It is a hot debate

Social media and the twittersphere have been hotly debating a topic and asking whether there is a place of unopposed practice in youth football? It is an area I’m very passionate about and anyone who knows me will be able to predict my answer.

I do think there is a place for unopposed technical work, particularly in elite youth football. Now I think it’s important to clarify I’m not condoning the use of boring, closed passing drills, far from it! I believe that any unopposed work must be challenging, fun and have an end goal in mind. I also want to make it clear that I believe that the majority of all team training should be opposed! Below I will outline where and when unopposed football work can be beneficial!

Unopposed Soccer Training

Unopposed football training in Foundation phase development

After reading the recent interview with Arsene Wenger regarding his thoughts on the best way to educate young footballers I was driven to put my thoughts on paper. Wenger outlined the importance of focusing on technique in the Foundation Phase with players aged 5-12.

I regard myself as a specialist in Foundation phase player development which is an area I have extensive experience in. Having spent 10 years working with these age groups for two of the best academies in England (In terms of players produced for England at all levels) and with 12 years experience of working with players of all levels, including beginners, Academy, semi-Pro and Pro players as an individual technical coach, I feel I have a deep insight of what works and doesn’t.

I, like Wenger, believe that Technique is the priority at the foundation phase and is something I promote when speaking to other people particularly players and parents. I think unopposed practices are one of the many key ingredients of the elite player development model.

Unopposed Soccer Training Foundation Phase Level
The question often poised to me and I see thrown around social media is how does this sit with the ‘games the teacher‘ model being promoted by the English Football Association.

As a current student on the Youth Module 4 Advance I agree with much of the content and principles within the excellent series of courses highlighting that the majority of sessions should be game related and opposed. I do however think it has been misinterpreted or misused by some people with almost a frenzied witch hunt for anyone recommending isolated practice or delivering a session that doesn’t look like a game. For me this is the problem, particularly when working with Elite or Aspiring elite players. Yes, if you leave players to develop organically in game settings you will produce some players. I argue that you will produce more top players with a combination of game settings combined with some unopposed and semi opposed practices. Speaking with one of the country’s leading skill acquisition experts last week they stated ‘players left alone may challenge each other but they won’t challenge themselves’. This is an interesting and pivotal point. Yes the game can teach players many things, but as a technical coach, so can I!

“I’m not a football coach but I do train at a world championship level of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and unopposed training is essential to development for my sport. Drilling techniques unopposed at a gradual increase in speed helps develop ‘perfect’ technique and helps with problem solving. Doing live training with a partner with full resistance is introduced and helps bring it all together. At my age technique is so important as I’m a bit slower and a bit weaker. My coach who is a 10 times world champion has a saying, ‘Technique Conquers All’. Doing things always opposed will make the athlete miss the subtle steps in successful technique. Confidence in skill starts unopposed and is then built upon in live sessions with opposition..”

– Ross Finlayson (Edmonton, Canada)

A football player must leave foundation phase with these assets

It has to be a priority for players to leave the foundation phase with these three main assets.

  1. The ability to play and receive of both feet,
  2. Dominate 1v1 situations and
  3. Be complete masters of the ball

Must have the ability to receive and play off both feet
This is a massive area where I think particularly in England we can improve. I work with many aspiring pro players in their teens and many arrive with almost no ability to use their weak foot. This is understandable as many have been in grass roots for the whole of their footballing lives.

It’s more surprising to me working with players who have come out of the academy system who can’t use their weak foot with assurance. To me this is a failure.

Learn to play soccer off both feet
If we have players within academies from 8 onwards and they complete a full foundation cycle, they must be able to play and receive off both feet!

Now this is where isolated unopposed/semi opposed practice comes in. Yes as coaches we can get weak foot outcomes from opposed sessions, but those players whether within or away from (preferably) team sessions, are going to have to work on those foot patterns and ball striking on their weak side getting repetition in an unopposed environment. They can then take this into game situations.

Shooting on the weak foot is another technical area which you will find unopposed practice can be a benefit if a player has a deficiency in this area. If we see players have an issue here, we have to address it and support them in confronting and solving it.

Working in a pressure free environment to develop correct foot patterns and power in their strike will benefit players of all ages.

Dominating 1v1 situations is a priority for all players
The younger we start this work the more dramatic the improvement/change in a player’s ability in this area. In my opinion we don’t create enough 1v1 players in this country, that’s why I believe there has to be a change in coaching culture particularly in the foundation phase. Letting the game be the teacher will produce some ‘dribblers’ or players who are naturally good in this area. I argue however that all players must be proficient in this area, all players must be able to solve this problem themselves, a 1v1 battle.

Dominate 1v1 Soccer Training
Here again is where unopposed practices can be beneficial where teaching players 1v1 skills at an early age will help them solve this problem. Players who are already good in this area but lack the ability to ‘go on one side’ can benefit from isolated skill work to support their long term movement development. This work comes hand in hand with semi-opposed and opposed practices, giving players the opportunity to try these or their own techniques in live situations.

In addition, I have seen much talk on Twitter about coaches who don’t use 1v1 practices as ‘there is no such thing as 1v1 in football’ I think this couldn’t be further from the truth and is actually detrimental to the long term development of players. Using interference and keepers in 1v1 can be beneficial however we should encourage 1v1 duels, with no interference. These gladiator type battles have fantastic outcomes including decision making by forcing players to stay on the ball and make something happen. BUT we must let players try these techniques in games without the fear of scolding if they lose the ball.

In a perfect world, 9s and 10s football would be playground/street football, players playing with freedom, without fear!

Create players who are complete masters of the ball
Looking back at the England Spain game on Fri 13 Nov, one of the man things that stood out was the gulf in technique between the players of both teams. By this I mean essentially how comfortable all players looked on the ball. In England this is another area we need to improve on starting at the Foundation phase level
Unopposed Soccer Training Foundation Phase Level
Here again is an area where unopposed work comes in. Fortunately there is a culture of ball mastery within sessions growing here. We need to encourage players to master the ball with all surfaces of the feet.

Players need to build a relationship with the ball and as the street football culture many of us grew up with dies out, it becomes more important for us coaches to facilitate this work. It may only be the first 10-15 minutes of your session as a ball based warm up, but it is essential players get 1:1 ball ratio time as much as possible.


There are many ways to develop players, this is just one way and my opinion but one I have seen work.