Benefits of Small-Sided Games In Soccer

Small-sided games

Small-sided games in soccer are practices where there are smaller numbers of players on each team. Technical development is often the main reason why coaches often choose to use small-sided games.

There is a range of formats which include 2 v 2, 3 v 3, or 4 v 4. This article will look at the benefits of small-sided games and discuss why coaches should use small-sided games with their players.

Why play small-sided games?

  • More touches and player involvement: This is one of the major benefits of small-sided games
  • The simplicity of the setup of small-sided games: Simple setups, rules, and constraints allow the large number to practice under the guidance of the coach
  • Research supports the use of small-sided games: Many people have published research showing the extra involvement and touches players have when using small-sided games. For example (Pignato, 2018) investigates various studies which have been completed on small-sided game formats
  • Physical conditioning: The fitness and conditioning of the players can be greatly enhanced when using small-sided games (Augiar, 2012)

This article will look at each topic mentioned above and provide a little more insight and context. I will then share two of my favorite small-sided games.

Benefits of Small-Sided Games

Small-sided games offer players the chance to get more touches on the ball to develop their skills. The small numbers on each team mean everyone will have more involvement. The players will get more chances to attack and more chances to defend. 

Each individual will get to practice losing markers, and making runs with and without the ball. There are great physical conditioning benefits.  The pitch layout and smaller numbers, ensure there are more chances for players to shoot or set up a teammate. 

Small-sided games will develop the player’s decision-making process. The games train the choice of when to dribble or when to pass. Small-sided games can be useful for improving players’ reactions to winning and losing the ball. There are lots of transitions from defense to attack along with the transition from attack to defense.

Decision Making

Individually players have to become better at recognizing the moments to recover to defend or join attacks. Individual attacking skills such as receiving, running with the ball, and dribbling are developed. Other skills such as passing, shooting, and crossing are also improved in small-sided games.

Individual defending skills are also developed as a result of small-sided games. Players get frequent opportunities to work on defensive skills such as:

  • Closing down, intercepting, blocking, screening, recovery running, and tackling.

The use of small-sided games offers teams the chance to practice different tactics. They can set up a pitch to attack centrally, wide, or both. The opponent can work on the counter themes such as:

  • Pressing, blocking spaces, dropping into shape, sliding cross-field, or screening.

The team in possession will have to think about how they are going to get past the defending team. Creativity is required to break down the opponent’s defense. Players should experiment with dribbles, passes, and turns to open up defenses. The opponent without the ball has to deny goals, regain the ball, and launch their own attacks.

The simplicity of Small-Sided Games

Regardless of numbers, small-sided games and constraints can be used to play. The games can be designed to incorporate balanced or unbalanced situations (3v3 or 4v3).  The coach needs to have an idea of the technique they wish the players to develop. The coach then uses their ideas to create a small-sided game to develop the players. I have provided some ideas below to help.

Dribbling and running with the ball: This can be encouraged by having the players attack and defend end zones/lines. The rule in these games is that both teams attack and defend an end line/zone, rather than kicking into a goal.  If this is achieved, then a goal is awarded to the team which successfully dribbled over/into the end zone or line

Set up a 30 by 20 pitch, play 4 v 4, and score by running the ball into the end zone
Set up a 30 by 20 pitch, play 4 v 4, and score by running the ball into the end zone

Passing and receiving: Can be developed by playing the games with neutral players. The neutrals play for the team with the ball. The rule is before a team can score, one or two of the neutral players have to have touched the ball before a goal is scored. The extra players give the attacking team more options and should help teams start to share the ball. 

On a 30 by 20 pitch, play 3 v 3 plus 2 neutrals, teams cannot score until a neutral in each half has touched the ball, teams must be in front of the cones to score if there are no goalkeepers
On a 30 by 20 pitch, play 3 v 3 plus 2 neutrals, teams cannot score until a neutral in each half has touched the ball, teams must be in front of the cones to score if there are no goalkeepers

Shooting, finishing, and crossing: Play the games with larger goals and smaller pitches. This encourages teams to take shooting opportunities early.  Stagger the goals on a pitch diagonally (one goal per team closer to each corner). This encourages teams to work on attacking in wide areas, crossing, and pullbacks to finish.  3 v 3 games will provide the players with more opportunities to shoot and score goals.

Physical Benefits of Small Sided Games
On a 30 by 20 pitch, play 3 v 3 outfields (plus 2 Gk’s), staggered larger goals encourage crossing and finishing

Layouts, Conditions, and Rules

Pitch shapes/rules can be manipulated to work on different aspects of attacking and defending. Playing on a diamond pitch shape will encourage teams to attack and defend centrally. Playing on a narrow and long pitch can encourage forward passes. The pitch formats can help players to practice defensive skills such as screening, blocking, and intercepting passes.  

Using rules such as recovery running around a cone or into an area following a goal scored by your team. This condition can be used to improve reactions to losses or regains of possession. The team who just conceded is able to continue their attack. The recovering team cannot tackle (win the ball) until they have made the run stipulated by the coach. 

Have the rule that one or two out-of-possession players have to become screening players of two to three goals. This can be used to help create overloads and options for the team in possession.

Having an out-possession rule of screening players creates chances to work on building up play. It helps to develop possession-based football. From a defending perspective, it helps players work on defending outnumbered as well as screening, blocking, and intercepting.  

What does the Research Show?

Depending on how a small-sided game is set up, means that there could be more space for players in possession to try and shoot, be creative or set up others.

Technical development of players will also see a vast improvement in comparison to larger games of 6 players plus.  This is because small-sided games allow players to get more touches of the ball. Individuals on average will touch the ball 50% more in 4v 4 games when compared to 7 v 7 games. Goals are scored on average every 2 minutes in 4 V 4 games. In 7v7 games it often takes five or more minutes per goal scored. 

The amount of 1v1 situations is three times greater in 4v4 games than in any other format. Similarly, goalkeepers will touch the ball two to four times more often in 4v4. This is in comparison to other game formats with larger numbers. This is of great benefit for teams wanting to develop goalkeepers who can play with their feet. 

Players will receive the ball more often which means their first touch and touch appreciation will improve. This is because of the volume of contacts on the ball. The extra touches can lead to players experimenting with different forms of attack and defense. This in turn leads to more enjoyment, greater levels of learning, and a better tactical understanding.

Physical Benefits of Small-Sided Games

Players will work hard during small-sided games. A physical benefit of small-sided games will be an improvement in cardiovascular endurance. This is due to the players being required to stay constantly on the move throughout a game.  

There are many accelerations and decelerations this helps to develop a player’s power and strength. These physical components will be tested as a result of situations where players have to speed up and slow down. Changing direction, joining attacks, or recovering to defend are times when players are challenged.

These are essential movements to develop in any sort of sport. They are things that are performed many times at the top levels of the game. The most successful teams perform more accelerations and decelerations than lesser opposition. 

Improved Body Strength

Small-sided games encourage body contact and give players the chance to protect the ball (shielding). These actions support the development of upper and lower body strength in players. The strength they develop is also soccer-specific. The player is having to protect the ball whilst looking to combine with a teammate.

With young players, recovery will be important. Recovery will help players to sustain the level of quality in-game situations. Substitutions will therefore become important due to the intense nature of small-sided games. Active rest could be used with resting players. The players could perform a simple passing drill, some ball mastery moves, or keepy ups. 

Positional Changes

The number of changes that occur in small-sided games should also allow for the rotation of positions. Hence, players get the chance to develop an understanding of playing in different positions.  The physical requirements of each position may also require players to work on different components of fitness and physical attributes.

If players are playing in goal, they get the opportunity to work on balance, coordination, and hand-eye coordination. When a player plays in defense, they may get more opportunities to work on strength and power. They practice winning back the ball or pushing a player off the ball. They can work on strength to stop a player from getting past them in the attack. Players get to work on changes of pace. These attributes are important to the game. 4v4 allows variety within positions.

Physical Benefits of Small Sided Games

Tactical Understanding

Each game may require a different type of defending for example some games require teams to defend more than one goal or to defend larger scoring zones which can contribute to the development of a good defending mentality.   

The players have the freedom to play and make choices for themselves which allows the coach to guide, motivate and support that decision-making process by challenging the players to achieve different technical or tactical feats during games. 

From a parent’s perspective watching small-sided games can be enjoyable for them as they can just support their child through the process and praise their effort for trying to perform the constraints placed on the game by the coach.

Two of my Favorite Small-Sided Games

4 v 4 on a 40 by 30 pitch, out of possession a player must drop into the blue shaded area to screen the goals, which creates an outfield overload
4 v 4 on a 40 by 30 pitch, out of possession a player must drop into the blue shaded area to screen the goals, which creates an outfield overload

HOW IT WORKS: This game encourages the attacking team to take advantage of the outfield overload. Each time your team loses possession of the ball the deepest player on your team must retreat into the blue zone and screen the two goals. If the ball is regained the opponent must do the same.

On a 40 by 30 pitch with 4 small flipped goals, the ball must be received in the middle area before a goal can be scored by any team
On a 40 by 30 pitch with 4 small flipped goals, the ball must be received in the middle area before a goal can be scored by any team

HOW IT WORKS: In this 4 v 4 game, the goals are moved infield and flipped to face outwards. The condition on the small-sided is is simple, before a team can score any goal the ball must have been received in the middle third of the field. This rule encourages the team who regains the ball to switch it quickly once they have won it back.

In Summary

In summary small-sided games are helpful because they are fun to play.  The coach needs to sustain this by designing games that are fun but challenging.  Be mindful of the numbers, playing 2 v 2 may be a better idea if space permits.  If not then playing 3 v 3 would be the next choice building up to 4v4. This is if the goal is to maximize decision-making and technical development.

A coach could try and have both a 2v2 and 4v4 set up in a practice area. This will ensure the players can experience different variations of the small-sided games with different constraints. The constraints of the game can ensure all players receive the ball more often. Excellent decision-making and fundamental skills are developed as a result of this.

When teams are in possession, they are always trying to score which encourages creativity and combining in different ways to create chances to score thus developing players attacking skills. The flip side of improving attacking qualities will also challenge the defending within small-sided games. 

Recommended Article

Find attached a link to another article I wrote on this topic. It is more of a practice-based approach to small-sided games using 4v4 games. The article is part of a different site.

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Related Questions

If I set up small-sided games, how much coaching should I do? You should continue to coach but use rest periods to make key points or adapt your coaching style to speak individually with players to challenge them as the games go on, if the point you wish to make is major then you may need to stop the full group during the game to make it.

Should I always play small-sided games? No, not always, they should make up a large chunk of your weekly sessions but coaches need to observe other technical or tactical aspects of performance and plan to include these alongside the small-sided games. A tip could be to run a small-sided games festival once per month with your players and keep the scores.