Playing into and around the penalty area

One of the most difficult parts of the game is to break down and penetrate the penalty area. This session is all about encouraging movement in and around the penalty area in order to get past a tight defensive unit and create scoring opportunities.

It is a session that can be done on any given week, but I would usually put more emphasis on it ahead of a game against a team that we feel would be hard to break down defensively. Opponents will not always be as rigid as those faced in this practice, but at some points in a match they will fall back behind the ball and set up in a tight defensive line. This session is geared at combatting moments like that.


Up to two-thirds of pitch
Balls, bibs, cones, 1 full size goal,
3 mini goals
Number of Players
Up to 19 players + 1 goalkeeper
Session time
Total: 40mins
6v6 possession: 10mins
6v6 plus keeper: 10mins
Defence v attack: 20mins

What do I get the players to do?

6v6 possession

Play a 6v6 possession game in the penalty area of your pitch or mark out an area of 44×18 yards. Play two-touch and score one point for every six passes completed without the opposition getting the ball, as shown [1].  This is a simple start to the session but the aim is for the players to see how comfortable and composed they can be when playing in an area the size of a penalty box.


1. Play starts with the coach playing a ball to the possession team
2. It is two-touch and the possession team must keep hold of the ball under pressure from the opposition
3. Here the team scores one point for completing six passes without losing the ball

6v6 plus keeper

Set up an area of 44×30 yards. This is the width of your penalty area extended in depth by 12 yards. Place a full size goal with goalkeeper at one end of the area and three mini goals at the other end, as shown [2].


1. Play starts with the coach playing a ball to the attacking team
2. The attacking team must build a goal with good movement and passing
3. The defending team press. If they regain the ball, they can try to score in any of the three unguarded mini goals
4. The attacking team score in the main goal

Play a 6v6 possession game. The attacking team must try to build a goal with good movement and passing, attempting to score in the main goal. If the defending team wins the ball they can try to score in any of the three mini goals. To make it realistic, apply the offside rule.

The aim of this practice is to combine the same composure and ability to control play in a tight area that was encouraged in the first part of the session, with the added objective of creating a scoring opportunity.

What do I get the players to do next?

Defence v attack

Progress the session into defence versus attack, setting up an area the width of the penalty area and stretching from the goal line to the back of the centre circle in the other half of the pitch, as shown [3]. Set up with 10 attackers against 8 defenders plus a keeper and a target man. Position the target player just beyond the centre circle, so if the defending players win the ball they have an outlet for it. The attacking team starts with the ball and must try to score as normal.


1. The attacking team starts with the ball and has to try to score as normal
2. Place a target player just beyond the centre circle so if the defending team wins the ball, they have somewhere to play it
3. Look for  wingers to cut inside and go 1v1. Here #7 has done so and now has the option of a pass into the striker’s feet or a ball out to the overlapping full back
4. Attackers should create overloads in wide areas, with overlapping full backs getting into a position to cross the ball

What are the key things to look out for?

Look for attackers to play the ball around the penalty area and into the box. Look for the switch of play, or the double switch, to be performed quickly and efficiently, with the minimum number of touches. By probing with the ball and passing into the feet of attackers, or by passing in behind the defence, this will ease open the tight gaps in the defensive unit.

Look for players to create overloads in wide areas, using overlapping (or underlapping) movement to set up crosses and balls played in behind the defence. Also look for players, when receiving and playing the ball in the corners of the penalty area, to show the calmness and composure that was encouraged in the early parts of this session.

Another tactic that players can use is to try to beat defenders in a 1v1 situation. This is hard to do but can be vital in dislodging a tight defensive unit.

What are the typical mistakes that players might make, and how do I avoid them?

Make sure attackers don’t get drunk on passing and forget to probe and penetrate, because setting up scoring chances is the objective, not simply keeping possession. It’s important that when quick passing has dislodged a defensive unit, attacking players don’t miss the moment they have worked for and take their chances.

Also, beware of forward players ‘showing’ all the time with shoulders square, rather than on the half-turn ready to get between defenders.

How do I progress the session?

This practice generates attack after attack and allows the players to understand and execute movement that will create scoring opportunities. This is fine as a training practice but the reality is that, in a real match, you are unlikely to have continuous repeated attacks without the opposition offering the threat of a quick counter-attack. In order to simulate this, progress the session to give the defending team an objective. For example, go 11v11, setting up with a goalkeeper rather than a target man for the defending team, and on regaining possession, see if the defending team can score a quick counter-attacking goal in a five passes or less.

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