Better Striking and Finishing – With the NSCAA’s Neil Hull

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Neil has been coaching in the US for over 18 years at the Club, High School, College, Regional Olympic Development and National levels. He holds the NSCAA Premier Diploma, USSF, English FA and Coerver Coaching qualifications.  Neil is a graduate of the University of Texas-San Antonio in Kinesiology and has over 28 years of experience in the field of Sports Science. Neil is on the NSCAA National Coaching Staff and Technical Committee. He was awarded NSCAA Associate Coach of the Year in 2010. He teaches level 1 to Advanced National diplomas for the NSCAA, in his role as their State Director for Texas.

It was put to us recently that youth forwards are not practicing finishing enough. What’s your view?

I think this all becomes age group specific. For younger players we rotate finishing through their programs, and in the small-sided games they’re playing. If we’re teaching older age groups (age 13-14 onwards), then yes, we should definitely be looking at more specific training for strikers in their areas – through a far more functional approach. We should also look at how they relate to their support players – their number 10, 8 and 11. Creating those connections will improve the finishing as a whole. As an example, Fernando Torres when he moved from Liverpool to Chelsea, the support players around him weren’t the same, the ‘feed’ wasn’t the same, and his confidence went down. So yes, we should focus on the finished product, but we should also focus on the ‘build’ to it.

Do you prefer specific practices dedicated to finishing, or parts of every practice?

I wouldn’t say that I have finishing in all of my practices. I coach through the principles, so if the player has the ball on their foot, their primary objective is looking to shoot. Now I’m not necessarily just teaching strikers in that role, I’m teaching all of my players in that role. In my opinion, Striking is more in the brain, than in the foot. Finishing might be more in the foot, but we have to teach our players to be asking the question “can I shoot?” If the thought isn’t there, it doesn’t matter what activities you do, because players will possibly lay off the responsibility of the possible shot to someone else.

Some players don’t like shooting because of the fear of failure. How do you counter that with your players? 

Personally, I would enjoy that fear of failure. If the player takes the shot and fails, it offers me the chance to make a miracle of their next shot, doesn’t it? For the player who is hesitant, If a coach can see their thought process and preparation. I really think we can support in creating the coaching moment for them, which will produce the confidence and success they need. What I’m not looking for is the player who is scared to fail, or try, because of confidence issues. The problem arises when coaches who punish the effort, but also, don’t create performance, or options around the player, who is scared to fail.

What technical activities do you like to use?

If I’m going to roll through a finishing session, I am going to look at a lot of accuracy and thought process activities. My goal for the players is they aim small and miss small. If I’m asking them to hit something, I might give them a big target (say, a Pugg goal) but within, I am going to place a ball on a cone and challenge the players to hit that, to work on their accuracy. Then I’ll expand into the full goal, where I’ll put a tape across it and ask players to see if they can finish below the tape in the bottom corners. I’m wanting to create accuracy within the goal, rather than the frame of the goal. If we’re just shooting ‘Big’ on frame, generally we’re going to miss that target. If we aim small and miss small, we’re hopefully still going to get it within the larger goal.

How do you manage work : rest ratios in finishing activities and avoid long lines of waiting players?

I don’t necessarily think lines are a bad thing, if there are maybe four players there, with one on base, one ready to go and one watching and so on. As long as the coach can manage it, and recycle those areas quickly, because the balls will need to be collected from the back of the net (hopefully) and behind the goal, which takes players out of the ‘line’. Ultimately, if I have 15 players and I’m doing 1v1 or 1v2 (overload) activities I will use a dribble/performance box at the top – which is a 10×10 grid outside the penalty area. I’ll give each player a number, and individually call it out, whilst in the box they perform some form of skill with the ball, before breaking out to attack the defenders and the goal.

How do you instruct the breaking out player to go at the defenders?

If they are attacking them, I really don’t agree with the philosophy of attacking the front foot of the defender. If I’m a striker I want to attack across the defender – I want to move that defender sideways. If I can do that I can unbalance them and have the opportunity to perform a move, a feint or a fake. If I move them inside, I can create space on their outside (especially if they are defending zonally) which opens up channels for supporting players/runs. In the penalty area, attacking across them may cause the defender to reach in, which could lead to a penalty or free kick. When attacking two defenders head on, it might make more sense (to run at them) so we can collapse and compress them, but attacking a single defender head on is possibly an old school philosophy, that in my opinion, should be adjusted as an option.

What are you specifically looking for to correct and improve?

The first thing I’m looking at is the attacking eyes of the player. I want them to look up, see the position and angle of the goalkeeper and to be picking a target that they are going to shoot at. Then, I look for the head to go down and to be steady, and for the position of their planted foot. Is it pointing in the direction that they want the ball to go? Are they planting their shot correctly? If so, then it comes down to the action of the striking foot – are we taking placement over power? Which surface of the foot are we using? Are we trying to chip the ball over the goalkeeper, if their position warrants that option? If the goalkeeper is moving towards the striker; that is when I am going to shoot. If the ‘keeper is set, then I am going to try to unbalance them first, or hold the ball up for support players to come in, dependent on the situation.

As the striker gets older, it becomes more about the actions of the goalkeeper and taking advantage of the decisions they make. If we know that the goalkeeper is looking to defend the near post, we’re going to shoot at the far post. If the goalkeeper is coming out to close the angle down, then we have to know when to release the ball for a shot, or when we are going to hold and check back with it. Shooting is not just the knowledge of the striker, it is about understanding the opponent at the same time.

How do you coach decision making, when it comes to deciding when they have enough space or a good enough angle to shoot?

I’m going to use the guided development approach here. If they take the shot at the moment, I don’t believe they should, I have to let them take that shot. He may know something within his mind and body that I don’t – maybe the defender has his legs open, or he has something in his creative bag of tricks that I don’t know about. Once they have taken the shot, if my thoughts and their actions coincide then I’m going to create a coaching moment. I’ll ask why he took the shot at that moment? Where they were trying to place that shot? How were they trying to place that shot? I’m going to work on their feedback and try to expand it. If the first response was that they had to kick it because they had no other options, then I can give him those options. If he was trying to bend it around the defender, then I will give him the coaching points to help improve that. Maybe he needed to drop his left shoulder or side step first, to shift the defender over. I’ll also often take a picture board out, and ask him to draw me what he saw. So I try to expand upon their good ideas, and possibly step in to correct things, if they are trying to manufacture answers they think I want to hear.

Are there specific words or phrases you use with your players in finishing activities?

I will use aim small, miss small; placement over power; shoot to the bottom of the far post; pick a cross in the back of the net (so they have a very small target within the goal); then the standard technical corrections – locking out the ankle and so on. I don’t think I have that many buzz words for finishing though. For younger players I don’t think they necessarily understand the words we are using. Older players might get it more, if it is a theme we have been coaching for a while. But if you are with a new group I would keep it as obvious and basic as I can.

How do you keep the level of challenge in the right place? What level of success should players be having?

In the beginning I am going to perform to success. I am going to place players closer to the targets within the goal so they can see success in themselves, but also in me, so that they gain confidence in areas I am trying to teach. Then I’ll incrementally increase pressure – putting a goalkeeper in the goal, then maybe a 1v1 defender scenario where the defender can’t move until the attacker has had their first touch. This gives them time for success. I might then go to a pressure scenario restricting time or area, or a 2v1 situation. After that I’ll go to a 3v2. In a 3v2, if the first attacker has the ball they have two different passing angles as support options. A 2v2 only gives one passing option, so I prefer 3v2 as the next step. A lot of striking is about creating time and space. If one of the support players makes a nice screening run across the defenders, he will take their eyes and possibly unbalance the defense. If the attacker looks up at that time and sees the defense moving, it gives him the opportunity to take that shot, or have the trigger for the shot, ready to go.

Do you train and use goalkeepers at the same time? How do you balance their level of success with those of the attackers?

If I have an assistant coach, I will have them in the back of the goal working with the goalkeeper(s). I’m generally going to teach the strikers, so I’ll allow the goalkeeper to perform on their own pretty much. However, if I see large errors within the goalkeeping, I will coach them off the ball, when the strikers are resting or a natural stoppage in play. That way, I am not disrupting the flow of the finishing session, and my attention remains with the strikers. I feel like the psychology of the striker is, they need the full attention of the coach. Other positions, for example defenders, like to get on with the role, but the strikers usually like the focus of the coach.

One thing I will work on is the linkage between the goalkeeper and the defenders in front of him/her. Often they will need to work together, so I will address them all together. Generally the linkage is through direct communication, so it is very important they are talking.

Are there specific expanded small-sided activities that you like, when you are getting bigger than 3v2?

I do a lot of deliberate-style coaching and have activities that are high intensity and high speed. The movement around the box for a striker should have high speed and high speed of thought, so we try to create that environment for them in the games we play. Anson Dorrance has a great activity, ‘Bogies in the sky’, where he has two defenders down by the goalposts and two strikers at the top of the penalty area. He’ll release the first striker through a pass, then the first defender is live on the strikers first touch of the ball – making an instant 1v1, the the second defender is released to make 1v2, 2v2 and maybe 2v3 and so on, depending on numbers. This gives the striker a lot of decision making, regarding do they split the defenders, bend them, shoot through them, or take them on, on their (the attackers) stronger side. I don’t like using the word weaker side or weaker foot because psychologically it sends a message to the striker, so I will tell them to take it the other way or try and use your other foot.

I think all coaches have their bankers though – games that we know are very productive and we can get an efficient return from our attacking players. Check out some of Neil’s here.

Tactically, what common mistakes do you see coaches making when working with their strikers?

I should call them attacking players rather than strikers, because the game now is not just about forwards scoring. I see coaches using a 1-4-5-1 or 1-3-3-1 formations and using the 1 forward as a traditional number 9, which is so incorrect to me, because that 1 (or number 9) is turning against three opponents. 1v3 isn’t going to lead to a lot of shots, so why are you trying to score that way? Their role should be as a target player (a number 10), laying the ball off to the on-running support players (numbers 7 or 11), using width on the flanks and so on. We need to understand the system first, and stop teaching them to turn into pressure, possibly losing the ball.

Often if you go back a few years, you see teams playing 6v6 in a 1-2-1-2 formation where they are in pairs as strikers, then we suddenly change them to a 1-3-3-1 formation where the striker is now on their own. They are used to combining with someone and now their whole world changes. The coach possibly goes into it thinking they want three defenders, to be defensively-minded first. Rather than going to a 1-2-3-2 and thinking they can still contain the functionality of the paired strikers, they were building through their academy program. Personally, I’d rather build to have strikers working together to finish, than suddenly going to one, having to do it on their own.

When you get to larger games, generally the number of attempts on goal reduces. Is that ok, and what kind of ratios of attempts per activity should coaches be aiming for?

If we build through our coaching knowledge, obviously it is easier to witness things in smaller groups. So we build from 4v4 to 6v6 to 8v8 because you can see the game a lot easier as you go. Let’s say I have an 8v8 game at the weekend – I’m not necessarily only looking at the stats of how many shots there are, I’m looking at the assists and who is prepared to create the shot and who will take them. I try to keep track of it all, as objectively as I can, but sometimes some subjectivity is needed, because it will be framed in your thoughts and goals. I’ll try to track where the shots are coming from, and who is taking them, whom is moving in to support the shot and who is offering movement off the ball to support it. We do the same at the other end for shots against as well.

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