Since I was getting serious about learning how to play football, I also began scouring the internet for advice on how to win at 5-a-side. Of course, having the better team - a team full of faster, stronger, more skilful and fitter players - helps. However, the truth is that you can't always choose who you are playing with, you have your team, and it is what it is. Joe always drinks one too many beers the night before a big game, Peter really did have too much chocolate over Christmas, Anthony never passes, and I...I just started playing football! But one day, I came across a fantastic book called 'How to win at five-a-side' by Nick Ascroft. He explains that 5-a-side games are short and a little random. Any team can be beaten, and, within reason, any team can beat another. Being a little smarter can tilt the balance in your favour. Winning becomes about patience, caution, foresight, courage, and controlling the controllables. Here are his 10 golden tips for improving your chances, without having to get any fitter.
1) Pass don’t shoot
And when you pass make sure it’s to the feet of your team-mates or into their path if they are already moving. Never just bonk the ball downfield for your team-mate to chase, especially if they were static when you kicked it. (This is true for goalkeepers too.) But passing can go against the grain of the archetypal five-a-side amateur. We want to shoot. Ah the sweet glory, and there’s the goal only a half a field away. Patience. You want to work the ball into that area just a few metres from the edge of the D before pulling any triggers, and that means either dribbling a little further upfield, or better still passing and getting yourself in position for the return. Try not to shoot from outside the final third, and never from the wing (even though these sometimes bumble in off the goalkeeper’s arse, it’s not an excuse). Pass. And if you dribbled and didn’t really get anywhere, give it up – there’ll be another opportunity – pass.
2) Shoot don’t pass
But if you do receive the ball in that central strip near the edge of the goal area, don’t shilly-shally, shoot. Shooting is an art that most of us lack a diploma in. I’ll keep the tips brief. Control the ball first if you can. Your first-time volleys are rubbish. Keep a poker face, or a poker body whatever that is. The surprise shot is by definition more likely to catch a keeper off guard. Look up, if you can, to see the goal and the space you will shoot into (don’t look at the keeper, look at the space), or look up before you receive the ball so that you have the position of the sticks etched in the back of your mind. Aim for one side or the other, but not right in the corner. Give yourself a few centimetres of leeway.
3) Counter-attack, but counter-defend too
The best five-a-side teams react quickly in the transitions. Most goals in five-a-side are from the counter-attack, which has a flipside: defence following a transition is reliably awful. So the most important area to sharpen your team’s defensive strategy is in preparing for when you randomly lose possession. It’s hard to drill for, and no amount of theorising over what “shape” you should form in defence – the diamond, the Y, the lop-sided croissant – is of any use when your last player back has just lost the ball to the opposition’s attacker. Two things are key. First of all, you need a last player back. Don’t ever attack with four players forwards. One player should know to hang back, and hang central, ready to slow any impending attack from either side should possession flip. And if this last player back darts forward for whatever reason, someone else has to cover them, deputising as last player back. Secondly, you need to all react and ALL become defenders when you lose the ball. If your strategy is to mark one-to-one, get on it. Even if it seems a breakaway goal is inevitable and it would be a lost cause to move … nonsense. On your bike! Just getting closer to the action and chasing an attacker can put their shot off.
4) Backwards not forwards
Possession flips in five-a-side faster than it does in a game of ping-pong. From the chaos and ricochets, advantage beckons. It’s in the transitioning from broken play to attack where teams with nous get ahead. Often in stretching for a loose ball or getting some awkward part of your anatomy to intercept a wayward pass, the instinct is to just get the ball forwards, in the direction you ultimately want it to be moving. Go ball, you are saying. Go make goal. This is unhelpful. When you don’t really have the ball under control, simply trying to knock it forwards is too random a choice. It can be hard in the hurly-burly of five-a-side to get a wet blanket over your instinct, but try. The best move if you are fighting to get the ball under possession in broken play, and you are contesting that possession with the opposition, is first of all to get your body between the opposition and the ball. Usually this will mean you are facing your own goal. This is good. If you have the ball shielded from the opposition, you have a little time to look up and see the pass, generally backwards or sideways. Pass to an unmarked player, the goalie is ideal. Suddenly your team has the ball comfortably under possession, and you can attack with purpose.
5) Use the central strip The wings are the cul-de-sacs where attacks go to die. In many five-a-side pitches if you bomb all the way down the wing with the ball, there is very little you can do apart from a U-turn to bomb back the way you came. You won’t be able to shoot because the goalie will have the wafer of an angle covered. You won’t be able to cross because the ball will have to pass through the goal area, unless it’s to the far side of the goal area: good luck. And trying to wallop it against the backboard at an angle so that it billiards its way to the penalty spot for your onrushing team-mate … has a low rate of success. The reason it’s easier to pass to someone on the wing, and the reason it’s easier to wait on the wing for that pass is that these areas are less dangerous, and the opposition will mark from their goal outwards. But be bold, running with the ball at feet into the central strip presents more danger for the opposition and more opportunities for you. Call for a pass to the centre too, even if you are marked. Occupying and then evacuating the centre, either with or without the ball, can drag markers from this power terrain, opening opportunities for your team-mates to run into it. Most shots that become goals are from the central area. Be bold: use it.
6) Goalkeepers, get in shape
I don’t mean exercise yourself into excellent cardiovascular condition. God no. This is five-a-side. Get in a shape that will make it easier to save a shot. As Alex Welsh (author of The Soccer Goalkeeping Handbook) always says, keep your hands like plates and not like gates. If the opposition have the ball anywhere near your goal, get those mitts in position. You should be stooped over so your hands – palms out and fingers wide and taut – are at knee height. The goals are short in five-a-side and you need to take up as much of the width as possible. Keep your shins less than a ball’s width apart though. The nutmeg goal is the ultimate goalie humiliation. You should shuffle forwards in this position on the balls of your feet, moving towards the ball carrier and slimming down their angle on goal. Watch that ball and expect the shot. If they come right up to the edge of your D unchallenged then …
7) Goalkeepers, lie down
Yes, the classic five-a-side keeper move – going to ground and lying outstretched on your side, blocking a ground shot with the length of your body. Going to ground is like a nuclear-deterrent option. Once you’ve pushed the button, that’s it, there’s no going back. But, unlike the mutual annihilation of thermonuclear war, it’s often quite a good idea that saves a lot of goals. You just have to pick your moment and commit. It may result in a lot of balls kicked at the softest parts of your body at great speed, but these are all saves. The attacker’s response to the prone keeper has to be to either dribble further left or right to get around the obstacle of their body or to try and chip them. You still have an arm to deter the chip, and you can slither further left or right, but given time they are more mobile and will get around. However, you have probably managed to kill just enough time, and about now they either have to shoot or get banjaxed between two onrushing defenders.
8) Vacate stale space
Sometimes you’ll make a great run or take up a great position and call for the ball. The idiot in possession passes it elsewhere. Or dribbles. The mistake here is to live in the past. The moment is over; that space is stale. The opposition have probably reacted and blocked out the pass. You need to make another run, or take up some other space in a line of site with the ball, and call again. And if it doesn’t come to you again, move again. It doesn’t matter if you think your team-mate made a bad choice, it was theirs to make. Don’t have a hissy. But the more often you’re in a good position for a pass, the more likely you’ll get it, and the more often you’ll be passed to in future.
9) Dream about scoring
Psychology can help and few argue against it. Confidence clearly helps, as does engaging the intensity of an emotional “fight” reaction, while retaining control. Perhaps harder to believe is training your mind through daydreams to react better on the field. But this works too according to science (or some show I half-watched once on TV). If you imagine yourself shooting, going through each process – trapping the ball, feinting, moving it left, then WHAM striking it firm and low across the goalie into the mess of bags behind the net – imagining it clearly in real time, your body can be more ready for the real thing. You are building muscle memory without firing the muscles. Or, at worst, the situation when it arises will seem less alien and you’ll have more confidence.
10) Pass to feet
Did I already say this? Good.