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How to set-up a small-sided game

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Small sided games (SSGs) are the key part of Ministry of Football sessions. However there is a HUGE difference between effective SSGs and poor ones. Here is the MoF guide on how to set them up so they work efficiently and effectively.

1. Get bibs on during activity before (maximise learning time)

Don't waste the children's time by spending ages picking teams. At MoF, the coach goes round the group during the previous activity and puts bibs on children. Then to start games takes just one or two sentences: "Blues v Reds over there, Yellow v Green over here". (Learning happens by doing, not by listening to arguments about who wants to be on each other's teams etc).

2. Smaller sided SSGs

Small-sided games can be anything from 2v2 to 7v7. There is a big variation there. The smaller the game, the more involvement, more movement, more decisions, more success, more mistakes and more learning that happens. For ages 5-11, 2v2 or 3v3 makes much more sense than 7v7.

3. Differentiate on ability

If you have a group of 12 or more, then try two SSGS (Two * 3v3, rather than one 6v6). As well as increasing learning and involvement per child, this allows you to have a game for the more able and a game for the less able. If you do this, change players between groups during the session as you notice different capabilities.

4. Team should be roughly equal - grouping is important

Children are each other's learning tools in a SSG. Neither a child who is struggling nor a child who is finding it too easy will be learning to their full potential. Group children into teams and teams into games based on ability, concentration and physicality.

5. Have a purpose

Coaching is most effective when there is a clear, specific intended outcome to the session. For example, rather than running a game to work on "passing", plan a session that works on the specific aspect of passing that you have identified as being needed. For example, this might be "keeping the ball when winning possession", "counter-attacking", or "off-the-ball movement to support the player with the ball". [Sometimes, the purpose may simply be to give the children a game, and let them play. That's fine too!]

6. Use a challenge

Scroll down this page for a Challenge Bank. The idea of these challenges is to help the coach focus the players on the intended learning outcome. For an SSG to be effective, it helps to get straight into the meat of the session by providing a challenge that brings out the specific coaching you need to give. For example, challenging the teams to "Try to attack and score without using your team mates" will automatically get children dribbling.

7. Keep easy simple-to-follow rules that maximise the learning in the game

At MoF, we have various rules which help keep the ball in play, and keep the children learning. Very often for example we will not have sidelines, and we say it's fine to continue playing behind the goal. The coach will throw a new ball into the pitch if another goes far astray, and there are lots of footballs all round the pitch. In our Mini-Leagues we allow the children to dribble-on rather than throw-on.

8. Record or measure achievement

It is easy for children to forget the focus of the session. It is also beneficial to ask the children to track their own progress and set their own goals. There are various ways of doing this. We often use a whiteboard for this, and an example is available here. Be creative, there are lots of ways to record progress of individuals, teams or the game as a whole.

9. Work with individuals where necessary

The key role of the coach is to affect the behaviour of the children. This takes time, and the coach needs to be patient. But the coach can do this best by working with individuals within the game. Let the game carry on while you take a player to one side to help them. These interventions should be planned, and should be related to the learning outcomes of the session.

10. Change the teams, change the task, change the space...

Keep it varied. Allow 3v2 instead of 3v3 if you have odd numbers. Use back-to-back goals if that helps you bring out your learning outcomes. The Coaching Family SSG booklet link below gives lots of ideas on how to set-up a SSG. You need to think about what set-up will work based on what your purpose is. Remember to change things if it's not working.


The final thing to be said about SSGs is that they shouldn't just be used at the end of a session, as some kind of reward to the children for getting through mountains of stale, boring technical drills. Techniques learnt in isolation of the game do not transfer well into the opposed environment. Skills can be learnt in game-based activities. At MoF, it is very usual to see games being used right from the start of a session.


Related pages:

Small-sided games - the evidence

Developing skill

Coaching Family SSG booklet


Challenge Bank

 Below are a variety of challenges the coach can use to help players focus on the specific topic or learning outcome. These challenges could be given to everyone, to one team or another, or to specific players within a team.


Try to use both feet when dribbling the ball

Try to dribble with different parts of your feet

Try to dribble past a player before you shoot

Try and use a skill/unbalance the defender before you go past them

Try to dribble between two opponents

Try to attack and score without using your team mates

Dribble when you can pass when you have to


Before receiving the ball try and put your body in a position so you can see both goals

Try and perform a no-touch turn when possible

Try and take your first touch away from a defender into the space

Try and protect the ball and escape pressure on your own

Try and protect the ball and escape pressure by combining with a team mate

When receiving the ball, you don’t always have to turn away from pressure – confront pressure

Try and always provide a ‘pass route’ for the player in possession

Try and ‘dummy’ before and on contact when appropriate


Try and play one-touch passes where possible (changing tempo)

Try to pass forward on every possible opportunity (penetration)

Try and ‘hide’ your passes (leave no clues as to where you’re going to pass the ball)

Try and pass with speed (this will allow your team mate more time on the ball)

Try to recognise when to pass to feet and when to pass to space in relation to the movement of your team mate

Try and leave the pass playable for a first-time strike

Try not to give the ball back to the person who passed you the ball (3rd man run)

Try to play the reverse pass

Try to play a through ball into the final third.

Try to play a split pass (in between two defenders) 


Try and shoot to the most vulnerable part of the goal

Try ‘dummy’ the goalkeeper before shooting

Try and bend it like Beckham when shooting

Try to keep the ball low and follow-up any rebounds

Try and get a shot off if it’s on

Try and score with a one-touch finish

If you can’t shoot try and create an opportunity for yourself to shoot

Try to score the perfect hat trick (left foot, right foot, header)

Try to score with 3 different parts of the foot.

Try to use the defender in front to obscure the keepers vision (curl the ball)

Defending 1v1
Try to show the player one way
Try to force the player onto their weaker foot (jockeying/side on)
Try to make the attacker make a mistake (jockeying/feinting challenges)
Try to cover the the player that is challenging ( 2nd def distance/intercepting)


Try to retain the ball after winning a tackle or interception

Try to win the ball back as early as possible (compact/intercept/spoiling/tackling)


See and use space inside and outside opponents to set up attacks

Try and support each other quickly

Try to have at least one look before you receive the ball so you can have a ‘picture’ of what’s going on

Team attacking

As a team try to keep the ball for 5 consecutive passes before setting up an attack

Try to score within 3 passes or 7 seconds on gaining possession

Team defending

Try to win the ball back within 5 seconds (high pressure) 

When you lose possession try to get your whole team into own half (counter-attack)


Mark Carter, March 2014

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