Penetrating the opposition defence

This session is about penetrating the opposition defence with clever runs and passing. It also encourages attacking players to get on the half turn when receiving, ensuring they’re aware of where the next pass is going. At Sheffield United, we’re a team that likes to play with possession but we’re also looking for our attacking players to mix up their movement in penetrating in behind the opposition back four.

In my coaching I’ve always looked to use end zone sessions because they reinforce the message that we need to be making runs ahead of the ball, and this practice is nicely match-related. They also encourage players to keep possession, making the pitch as big as possible in using our dynamic attacking players.


Up to a full pitch
Balls, cones, goals, mannequins, rebound boards
Number of Players
Up to 22
Session time
Exercises 1&2 15mins each, Exercise 3 Optional times

What do I get the players to do?

Technical passing rotation

Setting up as shown (1), we’re looking for good awareness and movement by players as they perform a tight passing pattern around the playing area with mannequins in place.

We’re looking for speed and quality of passing, plus good combination play. Certain positions need to make more ambitious forward runs ahead of the ball than others (see diagram).


1. Players construct fast and quick passing moves
2. Rebound boards are used for quick one-twos
3. Mannequins represent full-backs
4. The ball that arrives first goes through the mannequins
5. The ball that arrives second goes outside the mannequins
6. End players receive and work play back into the area

How do I progress the practice?

To step this up we would increase complexity in the wide areas, firstly encouraging players to ‘go long to come short’. We want players to receive, open out and run with the ball before playing in to the end player.
Next we can ask a player to come short, spin long and receive a pass played inside the mannequin (which represents a full-back).

In the next move we want to see players receiving and playing one-twos around mannequins. We also want to encourage pulling away and ducking down the side, and seeing players experiment with playing a longer pass or diagonal ball for a team mate over the top of the mannequin.

5v5 with end zones

Now moving on we set up as shown across the full width of the pitch (2a). To score, players must run the ball into or receive in the end zone. Two rules must be followed – namely a receiving player cannot be in the end zone before the ball is played; and the defending team cannot enter the end zone. Once a ball is received in the end zone we are looking for the player to finish purposefully against the rebound boards.


1. The coach begins by feeding the ball in
2. Reds combine with quick, tight passing
3. A one-two is made around an opposing blue
4. A red player makes a run into the end zone to receive
5. He finishes with a firm shot against the rebound board

The game restarts as the ball comes back from the coach (2b).
The focus here is on movement, awareness, forward runs, combination play and making penetrating passes.


1. The game continues in phase two as the coach feeds the blue team with a ball as they attack the other way
2. The red attacker now transitions to become a defender
3. Team mates are alert to the transition and move in to support

10v10 challenge

We now set up on a full pitch, as shown (3). There are no keepers to begin with although we can place mannequins in the goals to make it harder to score.

If a player breaks into zone 1 he must cross the ball into zone 2, where a striker should be making a run for a one-touch finish. If a player breaks into zone 2 he must finish off two touches. Defenders cannot challenge the attackers inside the zones.


• In the 10v10 challenge players cross or shoot from within designated zones, looking to put into practice the type of link-up play and movement rehearsed in the earlier parts of the session

To progress we can look to add a keeper to make it an 11v11, whilst ensuring we retain the zone restrictions.

There’s often frustration as an attacker when you’ve made a run in behind and not received the pass. So in those situations we want the attacker to make a secondary run and sometimes a third. Essentially, when they get in those positions we want them to get back in, take up a new position and look to penetrate again.

What are the key things to look out for?

Primarily this session coaches players in movement and awareness – and for players, that’s awareness of themselves, their team mates, and certainly awareness of the opposition.

But the session is also good for defenders – when they can’t influence the passer they’ll need to be prepared to get into a good position to be able to defend the ball to feet, as well as the ball in behind. So it’s not just an attacking drill – there’s plenty to work on with defenders as well.

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