This session focuses on managing the ball in the middle third of the pitch. It has specific positional objectives: it teaches defenders to recognise and execute successful passes into the middle third, while showing midfielders and attackers how to move effectively to create space and how to receive to play forward.
The session’s design allows the coach to set tactical problems and stretch and challenge players technically, psychologically and physically, while focusing on the specific needs of the individual.
This session provides deliberate practice opportunity and the design and progressions offer opportunities for tactical interventions. The players are challenged to make effective tactical decisions, focusing on how they can solve specific game-related challenges using their technical skills, physical ability and elite psychological characteristics.
This session can be adapted to meet the needs of specific individuals. I would look to run a session of this type when practising topics around midfield play and receiving.
“The session allows the coach to set tactical problems and stretch and challenge players technically, psychologically and physically”
PLAYING THROUGH MIDFIELD
We set up on a pitch with a goal and a goalkeeper at each end. We divide the playing area into zones: two end zones of 28 yards long and a 14×24-yard box in the centre of the pitch, plus a wide channel on each wing of the central box.
For this session we’re using 18 outfield players and two goalkeepers divided into two teams of 10. The red team is set up in a 3-4-2 formation, while the blue team is set up in a 3-3-3 formation. Only the midfielders of each team can initially play inside the central box – any other players should go through the outside wide channels.
The aim of the practice is for the team in possession is to try to build an attack from the back and play through the midfielders in the central midfield box to successfully enter the final third and create a goal scoring opportunity. The team in possession should aim to create space and utilise their central overload – in this example it’s a 4v3 overload in favour of the reds, as shown [1a].
“The team in possession should aim to create and utilise the central overload – it’s a 4v3 overload in favour of the red possession team”
How do I progress the session?
If playing though the central midfield box is not available or if the players require a further challenge, we can progress the practice by allowing the in-possession red team to play through the wide channels using the support of the full backs or the wide midfielders, who can move into the outside channels, as shown [1b].
We can challenge the players’ decision making by encouraging them to receive in alternative zones. We could ask central midfielders to receive in wide channels, as shown [1c], and also allow other players to enter the central zone, such as the striker who could drop into the midfield to receive, as shown [1d]. This can be done by encouraging rotations, player interchanges and individual movements.
A further progression can be introduced by allowing players in the out-of-possession blue team to track forward runs into other thirds of the pitch, making every area fully opposed. For example, the blue wide player can track the forward run of the red full back all the way into the outside channel, as shown [1e]. This can take place all over the pitch with players from the out-of-possession blue team now allowed to follow their opponents into other zones to defend.
We play for 30 minutes, with the coach observing when and how to progress or release the challenges for individual players.
“The coach will encourage the opposition team to press high from the front and man mark. This will create problems for the in-possession team”
What are the key things to look for?
The coach will look to align observations around the key principles of the topic: managing the ball in the middle third. The coach would also monitor the individual positional objectives he has set the players. For the possession team, defenders should spot and execute successful passes into the middle third, while midfielders and attackers should move effectively to create space to receive and play forwards.
The coach will encourage the opposition to press high from the front and man mark where possible. This will create problems for the in-possession team that the coach will then be able to encourage them to correct. He will ask them to consider these key questions: what movements do they need to make to lose their marker? Do they need to make second movements or interchanges? How do they adjust their body to receive to play forwards?
The coach will also ask the in-possession team to solve the tactical challenges presented and encourage them to create overloads in each section of the pitch to help build and complete attacks. The coach should then look to identify key psychological behaviours and characteristics in the players that present themselves, providing appropriate challenges and feedback to support this individual area of development.
What are the typical mistakes players might make and how do I avoid them?
Players will need to be encouraged to interchange and rotate through zones. Often they get stuck in one zone, meaning they can’t create space for themselves and for others to receive and build attacks.
We see another common mistake when forwards for the out-of-possession team drop off to the line, meaning it’s too easy for the in-possession team’s defenders to receive and play forwards. We remedy this by encouraging a high man-for-man press.
Sometimes strikers for the in-possession team can look to receive to feet, neglecting the space that may be available in behind the opposition defenders.
This will challenge midfielders to look for penetrative passes and strikers to make penetrative movements off the ball. If they do this, opposition defenders will be stretched tactically and physically.
How would I put this in a game situation?
The coach can progress this session into a small- sided game by releasing the tactical constraints for both teams, meaning the players will have complete freedom of movement. This will extend decision making both with regards to out-of-possession strategy and in-possession problem-solving. The coach is then able to observe and feedback based upon the session aims or individual player objectives.