To win a social five-a-side football match, you need to play as a – prepare to yawn with joy at the stupendousness of this insight – team. OK, self-evident, but I still see plenty of teams, especially those newly formed, relying individually on their tricks, their pace, their previous experience and even their sense of nominal positioning. They walk off the pitch surprised they lost.
‘But we scored those amazing goals? What about that snooker shot through ball! And such unlucky goals to concede. We had rushed forward interchanging passes and were so close to scoring, then the ball comes out to some bumbling beach ball who jogs into the acre we’d left behind us. Or when we miscontrolled one pass in front of our D and they leapt on it.’
Luck is a great leveller, and horrible misfortunes will indubitably befall you on and off the pitches. But in five-a-side, you make and eat your own luck like half-time oranges. Both ‘unlucky’ goals described above are clearly avoidable. If I have to divide ‘playing as a team’ into two categories, they would be strategy and, what the strategy is based on, playing to your team’s strengths. Strategy is about knowing your individual responsibilities, knowing when these rotate during play, and making sure that everyone else knows too. I’ll not get into that here. Varied strengths and their influence on your gameplan, however, are underplayed. When I read about five-a-side tactics, there always seems to be a presumption that all are equal. All can pass accurately, all can receive the ball well, all have the vision to mark the player and the pass, and all can shoot without spooning the ball into a tree. While many teams are peopled with excellent, skillful, athletic players, no team is a clone army of identikit Stormtroopers. Accordingly, there is no one style of play that suits every set of players. It’s important to say I’m talking about social games. If this was at a professional academy, while everyone would agree players have different strengths, professional players are expected to acquire certain proficiencies or be hurled out onto their ear. The pros can bend to whatever the current thinking is on the most effective strategy. We can all perhaps learn and improve. But you and your 38-year-old mate Yevgeny from the pie shop are what they call in biology ‘frozen accidents’. Your motor skills and muscle memory for football, your habits, the way you kick the ball or always go for the dragback have become largely ingrained, however flawed, and your brain is less pliant or just plain unwilling to relearn how to play. It is not defeatist of me to say: accept this. To understand your team’s strengths, you need to understand your team. You will generally have one of these exaggerated archetypes in your ranks:
- The lazy front player. Walking back across the halfway line fills them with nausea. They only want to attack, which they’re good at, but having lost possession they’re not in a hurry to track back or recover, preferring to offer an outlet for a counter-attack. But what goals they score. (In a professional 11-a-side context, imagine BERBATOV.)
- The ‘technical’ midfielder. Strangely calm, they’re always in a position to receive the ball, and will not release it until a clear pass is on. They have a great first touch and have the vision in defence to mark out the danger in the centre. Perhaps not the fastest between two points. (ARTETA.)
- The gung-ho runner. No lost cause is officially lost until it gets a certificate to prove it. This player will chase down any ball, and they’ll beat their marker to a pass or die trying. Their touch may be loose, but they respond to clear communication. (While a few PL players could fit this brief, it’s really a five-a-side thing.)
- The psychic defender. They will never be nutmegged and the only way around them is to pass back. They are generally solid individuals who will back their physical strength in a one-on-one. Best of all they know exactly when to bullet forward and somehow be first to the loose ball. (KOMPANY.)
- The running commentary. This guy is always talking, telling you what to do, where the opposition are, to mark the runner, to get in space, to get up off the ground and stop crying. (CARRAGHER.)
- The goalie. Often seen wearing gloves … I don’t think you need any help with this one. Goalies of course come in a variety of forms, but that’s an article in itself.
All, and particularly the latter, are useful to have in their own way. I would suggest though a little mental audit of attributes. How many of your team have a good first touch, a good shot, a good pass, how many have pace, how many love to beat a player with silky skills, how many have defensive vision? The reverse audit is just as crucial: how many have an erratic first touch, a dreadful shot, a tendency to pass blindly under pressure, how many will only accept a pass to their feet, how many will never jink, feign or jelly-leg a stepover, how many will be slow to track back? For teams with the psychic defender (or with two of them) and some pace and touch elsewhere in the team, your strategy is likely to revolve around the one reliable player sitting back, while the other three outfield players run high with impunity but switch as necessary between attack and defence. If someone on the team has a finisher’s eye for goal, this is probably the ideal set-up. You’ll be able to hold a lot of possession in the attacking third and have options when it comes to the final ball. For teams with little pace, no one obvious defender, but a technical midfielder (or two), a counter-attacking model will work better. Everyone becomes a defender marking hard within their own half, soaking up the opposition’s passing until a loose ball is seized upon or the goalie picks up an easy shot from distance. No one from the opposition is allowed near the centre of your D, and they are instead shown to the flanks or back where they came from. Positions rotate as necessary for marking. Once in possession the counter-attack is assessed. If it’s not on, the ball is passed to the feet of the player in space, always selecting the safe option, probing, waiting.
For teams with the lazy front player: fire them. Well, no. In fact this player can be very useful, but only when recognised as such. There is no point getting apoplectic about them being left behind by the player they were supposedly marking for the hundredth time. Obviously it’s not ideal, and everyone needs to defend. But while they’re on the pitch, station them as high as possible, moving in looped runs from left to right to lose any marker. Then simply get the ball to them. Everyone else needs to be primarily defence minded, and it will help to have one runner who dashes from attack to defence and back again, being the link between the zones. These three strategies: ‘carefree attackers’, ‘bus-parkers’ and ‘long-ball merchants’ fit different groups of players. Your group is different again, but it will always pay to have a sense of how you do things as a team, and for this to suit the players you have. Why were the goals described at the top so strategically poor? The first was a result of playing a carefree attack without a reliable defender stationed at the back. Possession transitions quickly in five-a-side and even in the heat and flash of a sublime attack, you need to consider your team’s defence. The second was the result of undervaluing the danger of the central zone in front of the goal area. No pass should be risked to a defender in this position if they are marked at all, and especially if you know them to have a random first touch.