Training Tactical Defending, from AIK Stockholm

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Peter Wennberg coaches for AIK Stockholm in Sweden. He has over 20 years of experience in the game, starting from working with young players at club level. He went on to coach a women’s team in the country’s top division before moving to Swedish Football Academy – training individual players (including John Guidetti, Simon Tibbling) and sending them on trial to clubs in Europe. Peter has been with AIK (one of Sweden’s most successful professional clubs)  for 7 years, working with players from the first team down to the youngest ones in the academy. His specific role is manager (‘Chefstränare’ in Swedish), for U19, U17 and U16, who are the oldest players of the academy. Peter works with ten coaches and around 50 players, and has the UEFA Pro License. 

What are your key tactical concepts for teaching defending to the players?

I always start with the word ‘form’ – a team must find its form, which is the word we use here for ‘shape’. When you lose the ball you must know where to start from – are you defending the space in front of you or the space behind you? Do you pressure the person on the ball or not? If you do, every player on the pitch is defending the space in front of you. If you don’t, you are defending the space behind (so falling back/recovering). That’s the first part to understand.

Secondly, I work with the team on sliding with the ball to lock the opponent in to an area and stop them from being able to play the ball forward. To do that we have the word ‘contact’ – we want to have contact with the opposition by putting them under pressure. Here we require players to go in with the mindset of winning the ball back rather than just pressuring without a plan. This leads to our final phase, which is breaking out for the counter attack.  So we are looking for team shape, area of contact, approach to pressure and how to counter attack.

How do you develop defensive principles at the younger ages? When is it ok to bring in tactical concepts?

At the youngest ages, the first thing you learn is that your team don’t have the ball all of the time – when children lose the ball they look around at the clouds and don’t realize that they have to then win it back!   Also they are not clear whether they have the ball or not, so we teach them early to recognize when they are in possession or not. Next we teach supporting players to defend spaces (force the opponent) instead of just leaving it to the nearest player to defend the ball. When they understand that at 7-8 years old you can talk more about taking the ball back to counter – I want the ball back. Then we can discuss the relationship between players, rather than all of us chasing the ball, the closest one does it and you take the space. Finally, when you see the skills develop you can talk about dominating play instead of forcing play. When you have dominating defenders they control space, pressure the ball holder and they don’t look backwards – they only look forwards.

From age 12-13 you must learn to control the defending. It becomes tiring in a long game to dominate and force for the whole game, so you have to recognize when to pick the right moments.  A last concept I will teach is what to do when you are playing against a better team – say Sweden are playing Spain or Brazil – you have to learn how to play a counterattacking strategy and to defend according to that approach. So overall we teach from Force to Dominating to Control to Counterattacking.

Do you do any technical teaching or are the players expected to be proficient by the time they get to you?

That’s an interesting question. In my part of Sweden this is a really big problem because coaches around Stockholm really focus on individual technical skills. Every boy and girl learns to look at the ball, they don’t look at the game. When they get to our club and are preparing for playing professionally, they are good with the ball but not good with the ball in the game. Often they have a problem reading the game, so much of what we do is help them understand the game better – specifically working on the tactical relationship between players on the team.

The best way to learn to read the game is to play the game. It is good to watch other teams play live (not on television) but like if you are learning to snowboard, you watch how the coach performs the moves and then you try to copy it yourself. So having a mix of watching others and trying it for yourself is a good way for players to learn. Players who reach the professional level all have a passion for the game, so they are watching it on television and live as much as they can – their life revolves around football.

Are there specific words you use for communication between defenders?

We ask them to “find shape” as a fundamental concept. We ask them to “wake up” when they lose the ball and don’t have contact or pressure on the ball. We need our players to be shouting these out – the goalkeeper will see that the first defender is in the right position, the defenders will talk to the midfielders, and the midfielders will talk to the forwards – all making sure that the team are organized. The forward will ask questions of the other team – are you good enough or are we going to win the ball back?

How do you add in elements of transition/counter attack?

Even from the smallest activity we make sure both teams have the opportunity to score. If we are playing 1v1, 2v2 or 11v11 there is an opportunity for the defenders to win the ball and become the attackers. Equally if you are attacking you have the opportunity to practice defending if you lose the ball. Defending always starts from where you lose the ball (transition) and attacking starts from where you win the ball, so it is important to create those moments during the activities. By doing this the team can begin to learn where it is common for them to lose the ball and where they often win it.

We use counter goals, end lines and zone games. Particularly in the zone games we can educate strikers to win the 1v1 battles with the other team’s defender when they have the ball. The striker must have the priority of defending the area in front and around him. If he has the chance to win it back he must put pride into taking the ball back. Giving them zones allows you to create those opportunities. With three zones you could have 4v2, 4v4 and 2v4 and then you can change the numbers in each zone.

What ratio do you have of defending to attacking practices?

It’s a difficult question because if you want to practice defending you must first have good attacking to put against them in the training session. Sometimes I will work with the defenders and my assistant will work with the attackers. I won’t always tell them that I am working on their defending in that particular session though – often I will let the two teams play then at a stoppage ask the red team what defensive principles they should be considering right now. My questions will be open in nature, so it is more of a discussion than yes/no answers. My assistant will take the other team and ask them attacking questions, so we are working mixed all of the time. Sometimes if we are doing shadow play I might have everyone at the same time on the same topic, working against cones with the ball on the ground, but that doesn’t happen often.

Will you teach all teams to play with a back four or do you vary the formation?

Our club approach is to play with four backs, four midfielders and two forwards but we will change at times to play 4-3-3 but we always play with four defenders. If we are in a final or the end of a game and need a result we might play with three defenders but this is an exception.

What would a typical training session look like for the players?

Planning training is a complex world because you have so many areas to take responsibility for. Firstly you are responsible for individual player development within the team; secondly you have to ask which way they play as a team; and thirdly you need to understand the club philosophy. There could be conflict between any two of these areas so my job is to find a way to bring them all together. We start working with individual players and set up six week periodization cycles – giving them feedback as they move through each one. For the team we have a pre-season to develop a way to play, which includes three preparation games. After that we enter the regular season and that actually starts tomorrow for us.

So what do training sessions look like?

We start with player testing (how fast can they run, how much weight can they lift and so on) at the end of the previous season. We test them again before the start of the next season to see if there has been any change in their capacity. When we know where they are we can match our training to their needs. We train seven times each week (Monday, twice Tuesday, Wednesday, twice Thursday, Friday, and free at weekends). Monday we do physical training working on strength and speed. Tuesday morning we look at individual skills for technique and tactical understanding of the game. Tuesday afternoon we have game practice – working on our style of play as a team. Wednesday is physical again, then Thursday is the same as Tuesday. Friday we only play games after the warmup. U17 might play against U19 teams and sometimes we might mix the teams. This gives the balance of individual training and helping them learn our team style. Each session is about 75 minutes.

How much movement do you have on a weekly basis between teams? Do players play up and down as part of their development?

When they are moving to the developing group (which is what we call the academy squad) we look at them as individuals. Firstly we assess their individual performance and the best players practice with the U19 team and the others are with the U17 team. When you take the step to the professional level it is a large step, so we prepare them earlier with movement. We challenge them not to count the days but to practice the position they are in and go from there. They don’t have a number on a team or a position, they are moved by performance.

Our youngest players are 15 and if one has good games over four weeks, they could be the first choice when the first team coach asks me for a player to practice against. I don’t look at ages, I look at who are the best players right now because you don’t learn in a line – you learn steps. You could go up two steps in one practice or plateau for a while. There is no question about our decisions to move them either. You have the right to practice, but you don’t have the right to decide which team you practice with.

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