Coaching Flank Play – Tactical Considerations

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Roy Dunshee is the head coach at D3 Washington College. Previously he was assistant coach at Northwestern Univerity and spent ten years coaching at the high school level in Maryland. Roy served as NSCAA State Technical Coordinator for both Maryland and Delaware and, most recently, as a National Academy coach. For the past 17 years, he has operated Coerver Coaching, a company which provides team training, camps, clinics, and coaches’ education. Roy has the USSF A license and NSCAA Premier Diploma.

In the 1950’s in England, the best dribbling players often played wide because it was the only part of the pitch that wasn’t a mud bath. With the rise of the 4-3-3 and attacking outside defenders, have you seen a reemergence of flank play as a priority in the modern game?

I think everyone is shopping for a great winger these days, even though it is a term that isn’t really used anymore. It conjures images of Stanley Matthews, Ryan Giggs, or Arjen Robben, and everyone is looking for players like that who can beat opponents 1v1 and get in behind them. Defenses are more organized than they have ever been, and more athletic, so there must be new solutions to get to goal. Sometimes, as in this case, what’s old is new again. The problem though, is that you need more than a good winger – you also have to get them the ball in the right situation. That means you have to be able to build out of the back, and effectively switch the point of attack.

FIFA Technical Reports often talk up the importance of Zone 14 in the middle of the field above the penalty area as being the point the ball travels through for the majority of goals in open play. If that is the case, why focus on trying to get the ball wide?

I would use a boxing analogy here. Most knockout punches come from blows to the head, but it’s all the blows to the body that make the blow to the head available. If you never attack the flanks then the opposing team doesn’t have to defend them effectively, which means you’ll not have any luck in Zone 14 because it will be crowded with three central defenders and two holding midfielders. If you are able to attack the flanks then the opposition has to send resources out there, which will open up the middle of the park if you can switch the point of attack quickly enough. In modern flank play we frequently see players like Arjen Robben who cut inside rather than beating players down the line. So in that example we use flank play to get into the final third then combination play to create a scoring opportunity through Zone 14.

When should a team try to get the ball wide? What cues should they look for from the wide players?

I would say that the key tactical task for wide players is to get as high up the field as they can but still receive a pass comfortably on their front foot. For example, as the ball swings around the midfield, how high up the field can the right back get while still able to receive the ball on their right foot, facing the goal they are attacking? If they have to come back for the ball, then the team will need to recycle it and go the other way. We teach the players to find a position where there is room in front to take a good first touch, but not so much room that you have robbed yourself of space you could have used to break a line of defense.

Is the goal to get into a numbers up position, or are you encouraging players to go 1v1 if they can isolate a player on the outside?

2v1 is better, so if we can switch the point very rapidly to a wide midfielder and get an outside back coming around simultaneously then we will use that advantage, but I’ll take 1v1 out there if you have a proper winger. With the right amount of space, a winger should be able to break down an outside back more often than not. What troubles me is when I see a wide player running at an outside back and they step on the ball and go backwards. It starts at an early age, teaching players to be confident, creative and aggressive running at defenders. We don’t do enough of it in this country – we arrest their creativity when they’re young by encouraging too much passing and not enough courageous dribbling at defenders.

How are you coaching flank play in your training sessions? What kind of activities do you like?

We frequently train our wide players in 1v1 situations. We also have a lot of pattern play to set up moments they might see in the game, and we do functional training. An example would be an 8v8 game where every time the ball goes out, play is restarted with a 1v1 on the flank. The coach feeds the ball to a player in a 1v1 moment and the game continues from there. This not only trains the wide players to take on and win 1v1, but also helps the rest of the team to time their runs into the box or to defend crosses or a winger cutting in.

Top level players often seem to rely on one move that works for them. Should we worry about becoming too predictable?

The more tricks you have in the bag, the better. Everyone watches Arjen Robben and coaches get frustrated because we all know he is going to cut it to his left, so why is no one stopping him from doing that? Now they solve it by putting two defenders out there but he gets inside anyway! So if you have a move that works every time you don’t really need a second one, but we would like players to have as many as possible. I have a strong background in Coerver Coaching and we teach a lot of combination moves that allow players to go right or left depending on where the second defender shows up. That training should start when they are very young and be reinforced all along the way.  

Once a player gets in behind the defender on the outside, what priorities should they have for what to do next?

If it’s on a counter attack or against a team playing with a very high defensive line, their first thought should be: can I whip in an early cross and get the ball to the danger area while the defenders are still facing their own goal? This creates big problems for defenses. If the defense is properly marshaled in front of the goal, the next question they should ask is what do the runs look like? So they have to pick their head up and recognize whether a cross is on, or whether they have to run the ball in to score on a short pass along the ground. That process takes tactical awareness not only from the wide player, but also from the supporting teammates who are making runs into the box. We will have them working together in training a lot – often through shadow play – which allows them to work on timing and shaping runs when unopposed. We give them visual cues for when the runs should be made. Our rule is that the player on the ball determines when the pass is going to be made, by picking their head up, and the player receiving the ball determines where the pass will be made, by the shape and timing of their run.

How do you attract student athletes to play for your program?

Fortunately we have a great college to recruit to – academically, athletically, aesthetically, geographically – it’s a top institution, which makes the process easier for us. The school was founded in 1782 and has a great reputation, so we’re selling something that is very valuable. Beyond that we have to sell our team and program to prospective players, and that is down to our coaching staff being qualified and successful so that we have something to sell. I’m still relatively new to this job, but we’re starting to make some significant progress.

Are your recruits primarily focused on academics or soccer?

Both: we’re looking for smart soccer players, and there are plenty of them out there. The Division 1 opportunities are so limited and the pool of high school players has grown significantly from when I played as the popularity of the sport has increased in this country. This in turn has increased the quality of play in Division 3 – drawing from the growing pool of academically ambitious good soccer players.

Is it difficult not being able to offer athletic scholarships?

That will always be a challenge for every Division 3 college, but what is misleading is that there is all this scholarship money available out there. If you read the NCAA website you can see that only 5.6% of high school players will play college soccer, and only 1.4% will play Division 1 soccer. Added to that, not all of them will get a scholarship. So there is far less money than people think, and it is quite rare for a high school athlete to get an athletic scholarship. A great number of the ones who do are coming from the Developmental Academy programs too. This leaves an enormous pool of talented and ambitious players out there who will not be getting athletic scholarships.   But it’s misleading to say that scholarship money is unavailable.  There is far more academic scholarship money available.  Almost all our player receive academic awards which can make a top level liberal arts college affordable.

What can interested players do to increase their chances of being noticed?

The best way to be seen is to play in one of the big showcase tournaments, or to go to an ID camp run by the college you are interested in. That way you get direct contact with the coaches and have a chance to be evaluated. You’ll also get to see the other potential players and assess whether you are at the right level to be in that program. I recommend students contact the coach well in advance and let them know their tournament schedule. Then be proactive, make a plan to visit campus for a camp or an information interview, to begin a dialogue with the coach.

We’re lucky to be in Maryland, which is close to a lot of big showcase tournaments. We’ll regularly go to tournaments in our own state, but also in Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and New Jersey. These are all well attended events with some of the best players in the country.

How do you compete with larger programs from such a small player pool?

I always say you only need 16 players to form a team – not 30,000. If a student wants to be in an environment where they can go to ACC basketball games or Big 10 football games then this is not the school for them. We can’t compete with the University of Maryland or Penn State, if that is the experience that the student athlete wants. Not everyone wants that though – they don’t all want to be in a classroom with 300 other people.  Many want individual attention from the professors – and those are the athletes we are looking for.

Several professional coaches we have spoken to point to NCAA restrictions as being the main reason that the US has not been as successful at the professional men’s level yet. What is your view?

I think there is some merit to the argument, but it isn’t entirely true. Even though the Division 1 season is very short, the players do train year-round. And they train in facilities that are much better than developmental facilities for similar-aged players in world soccer. The average professional club does not have facilities that can match Northwestern or Maryland or a similar top Division 1 college programs. There is some merit to the truncated season being a concern, but there is a discussion going on between MLS, US Soccer, and the NCAA to expand the Division 1 season to be a two-season sport – half in the fall and half in the spring with a winter break in between. This would more closely replicate a professional training cycle.  The discussion shows that there is an awareness that the current approach needs to change, and I would support that change.

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