I have seen on many occasions a team of gifted young soccer players go through a season undefeated, only to get to the grand final and lose their only game of the season. My son played in a team that only lost two games last season. They were the final, and the grand final. I have coached teams on many occasions that defeated the undefeated team in the grand final. Maybe you are the coach of a team that is currently undefeated and entering the finals. Or maybe you are the coach of a team that is the underdog going into the finals. How do you prepare young soccer players to play in the finals?
I hear it said on many occasions that a final is just another game. I do not subscribe to this theory. While the game is played on the same field, with the same ball, and the same number of players, junior soccer players attach a greater importance to finals. And so do senior players for that matter. I think that telling players that it is just another game is just a defensive mechanism so that they do not feel so bad if they lose. I coach players to approach a final with an attitude that this is the game of the year when they should give their absolutely best effort. It is at this time of the year that they should really aim up and show how good they really are. Encourage them to be their best and be 100 percent committed is the best way to approach a final. And, then if they lose you can comfort them with the fact that they did their best.
Finals matches are usually more intense than regular season games. There is usually less time and less space for players to work in. In the weeks leading into the finals your soccer drills should be concentrating on the first touch, short passes, passing and moving, and controlling the ball under pressure. This will help your players cope with the extra pressure placed on them in a final. Keeping possession of the ball should always be one of the major aims, so teaching your players to use their body to protect possession is also another key skill to be focusing on leading into the finals.
Are you the underdog? Are you playing against a team that you have not beaten all year? All teams have key players, and all teams have weaknesses. When I coach a team against a stronger club, I try to identify the key players on the opposition team. If you have played them in the regular season you will already know this. Shut them down. Man mark them. Play them out of the game. This may involve reorganising the structure of your team, so I like to practice this structure in a few regular season games so that the players are familiar with it. I also use defensive training drills like tagging, and drills to close space on attackers to help with this. If you can upset the game of the key players on the opposition you will go a long way to beating them.
Attack. The aim of a finals game is to win. Draws do not count in finals. So you must score goals. Team formation is a critical element in the playing style of your team. Are you playing 4 4 2, 4 3 3, or 3 4 3. I do not like to vary too much the formation that I have used during the regular season. But one of the main aims in a finals match must be to score goals.
Preparing your team to play in the finals should start at training a few weeks before the finals start. Soccer drills should encourage ball control, short passing, and speed of movement. Defensive drills should encourage tagging, and closing space. Think clearly about the formation you are going to play and how you are going to score goals. And identify the strengths of your opponent and try to neutralise them. Then before the game build your players up to give 100 percent and play to the best of their ability. That will give them the best chance to be successful on the field.