My philosophy


Up to a half-pitch


Balls, cones, goals, poles

No. of players

Up to 9v9

Session time

Boxes 20mins, 6v6 20mins, Goals 20mins

My key football philosophy has always been to make sure my teams keep hold of the ball. The use of possession in creating space and reducing opposition threat is recreated in every match situation, so this knowledge is invaluable in the modern game.

While the concept is straightforward, searching for improvement and development in this vital skill is important. There are a variety of challenges that enable us to perfect the art, and this practice can be embedded in more difficult game play situations by applying specific coaching exercises and conditions… encouragement to switch the ball, for instance.

At United, the players are so good at these activities it is a joy to watch. All players are comfortable receiving the ball and using space, from the goalkeeper right through the team.

Paul Scholes v Panathinaikos

Champions League, Second Group stage, Group A November 21, 2000, Old Trafford (1,2,3)

I have used the quick, tight, measured passing that you see in this session in my soccer training at Aberdeen and St. Mirren, right through to Manchester United. While there are countless examples of players who have excelled in this role, the performance that Paul Scholes put in against Panathinaikos in the Champions League at Old Trafford in 2000 was particularly special. We were leading 2-1 and looking to keep hold of the ball in order to see the game out. We not only achieved that, but constructed a passing move of more than 20 passes, which ended with a sublime Scholes chip over the goalkeeper and into the net.


1. United have already made 10 consecutive passes by the time David Beckham lays the ball forward to Teddy Sheringham
2. Sheringham lays it back to Mikael Silvestre
3. Mikael Silvestre and Wes Brown exchange passes


• Another exchange of passes is made before a ball is fed centrally to Paul Scholes. He angles a long pass to Dwight Yorke on the wing, then begins a forward run


1. Dwight Yorke’s positive run up the wing creates space, with Panathinaikos unable to close the frontman down
2. David Beckham has advanced into midfield and receives the pass
3. Teddy Sheringham flicks the ball to Paul Scholes who has made a blind side run
4. Paul Scholes takes one touch to control the ball then lifts it effortless over the Panathinaikos keeper for a memorable goal

Boxes (2a, 2b)

This involves the use of boxes as a primary start, something that is fundamental to players building understanding and motivation of movement and passing in tight areas. We use multiple boxes so that everyone is active.

A simple 4v2 in a 20×20-yard box is two-touch, ensuring players enjoy time on the ball. Blues work together to intercept while reds must retain possession using quick, efficient link-up, the use of angled runs and passes, and an appreciation of space. Players should operate on the balls of their feet, always ready to turn.


1. Blues work as a close-knit pair in the middle, looking to win possession from reds
2. One blue closes down his opponent
3. The other blue prepares to move towards the next receiving player
4. Reds move closer to their team mate in possession to offer angled passing options


1. The red moves in off the line, staying active at all times
2. Now the red attacker must look for passing angles as blues press tightly
3. Blue presses the ball

Technique: Balls of the feet

• A player who is up on the balls of his feet is already ‘on the move’, in motion, and his feet are anticipating onward movement (be that a run or the receipt of the ball). Being on the balls of the feet also implies minimal contact with the ground, enabling players to turn quickly. Contrast this to being flat-footed. The player needs to find time and energy to rise up on the balls of his feet to move off. Spinning movement is also restricted because the whole foot is planted in the ground.

How do I progress the game?

Progressions are always determined by the quality of the session at each stage, so, in this example, once  we are sure sufficient progress is being made and a high quality of passing attained, we apply the same principles to one-touch 5v2. The adjustment of teams (to 6v2, 7v2 or even 6v3) or box size (right down to 10×10 yards) becomes part of the players’ motivation and entertainment as it is they who, through their actions, show they are ready for the more demanding parts of training. And remember, perseverance is vital for the creation of habit and expertise.

6v6 (not shown)

Next, we enlarge to a 40×40-yard box, playing 6v6. This is an evenly weighted practice that examines ball retention without the benefit of an overload.

Goals (3a, 3b)

Then, on a half-pitch and with a goal in each corner, players combine measured possession with goalscoring. They can score in any goal, though passes must be 18 yards or more.

To progress, we can add two gates, as extra goalscoring options, or as part of an instruction that the ball must be passed through a gate before a goal is attacked. Gates must be placed near the centre of the practice, no closer than 10 yards from each goal line.


• In the Goals game, teams can attack any of the four corner goals


• In the progression, we add in two central gated goals to provide further goalscoring options for the team in possession

What are the key things to look out for?

In every part of this session, ensure players begin two-touch, with team mates always providing angles at which to receive the ball. The consistent pattern of movement should not be forgotten, and we want to see players using the balls of their feet… never flat-footed. And any player in possession must be pressured at all times, with excellent work rate throughout and no-one standing on the lines – that’s too easy.   


  • Ball movementBall movement
  • Player movementPlayer movement
  • DribbleDribble
  • Optional movementOptional movement