Finding the spare man

This session focuses on finding the spare man in central areas, which is especially important when feeding the no.10 playing in between the lines of midfield and defence. The set-up encourages us to focus on the ball going wide, then being played into the no.10 if central penetration isn’t on.

So the session – which can be taught through command or guided discovery depending on age/ability/weather – offers plenty of opportunity for finishing in and around the penalty area. It allows for controlled, patient possession, with the belief that if a team dominates zone 14 (the space in the middle of the pitch just outside the penalty area) it can dominate the game!

The session can be run in the lead-up to playing against a disciplined low block – a side that wants to try to stop balls into central areas, and perhaps that has centre-backs who are strong in the air.


Use of a full pitch
Balls, cones, goals, poles
Number of Players
Session time
Part 1: 15mins (75secs x8 with rests)
Part 2: 20mins (3x5min games with rests)
Part 3: 15mins

What do I get the players to do?

This first task focuses on the spare man operating behind the opposition and the rotation that can occur. We set up a 20×14-yard grid with a centre-back at the top, two wingers on the outside and a centre-forward at the bottom. The no.10 operates behind two defensive screeners – he can rotate out for a wide player. The ball must be worked from top to bottom.

To progress, touches can be limited and the area size reduced if needs be.


• In the first part, the spare man works behind the two defensive screeners as the ball is worked from the top to the bottom

Part 2: 8v8+1

We now split a 44×66-yard pitch into three vertical channels with a central box in the middle, as shown. Teams operate within a 1-3-1-3 formation with the ‘key player’ limited to the central middle box. The aim is to play through him and score in one of the three goals. He must work on playing behind midfielders with movement to receive once the ball has gone into a full-back or wide player.

His movement is to get in a position to receive half-turned behind the midfield screen once the ball has gone wide – this will allow the game to get stretched across the three channels so the ball can be bounced back in centrally.

Upon receiving on the half-turn wide players and centre-forwards must occupy the back line, looking to stretch play with clever incisive runs ‘in to out’, or vice versa, to allow for threaded balls. To progress, we can add offside lines.


• In the second practice teams must play through the spare man (blue) who operates only in the middle zone

What are the key things to look out for?

Attackers must be cautious, prepared and ambitious in their forward play. Defensively, when a team hasn’t got the ball it must narrow up, so full-backs and wingers come into the edge of the central channel, forcing play wide. The keeper works on organisation and distribution of the team.

Part 3: 10v10+1

We now play in the space between the penalty boxes, full width, as shown, with both teams 4-2-3. The aim is to focus on the centre-halves having possession of the ball to dictate play, allowing play to go wide, with advancing full-backs looking to pass into the no.10 or spare man in midfield in order to get behind the opposition.


• In Part 3, whites have to drop to the line and narrow up into a medium block so the red centre-halves can carry the ball out and distribute to full-backs, whereby pressure can then be applied

What are the key things to look out for?

Playing with control and not being rushed is vital. We don’t allow men to come in front of the defensive players – they must stay behind the opposition. Similarly, we won’t force vertical penetration because we want to teach players to be controlled enough to go round before going central. A typical mistake in younger players is that they don’t control possession and try to rush penetration. This leads to them having to shoot from distance and, ultimately, they lose the ball.

The defensive team needs to ensure it narrows up to cover the middle channel and prevent vertical penetration – give them a time limit to get into this narrow shape if necessary so it doesn’t become too easy.

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