"Games and game-like practice, coupled with individual challenges and questioning techniques that encourage reflective processes and promote tactical understanding also help to develop decisive decision making and help players to recognise where their football skills apply in context." - John Allpress, FA National Player Development Coach (7-16)

Ministry of Football believes strongly in small-sided games (SSGs) to teach skills and develop creative, confident players and children. Far too often childen are rushed into playing the full adult version of the game, where there are less touches on the ball, less opportunities to be involved in the game, less chances to make decisions that lead to learning, and more pressure to clear the ball from 'dangerous' areas of the pitch.

What are small-sided games?

Small-sided games include any competitive, opposed game where team-size is less than 6 or 7 players. At Ministry of Football this most often takes the form of 2v2 to 5v5 games. Our 4v4 Mini-Leagues are good examples of small-sided games in action. 

What's the problem with large-sided games?

In many leagues and competitions throughout England, children are forced to perform in 9v9 or 11v11 games once they reach 11 years old. Children of this age are still in the height of their skill-development years, and even those considered lower ability still have the chance to develop a good range of skills, flair and creativity.

For all children aged under 12 years of age, Ministry of Football believes that 2v2, 3v3 or 4v4 games provide the best opportunities to enjoy having a ball at their feet and being directly involved in all aspects of game play at all times - thus maximising the number of learning opportunities in the limited time they have to spend playing the beautiful game.

"Whenever I find a player I like, I ask how he started in football and if he says 'the street', I know he means 5-aside and I instantly know he understands how to defend, keep the ball, pass the ball and finish. If combined with good vision and understanding, he will have all the technical tools to be a top player" - Arsene Wenger

Forcing children to play in teams and games which are too large for their skill-development needs has many detrimental effects: Less involvement in the game, less successful actions, less fun, less learning opportunities; 'bunching' because players are not physically capable to pass the ball over the larger distances required; consequently the selection of larger physically mature children (especially those who can 'boot it out' of the defensive areas) over smaller but more skilful, cleverer players. Coaching in larger-sided games often concentrates more on positions and over-complicated 'adult' tactics rather than on the development of skill, expression and enjoyment needed to create players with flair and individuality. Goalkeepers playing in goals that are too big for them are hindered by lack of success, and strikers are not challenged to find ways of scoring goals that don't rely on power and brute force. The results of this are that we don't (as a nation!) produce enough players who are skilful enough to perform at the same level as other countries. We also experience large drop-out rates from organised football after the age of 11. In short, the larger-sided game format is failing our young footballers.

The evidence for small-sided games

  • Liverpool University study - compared 7v7 to 11v11 for 9-10 year olds: In a 20 minute game, 149 seperate skills in 7v7 compared to 111 in 11v11, 35 dribbles compared to 10 dribbles, twice as many goal attempts.
  • Manchester United study - compared 4v4 to 8v8 for under 9s: The 4v4 game increased the number of passes by 135%, the number of scoring attempts by 260%, the number of 1v1 encounters by 225%, the number of dribbling skills by 280%.
  • Minneapolis study - compared 4v4 to 11v11 for 10 and 11 year olds: On average, each player touched the ball over 12 times more often in the 4v4 game.

Other benefits of SSGs

Ministry of Football believes that children learn best when playing in games which are appropriate to their ability/confidence level (age/stage, or learning needs). Not much learning happens when one team dominates the other and wins 10-0, or when one or two players dominate a game and the other children hardly get the ball. For optimum learning to happen for all, it's best if all players on a team, both teams in a game and all teams in a league are roughly equal. Many leagues or clubs aren't able to provide this as they group players into teams or squads of 12 to 16 players. If instead they grouped players into teams of four and played 4v4 games, they would find it easier to group players and teams of roughly equal ability - thus avoiding the problems of one team or one player dominating. SSGs can provide optimum learning opportunities because the groupings are smaller and games can therefore be more evenly matched.

The conclusion

"Development research specific to football has identified that players who reached professional status engaged in over 300 hours of football related play activities per year between the ages of 6 and 12 (approx 1800 hours). This was double the hours accumulated by players who had been in elite programmes and subsequently dropped out or been released" - Martin Diggle, FA Professional Club Coach Educator

We need to maximise our children's exposure to the ball in the games they play - for many of them they will only have a limited amount of football time each week. Mastering ball control takes hours of practice and many learning opportunities are needed in order for learning to become permanent.

SSGs give players more involvment in the game, more successful actions, more learning opportunities. SSGs will develop more skilful players, more creative players, players with better decision-making skills, players with a wider variety of answers to challenges they face in games.

SSGs better suit children's cognitive development - they are continuously involved in the game, more willing to take risks, and faced with more less-complicated decisions. Any 11v11 game is made up of many 2v1, 1v1 and 1v2 situations. Expanding this out and it becomes a 3v2 or 4v3 situation. You don't need all 22 players to recreate the situations required for a child's tactical learning. It is better to take the uninvolved players out of the picture, and increase the number of repititions of of the 2v1, 3v2 and 4v3 challenges for all players by using SSGs.

Our promise: For children aged 6+, at least half of the session will be skill activities or small-sided games of less than 5v5, and at least three-quarters of the session will include an element of game-related decision-making.

See How To Set-up a Small-Sided Game for more info on the best way to make use of SSGs in your programme.

And also Measuring Learning in Small-Sided Games.

Further reading

Learning Through Play (Paul Cooper's SSG book)

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Mark Carter


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