Training Holding Midfielders – With Lonestar’s Vic Pace

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Vic Pace is Executive Director of USSF Programs at Lonestar Soccer Club, in Austin, Texas. In 25 years of coaching he has worked with club, USL Pro and college teams. At Spartanburg Methodist College as Men’s assistant he won the NJCAA National Title. Vic has the USSF A license and a degree in education from the University of South Carolina. He has been on the Region 3 ODP staff and worked as a technical director at AYSO. As a player, Vic was an NCAA First Team All-American and part of the Canadian National Youth Team.

Having a holding midfielder continues to increase in popularity in the youth game. What are the strengths that the position brings to a team?

We play in a 4-2-3-1 and the benefit of the deep-lying or holding midfielder for us is that we like to play out of the back, and they provide that link to the midfield. Also in transition they can help us to break the game up. They have a willingness to tackle and to cover a lot of ground, but really it is that security blanket of knowing that they can screen in front of the back four when out of possession, and keep the game moving when we have the ball.

Some teams now go with two holding players, either with the triangle flipped in a 4-3-3 or in a 4-2-3-1. Why do they do that? How should a coach decide between having one or two?

For us sometimes it comes down to a physical issue – do we have that one player who can fit in there and break the game up as a defensive shield, and are they capable enough to play on both sides of the ball? Often we go with two and have one who is more defensive in nature (a number 6) and one who is more attacking (a number 8) and likes to get forward. So out of possession we have two holding players, but when we get the ball back the number 8 shifts forward to join the attack.

So this formation is something you require of all of your teams at Lonestar?

Yes, for sure. We follow the US Soccer curriculum and have a fluid system, but like to play with two holding players for the most part at the Elite level. By that I mean USSF, Development Academy and pre-academy level teams. For our lower level teams we set them up to be successful – meaning they might go with a 4-4-2 with a diamond, or even with a flat four across the middle. Even some play with a 3-5-2 with a deep-lying sweeper, so there it comes down more to the personnel and finding a way for them to be successful on the field. 90% of our teams will play 4-2-3-1 though.

What characteristics should a coach look for in players to put the one or two holding roles?

A player who can play 360 degrees in and around them; who is very comfortable on the ball at their feet facing either goal; with a good range of passing; good first touch; understands and has a feel for the game; who is willing to go box to box; can do the dirty work for us; and who is an all-round player at the level we play at. Defensively they need to be able to tackle and win balls in the air. Through 14-16 we look for those. For the younger players we look more at the passing range and decision making.

At what age are you looking to bring in position-specific training to help players develop these attributes?

It depends upon the level, and right now we are in the process of selecting our teams for next year so have depth charts out for all players and teams. In South Texas we start playing 11v11 at U12, so we put them in specific positions at that age. In the years before that we look to develop the characteristics and ask the questions of who could potentially play as a holding player when they get to the 11v11 game.

At what age should teams start to train holding players? Is there a way to create experience of the position in small-sided games (6v6, 8v8 formations)?

In our 8v8 teams the system is a fluid 3-3-1 with a central player in the back line who could be a holding player or center back; then you have the one in front playing in the similar diamond formation with a lot of the same qualities and characteristics. They play through the center of the park and have the game all around them, and again, being able to defend is a huge part of it.

Do you run training sessions specifically teaching the playmaker/holding role? If so, what do they look like?

For sure. Especially with our USSF teams we will have functional training sessions because we have the luxury of training with them four times each week. This allows us to break the game down and split players on the team between different staff. The midfielders might work with one coach on the relationship between the three, what their roles and responsibilities are and how that reflects on the big game. We use that Whole-Part-Whole approach, where we look at the game as a whole, then we take part of it out (in this case training the three midfielders together), and then we plug it back into the final whole piece in training.

Will there be any unopposed technical functions as part of the training?

We will do some unopposed technical work, maybe getting the ball, receiving it across the body, getting it out of your feet and playing to the target. We will also look at turning in the midfield and linking up to players in wide areas, and how that movement is without the ball. Depending on the age we vary the percentage of technical to the larger group training moments. We try to always have some form of pressure on them at any age though – whether it is a touch or time restriction, or simply putting a defender in there. We want to put them in an environment where they have to make decisions, rather than it being unopposed.

It’s clearly a position that relies heavily on anticipation and vision. How do you train that?

Watching the game is important – watching some of our older players do it, or games on television. Much of it comes from putting them in the environment themselves and challenging them to make the decisions when under pressure. It’s a difficult position to play and we go back and forth with it as coaches discussing whether specific players are ready for it yet. Maybe they have two out of the four or three out of the four characteristics and we question whether we can train the missing ones.

Are there specific words or priorities that you coach your holding players to understand? What rules do you have them follow for their positioning and other considerations?

A huge piece for us is their starting position – whether we are in possession or out of possession, and sensing the moment of transition. For the younger players as a central midfielder you always want to go forward and you put yourself in places where you can’t get the ball from the right back or connect with the other midfielders because you are too close to each other, so we really emphasize their starting position and where it should be in each of those phases. Do we have the type of player who is going to get it from our right back and switch play for us? Or is it the one who is more attack-minded who wants to get into the hole and link play with our attacking midfielder (number 9)?

How do you teach players to rotate with each other during the game (e.g. switching with an attacking midfielder, or dropping into the defense)?

There is a little exercise that we do with our teams where we put four boxes in the center of the field. If we are in possession and the ball is out with the left back, the number 8 comes across and receives the ball in the left side box, the number 10 rotates into the highest forward box and the number 6 (depending on where the next pass is going) is either in the front box or the box square to 8 where we can switch it and switch play. So depending on whether the topic is switching play or penetrating, the three will rotate in that fashion to get the ball in to the targets, or to the goal. The activity helps with the spatial relationship and their decision making, depending on where the defenders are.

When we push on we like to get our outside backs going forward for the most part. Not both of them, depending on the game, but if both are out at the same time and the ball is played in behind, the nearest center back will shift out to pressure the ball. We will always have three players back at any time. It might be two center backs and an outside player, or it could be a holding player in front of them. In that situation, if the center back goes out wide, the job of the holding player is to drop in and take their place as either the center back or the outside back.

Will you do pattern play and/or work on combinations to get them forward at times?

Yes we do: usually having that vision of when and how to get forward is the hardest thing for our players to pick up. We have some players who have a good feel for it and can sense the moments, but then maybe one of the three will let you down a little bit with a bad decision. When we try to teach it we don’t want it to be based on instinct and feel for the game, rather than being too programmed and ridged. I think the exercise I gave earlier helps teach that within a basic framework. The midfield positions definitely take more time to learn than some of the others on the field though, and we make sure out training philosophy understands that.

Which formations do formations with holding players play well against? Which ones are difficult for them?

The 4-4-2 with the diamond definitely is a challenge for us when we stay in our 4-2-3-1 formation. The players who are coming inside and just off of our attacking midfielder are a problem. Do your wide guys come in and deal with that? Is one of the questions we have to find an answer for. What we do in that situation is drop our central striker and play almost a box in midfield to counterbalance what they are doing (4-2-2-wide 2). We let the center back have the ball and our number 9 drops in and plays next to the 10, then we have the 8 and 6 behind them. Then we bring our wide players in a bit to help deal with those players in the pockets on the outsides of the midfield box. For our younger players, that appears to be the easiest way to combat it.

I like playing against teams who use the same formation as us, and some teams now are playing a 3-4-3 and we feel like we can get in behind and find the space. Tonight we are playing against a team who has a straight up 4-3-3 who we scouted yesterday, so we will play our 4-2-3-1 and try to get into the little spaces that they leave with our very technical players.

A lot of these ‘newer’ formations focus on increasing numbers in the middle of the field at the expense of the outside. How do you deal with the extra pressure put on the fewer wide players?

If we are playing against that 4-4-2 diamond, our two center backs will be occupied with their forwards, so our weak side forward will come in and almost play like a left midfielder, keeping the number 9 as high as he can be. They don’t drop all the way to be a left back, but they do protect the space in front of the left back.

Similarly, there are a lot of teams using one forward now, but they often don’t seem to understand that role, or only have one attacking option from it. Does that make teams more predictable and easier to defend?

Sometimes we struggle with that – the big target center forward who can hold the ball up and feed the ball to on-running wide forwards. If you play with one forward, they are usually 1v2 in the center, so we try to exploit the space where the right back should be. It is a challenge for the younger players to hold the ball up and to get there to combine with that center forward. If we are playing against the 4-4-2 diamond the game becomes more defensive for us and we can’t break out.

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