I have seen it to many times before. The U8 soccer team, coached by the ultra competitive dad, has one or two kids a head taller than anybody else on the field. The ball comes in and they wind up to smash it into a corner to see if a one of the speedy, smaller kids can run onto it. This repeats over and over throughout the game and the center mid who is just wanting to get a touch on the ball never gets his chance to grow and develop appropriately simply from a lack of completing the puzzle.
Usually this is used as an example of where the professional coach needs to step in and teach the kid with the big leg to control and build out play. While this is true, I think it is taking the easy way out. Shouldn’t we also want this kid to continue to work on his long balls so we can play long when the opportunity presents itself?
This is where the concept of target play comes in. The simple idea here is that you keep your #9, center forward, high up the field stretching the depth on the field. When our team wins possession deep in our half instead of booting it out of bounds or to the corner we instead attempt to play a long ball into the feet, head or chest of the target forward. This strategy is typically used when deploying a tall, strong, big bodied striker (think Zlatan, Lukaku or Cavani) but it also works if you have your striker check in deeper and play to feet (think Messi in the holding 9 role or when Clint Dempsey plays as a striker for the USMNT) and then the rest of the team advances up the field as a unit.
The first step in this development is to show that kid who was booting the ball how and when to play a long driven ball. One activity I like to use to teach this idea is shown below.
The “T”arget for each team stands in their end zone and is restricted to playing in this area. The players across the field from the target are attempting to play across the field into the target, if they can get a ball into the target their team scores. Whenever the ball goes out over the end line for Xs, Os restart play with a new ball, the current Os rotate off and the Xs transition onto defense.
The coach should first work on the defense, ensuring that the play is realistic to the game so we can sort out the attacking principles we are looking for. When we play into the target, the players need to transition quickly. The player who was not most recently on the ball should look to step on the ball if possible to slow the advancement of the ball, if that is not an option as they are to far away from the ball they should attempt to cut off the passing lane to the target player.
Next we want to encourage players to penetrate quickly (yes, this even includes you Pep imitators, think Zlatan, Suarez, Lewandowski). The idea here is not necessarily to build an English long ball, Jose Mourinho counter attacking team, but to teach players when and where to use a long ball in our build up. To do this we want players to take a glance up as soon as they are on. Is that long ball an option? Are technically/physically able to play that pass? Do they prefer their chances to score through build up or a long ball in that moment (if one of the defenders forgot to transition and ran off the field a 2v1 may be the best option).
Finally, we want our striker to be helping to set up the play. If the defender successfully cuts off the passing lane, where can the striker move to create a new passing lane. This is vital for future stages, but sometimes the hardest to get to stick. The target needs their hips and shoulders square to the ball so they can use their entire body to receive the ball with any surface and to shield the ball from a defender in a game, lateral movement is their friend here.
This game encourages the use of the big ball. If the grids are set up appropriately the players should look to play that long ball whenever it is on, attempting to quickly advance the ball and penetrate the defense. We also get the chance to have our players combining in small groups, transitioning from attack to defense, and (most importantly) for our strikers to play big and strong with their back to the goal.