I have painted the teams as Barcelona and Real Madrid simply because I felt like it. Using Sport Session Planner to design these pictures. In some pictures, the ball is huge, just because it makes it easier for people to see if looking at more zoomed out shots. I will state several times before, during, and after this article, that these are generalisations. Not all Spanish teams are like this, not all Spanish players are like this. Likewise for England too when I make comparisons. It's more looking at the average, and drawing comparisons between them.
It was a 7v7 game played horizontally across an 11v11 pitch. The width of the pitch was around ten yards short of the 11v11 halfway line. The teams were around the U11 age group. We had a good vantage point sat in the stand, allowing us to see the game clearly, but one of the many stark contrast between Spanish and English youth football was the ease at which you could identify shapes and patterns. I would include American in that too. Actually, many countries from my experience, however I'll stick to English. English youth football is often random and chaotic, and therefore harder to identify a clear formation. These teams played a 2-3-1 versus a 3-2-1. More patient build up, higher quality of passes, a preference for safety over risk, better quality of support, and a greater ability for individuals to stay on the ball meant considerably fewer transitions occurred in the match compared to what one might witness back home. As a result of that, the ball stayed in play much longer, and the teams had longer spells of passing, often going ten or fifteen passes before losing the ball, which was usually from a cross or a shot in the final third. Unlike in other locations I've been to, where teams will rarely make sequences of four passes or more in a game.
Open Body Shape to Scan
I'll start with the keepers. They're all good with their feet. There's no clichéd fat kid in goal punting it long, or making the big kid take goal kicks to smash it forward. They can all receive under pressure, control and manipulate the ball well if pressed, and spend their time away from the ball making passing angles to support. Keep in mind that one of the main ideas at play here is that if we have the ball, the opposition can't score. Possession is ultimately a defensive tool. Teams play very few, if any, hopeful balls. Remember kids; the difference between a pass and a kick is that a pass is preceded by a thought!
Most goal kicks are taken like this. The two central defenders will split, and the keeper will play short. Opponents tend to sit deeper in these moments, rather than running around like headless chickens, or like dogs chasing cars. Teams will play long if it's on, but these passes tend to have a very high probability of reaching their target. The blue lines coming out of the supporting teammates represent field of vision. They always support side-on, being able to see where the ball is coming from and where it is going to. Spanish players likely think quicker than their English counterparts, but I'd suggest much of that is down to their initial gathering of information. They can see the ball in their periphery, while seeing much of the pitch ahead of them.
In an ironic twist of fate, it seems like the central defenders are some of the more skilful and intelligent players on the team, rather than the ball-launching donkeys they are treated as in other countries.
Receiving on the Blind Side
You will see plenty of centre backs actually carry the ball forward. If the opposition sits deep and doesn't press, the CB will "take the space" as they say in the US. They are competent at staying on the ball, which is a priority for all positions. Worth noting here are three supporting players;
The goalkeeper - hasn't disengaged, and is ready to receive a backpass if necessary. The keeper will also be giving information to the ball carrier.
The other centre back - look at the horizontal blue line. The support they give is not ahead of the ball, but ever so slightly behind it. This means that if the ball carrier were to play a square pass, the supporting CB would receive the ball in front of them, able to see forward, scanning and analysing the play. Notice the letter A, which I put there to represent the position many kids in England would take up to support the ball carrier
The holding midfielder - Sergio Busquets here doesn't come to the ball to receive it, but instead offers a passing angle on the blindside of the white team's centre forward.
Just for comparative purposes, can you see how annoying it is when the CDM and CB take up those supporting positions?
If the CB were to play to the CDM, who has offered in the correct position, it eliminates the white team's centre forward, and now puts the CDM in a 1v1 against his opposing CM, with space to drive. This also becomes the trigger for the centre forward to make a run towards the ball, which, with the left winger, creates a triangle around the white CM. Football is a game of creating situations of superiority. It's all about creating space and exploiting space.
The triangle, or 3v1 means that the ball carrier can choose left or right. This makes them less predictable for the opponent, and therefore harder to press. Defenders thrive off of predictability. It's all problem solving. Through marking, tracking, and space coverage, defenders eliminate options for the attacking team. And when the attacking team's next move is obvious, defenders move to steal the ball. When a team has superiority, such as this 3v1 triangle, the opposition then have to adjust. And if we create pressure in one part of the field, it creates space in another part.
Due to the triangle, both the centre forward and left winger will also have two one touch passing options, with one of them being back to the CDM, who has will not continue driving forward to close his own space. Instead, the CDM will be in what is the ideal football situation; ball at his feet, in space, facing forward. That's what we want for our players. Spanish teams work hard as a unit to create those situations, where a player, anyone on their team, has the ball at their feet, is in space, and is facing forward.
The predicament the 3v1 triangle sets for the white team is a situation of risk and reward. Like a cheap blanket, a team can't cover everything. So they have to choose. Which players or part of the pitch are more important? Let's cover them!
If the white defender steps to close down the space of the Barca left winger, then it opens up this opportunity for the through ball. The Spanish kids can see this pass way more frequently than English kids. The structure of the team allows for great positioning and connections. The patience of the game allows them to get into these positions. The patience of the style of play means they won't try to force these passes, but only play them if they're likely to succeed. The passes are also weighted very well. And, on top of that...
The passes are disguised! Slight feints, steps, shoulder drops etc. Everything they can use to make the opposition think they are going one way, before going the other. Before passing, your hips, knees, shoulders, feet positioning etc. are giving away signals to the opponents. They're trying to read what you are doing before you do it. Many of these Spanish kids do a slight subtle step in the wrong direction, or put their plant foot down in the wrong way, to add noise to their signal. In the picture above, the CDM is shaped like he is playing to the striker. Both the white CM and CB read that signal and step across to block the pass which isn't being sent. This can add just one or two extra yards of space, but football is a game of inches, and space is our currency. The passer sends the opposition the wrong way, disguises the pass, and sends his teammate a through ball to run onto, with a little extra time and space, because he's sent the opponents the wrong way.
This isn't the typical no-look pass we see freestylerz use on TikTok and Instagram, where they exaggerate their head movements to look the wrong way at the point of execution, often in an a large area of free space, or a situation where the defender is beaten. Trust me, no good defender is looking at your head for cues. This is the kind of no look pass where your whole body is shaped to play one way, and instead you cut across yourself to play the other way, to a teammate who is often in your periphery.
Here's a great video of Lampard, Ozil, and Pirlo doing exactly that.
It's a similar concept with Thiago Alcantara and his turns. He deliberately shapes his body the wrong way to trick opponents. Your body gives away signals, with elements such as your shape or approach. Thiago adds noise to his signal, so the opponents interpret a completely different message.
The Defence Splitting Pass
One which stood out for me so much was this. This defence splitting pass. Maybe the CF makes a run to the ball to create a little more space. But the smallest of gaps would open up. The ball carrier would pretend he didn't notice. Then he'd shape up like he was playing a ball wide. The defenders would read the signals. Then the ball carrier would extend his drive or swivel round a few degrees more, and play a pass that very few others could see. We treat these players like gold dust in England. Yet in Spain, they seem to be a fairly frequent occurrence. As mentioned above, the absolute cherry on top being that these passes would also be disguised.
Low Crosses Through the Second Six
The "Second Six" is an imaginary second six yard box on top of the real six yard box. The penalty area of an adult 11v11 game is eighteen yards. The penalty spot is twelve yards. You get it. It's often a space just behind the defence, and just in front of the keeper. Ideal for low crosses.
Many of the scoring chances created would look something like this. A low cross to the back post for the far side winger, or a pull back for the centre forward. If the cross wasn't on, or the defence recovered, the teams wouldn't just hit a cross and hope. Instead, they would be patient, hold the ball up, and play backwards and restart the attack if they needed to.
Don't Cross if the Box is Full
They realise this is a low probability situation, and therefore don't cross. The area has a 2v6 underload. It's probably not worth it. So they turn round and start again. Interestingly, the parents and coaches aren't going crazy and screaming to cross it like they would in other countries. I think they generally collectively recognise this as a situation where they'd lose the ball, and possession is of utmost importance.
Forget Foul Throws
Another thing, probably a small detail to some, but I think it's a fairly big deal, is that they don't care much about foul throws. Pretty much 80-90% of throws were foul throws, but the referee didn't call it. And nobody cared. Players played the game, parents didn't scream, and coaches continued with their instructions. This seemed very odd to me. I would be interested to know how much time is spent in England on retaking throws, and how much time is lost to arguing about throws. I like it. Taking a throw-in is a complicated technique for many kids. So why waste time fighting it? It's quite simple when you're older. It's one of those things that isn't important, and they'll get anyway later down the line.
I've known coaches to go spare at the quality of throw-ins taken by their kids, and then dedicate significant amounts of time in the next few sessions to working on throw-in technique. It provides minimal gain, and comes at a cost of having neglected elements of their development which may have been more important. The Spanish attitude seems to be to just get on with the game. The irony in England is that for the amount people argue over throws, the vast majority end up with the opposition within two passes anyway. An English throw-in is effectively a coin toss.
We needlessly over complicate things. Make a kite. It's that simple. Three players around the taker at distances of 10-15m. One behind, one square, and one up the line. The behind option should be close to the touchline to give them more separation from the nearest opponent. The square option should not be level, but a couple metres behind level, as in the picture above. This means they can receive on the half turn while facing forward. The ball can be thrown in front of them. The up the line option should start short, and then run in behind.
Just because we provide short options, doesn't mean we don't want to or can't go long. It's more that in England, when we go long, it's brainless. This is at all levels of the game. We fall into the trap of standing where we want to receive the ball. Don't occupy the space you wish to fill. If you stand there, they will mark you. Stand somewhere else, and they will mark you somewhere else. It's better to be marked in an unimportant space than an important space, because that leaves the important space open to receive the ball in while on the move. In the picture above, down the line would be a great option. It's only an option because the other players have done their jobs and created this space. If the down the line option was already waiting there, stationary, he wouldn't be able to receive while on the move.
Here's your typical English throw-in. No width, no depth. All players in a small space with no movement. You could throw a blanket over all the outfield players. The only acceptable throws are within the blue lines. Anything even remotely sideways or backwards is met with audible frustration from the sidelines. We must remember that the principles of play are consistent, even at restarts. Therefore, the attacking team seeks to open space, and the defending team seeks to deny space. Yet what happens at throw-ins? The attacking team denies their own space.
Dribble Away From the Defender
The next thing I want to look at here is dribbling. I don't think there's much difference, if any, in the technical or physical ability between English and Spanish kids. I just think they're a lot more intelligent. Another example is dribbling. Each player is comfortable engaging in 1v1 situations as an attacker. But what they do is ever so slightly different. Spanish kids don't dribble at the defender. They dribble at an angle away from the defender, rather than down the line towards the defender. English kids approach the defenders head on, like two trains colliding, and then use a skill to go around them. Remember that we move the ball to move the opposition. In the above picture, the Barcelona player won't go towards the defender. Instead, he will go to the left or right of the defender, pull the defender a couple yards out of his position, and then feint and change direction to accelerate into the space created by moving the defender.
Dribble away from the line of the defender. Take him out of his position, then change direction and accelerate into the space created.
English kids dribble directly at the defender and then try one of those moves they have learned in order to go around them. It's a far less effective method, because it relies on the effective execution of a complex skill, going along an approach that favours the opponent. I don't wish to speak in absolutes here and say that all English kids do this, and all Spanish kids do that, it's more tendencies.