Playing through the thirds

This session begins as a technical practice, moves to an opposed practice before being developed into a small-sided game.

As a coach, I’m always looking for players to master basic elements such as movement and rotation in receiving the ball, and with that, the decision process behind the onward pass. However simple they are, it’s really important to practise these elements because they represent core skills, and influence almost every match day scenario.

The session is one that should be repeated regularly so players learn and understand the expectations of not only their coach, but team mates as well.


Up to 85×70 yards
Balls, cones, goals, mannequins
Number of Players
Up to 16
Session time
Technical practice 10mins
Opposed practice 10mins
Small-sided game 20mins

What do I get the players to do?

Technical practice

Set up as shown in the diagram. For the technical practice, we are looking for the two central players to move out to the ball, control, turn, and pass it on. The technique is designed to produce a good first touch that sees them ‘breaking (imaginary vertical) lines’ whilst shielding the ball and preparing to move it on (1a).


• In the Technical practice, players come off the mannequin to receive passes from wide. They control, turn and move the ball on

Having two men on left and right stations mean players can rotate around the area after each pass and into new positions, so the move retains its flow and momentum (1b).


• Players rotate positions so that the passing practice retains its flow and momentum

Opposed practice

Setting up as shown (2a), this is a two-way practice. Attackers must maintain possession and, using their overloads, transfer the ball from one end to the other. Each attacker in each area must touch the ball before it’s moved on and we’re looking for various movement and rotation patterns, plus precise timing (2b).


• In the Opposed practice, each attacker in the bottom area must touch the ball before it’s passed through the lines


• Team mates in the middle area link well and the ball is played to the end. Middle players follow the ball and move to the top area. Two attackers and a defender in the bottom box move into the middle.

When the ball completes its route into the end zone, two attackers from the central zone move forward to support the receiver. Two attackers from the deeper third then enter the middle zone.

The defender in the middle zone moves into the top zone and presses against three attackers. The defender from the first zone goes into the middle zone allowing the practice to now come back the other way. Rotate defenders every minute.

Small-sided game

In the 8v8 small-sided game, attackers must always play through a man in the middle zone in order to move up the pitch (3a). The game combines both previously rehearsed ideas – breaking and passing through the lines. The ability for players to be able to do this depends on the quality of rotation and movement, plus the timing of support play in the middle zone (3b).


• In the Small-sided game, players can break their lines in supporting attacking moves, as rehearsed in the Technical practice


• Now, good rotational movement pulls the back four out of position, while positive support through the middle offers attacking threat

What are the key things to look out for?

In each practice, movement, rotation and support are the key elements.

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