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Goals are our game’s currency – and the forwards who score them often earn the big bucks.
But unlike many other team sports, where chances to score come readily, soccer matches can be decided in one key moment.
Which is why, when defences are on top and chances are at a premium, the most valuable players on the pitch are not the finishers – they are the creators.
Against a stubborn back line, it takes a special kind of player to pick the lock – or a special coach to plot a way through.
One such coach is Amanda Cromwell, the former US Women’s National Team midfielder who helped the USA take third place at the 1995 World Cup and win gold at the 1996 Olympic Games.
Between 1999 and 2012, she breathed new life into the women’s soccer program at the University of Central Florida (UCF), guiding the Knights to the post-season NCAA tournament 11 times in 14 seasons.
In 2013, she took over as head coach at UCLA and eight months later led them to their first-ever NCAA Championship, before taking them back to the championship game in 2017.
As a highly regarded roster, the UCLA Bruins regularly face packed defences. But Cromwell is an intelligent coach buzzing with ideas – which means her session at the convention will be a must-watch.
“It’s about sustained possession through the middle third and how to stretch defences,” Cromwell told Women’s Soccer Coaching.
“Getting into the final third can be hard. Defences may drop off or have a mid-to- low line of confrontation, and you have to think about where the space is.
“Is it going to be behind the defence? Are we going to need to pull them out a bit? If they’re going to sit in, are we just trying to be creative and get numbers around the ball? So you really have to think about all those things.
“But this session is really about getting into a space you find in behind, when a defence has pulled out a little bit. We do this one quite often, trying to get into different zones.
“Obviously, finishing is what you want to do at the end but the focus isn’t the finishing, it’s really about being creative and trying to get into a goal scoring area of the field.
“In one of the drills, they have a zone to get into. It’s a full width and they have space to play to then try to find their teammates in the zone.
“So we’re trying to emulate getting in behind the back line. The progression is adding a goal where we let one defender retreat in.
“We tell them they have limited touches to get to a shot, or a cross, and it works pretty well, even with one defender retreating, because you have that commitment to the speed of play.”
For Cromwell, the key to unlocking defences is as much speed of thought as being fleet of foot.
“We’re always trying to get them to see the game a little differently in certain spaces of the field,” she said.
“We don’t have to be geniuses to play this game, but we do have to be committed to moving off the ball, seeing things early, and being courageous with pressure around you.
“The closer you get to the opponents’ goal, there’s going to be more players around you, so how can you preserve possession and keep those touches tight, but also take risks at times when it’s needed? These are some of them things we talk about a little in the session.”
Cromwell, 50, has been a head coach for most of the last 25 years. After serving her apprenticeship as an assistant coach at her alma mater, the University of Virginia, she become head coach of the UMBC Retrievers, at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in 1996 – the same year she won her Olympic gold medal as a player in Atlanta.
She continued to combine playing and coaching until 2003, by which time she had led the UCF Knights to the NCAA tournament four years out of five.
Cromwell says she has seen the game evolve dramatically in her quarter-century of coaching, particularly in how teams approach penalty box entries.
“We’re always trying to get them to see the game a little differently…”
“I think we’re watching so much more of the game now,” she said. “I wish we had this amount of soccer to watch when I was growing up because you just learn from watching the game.
“Our mindset is that we can do some of the same things that Man City, Barcelona and Man United do, we can emulate their movements. And so we look at different passes, we look at using the width or overloading to isolate, different concepts in terms of how to manipulate the defence.
“I think back in our day, it always used to be ‘let’s just do what we want to do’ – now it’s really about what can we do to manipulate the defence, instead of just play a ball over the top constantly and find a fast runner. I think there’s so many more nuances that we can find.”
Cromwell says in terms of attacking outlook, she is an admirer of Liverpool’s men’s boss Jurgen Klopp, Emma Hayes at Chelsea Women – who signed UCLA graduate Jessie Fleming last July – and Laura Harvey, the Englishwoman now in charge of the USA’s U20s.
She is also a believer in allowing her attacking players freedom, within reason.
“One thing I preach to them is you’ve got to weigh the risk versus the reward, and what the game is asking for,” she said.
“So if we just had three quick turnovers in a row, maybe it’s not the time to do a risky pass.
“I really ask them to be students of the game in that respect – what is the game telling you, what is it asking for?
“We like to build out from the back but sometimes it’s to your own detriment. As a coach, you see what they’re trying to do, and you have a certain system and style you want to impose on the game, but there’s times you have to also just be smarter than that and try not to put yourself in bad spots.”
As well as differences in style and attitude with Cromwell’s playing days, there is also a heavy focus on analysis these days. Patterns of play are now designed around known opposition weaknesses, as well as your own strengths.
“We do a lot of analysis,” Cromwell said. “We look at all the best players in the world, both genders, in terms of how they are scoring goals. If there’s a World Cup, we look back at those goals and how they are scored.
“One thing I try to really hammer home is how can we be more creative and discerning in our attack. We talk a lot about how to set up the receiver of the pass for the best finish – not only angle, but the pace of the pass, the weight, that kind of thing.
“We will look to put a left footed player on the right side, so they can cut inside and put in a lefty cross. It’s so dangerous and hard to defend, curling at your own goal, and whipped in with that angle where you just need to get a body part on it to redirect it.”
But Cromwell’s attacking philosophy is built around players having the ability to assess the situations they find themselves in.
“It’s about reading what the game is asking for and what’s going on with not only our players, but the defence,” she said.
“I think defensively, you’re always making some sort of adjustments as a coach [during the game], but with the attack, if we’ve really prepared, then it’s fun just to sit back and see if what we’ve done during the week with patterns of play and set plays is going to come to fruition.”
That work has itself evolved during Cromwell’s time at UCLA – and now attacking practices employ active defenders, to try and encourage thinking and decision making at all times.
“There were times we’d go through patterns of play or do some full-field patterns just to show there are certain ways to build out and we wouldn’t necessarily do it defended. We would have mock defenders out there.
“But over the last couple of years, we do everything defended, because I think that gets the best decisions from your players. So whatever we’re doing, even during the Rondos at the beginning, the decision making is important.”
And that decision-making runs through Cromwell’s approach to chance creation – which is why she doesn’t tend to put constraints on touches during practice.
“You do tend to see better movement off the ball when players know a teammate only has one or two touches,” she said.
“But then you see the times where a player should have dribbled more to engage someone, but of course they only had one or two touches, so I have a little dilemma with limited touches and we don’t do it a whole lot.
“We do everything defended, it gets the best decisions from your players…”
“We try to keep field sizes on the smaller side so the attackers have opposition close, to put pressure on their decisions.
“So in the session for the convention, we start with something that’s like a 3-v-3-plus- three possession – one team has two small counter goals, the other team is just trying to change the point [of attack] and find a target.
“I used it before to just train the midfielders about changing the point but also I’ve used it for the midfielders on how to defend and keep a team from changing the point. So you can have attacking principles in play or you can have defensive principles in play.“
And while analysis can help you pinpoint weaknesses in the opposition, Cromwell says the qualities of your own team must come first when designing attacking practices.
“Let’s say we’re doing a training session to overload the defence to isolate somebody on the weak side,” she said.
“Well, if you don’t have someone that can hit a ball 40-50 yards, that might not be the best drill for you to do.
“Look at who your target forward is. Are they more back to goal or do they like to run in behind? Is there a great relationship with the 10?
“We have a nine who’s very good at both being back to goal and running behind, and I love her relationship with our 10, because she knows our 10 will take the space.
“So if you have players that are interchanging well, how can you manipulate the defenders with that?
“The last thing a midfielder wants to do is chase out of the midfield zone and into the back line. So if you can get your players moving certain ways, they’ll be very hard to defend against.”
Creating scoring opportunities
How to stretch defences and carve out chances. By UCLA’s Amanda Cromwell
THE WARM UP
SET-UP: 3-v-3 inside a square playing area, with two mini goals on one side. The focus team (Blues) additionally have three players on the outside, and the Whites one, stationed between the two goals.
HOW IT WORKS: Blues work as a unit to utilise width and numbers, to keep the ball until a key pass can be made. Blues score one point for changing the point of attack, or two for using all three outside players while changing the point. If Whites win the ball, they try to score in the mini goals. Their target player is available, but they are not required to use them.
COACHING POINTS: angle of support, individual movement to create, use width/depth to change point, patience in possession, look for key pass opportunities, numbers around the ball.
SET-UP: Using full width, add two end zones and a goal (to be used in later progression). Set up 8 v 8, with no goal or goalkeeper to start with. Two of the eight Blues stay in bottom end zone. The top zone also acts as the offside line, no attacker may enter
HOW IT WORKS: Blues aim to either dribble into the top zone when within one to two touches after a combination play, or play a team- mate into the zone, while staying onside.
PROGRESSION: Use big goal and goalkeeper for the Blues to attack. One Red defender can retreat into top zone once Blues play into it.
COACHING POINTS: expand and use width, patience in possession, look for key pass opportunities, get numbers around the ball for combination play, well-timed runs off ball.
SMALL SIDED GAME: use a three-quarter or full-sized pitch, depending on numbers and ability of players. Remind focus team (Blues) of key coaching points.
The opposition players can be encouraged to make it compact and make play predictable, trap the play out wide, press when cues are present, prevent change of point and prevent key passes into defensive third.