About The Author

Saul Isaksson-Hurst is an experienced premier league academy coach having spent 6 years at Tottenham Hotpsur FC and 4 years at Chelsea FC’s Academy as a Foundation Phase skills specialist and is founder of mypersonalfootballcoach.com where he is director of coaching. Saul talks about the benefits of small sided games in building the technical ability of young players.

Using small sided games (SSG's) to develop young soccer players...

Many people confuse my methodology with being unopposed centric, this is not true. My team training methodology is and always has been based around small sided games (SSG’s). I made my name as a 121 coach working with players away from the game, this work is vital but always a supplement not a replacement for the game. I have always advocated the vast majority of team training should be opposed and SSG based, the question is what format SSGs are you using and why?

What format SSGs are you using and why?

I was recently lucky enough to travel to Canada and present to some coaches there. I delivered a Dynamic Ball Mastery session, which started with some 1 ball each ball mastery and then 1 ball between 2. This quickly developed into 1v1 opposed challenges and progressed to 3v3, 4v4 and 5v5 SSGs (originally had planned for 4v4 max but extra players attended so format grew).

Their local Federation encourages the GAG method, game, activity, game. I was asked by one of the coaches where would my work fit into this. I replied that I don’t have problem with the GAG method, my only questions would be: 

1. When do your players get the ball mastery work individually with the ball?

2. Most poignantly what format games are you starting your sessions with?

3. Are you going into 7v7s/8v8s straight away…and activity and then an 8v8 again?

4. How much contact time are your players getting with a ball?

5. What real individual technical outcomes are you getting with your players?

I think its incredibly easy to get sucked into coaching the team and not the individual. Prioritising tactical and team outcomes over individual outcomes. I think there is generally a problem within the foundation phase (8-11) of wanting the game to look to pretty and orderly.

I believe we spend too much time asking players to get rid and go the ball quicker when we should be challenging younger players to stay on it longer. Real quality technical work in my opinion is developing and supporting players who can manipulate at will and get on and stay on the ball under pressure. With so many rondo based sessions, we have to ask ourselves as youth developers, is this really in the best interest of players?

I think the danger of much of the ‘game based’ philosophy is that its just that, it’s aimed too much towards the game on the weekend. We must be brave and see that the game on the weekend is just another development opportunity.


Here’s a snap from one of my sessions in Canada.

The Man United 4v4 study showed the difference between outcomes for a 4v4 game instead of a 8v8, 135% more passes 260% more Scoring Attempts 500% more Goals Scored, 225% more 1v1 Encounters and 280% more Dribbling Skills (tricks) Fenoglio, R. (2003).

The added benefit from playing 1v1, 2v2, 3v3 and 4v4s is that you will get much more creative and skilful outcomes. Surely these are the qualities we should be promoting and demanding with our young players.

You can get the main tactical outcomes from a 4v4 needed for ‘the game’, principles of possession, height, width and depth. Plus balance, rotation and combination play. Particularly in an Academy environment, the game on the weekend should be just another opportunity for development rather than the focus of the week.

Marcus Rashford shows exemplary bravery in 1v1s whenever he gets on the ball.

Let’s hope we produce more players like Marcus in the future.

Games are a great opportunity for players to challenge themselves against others, try things and be expressive. There’s a reason why they are non competitive in Premier League Academy football, because often it becomes more about the ego of the coach rather than the benefit of the player. Does it really matter if you win at u9 or u10?

The only 3 points that actually count are at the end of the journey…in the first team. So rather than plan your week around who you’ve got on the weekend, plan your week around developing your players. Let them develop to be more creative and skilful in smaller based SSG’s.

The question comes down to what kind of players do we wanter to develop and what are our priorities as coaches…developing individuals or teams.

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Master the ball master the game!

Saul Isaksson-Hurst

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