by Scott Placek
 
The purpose of this session is to aid players in the recognition of the tactical decision to play a direct ball. I recommend this session for U-16 and above. It is particularly effective if you have spent some time on checking back (playing back to front) and 3 man combinations.
As always, when I talk about direct play, I want to be careful to distinguish direct play from the negative connotations associated with "kick ball" or "boom ball." Direct play does involve playing longer balls, but these balls are played with purpose. They represent a calculated risk of loss of possession, traded for the potential reward of putting several defenders out of the play with one ball. The objective is to put as many defenders out of the play on one pass as possible, playing forward, possibly even behind the defenders. Moreover, as I constantly preach to my players, the ability to play directly arises out of a base of possession. If you lack the ability to possess, you will not be able to effectively exploit the direct ball.
 
In learning to recognize opportunities to play directly, we ask our players to identify these visual cues:
 
The first attacker is relatively unpressured, having time to prepare and play the ball over distance;
Early recognition of space resulting from an unbalanced or shallow defense;
Properly timed movement off the ball designed to exploit the space;
Delivery of a ball that dictates the finishing of the run.
 
Warm-up
- 10 minutes
Play 5v2 or 6v3 sets of keep-away. Ask the attackers to look for opportunities to split the defenders. Ask the off ball players to seek out the windows that open. Here your emphasis should be as much on helping the players recognize opportunities created by the movement of the defenders, as on the success of the possession itself. In fact, inasmuch as Direct Play asks the first attacker to take a risk of lost possession to exploit space, it is important to encourage the players who attempt the splits in good situations, even if possession is lost.
 
 
Stretch
- 10 minutes
 
Tactical level - Without Direction
- 15 minutes
The majority of our training session will take place in an area of approximately 80 yards in length by 50 yards in width. The first two exercises use the same markings. Set up a three zoned area, the end zones each 30 yards long and a central zone of 20 yards width.
 
The first exercise extends the opening keep-away game. Set up two groups in the central area with 2 defenders in each group and they again play a keep away game. However, now, one or more attackers will look for the opportunity to make a run into another zone and receive a direct ball. Because the zones are empty, there is always space to exploit. The emphasis, therefore, in this session is on the timing of the runs into the space. Imagine the zone lines as an offside line. Players nearer the zone lines must make later runs, leaving with the preparation touch. A player making a deeper run, however, can start earlier, timing his run with the recognition that the ball is traveling to an attacker who will be in a relatively unpressured position and with a good body position to play into the space. You may also coach the service of the ball, as a different ball should be delivered depending upon the run of the off the ball attacker.
 
 
Tactical level - Limited Transition
- 25 minutes
In the same three zoned area, play 3 Defenders + Goalkeeper against 2 attackers. In the middle zone, play 2v2 + 1 free player who plays with whichever team is in possession. Restrict your defenders so they play 2v2 when the opponent is in possession and come on the field to establish the 3v3 advantage when their team wins the ball. Thus, your attackers are always even numbers. Apply the offside rule within the end zones. Play to goal with the following restrictions:
 
The ball must be played from the back zone to the front zone, bypassing the midfield, before a shot may be taken.
Players are restricted to their zones, except that in the attack, players may come forward once the ball enters the attacking zone (thus creating numbers up finishing chances). You may also permit middle zone attacker to make flank runs to receive balls if attackers pull defense out of balance.
The ball can be played back out of the zone for possession, but the restriction must be met again then.
Coaching Points:
Back zone attackers read the depth of the defenders to look for opportunities to play in behind.
Look for flank runs from middle zone when defense is unbalanced.
The deep defenders give a visual cue to check in and play in front of the defense.
Again time the runs with the preparation of the service and the depth of the defenders.
 
Tactical level - Full Transition
- 45 minutes
Using the same size area, but now with a single midfield line, play a 7v7 +1 free player game with keepers. Full transition, with offside applied using the midfield line.
 
Assign the defenders varying roles to aid their opponents in reading the opportunity for direct play. For instance, ask both defenses to push high and play shallow. Ask both defenses to play deep. Ask one to play shallow and one to play deep. Ask one to adopt a style and the other to make decisions based on the time and space on the field.
 
Coaching Points:
 
Attackers must learn to take what the defense gives. If the defense is shallow, the space behind the defenders is on for direct play. If the defense is deep, the opportunity to bypass the midfield and play to checking target players in front of the last line of defenders is on.
Where the ball plays to a checking target, the midfield must move forward to support the initial point of penetration. Balls played behind require back support and far post runs which offer the opportunity to play away from the new flow of the defense.
The service should help dictate the finishing of the run. For instance, if a flank run is being made, the ball should be played diagonally, and in position for the attacker to finish his run and receive the ball going to goal.
This game offers many opportunities to aid recognition of the use of direct play in transition. For instance if a defender dispossesses an attacker, teach him to carry the ball ahead of recovering defenders until he can recognize the direct ball.
This game can be further restricted as play continues to attain desired results. For instance, to force direct play to be recognized quickly, require a shot within 5 passes. Limit a team to 10 total touches in a possession. In either instance each pass or each touch must be purposeful and made with vision of the field. Runs and decisions must think more than a step ahead. Ideally, you can end this session with an unrestricted game and recognize and reward good opportunities to play directly.
 
Good luck. If you have any questions or comments on this session, please let me know.
 
 
 
1998 Scott Placek
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