains and that is needed for your survival out there, being able to handle the ball in 1v1 situations in small spaces.
    This is why players (youth) in my days had so much better skill and touch on the ball, and cockiness than the sh*tkickers we develop today, because they lack a good, hearty backround of PICKUP SOCCER.

    Realize PICKUP SOCCER develops BALLHOGS, because in that environment everything is done 'too much of" ,but that's all part of the development of INDIVIDUALISM. This is why I would rather a coach a team that are full of BALLHOGS, for that's a great quality to have. It means, the youth is not scared to want and take on a player or two with the ball...You want to instill that CAN DO, I WILL NOT FAIL MENTALITY AND ATTITUDE. We don't INSTILL THAT TYPE ATTITUDE INTO OUR YOUTH.

    It is easier to tell a BALLHOG who does a little too much dribbling ,too cut down some, as compared to a youth who lacks the attitude and mental confidence to take on a player ;and btw those types get yelled at far less for doing totally nothing. As one Ajax player once stated when reaching 17 or 18 ,the advice you get now is more of cutting down and becoming more efficient, but at least you've got the hardware and tools to be creative when needed.   Without developing the INDIVIDUAL qualities that makes a player standout ,we will produce good playerws that you want to watch play....

  14. Grant Goodwin, March 10, 2023 at 12:14 p.m.

    Awesome article.  I get so sick of seeing pass and possession with no purpose.  It is like they are playing grab ass in their side of the field...just to keep the ball away from the other team but not to score.  

    I think that the whole revolution of playing out of the back and the GK being highly technically efficient with their feet has led to a lot of this garbage soccer.  

  15. frank schoon, March 10, 2023 at 12:14 p.m.

    As Ian quotes the German Coach, who hears along the sidelines, "PASS, PASS, GET RID OF IT,  but never DRIBBLE ,DRIBBLE".  That should tell you why our players are not good with a ball.

     To me a good youth coach is one who can instill a DESIRE into a youth ,who has learned the BEAUTY AND LOVE for the game, who wants to play so bad,and calls his friends to play. Or during the summer the kids come together by themselves and  pickup after dinner. This type of coach you won't see but that to me is the kind of coach you want in youth soccer, not some licensed idiot who can't even demonstrate anything with a ball other than some mundane aspects. and walks around with a wallet stuffed with coaching licenses.

     We need coaches running the coaching academy who were former GREAT players, a Rivelino, a Cruyff, a Beckenbauer , a Pirlo type who understand what goes through the head of an pickup youth player.  Having developed as a youth themselves in pickup soccer , they know how important it is TO ALLOW the youth to experiment. I'm sure they will have stern talking too these coaches. As Marco van Basten once stated that out of the 10coaches a youth experiences only two will help improve you as player, two will do nothing for you and the other 6 will ruin you.....

    As was mentioned ,Beckenbauer was a ballhog, but all GREAT players were ball hogs. Realize that is a phase all players  should go through in PICKUP soccer. You're in love with that ball. Cruyff would have the ball under his foot even in the classroom.

    Coaches today restrict the youth rather than create, that's the problem. This isn't rocket science for we have over 70years of experience in soccer development, but somehow we keep going back to "Groundhog Day". We license coaches for what?  We don't really need them when the youth need to first go through the first MAJOR PHASE which is INDIVIDUALISM. These coaches only hampers, restrict and denies creativity. My suggestion is for these coaches to take slow boat to China and come back when they are about 16 or 17.

  16. Santiago 1314 replied, March 10, 2023 at 6:45 p.m.

    Ian is Spot On..
    As i have been Stating....
    Abput The Level of Player Development;
    "Downgrading" from the Top Teams and "Rising" from the Bottom,
    Has Led to the Situation, Where; You could Change the Shirts on the Players at Half Time and you wouldn't Notice the difference in Play for 95% of them.
    Cookie Cutter, Beep-Bra Wearing, Play-the-way-you-Are-Facing, "Automotons"
    Very Effecient and Somewhat Entertaining,,, but Largly BORING.!!!

  17. Bob Ashpole replied, March 10, 2023 at 8:01 p.m.

    Santi, I am still undecided about your point. I believe you are accurately describing today's situation, I am just undecided if it were ever any different. Every team has piano players and piano carriers. But a team with 5 players is so much more dangerous and exciting than a team with only 1. 

    I think this was originally what was so exciting about international soccer. Lots of piano players on the field. But today coaches want followers, not creative players, and certainly not tactical decision makers with a soccer brain. Followers aren't threatening. Ask the French WNT coach.

  18. Philip Carragher, March 11, 2023 at 8:58 a.m.

    Ian, thank you for this piece. Frank, Ground Hog Day. I suspect we'll continue to run into this 20 years from now. Bob, I'm not sure if the WNT had the coach you mention that you believe did such an outstanding job, but I suspect she was the coach when I listened to an interview of a player who (I think this was her) tore off her shirt after scoring. Years ago. Maybe the most popular soccer photo in our parts. Anyway, she spoke of dribbling skills or escape skills practiced by their team as "combat soccer". I've used that in my coaching. Girls love it. And one aspect of dribbling or going 1v1 that I find important is just how much energy it takes. Combat. Dribbling can use up lots of energy. Passing the ball around can be relaxing. My thoughts about dribbling and how important it is flash back to watching Claudio Reyna and Xavi/Iniesta controlling the midfield. Valderamma too. They never lost the ball. Sure, they positioned themselves well and made bunches of successful passes, but when they got in a tight spot, which wasn't all that often, try taking the ball away from them. Forgetaboutit. Last point: read Wenger's book. He states that first and foremost soccer needs to entertain.

  19. frank schoon replied, March 11, 2023 at 12:02 p.m.

    Philip, I don't consider players as Claudio Reyna, Xavi, Valderama,Iniesta as dribblers for they really don't have to beat anyone 1v1 dribbling, for it is not necessary because of the position the play. Their role is more passing and supporting/positioning to get the ball back in case. All they have to do is position off the ball to receive it and move it somewhere else. They could play the whole game without needing to beat anuyone. But you're on the frontline dribbling and putting players on the wrong foot creates openings for others or for yourself to score or create situations. It doesn't do Mbappe any good to position and receive a ball and then look to constantly pass somewhere else, his position requires more...

  20. Bob Ashpole replied, March 11, 2023 at 1:37 p.m.

    Philip, either your memory is mistaken or you don't follow the USWNT. And you didn't watch them play at the 2015 and 2019 finals with Jill Ellis as coach.

    As for entertainment, that saying applies to professional soccer, not to the sport of soccer. Cruyff said it long before Wenger wrote it. It is practically the Dutch prime directive. 

    Good coaches understand the value of 1v1 and include it at all levels, including at national team sessions. So good for you.

    Frank's comments reflect the fact that he is a winger at heart. I am not, but I played winger competitively so I understand his thinking well. Wingers of course penetrate by dribbling. Good ones playing with good teammates don't do much shielding, unlike central players.

  21. Bob Ashpole, March 11, 2023 at 2:08 p.m.

    The last comment about the USWNT coach lead me to thinking about Tony DiCicco. Did you ever meet him? Playing with passion was fundamental to his view of the game. Some like to use anger, he wanted joy to motivate. I think if you did meet you would have recognized the "Dutch" in his coaching. I wasn't there, but my thought is that he treated the WNT members as professional players rather than as women playing soccer. I see that as ground zero in the WNT press for equal respect.

    Most of the fans don't understand the connection between respect and performance. I expect all coaches do.

  22. Bob Ashpole replied, March 11, 2023 at 4:43 p.m.

    Frank, this is a question to you.

    Also I am interested in anyone's comments about Tony DiCicco. 

  23. frank schoon replied, March 12, 2023 at 9:26 a.m.

    Bob,  You're right most don't understand the connection between respect and performance. I go even further ,like if you respect the game, you wouldn't bring in racial slurs or taunts to players or anything negative towards the game. Even the horn and tooter crowd are a little too tribal for me for they don't look at performance, or respect but they interpret everything as OK  onlywhen they the ball only travels in one direction and that is towards the  opponent's goal.

    Bob, I never met Toni and even when he coached the women, I didn't pay much attention to the WNT.  I do have a close friend who is well known in Greece soccer circles for he played there, but when he came here and played here , he apparently knew DiCicco and he didn't have a good word to say about him as player or knowledge of the game. Likewise he didn't have a good to say about Bob Gansler who flunked him on the anatomy part of the test because couldn't name a certain muscle structure. We played together and against each other, he was a good player..

  24. Philip Carragher replied, March 12, 2023 at 11:57 a.m.

    Combat soccer conveys a message that we're in a battle, 1v1, me v you. That message along with the fact that combat soccer was a practice routine for the WNT impressed me and was incredibly useful when coaching 5-8th grade Catholic girls. I wanted them to toughen up, speak up, and they had to do this in the co-ed league they played in. That the WNT practiced this routinely said bunches about the woman's; the player's animated description of this in the interview spoke to the degree she and her teammates liked it and bought into it. I've used this with boys as well.

  25. Philip Carragher, March 12, 2023 at 12:03 p.m.

    woops. missed a word...said bunches about the woman's coach. Whoever it was was bang-on-the-dot with this drill. Also, I believe Wenger would agree that entertainment and visually pleasing could be considered synonymous. I'd like to see even our lower than national team levels playing more visually pleasing soccer. It can be done.

  26. Bob Ashpole replied, March 12, 2023 at 12:48 p.m.

    Phillip lots of good coaches use 1v1 drills as part of their training. Bruce Arena did with the USMNT. Individual competition is a fundamental building block of Anson Dorrance's approach to coaching, the first coach of the USWNT.

    At one time there was an article about a youth coach who never used anything but small sided games to teach fundamentals to novices. He was reportedly pretty successful, which was why he was the subject of a national article. I couldn't do that. I would start sessions with unopposed movements (1:1 ball to player ratio) and build from there gradually to full sides. 

  27. frank schoon replied, March 12, 2023 at 1:12 p.m.

    Bob, and Phil, You're both right,.To me it's six of one and half a dozen of the other. What really counts is that you do a lot of it, over  and over again, REPEAT, REPEAT, REPEAT, to let it become natural to the player. Than always flip it over to let the muscle memory flow....And that is the secret of pickup soccer, that doing so much of it ,it becomes part of you.  This is why I say, Pickup soccer ends up doing too much of it and tend need to move to the next phase

  28. Stephanie Recupero, March 17, 2023 at 9:46 a.m.

    This is one of the best articles I have read in a long time! We discourage dribbling and creativity and can over coach the young kids by joy sticking every move.  This creates doubt and confusion and they don't trust their instincts which impacts flair.  I think Germany is onto something and we should consider implementing that here too.    

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