Pre-season. The word alone sends shivers down a footballer’s spine as he/she knows that when this period starts, it’s often the most unenjoyable part of a footballers year. Heavy running has formed this opinion among players when coaches attempt to work their fitness. With the players finding this type of training gruelling and extremely boring, why not work player’s fitness by playing football instead? The result will be happy players who enjoy training as well as improving their fitness and their footballing ability and understanding.

I’ve grown up in northern Sweden where we spend almost six months of the year covered in snow, making all pitches unplayable. Therefore we’ve always trained in gymnasium halls playing indoor football or, in the last few years, futsal. Under most coaches, these sessions hasn’t been prioritised, more a case of “having fun” in between the “real” sessions; doing running outside on slippery roads in temperatures varying between -5 degrees Celsius to -25 degrees Celsius (when it’s been colder than -25, we’ve been allowed to stay in). On occasions, playing squads have suggested that playing futsal indoors with 4 vs 4 teams on a quick playing surface (basketball floor) and with lots of small bursts of running and changes of direction has been of greater value to the physical training of fitness than the outside running. This suggestion has always been ignored and scoffed at, and we’ve been told to put on multiple layers before going out to run.

Also in the summer during the match season when fitness work has been on the agenda, running on the pitch without balls has been the chosen concept. I can honestly tell you that of the hundreds of players I’ve played with from youth teams and up to first team players that possibly two or three have liked this type of training. The rest have hated it, whereas everyone has loved doing small sided games such as 4 vs 4 and 5 vs 5 where you can make tournaments and compete. I, among many of my teammates, have always believed that the small sided games, when played at a high tempo, is better physical training for a footballer than the running without the ball as it combines tough fitness work with the actual game of football.

Therefore, I was so happy when I recently attended a coaching course where fitness training was discussed. The instructor had tested his players, 16-18 year olds, with pulse watches and heart straps doing both interval running and a few days later doing a small sided game of 4 vs 4. He showed the results of various players, which was remarkably similar. The pulse curves were on the same high level, inches away from maximum pulse on both tests, until the last set of respective exercise when the interval running stats dipped slightly, but the game stats remained on the same level. This proved you can reach the same maximum level of fitness work, and maintaining it for longer, playing a small sided game at a high tempo as when running intervals. I suspect the late dip in the intervals as opposed to the maintaining of the same level in the small sided game comes from the players not enjoying running compared to football and therefore not giving the same effort towards the end. This is natural, most people bring more energy to things they love doing compared to things they hate doing.

Fitness isn’t something you need to play football, it’s something you develop by playing football.

Raymond Verheijen

With all footballers, especially young players, this type of fitness work with the ball should be used, in my opinion. When you think about player development and the fact you need to work a player on all aspects of their game according to the four pillars of player development which are technique, football intelligence, physiology and psychology (the educational wheel) it’s important to try and find ways of incorporating as many of these in exercises as possible. Preferably all four. How many of these qualities do you train when running intervals? Physiology, yes. Psychology, yes possibly as you learn to really push yourself and not give in when it’s tough. Football intelligence? No way. Technique? Not even a little bit.

Compare this to a small sided game. Physiology? Yes, of course. Psychology? Yes. Technique? Absolutely. Football intelligence? Without question. In terms of creating complete players capable of excelling in the modern game, which type of fitness work would you prefer? I definitely prefer fitness work with the ball by playing to work on all aspects of the game of football. I know some coaches prefer doing running without the ball as their fitness training, but if you’re coaching young players and only have them for maybe three sessions a week which lasts 90 minutes, is it worth it to waste one of them without the players even touching the ball?

So, how do we go about working the players fitness by playing football? Here are three exercises I use myself with my U19 team which I’ve found work very well.

A possession game with two teams of three players (X and O) and three “free players” (F). The free players are placed on either short side of the rectangle with one in the middle playing with the team in possession. Therefore in possession you have 4 vs 3 in the middle area as well as the two wall players, forcing the defending team to work hard in order to get the ball back. The pitch can also be made smaller if the players can handle it with good quality. Play for short games between 60 and 90 seconds and then rotate one of the teams with the free players. Do this continually for about 10-12 minutes and the players will have worked really hard at the end of it. Important to highlight the importance of the organisation by the coach. Make sure there are a lot of balls so the game never needs to stop when the ball goes out of play.

Two teams of two players with three cone goals (or small goals with nets) on either end line. The three goals means the players can’t make it simple by standing in front of one goal each. Here they have to work and press in order to stop the other team from scoring. After a goal is scored the scoring team get a new ball from behind their own end line, prompting another short run. Rotate these four players with another four so they can get rest since the work is extremely demanding. Play for 60-90 seconds.
Again, extremely important with good organisation so the play can quickly be restarted. Bring out lots of balls and make sure someone is ready to serve the players when the ball goes out of play.

A classic small sided game of 4 vs 4 with goalkeepers on each team. Have one resting player next to each goal so the team can quickly be restarted by the goalkeeper getting the ball from the resting player. When a goal is scored the scoring team get the ball from their own keeper, forcing both teams to move. Use three teams with two playing and one resting with games of 3-4 minutes. The principle then becomes play two games rest one.

These are just three examples of exercises I use to work my players fitness levels. It’s worked really well for the past three years I’ve been with them. There are obviously millions of other examples to use, but these are just a suggestion. The role of the coach is extremely important in order to make sure the tempo is high in the respective games as the focus is obviously on the football side, but perhaps even more so on really working the players if your plan is to work on their fitness in the particular session. Good organisation and active coaching is key.

Please note that this piece has only discussed a way of working football fitness and condition, not speed, strength, balance or anything else. If you have thoughts, the comment section is just below.