Breaking lines


Up to 36x20 yards


Balls, bibs, flat cones, goals, discs

No. of players

Up to 11v11

Session time


Getting players comfortable when both in and out of possession has been central to my coaching philosophy. I have seen players making huge strides in what they do when mastering the art of protecting or pursuing the ball, and good possession habits ultimately translate on the pitch into other skills, so I regard this session as a base onto which further development of players can be built.


What do I get the players to do?

The functional midfielder
Setting up as shown (1a) in the centre circle, the ball always starts with the coach, who feeds in, with the players on the outside looking to keep the ball away from those in the middle. They do this by using short passes to lure the defenders in, then penetrating between by playing long between the lines. These players on the outside of the circle are always moving ready to receive.

If the team in possession reaches 25 passes, the possession pauses and a round of applause sounds  for the achievement. Play then restarts quickly.


• Outer players make long passes in order to split inrushing defenders, and successfully retain possession

What are the key things to look out for?

When in possession players must keep the ball by using a good weight of pass and touch. They need to show awareness of what’s around them, adopting good body positions as they do so.

Out of possession the reaction must be to press. Team mates need to work together in closing down both space and opponents.

When one of the three defenders wins back possession in the middle of the circle, it must be a clear win and not just a touch. That defender team must be in control of the ball, or he can kick out of the circle. Now players switch, so the drill will be restarted with the man who conceded possession ‘reaction pressing’, with the players on his left and right side reacting to join him.

How do I progress the practice?

For the first progression we add an extra body in the middle (so four closers), with outside men restricted to one or two touches (1b). When the ball breaks down the man who conceded possession transitions quickly into the circle, with those on the left and the right joining him. The coach will call one of the three coming out of the drill to make the fourth.


• In the progression, the threat of a fourth defender means outer players may need to make shorter passes in order to retain possession

As a further progression we can add a floater to the middle for one-twos and bounce passes.


What do I get the players to do?

In this challenge the objective is to develop quick combination play with a focus on passing forward through the lines. So setting up in a 36×20-yard area we mark out six 6×20-yard zones. We work with two keepers and five teams of four. Three of the teams represent attackers in zones 1, 3 and 5, while two operate as defenders in zones 2 and 4. All players must stay in their zones (2).

The game starts with the coach who plays to the keeper, who then feeds into zone 1. The objective is to play forward and through the lines, across the four zones to end with the keeper at the opposite end. This is a continuous end-to-end timed practice.

If the defending teams in either zones 2 or 4 block any through pass, the team of four conceding possession swaps zones. The defending team now becomes the attacking team.

The attacking team can move the ball at speed across the four to work the opening to penetrate, and can penetrate ‘in one’ when receiving from the keeper if they can work the opening, or if the defending team are unbalanced. If the attacking team is slow, at the coach’s discretion he can switch them with a defending team.


• The Five-Box Penetration exercise plots three attacking sides with two that are defending

What are the key things to look out for?

Defending teams need to work together in compact units as well as being quick to shuffle across their respective zones.

And when teams change from attack to defence or defence to attack, transitions must be quick so that an instant reaction (from both sides) can be seen.

When in possession, it’s two-touch maximum per player. We want to see a real speed to the practice and good body shape. We also demand good awareness of the ball, of team mates and opponents, smart decision-making and a measured weight of pass.

Out of possession we’re looking for good communication with team mates being a sensible distance apart. Players must also know to shuffle across the area.


What do I get the players to do?

In this challenge the objective is to penetrate lines to a 3v2 counter-attack.

Resting greens start with the ball and will play to any one of the yellows. Yellows can penetrate if one of the defending four is disorganised, or work a clever opening between their opponents (3a).

The defending four will have to work together to stop the penetrating pass – that means moving their feet and shuffling quickly to make sure distances and positioning are compact. 

When the blues are penetrated they have to make a recovery run which transforms the practice into a 6v3 in the defending team’s favour. 


• In the first small-sided game blacks and blues are defenders, with greens, yellows and reds in attacking mode

When the pass is penetrated to the reds it creates a 3v2 situation. The reds attack quickly at pace avoiding back tackles from recovering back defenders. The attacking three look for overlaps and clever interplay around the box (3b). 


• The ball is initially played to one of the wider of the three, who comes inside. The central attacker overlaps around the outside and gets played in for a shot on goal

If the defending team wins the ball back they have an ‘out pass’ in the form of the resting two defenders, and this ends the drill.

We will keep players moving between challenges regularly, with defenders rotating positions with each other. Greens, yellows, blues and reds move up a zone – for example greens go to the yellow zone, yellows go to the blue zone and become defenders, while blues become the reds for the 3v2, with one man resting. Reds rotate to start and become greens.

When in possession we want players to move the ball quickly to work the opening to penetrate. Body shape for passing forwards and receiving in pockets is crucial, as is good awareness and dribbling, overlaps, decision-making and the ability for players to capitalise on goalscoring opportunities.

When out of possession we want players to shuffle, slide, block and make recovery runs. Defenders in a 3v2 must be slow coming away from goal, aiming to slow the attack for the recovering four.


What do I get the players to do?

The functional striker
Setting up as shown this is an 11v11, working box-to-box, seven steps in from the touch line. Reds set up 1-4-2-3-1 while blues are 1-4-3-3.

The objective is to play through the thirds, with players free to play in all zones with the only restrictions being on touches. So in zone 1 the restriction for the team in possession is that it is two touches. Zone 2 also has a two-touch restriction whereas zone 3 is all in.

The team in possession always starts the drill from the keeper, with a concentration on quick play, making the pitch big and looking to score.

The team out of possession must work the line, press high and look to win the ball high up the pitch. If the press is pierced, they must recover their shape as quickly as possible. The other focus should be on the block, playing with compactness and getting ready with a reaction press.

If the defending team wins back possession, the roles reverse. The touch restrictions stay the same in the zones – the attacking team become defenders.

Offsides apply while keepers have four seconds to get the ball back into play if it comes back to them from a corner or throw-in.


• Reds (1-4-2-3-1) confront blues (1-4-3-3) in this 11v11 box-to-box game

How do I progress the practice?

To progress we can change touch restrictions in each zone. Furthermore, we can put balls around the outsides enabling quick throw-ins, and can look at adding a floater. Finally, we might condition the practice so the ball cannot be played back once the ball moves into the next zone.