Soccer Tactics to Use for Small-Sided Games Part 2 | MLS-Next Player Advice

Expert section: Mate Kontra – I’ve played soccer at a very high level all my life. Throughout my time playing, I’ve been coached by ex-pro, D1, and Academy level coaches, currently playing at the MLS-Next level. I’ve attended small-sided games plenty of times at my local arena, and I have played plenty of different styles with different people. I’m here to share these tactics with you so you can utilize them in your own gameplay.

Soccer Photo

Many soccer players like to attend small-sided games and play pickup with other people. 

But playing with other people can be frustrating sometimes because others may not know how certain tactics work. 

So in the first part of discussing soccer tactics for small-sided games, we discussed 3 simple, but effective tactics that players should use in pickup games to increase their success. 

We are here, yet again, to give you 3 more tactics that are very effective for small-sided games. 

Related article: Fun Soccer Mini-Games to Play With Friends

Soccer Tactics Board
‘Soccer Tactics Board Next to the Bench’ (#1 Unsplash – Jasper Benning)

Top 3 Effective Soccer Tactics for Small-Sided Games

The tactics included in the list below have been chosen based on their effectiveness and by past experiences.

These strategies are simple and easy to perform effectively, even if you are completely new to your team.

Be sure to go over each player’s role and most importantly, remember to have fun!

#1: Zonal Defending

To make the defensive duties of a team more effective, defenders are assigned specific areas of the pitch that they are responsible for.

Regardless of who enters a player’s zone, they are responsible for stopping them.

Using this strategy, defenders are able to stay in their defensive positions to maintain a good defensive shape.

It is crucial to avoid being dragged out of position by opponents to prevent attackers from entering dangerous spaces behind the defenders.

Staying in position clogs opponents’ passing lanes and prevents them from penetrating the defense. 

So most of the focus in this strategy is placed on limiting the movement of opposing players and forcing them away from the goal. 

Soccer Pitch From Aerial View
‘Soccer Field From Aerial View’ (#2 Unsplash – Izuddin Helmi Adnan)

When should it be used?

Well, zonal defending doesn’t have an explicit trigger, as other tactics do, but certain signs indicate how effective zonal defending can be. 

One of the most obvious signs is having experienced defenders. 

This strategy requires a lot of communication between defenders to keep an organized defensive shape, so having experienced defenders is crucial. 

Constant coordination on the pitch is a skill that only comes with experience, so lacking a skillful defender on the team may be a sign to avoid zonal defending. 

Additionally, the pace of defenders can also be a great factor in determining if this strategy is the way to go. 

Zonal defending can go wrong in many ways, so it is important to have a fast defender who can use their speed to improvise in any situation.

Lacking fast defenders could be a sign that zonal defending is too risky.

Pros & Cons

The most significant advantage of zonal defending is the ability to always keep an organized defensive shape.

Staying in shape means that the defensive line can cut off the opponents’ vital passing lanes in the defensive third. 

It is critical to take away the opponents’ passing options to limit their ability to circulate the ball and reduce their attacking opportunities. 

Although this may lead to less possession, it also leads to fewer goals conceded.

Small-sided games tend to be high-scoring, so conceding less goals can be the difference maker.

Advantages in short:

  • Keeping the defensive shape organized
    • Gives the ability to cut opponents’ passing lanes
    • Limits opponents’ ability to circulate the ball
  • Tactic leads to fewer goals conceded
  • Allows players to chase less
    • Less fatigue
    • Better performance

You may recall that zonal defending requires defenders with great communication skills to organize the defense. 

Well, the most significant disadvantage is that miscommunication can have severe consequences.

Given that they are the last line of defense, miscommunication can easily lead to a goal. 

This can be miscommunicating who has to step to the ball, who is pressuring the opposing player, or who is covering a vital passing lane. 

All of which can be the last mistake before a goal. 

Disadvantages in short:

  • Skillful defenders required
  • Miscommunication has severe effects
    • Too many uncertainties can cause mistakes
    • Doesn’t take many mistakes to concede a goal

#2: Player marking

Player marking is another popular defensive strategy that is used to decrease the number of goals conceded in a match. 

As the name suggests, players are assigned an opposing player that they will be “marking”, or following around the pitch. 

Each player is supposed to prevent their mark from receiving the ball, making dangerous runs, or carrying the ball up the field. 

This is done by denying opposing players space and time on the ball to limit the effectiveness of their attack, preventing them from scoring. 

Player marking can be successful as long as players are tight on their mark and disciplined while defending to force attackers to give up the ball or play it back to their defenders.

It is a good idea to implement this tactic for small-sided games because players will naturally move around the pitch due to its size. 

So it is effective to assign every player a matchup to make sure that everyone knows their job at all times throughout the game. 

College Soccer Player Marking Opponent
‘Soccer Player Marking Their Opponent’ (#3 Unsplash – Jeffrey F Lin)

When should it be used?

It is very simple to determine when to use player marking as the defensive approach of the game. 

Firstly, if the opposing team has key players who stand out from the rest, it can be a great idea to use player marking against those players. 

When a person is tightly marked, it doesn’t matter who or how good they are, it will deny them space and time to make a difference on the ball. 

Marking key players will make it challenging for them to receive the ball and create opportunities for their team. 

Another reason you might want to choose this approach during a game is if your opponents are smaller in size. 

These players can be singled out and targeted as they receive the ball, as may be easily pushed off the ball to create a turnover in possession for your team. 

Pros & Cons

The main advantage of player marking in small-sided games is that it denies key players from creating opportunities for their team. 

Many teams rely on their best players to create chances for them when the match gets difficult, so being able to deny the ball from these players can prevent them from making a difference. 

Another significant benefit to player marking is that by marking certain players on the pitch, the opposing team’s attacking patterns can be easily disrupted. 

By taking away the opposing team’s attacking options, they will essentially become paralyzed. 

Creating passing combinations becomes more difficult as players are tightly marked, which limits their ability to attack. 

Players who are marked may also become frustrated and lose their focus during the match, amplifying the benefits of this tactic. 

Advantages in short:

  • Denies key players from the ball
    • Opponents can’t rely on them
    • Denies the chance to make a difference
  • Disrupts attacking patterns
    • Eliminates players from attacking combinations
    • Paralyzes their attacking strategies
  • Frustrates players, causing them to lose focus
    • Amplifies previous advantages

The most significant disadvantage that player marking has is the difficulty of winning back possession. 

By focusing on individual players and limiting their impact on the game, this strategy may not always allow defenders to create turnovers. 

For the defense to stay organized, players must have tremendous discipline to not get beat by an attacker. 

Rather than lunging into tackles, they will focus on forcing opponents to play the ball back where it came from.

Disadvantages in short:

  • Difficult to win back possession
    • Missing a tackle can cause gaps in the defense
    • Defenders can’t always win the ball
  • Small mistakes can be detrimental 

#3: Maximizing Width

Maximizing width is an attacking strategy in soccer that refers to the spreading out of players across the width of the field. 

Attacking and defending players get as wide as they can on the pitch to create space for attacking opportunities. 

Wingers and full-backs are commonly used when maximizing the width of a soccer field to increase the number of players in wide areas, however, in small-sided games, a diamond formation is often used. 

Diagonal passes in the air are a commonly used tactic in this strategy to quickly switch the ball to a wide player, creating an overload on the weak side of the field. 

Using diagonal passes makes it difficult for the opposing team to defend effectively because they must defend multiple angles of attack simultaneously. 

This strategy requires a lot of tactical knowledge to be able to recognize where the open space is and where numeric advantages can be achieved. 

Additionally, fast players with a lot of stamina come in handy because wide players often have to sprint back and forth between attack and defense. 

I would highly encourage you to check out our separate article on this strategy for an in-depth explanation, as it plays a significant role in how the modern game is played. 

Soccer Pickup Tournament
‘Soccer Pickup Tournament’ (#4 Unsplash – Izuddin Helmi Adnan)

When should it be used?

The width should almost always be taken advantage of when your team has possession.

It’s most effective when your team can circulate the ball quickly and effectively. 

If the ball can be switched from side to side on the pitch before the opponents can adjust their defensive shape, then the strategy can be performed successfully. 

When the switch is quick enough, it gives your team a numeric advantage in the attack that can be used to beat the defenders and create a goal-scoring opportunity. 

Additionally, if your team has players who can play overhead passes, it can be of great use to switch the point of attack to the flank side of the pitch and create a numeric advantage in the attack. 

Pros & Cons

The most notable advantage that this strategy provides is the ability to exploit the wide areas of the pitch. 

Most teams leave the flanks of the defensive third unattended, and attackers can exploit these spaces to deliver passes into the box for teammates to finish. 

This strategy can also be used to overload one side of the pitch constantly, by switching the point of attack often. 

By overloading one side, defenders naturally gravitate toward the ball, which leaves the other side of the pitch open for a diagonal pass. 

Once the point of attack is switched, players will be in a numeric advantage for the attack, which makes it easier to create a goal-scoring opportunity. 

Advantages in short:

  • Gives the ability to exploit wide areas of the pitch
    • Can be used to deliver passes in the box for tap-in goals
  • Gravitates defenders to one side of the pitch
    • Gives the ability to switch the point of attack (to the weak side)
    • Creates a numeric advantage on the weak side
    • Numeric advantage makes it easy to pass defenders & score

The only real disadvantage in maximizing the width in soccer is being prone to counterattacks. 

When the wide defensive players join the attack to overload one side of the pitch and create a strong attack, it leaves the defense vulnerable. 

If the ball is lost during the attack, it can potentially give the opponents a breakout counterattack against a weak defense. 

Preventing a goal in this scenario is difficult, and if the opponents are fast and skillful then it is almost certainly a goal for them. 

This creates another problem that should be noted. 

Full-backs need to be in incredible shape to sustain constant running back and forth, even in small-sided games. 

They are the key to this strategy, as they are used to overload the opposing defenders, and they are also used in defense to prevent the opponents from scoring a goal. 

Success with this strategy requires these players to sprint back and forth between attack and defense. 

Disadvantages in short:

  • Prone to counterattacks
    • While full-backs are attacking the defense is vulnerable
    • Quick & skillful opponents can exploit a weak defense
  • Quickly drains the full-backs’ energy


The first tactic we discussed is a defensive strategy called zonal defending

Each player is assigned a specific area of the pitch that they need to guard regardless of what happens, to clog space from the attackers. 

Though it may be difficult to execute, with the right teammates, it can be more effective than any other strategy. 

Player marking is another defensive strategy, but instead of assigning each player a specific zone, opposing players are assigned. 

Each player has to be tightly defending their marks to prevent them from receiving the ball and creating opportunities for their team. 

This strategy is very effective for denying standout players the opportunity to make a difference for their team. 

Last but not least, we discussed the strategy of maximizing the width while attacking.

Using the entire width of the field can create space for attacking players to attack the defense from the flanks. 

Delivering passes into the box is very useful for scoring goals because they are unpredictable and easy to finish. 

Image Attribution & Licensing

Featured Image: ‘Soccer Players Celebrating a Goal’ by YuriArcursPeopleImages (Licensed via EnvatoElements)

#1: ‘Soccer Tactics Board Next to the Bench’ by Jasper Benning (Licensed via Unsplash)

#2: ‘Soccer Field From Aerial View’ by Izuddin Helmi Adnan (Licensed via Unsplash)

#3: ‘Soccer Player Marking Their Opponent’ by Jeffrey F Lin (Licensed via Unsplash)

#4: ‘Soccer Pickup Tournament’ by Izuddin Helmi Adnan (Licensed via Unsplash)