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The Great Debate: Is Unopposed Training Worthless?

A few weeks ago, news broke that the US Soccer Federation was hiring Tom Byer to oversee a new pilot program with youth players between the ages of 2 and 6, to help improve their technical foundation and overall comfort with the ball.

This was met with praise and scorn from both sides of the isle, with Raymond Verhiejen making the strongest comments against this new program, even going so far as to call Byer a “circus clown”.

Raymond is known to make incendiary remarks on Twitter, sometimes simply with the goal of starting a discussion. He caught the attention of some high profile critics for his comments, including Tony Strudwick, the head of athletic development at Manchester United.

It’s quite convenient that this discussion is happening around the same time that Manchester City are lighting up the Premier League. They are off to the best start ever in the Premier League through 11 games, and with a whopping +31 goal differential, you’d be foolish not to say they are the favorites to win not just the Premier League, but the Champions League as well.

If you’ve seen any of Pep Guardiola’s sessions popping up on YouTube or Twitter, you’ll notice something interesting about them.

He loves to do unopposed circuit training with his players, which include agility, passing, and dribbling, but with no defenders. He also loves to do pattern play with no defenders.

Video Credit: JoshMoffet17

This is not to say that Manchester City do not do opposed training. Quite the opposite actually. Their are plenty of clips of City training rondos and high intensity small sided games. Kevin De Bruyne has even attested much of their success to the rondos that they integrate into the sessions.

When you examine the characteristics of City's unopposed passing patterns, they are usually very specific patterns that mimic actions often occurring in 11v11 games. They are also training these actions with maximum speed and purpose.

The advantage to training these patterns unopposed instead of in an 11v11 game, is that the players are able to work on the same actions over and over, becoming more familiar with a pattern that may only occur a few times if the session was opposed.

In essence, Pep has isolated aspects of the game that he believes need more attention in order to guarantee his team plays his style.

Through all of this, it is important to remember that 99% of youth coaches are NOT Manchester City, a club that is blessed with beautiful facilities, and most importantly, the ability to train our players for how long and whenever we want.

Most youth coaches around the world only meet with their team two times per week for an hour and a half each.

In my mind, this argument isn't so much about unopposed vs opposed training, but rather which one will maximizing training time.

For example, most unopposed training can be done by the player individually on their own. I find it to be a waste of time for players to come to team training, only to dribble through cones or stand in lines for the entire session.

Unopposed training is something the player should be doing on their own, away from the team.

As important as technique is, it is equally as important to have a smart football brain. A football action is not technique alone, but rather the execution of a decision.

Granted, if you do not have technical ability, it does not matter how great your football brain is if you cannot execute what you see in your head.

Here is a good test to see if your players need to do a basic passing pattern to train technique.

Set up a 5v1 in a box. If the players cannot connect 5 passes in a row consistently due to poor technique, they most likely need unopposed training. If 5v1 is easy, move to 4v1, then 5v2, and hopefully 4v2 or 5v3.

In these examples, players are still making short, inside of the foot passes, working on their technique, but they are being driven by a decision.

Who do I play it to? To which foot? With what kind of spin? With what speed? Where should I move after? All of these questions come into play in a rondo. These are largely missed in an unopposed passing pattern.

In short, if you are going to do unopposed training with your team, it should either be in the

1. Warm up to raise the heart rate of the players

2. Done with maximum speed, to work on a decision or technique that is not easily or often replicated with opposed training.

For the player who wants to work on isolated work away from training, the same principles apply. Try to find an action that is very specific to you, and work on doing it with maximum speed.

For example, if I am an outside back, I should work on playing the ball against the wall and receiving on my outside foot with an open body shape, parallel to the wall. This action happens consistently in a game, so if I am going to do isolated unopposed training, it should replicate those game actions as closely as possible.

As with everything, there is no one-size fits all solution for what training is best for your team, but always remember that it's just as important to train the football brain of the player as it is to train their tools.

Since Andrea Pirlo retired this week, it is only fitting that this blog end with a quote from the Italian maestro himself.

"Football is played with the head. Your feet are just the tools."

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