Why BOOT IT is a Four Letter Word! Playing Out of the Back
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Why BOOT IT is a Four Letter Word

…And not necessarily the safe option

It’s something you hear at soccer games at all ages and levels in the United States all too often:

A player wins possession of a ball deep in their own half and immediately the call rings out from at least one parent on the sideline, and often from the coach and team mates as well…. “BOOT IT!”

Or “SEND IT!” or “GET RID OF IT!”

And every time someone yells “BOOT IT!” an angel in Soccer Heaven loses its wings and plummets headlong to earth.

Similarly, when a goalkeeper gets control of the ball or takes a goal kick, the most common decision among American players is to “Send it deep”, often with the clear consensus approval of the sidelines.  If the goalkeeper plays a goal kick short or bowls a ball out to a defender, it often cues a collective gasp from spectators, followed by more exhortations to “BOOT IT!”, or similar variations on the fear driven Safety First theme:

Ladies and gentlemen may I present you “BOOT IT’s!” ugly cousins

“DON’T PLAY AROUND WITH IT BACK THERE!”

And

“NOT IN THE MIDDLE!”

Now to be fair, if players have not been trained up to be comfortable with the ball under pressure, and if a coach has not adequately prepared his team to play out of the back in a structured, organized way, it will indeed be a recipe for disaster.

But does that mean that “BOOT IT!” and “SEND IT!” are the safe answers?

Watch this clip from BVB Dortmund’s recent Europa League fixture with Italy’s Atalanta.  This play starts out with BVB goalkeeper Roman Burki in comfortable possession and under no pressure.  With short options available, including Gonzalo Castro at the top of the box doing an amazing 5 shoulder checks of his surroundings in 8 seconds, Burki decides to go long.

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So how did that work out for Dortmund?

And here’s the thing, most American players, fans, and coaches who watched the match live probably did not even register that Atalanta’s goal was the direct result of a ball literally given away to the other team.  I know this is the case because I have seen dozens and dozens of examples of similar events happening in youth games and rarely have I heard a spectator or coach make a connection between a long punt, goal kick, or clearance and the goal they surrendered as a direct result.  Most will never make the connection, and when they do they will blame the distribution or lament that the clearance was not won, but the bottom line is that this goal happened because Dortmund  had firm possession of the ball and decided to give it away instead of keep it.

But if a team surrenders a goal (or even a shot) when their attempt to play the ball out of the back goes awry it’s a different story.  “Why didn’t he punt it?” “I knew this would happen”, “You gotta clear those”.

And it’s never the technique or decision making that’s critiqued or questioned “Why didn’t he take the ball across his body?” “Why didn’t the Center back slide over to give him an outlet?” “He needs to pass a little quicker there…”  No, the QUALITY of the attempt to play out is rarely examined, just the DECISION to play out in the first place.

Here is an example from the extreme opposite end of the spectrum.  Bayern under Guardiola finds themselves under extreme pressure against Wolfsburg and just doesn’t care.

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How did that work out for Bayern?

Okay, so this is the part of the blog where the typical American soccer parent or coach is going to say “Yeah, yeah, that’s fine for Bayern and their World Class players… but our kids can’t play out of the back.  They aren’t good enough.  They aren’t technical enough.  It’s too risky.  This is only for the best players and it’s dumb to even try with our local youth teams.”

Are you sure????

If it’s not possible, what about this High School JV team that had a grand total of three kids playing organized club soccer on the roster?

If it’s not possible, what do you make of this mid level Gu13 select team?

If it’s not possible, what do you make of this Bu10 team?

If it’s not possible, what do you make of this Bu8 recreational team?

If you watched the clips, you will have observed that none of these teams are collections of elite players. These are not products of our “World Class DA” system.  Most of the players on on these teams didn’t even go through a tryout process. But they all understand what they are doing.

And the truth is that Playing out of the back, if taught and executed correctly, is actually safer than sending the ball long.  It really doesn’t matter what the level or your players is. If you have a lower level team then quality of your playing out might not be great, but if you are competitive in your league then your opponent’s ability to counter you won’t be great either.

The caveat here is “If taught correctly”.  This is not something where a coach can come up to his team in the pregame huddle and say “Hey you know what?  Let’s play out of the back like Spain today!*”It needs to be organized, rehearsed, and trained**

*I literally saw this happen once, by the way.  It turned out exactly as you would imagine

** Sending a goal kick square to a wide defender and then having that player try to jam the ball up the line whether there is an opening or not is NOT “playing out of the back”.  Aargh! Don’t even get me started!

I started teaching all my teams play out of the back 6 years ago.  I’d say on average those teams choose the short option for keeper distribution about 2/3 of the time and only try to clear the ball in the run of play when it is bouncing around in the six yard box or some other extreme event.  In that time frame I can count a grand total of 3 times where a goal was surrendered after the Playing Out of the Back broke down, and one of these includes an incident where we lost the ball out of bounds at midfield and the opponent scored on the sequence after the throw in.  During the same time period my teams have surrendered 9 goals from long punts, goal kicks and clearances, despite the fact that we only choose those options 1/3 of the time.

So why is BOOT IT not the safe option?  Because every time you have the ball, your team potentially has a chance to score.  Yes, losing the ball closer to your own goal is potentially more risky than losing the ball in the other team’s half of the field, but risk is relative.  If you are a demolitions expert and you follow your training and are careful, handling dynamite entails minimal risks.  But if you are untrained or careless, it is probably best NOT to handle explosives.

The safe solution is not to avoid playing out of the back; the safe solution is to learn to do it without giving the ball away

Here is a clip of a mid level u14 team playing out of the back.  This is literally every opportunity in the game where the goalkeeper had possession of the ball.  As you can see, these girls create two legit chances (and eventually force the opposing team to stop pressing and back off) while never putting themselves under threat at all

So the solution is not to avoid risk, but manage it.  And to weigh the risk against the reward accurately.  Losing the ball close to your own goal is obviously dangerous, but did you know that statistically, more goals from open play in professional soccer start from sequences where the ball is won in the center of midfield than from any other area of the pitch, including more than are won near the goal?  Knowing this, does it make sense to intentionally trade 100% possession of the ball for a 50/50 loose ball in the area of the field where it is most dangerous to lose it?

In a recent excellent interview with French Magazine So Foot, Barcelona great Xavi summed it up perfectly:

“But hey, I do not see where is the pleasure to do that (clearing the ball- “Booting it”) anyway. Do it in the 93rd minute of play, to have control on the result, why not? But in the 60th or the 70th, what is the point? You still have time to find a solution, to take advantage! Clearing the ball is an intellectual defeat: ‘Can I really not do anything else there?’ When you recover the ball and you lose it again, you give a new possession of ball to the opponent. Don’t do that. Find spaces, pass the ball to the goalkeeper, dribble, get a throw-in by shooting the ball on the player you have in front of you. Do something, anything, but do not throw it out! My sense of responsibility prevents me from doing it.”

Like many of today’s parents (at least the older ones) I grew up playing at a time where soccer tactics were not so much about getting the ball and doing something with it as they were about dumping the ball into the other team’s half of the field and trying (or hoping) to force a technical mistake or a turnover you could capitalize on.  It was less a game of chess and more a game of “toss the grenade”, with the loser being the player in possession when the grenade went off.  This strategy still works at the younger ages of soccer at all levels, because in general a young player’s ability to capitalize on mistakes far exceeds a young player’s ability to avoid them.  But as players get older and more skillful and experienced, it becomes a function of diminishing returns.  The better the team you play against, the less success you will have.  And if you were to try and defeat a youth team from Spain or Germany with indiscriminant aerial bombardment they would just smile, thank you for the ball, and then jam it down your throat.

We need to teach our kids and our coaches not to be afraid, and teach them how to handle the explosives safely.  And if you get caught with a grenade every once in a while, so be it.  Better than getting scored on because you lost the ball than because you willingly gave the opponent the ball.


About the Author Scott Nelson

Scott Nelson is the Director of Coaching at NorTac Soccer Club in Tacoma Washington. Scott focuses on early player development, possession based play, and creating a better Soccer Culture in the United States.

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  • Great read. I coach a 10U team and am the president of our local league. Due to some rules in 10U (no heading, build out line) we are forced to play out of the back. I’ve coached 12U and 14U and still have my teams play out of the back. I tell my kids we are not playing kickball, you can do that in PE at school. We are going to play some quality soccer. It is worse than nails on a chalkboard when I hear “boot it.” Or when everyone cheers when the ball is “booted”.

  • Ana Supnet says:

    This article is so good, succinct!
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and watching the videos that supported the argument. i wish all soccer parents read this.
    Thank you for writing it.

  • John from PA says:

    Great article. Most of the time a deep punt by the keeper results in a turnover

    So important to take advantage of every
    Possession.

    I am a parent of a 13 year old ….What I have seen so much during his involvement in Soccer is Coaches worrying most about winning and therefore abandoning proper fundamentals and forgetting to teach the kids how to play. At real young ages
    An athletic kid can get thru and dominate on his “athletic ability alone” giving that Coach the sense that he is doing a good job with this player….unfortunately as this player gets older and is playing against many athletic players and more importantly against real athletic SOCCER PLAYERS he becomes exposed ….not the players fault…rather the fault of the Coach and the overlying WIN AT ALL CIST MENTALITY

    let’s forget the wins and teach our youth how to play soccer at an early age…forget the scoreboard and the trophies….our kids will thank us later on in their soccer careers

    The play from the back is a toolin getting kids to play proper soccer.

    We need parents to be carded for constantly yelling out instructionsand trying to tell the kids what to do….

    Let the kids listen to the Coaches and more importantly let’s teach the kids properly and be quiet for a few minutes during the game and give the kids the chance to make proper decisions themselves ….

  • Scott says:

    Postscript: Nortac Sparta’s G08’s did this today: 14 passes for goal, Switching play and playing out of the back. Even the goalkeeper was involved in the sequence. Showing once again that this is about training and mindset, not just about ability

    https://vimeo.com/263807832

  • JL says:

    I think the key is decision making… there are definitely times when the ball needs to be either cleared down the field or even out for a throw to allow the defense to re-set. For every video you can produce demonstrating success playing out of the back, there are at least 3 demonstrating how this can fail miserably and just as many where clearing the ball allowed the defense to re-set and take back possession. Clearly, playing possession football is preferable to kick and run, but the key is allowing players the opportunity to make mistakes and learn when each approach is correct.

    • Scott Nelson says:

      There are definitely times when discretion in the better part of valor, but the reflex from many spectators and coaches in American soccer for decades has been that hoofing the ball away, or playing long, or down the line is the first (or only) choice. Decision making implies that the player has multiple choices and options. The key is an attitude shift followed by better development of players and coaches, because if the only tool you have is a hammer, all you are able to do is hammer things.

      And btw: beware of coaches who say “oh, this is part of the learning process” if the team is playing out of the back and is constantly losing the ball and being scored on. This may be true, but If there is no measurable, noticeable decrease in mistakes and negative consequences over time, they players are probably NOT learning from their mistakes. It’s highly probable that they understand what they did wrong but don’t understand what to do differently. The “this is part of the learning process” mantra simply becomes an excuse.

  • Jordi says:

    Excellent, excellent read. The heavy focus on winning at the younger ages rather than learning to play the game well, is a huge problem in the US. It takes total commitment on the part of the players, coaches, and parents to adopt this possession style of play. You see it all too often — as soon as Susie or Johnny loses that ball in their own third and a goal is surrendered, groans from the parents and calls from the coach to clear ball begin, thus effectively ending the “possession” game. It’s easy to tell the parents and the kids that we will play possession soccer but it’s a whole other matter to stick with it when the going gets tough and mistakes are being made. Like the author said, more often than not, instead of correcting the mistakes, we abandon the methods. This is understandable, because most of the time, Susie and Johnny are ill-prepared to adopt and implement this style of play.
    It takes commitment to play like the pros and kids in the videos. It takes hours of repetition in practice, hours of rondos, dedication to the methods, and most of all, patience. You can’t spend hours on shooting drills and 1v1s in practice during the week and tell the kids before the game on Saturday that today we’re going to play the ball short like Barca and connect passes up and down the field. It doesn’t work that way. The kids will struggle, the parents will yell, and the coach will capitulate by moving players around and changing tactics — and they will kick the ball up to the tall fast kid playing striker and score a break-away goal. The kids will be excited, the proud parents thrilled, and the coach lauded for her technical prowess. And the soccer heavens will lose another angel…

  • Greg says:

    Guys, I have played for AC Milan about 30 years ago. Even then the coaches were teaching us elements of what Scott teaches, but now it is even more advanced. The kids need to learn it and have it down by u13-14 if the goal is to play pro. I have seen examples when my son’s u12s outplayed much bigger u14 executing the build from the back strategy and basically did not give the ball to their faster players. Thx coach!!!!

  • Grace says:

    Great article. I think it’s amazing how many coaches are trying to get around the new buildout line by having the keeper send to the fullback who then just boots it up. There should be continuing education for all Club coaches and this article should be part of it.

    One note on the u14 game and a common coaching error in building out the back. The goalkeeper needs to be taught they aren’t done after the goalkicks! Too many goalkeepers just sit there thinking “whew my part is done…hope she doesn’t lose it and it comes back at me on a one v one”. The goalkeeper needs to cut towards the fullback to receive a backpass in case the fullback gets in trouble. If the other team is foolish enough to pressure the keeper swing it to the other side (where the opposing fullback should be checking in) or send it up to the now open cb. It’s not building out the back unless the coach is comfortable enough to allow the backpass and teach the keeper to advance with the team.

  • Robert Harris says:

    I’m sitting at my 7 year old’s soccer game this morning (Phoenix- the weather is great) cringing everytime some parent or coach yells out “boot it” -literally hair on the back of my neck standing up, I’m ready to vomit. I think, am I the only one who sees how ridiculous this is? Quick internet search lands me right on this article. Instant validation. LOL. Thank you. I will share this article with the US Soccer community. Maybe years from now we will make it back to the World Cup.

    • Chris says:

      Ready to vomit because of a 7 year old’s game? That’s pretty sad.

      There are plenty times to hoof the ball up field and get it away from your goal, especially as a 7 year old.

      To me, you come off as one of those parents that ruin the game for their kid.

  • Chris says:

    Comes off as a bit arrogant, like you’re assuming you know more than others.

    The true is, there are times to boot it. We’re seeing it in the Premier League right now. A team like Manchester City has the ability to play out from the back, but when less technically talented teams try it, they get caught out often.

    There is not a one way to play the game, and it depends on your personnel. That last statement you made is complete nonsense.

    ” Better than getting scored on because you lost the ball than because you willingly gave the opponent the ball. ”

    There is a such thing as a hold-up striker or a pacey striker. Having one means you’re not willingly giving up the ball, you’re relieving pressure by getting the ball away, letting your defense restructure, and build a quick counterattack using your striker to hold up play and get your midfielders back up-field.

    Poor mentality, in my opinion.

    • Scott A Nelson says:

      Is “technical ability” the main factor that determines success playing out of the back? I don’t think so.

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