Podcast: #3 -Positional Play and Coaching in Spain with Kieran Smith

Kieran Smith is another guy I met on twitter but have since developed a friendship with.  You may know him from his writing on Futbol Tactico, his presentation on Rondos and Positional Games (which has thousands of downloads and views), his 10 game analysis of Atletico Madrid, or even his most recent ebook on Rondos (available on Amazon!).

He is a Scottish-born coach that has spent several years coaching at various levels in Spain, including clubs like AD Alcorcon and CE Europa.  He is a proponent of Juego de Posicion (Positional Play) and even hosts educational webinars on the subject.

In this episode Kieran opens up about life as a coach in Spain, his views on the game, the impact Guardiola is having in the UK, and much more!

You can find and connect with Kieran on twitter:  @KieranSmith1

Kieran also blogs occasionally at http://coachkieransmith.blogspot.com/


Podcast: #2 -From NY to Barcelona and Back with David Hansen (Part 1)

David Hansen and I talked for over two hours and barely scratched the surface of everything we could have talked about.  We decided this would have to be a two-part interview, with this portion being part 1.  By time this is posted we will have already recorded part 2, and you won’t want to miss it!

In this episode David talks about his experiences playing club and high school soccer growing up in New York (hint:  He won a National Title with St. John the Baptist in NY), his transition into coaching where he has experience at both the youth and collegiate levels, and his recent experience in the MBP School of Coaches in Barcelona, Spain where he continues his own development as a coach.

You can find David on Twitter @DavidPHansen

Podcast: #1 – Coaching, Conversing, and Craft Beer with John Pranjic

In this episode I talk to the host of the 3four3 Podcast, John Pranjic (@ThatCroatianGuy).

In this episode I talk to the host of the 3four3 FM Podcast, John Pranjic (@ThatCroatianGuy).

John and I have been friends now for several years.  We met via twitter and bonded over our common interest in soccer, coaching, and youth development.  Over the years we have met up several times for beers and conversation.

When John started his podcast, before it was even titled, I was his first structured interview and guest.  It seemed natural that he would in turn be my first guest.

John is a man of many hats.  He works full-time as a Brewhouse Manager — though I prefer to refer to him as a Craft Beer Specialist!  In addition to his full-time job he also finds time to host the 3four3 Podcast, coach at 3four3 Camps, and coordinate the 3four3 Coaching Summit. He is even an occasional Uber driver.

In this episode I talk to John about how he balances all of those responsibilities and ask him which role he most identifies with.  You might be surprised by his answer.

I specifically ask John to talk to us about his experience as a coach.

You can find John on twitter @ThatCroatianGuy and at his blog http://www.johnpranjic.com/

You can find the #343Podcast at http://343coaching.fm/

Talking with Toph — Podcast Teaser!



Hey everyone!  One of my goals for the new year is to record and publish 10 podcast episodes.

I have already recorded four episodes and am recording the fifth today.  I am putting the final touches on what I have done so far and am very close to being ready to publish.

Here is a teaser that I have prepared to get you ready for what is to come.

After listening feel free to leave me a comment about what you hope to hear on the podcast going forward.  You can recommend guests, topics, etc….  I really want to hear from you.

Hope you enjoy!


Phase 1: Documenting the progress of a new project

Seth Godin, renowned marketer and author,  often talks about about the fear of shipping.  The basic premise is that there is an innate fear that we all have when we think about putting ourselves, our projects, or our products out into the ether.  Because when we do, we open ourselves up to criticism.  We know it could always be better, it could always use a bit more polish, and we spend a lot of time stressing about the blemishes that are all too obvious to us.

So we wait.

We tell ourselves it will be a just a little bit longer, and when we are really ready, we will ship.  We will put it out there for others to see.

This concept holds true for entrepreneurship, for creative endeavors, and for building your personal brand.

Today, I am going to “ship” my newest project.  Not because it is refined, polished, and perfected.  Quite the opposite.

This is not the finished product.  This is the beginning of a process.  I am establishing a new program.  This is phase 1.  Next season will be phase 2.  Right now I am laying a foundation for a long-term project.

At the 6 month mark we are finally starting to see our team identity showing up on the field.  In this video you will see a team that is working on implementing a style of play based on concepts of positional play.  Key concepts being worked on are building out of the back, switching the point of attack, playing through the lines, exploiting numbers up situations, and coordinated team pressing.

Here it is, warts and all.




We used to be held back by a lack of access to information.  We couldn’t develop expertise in certain areas, or even gain a little knowledge in those areas, because we simply did not have access to the resources or people necessary.

Today, it is exactly the opposite.  We have greater access to information than ever before, and yet, it is still holding us back.

Or maybe we’ve just misidentified the problem?

The real issue, it would seem, is our propensity for inaction.

Before, we could claim ignorance.

“I just didn’t know!”

That excuse is no longer valid.  Now you either know, or you should know (or at least, you could know).  But knowing only gets us so far.

The difference between those who know something and those who achieve something has to do with action.  It is about doing.


So you just downloaded 150 sessions on defending?

Great, what now?

So you just read three books on tactical periodization?  

Great, what now?

You just had a great chat with the academy director from PSV?  

Fantastic!  But what are you going to do now?


I think you can see where I am going with this.  Now let’s say you did all three of those things in the span of a couple of days.  How are you going to synthesize all that information so that they fit together?  Which parts seem great on their own but contradict each other when you try to combine them?  Where does it all fit in your overall vision?

It can be overwhelming.  I know that find myself paralyzed at times due to content overload.

We are no longer interested in what new information or resource you have access to.  We all have folder on our computer with documents, videos, and powerpoints from some of the top coaches and programs in the world.

The novelty has worn off.

We want to know what you are doing.

The rest is just noise.


Pressing Trap: A practical application

Today I want to talk about my experience with implementing a set tactical strategy at the youth level.  If you are purist that values individualism, and specifically individual creativity, this one probably isn’t for you.

This post is about problem solving, teamwork, strategy, and execution.  And I believe these things to be critical in the development of young footballers.


In Spring of 2015 my 2000 boys team, then playing U14, were wrapping up league play and preparing to enter State Cup.  We came up against a team that played out of the back to great success against us–the first team to do so that season.  They used their goalkeeper well, and rotated their three CMs impressively.  The DM would pull away from the CBs and one of the other CMs would check into the open space.  Their main attacking threat was a winger that was blazing fast and a decent finisher.  They would patiently move the ball around the back until they could pull us out of position and then they could find their winger and then BAM! He would do the rest.

We lost that game 4-3.

Then we were drawn into a group with that same team for State Cup.  I re-watched the game film several times, as painful as it was.  Their pattern of play out of the back was multi-faceted and they gave themselves a lot out possible outs, even though they were actually sloppy and were prone to poor touches and bad passes.

It wasn’t even that we didn’t press them high on their goal kicks (we did) but we were not working effectively as a unit, and kept allowing the ball to get out wide, which is where they were able to hurt us the most.  Also, when we did force and error and win the ball high up, we did not punish them.

I wanted to figure out why they were able to play through us so effectively and what we could do to shut it down.  So I analyzed the game.

And I noticed something.

A player under pressure always looked to play back to their keeper first.  GK would play ball out to the CB, pressure came, and the ball went back to the GK.  GK played up to a CM, pressure came, ball went back to the GK.  And so on.

(in the following images my team is in pink, and the opposition is in white)

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They had a very set pattern of play.  Very predictable.

First instinct for most of us would be to just work on how we wanted to press them and go at them hard from the opening whistle.  The problem with this approach is they likely get spooked early and start kicking it away.  Now we are in a 50/50 situation further down the field.  Not ideal.

So we could take this approach, or….

We could trap them.

We could make them think they were dictating the game (like they did for large spells the first time around), but in fact, we would be dictating the game –- without the ball!

They were likely to feel confident in their ability to build out of the back based on their success, and result, the first time around.  We could use that against them.

We spent the week leading up to the game choreographing our trap and making sure everyone understood their roles.  In order for our trap to work we would have to work as a unit, and not as individuals.  We also worked on taking quick shots immediately upon winning the ball.  Our transition to attack had to be vicious!  We were going to make them cough up the ball around the top of the box, so we had to be prepared for a quick strike.  We had to punish their mistakes.

The plan was to take away the wings and make them play through the middle.  We were going to let them play to the areas we wanted them to play to, and use our knowledge of their tendencies against them.


On goal kicks our wingers positioned themselves between the CB and the outside back.  They were to stand way off the CB in order to invite the GK to play there first, but to make sure they took away the passing lane to the outside back.  We could NOT to let them get the ball down the wing.  Once the CB got the ball they were to apply enough pressure to get the CB to play back to the GK without overcommitting.

As this was happening our #9 would also begin to apply pressure to the CB with the ball.  They took an angle which cut off a potential pass to the DM, and invited the pass back to the GK, which we knew they wanted to make anyways.

But the #9 had no interest in taking the ball from the CB.

They were just waiting for the pass back to the keeper.  As soon as the CB released the back pass the #9 attacked the GK on a sprint.  The #9 had freedom to take a risk here and could sell out to try and win the ball.  If nothing else, his tenacity would rush the goalkeeper’s next pass/decision.

Our #10 positioned himself 8-10 yards behind the DM, just enough space to give the GK a false sense of available space for a pass up the middle.  The #10 was just waiting for visual cue and then would quickly close down the DM.  Our #8 and #6 manned up on the other two CMs and stayed tight on them if they dropped into space.

Nothing earth shattering here.  We were just gambling on the fact that we had analyzed their play, had a game plan we were comfortable with, and they had likely not given us a second though since the last game.  If we could catch them sleeping early and punish their mistakes we could jump out to an early lead and change the mentality of their play.

Game time.

Our trap worked just like we drew it up.  In the opening 10 minutes we had numerous 1v1 opportunities against the goalkeeper and either hit the post or hit it straight at the keeper.  We were creating the chances as expected, but we were not punishing them.  This continued until half-time.

By half-time I was disappointed.  I figured that they would adjust during the break and our opportunity to get a goal off of the trap was gone.  We had talked all week that at some point the opponent would adjust and would likely start to break pressure with a vertical pass up field, especially since we were aggressively pressing forward and leaving some spaces in behind us.

But they didn’t adjust.  They came out and continued to try the same patterns over and over again.  Eventually our pressing led to a goal.  Then another.  Then another.

We won the game and went on to win the tournament.


I am not an expert of pressing traps.  I am a student of the game and am constantly thinking about how I can improve my coaching, improve my teams, and help players develop.

Some would argue that using a pressing trap at the youth level is more akin to win at all costs and would maybe even consider it anti-development.  I disagree.

This is football and to ignore the value, even at the youth level, does players a disservice. Let me know your thoughts below.

Have you ever used a pressing trap with your team?  If so, also feel free to discuss below.



COACHING POSSESSION SERIES: Training the defensive phase

In the same way that the final third tends to get pushed aside by coaches trying to implement a possession style of play, often so does defensive techniques and tactics.

Remember, the purpose behind coaching possession soccer is player development, and it is our job to ensure we are developing complete players.  No concept can be overlooked, especially defense.

So what are we looking for defensively?

Individually we are looking for immediate reaction after losing the ball, working like an animal to regain possession as quickly as possible.  We are looking for someone that does not just chase, but rather someone that know how to hunt the ball.  In order to hunt players must be cerebral, playing a moment ahead of the game.  Anticipating, not reacting.

This is something that can be trained through our rondos.  A common mistake in coaching rondos (assuming the coach uses rondos) is putting 100% emphasis on the players in possession.  These activities can and should be used to train the defensive player as well.

Using a rondo defensively

Critical elements:

  • Players taught to hunt, not chase (work smart)
  • Work on body shape when pressing the ball (guide the ball movement)
  • Awareness of triggers (player receiving ball poorly, head down, closed body position) of when to attack aggressively

Training small group defending concepts (2, 3, and 4 players)

Larger rondos and positional possession game can be used to train small group defending concepts, as well as system specific defensive responsibilities.  By adding the additional defenders (4v2, or 7v3) we can now work on concepts like pressure and cover and how we want our players to hunt as a pack.

Rather than boring you with explanations of each exercise and how I use them to train defensive concepts let me illustrate an important defensive concept and how I use a specific positional possession game to train it.

We want to force the ball into a tight space and keep it there.  Under no circumstances do we want a team to be able to switch the point of a attack and find the open space on the other side of the field.  When we work set tactical work with our forwards and attacking mids it looks like this:

Notice how the weak side winger is pressing in on the backside CB.  However, unlike the CF stepping in front of the near side CB, note how the winger is positioned behind the CB.  That winger is taught that they must NEVER let the ball get switched to the weak side outside back.  This is the dangerous space we are leaving on the field.  The winger is told to force the ball back where it came from and to only risk overcommitting if they are sure they can disrupt the ball.

In the same way, the weak side attacking mid is positioned as to not allow the defensive midfielder to switch the ball through the middle.  We are pressing those close to the ball and discouraging the ball being played to those players in the next level.  The hope is that we will either win the ball in a good position or force a long clearance or long switch attempt that we will have time to adjust to and hopefully win in the air.

So now let’s look at how we can use the 4v4+3 to train reinforce this critical concept.


Positional play as a team defensive strategy

Let’s not forget we also use our possession phase as part of our defensive strategy as well.  And it goes beyond just that “when we have the ball the other team cannot score.”  Yes, that is true, but more so than that it is our coordinated positional movement that ensures that we have numbers around the ball at all times, just in case we do lose it.

When we are choreographing how we move the ball from side to side, we are training specific movements based on where the ball is.  It is important that players are constantly considering what will happen if we lose the ball at that exact moment.  Are we positioned to win the ball back quickly?  Are we protecting the middle of the field?

Watch this video of our U14s again and note how we are positioned around the ball and what happens when we make an errant pass.




COACHING POSSESSION SERIES:  Environment and Culture

Things to do on Tuesday


Ideas are there for the taking

In fact, I borrowed the idea for the title of this post from one of my university professors, Dr. Robert Hautala.  Dr. H mentioned that he once considered writing a book titled “Things to do on Tuesday” about developing a PE curriculum.  His point was that PE teachers are known for going to the regional and national PE conventions and bringing back one or two activities that they would run on Monday (their first day back at school).  But then on Tuesday they were right back to whatever they were doing before with nothing that connected to the activities from the convention.  So all of the information gathered at the convention culminated in one day of new programming, but then stopped there.  The title of his yet to be/never been written book refers to helping teachers know what to do on Tuesday and beyond.

What does this have to do with soccer?

Certainly, we have all gone to an convention or coaching education experience of some sort and came back with something we just had to do with their teams on our first session back.

There is nothing wrong with going to event like that and bringing ideas back.  In fact, it is expected.  Additionally, I have great respect for any coach that is working hard to improve themselves and not just assuming they are already the finished product.

But more important than what you do on that Monday, is what you do on Tuesday and beyond.

Tuesdays and the internet

It’s not just a convention once a year we have to worry about either. Now coaches are sharing and borrowing sessions and activities on a daily basis, sometimes thousands at a time, thanks to social networking platforms.  It is entirely possible that coaches could run a different set of activities each session for a year and never replicate the same thing twice. This might sound like a positive thing, but I do not think it is.

Some coaches advocate keeping things fresh, new, and fun every training session.  And if your the sum of all your goals for the season stop at new and fun, then mission accomplished.  But if your goals include mastery of anything, and significant development of the players, then you have to have a plan.  A program that has the purpose of developing players should not look like wandering through the forest aimlessly.  Coaches might take different paths, but they should have a map that helps them choose the route.  (check out my post “Lucky, Learning, or Leading” for more insight)

The amount of resources available to coaches is at an all-time high, which is great, but now coaches need to be especially discerning in how they evaluate these resources.

  • Does it fit your system?
  • Will it train actions that compliment how you want your team to play?
  • Is it better than something similar you already use?
  • Is this something you would want to use more than once?

If the answers to those questions are not yes, then you probably shouldn’t use it.  That doesn’t mean that exercise is bad, it just means it isn’t right for you.

Some advice

There are a lot of people that want to give you ideas of what to do on Monday, but my advice is to pay attention to those that are willing to talk about the other days of the week .  They are in it for the long haul

BOOK REVIEW: What is Tactical Periodization?

The second book I devoured at the beginning of the summer was the english translation of Xavier Tamarit’s Periodizacion Tactica.  Tamarit was the assistant coach at Valencia CF under Mauricio Pellegrino and is now the assistant coach at Estudiantes de la Plata in Argentina.51wxESYcqQL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_

This book has been translated to English, and the translators note at the beginning that “some content simply does not translate directly nor easily” and that leads to some “testing sections for the reader.”  This is absolutely true.  For me, it made sections of the book feel VERY repetitive.

That being said, it is a great introduction to the idea of tactical  periodization and does a good job of explain WHY tactical periodization is important.

Tactical periodization is a technical-sounding term that intimidates coaches.  A lot of people are interested in the concept, but hesitate to delve into it because it sounds intense.  Even with the complications of the translation, Tamarit is able to break the concept down to the basic idea and make it more digestible.

Tactical Periodization, according to Tamarit, same about a shift in thinking about training.  Instead of training concepts in isolation, tactical periodization is systematic thinking “based on the concept that “the whole is not equal to the sum of its parts”.  Thinking about complex phenomena (such as football) from a “systemic” perspective means place everything within a context.  It means you need to establish and understand the nature of the constituent parts of the system and their interconnected relationships with other parts of the system!” (pg. 25).

Tamarit goes on to say that “training must represent the totality of the game.  Tactical Periodization does not allow “the team to get reduced to an analysis of its players in individual terms.”  It focuses on what the “team” is seeking to do at all times and how individual players contribute to the overall game plan (and style) in all ways (physical, technical, tactical, and psychological)” (pg. 26).

Most important take-away?

The playing model is a guide to the whole process.

What does that mean?  Tactical periodization is about beginning with the end in mind.  In order to plan our season in full we must know where we are headed and everywhere we need to stop along the way.  As a coach, we must understand our playing model in such detail that we can plan meticulously how to get from point A to point B.


Still sounds pretty intense, doesn’t it?  That is okay.  Tactical periodization is complex idea that is used at the highest levels of the game.  But that doesn’t mean that we cannot use it at the youth levels.  In fact, I think we MUST use it at the youth level. And I am currently working on a Periodization/Seasonal Planning series that will help readers understand how to take this complex system and strip it down to be usable for the grassroots coach.

Before reading this book I was already familiar with the general idea of tactical periodization and was interested in learning more, but what I didn’t realize is that tactical periodization, as Tamarit explains it in this book, pretty much sums up my entire philosophy of coaching.  I found myself connecting dots in my mind between things I already felt strongly about but didn’t necessarily realize how it all related.  At risk of sounding a tad over-dramatic, this book helped me understand myself a little bit better.

Available on Amazon for $9.99 on Kindle or $13.99 in paperback, this book is a must buy.