Small-sided games (SSG) are very common training tasks for any team. SSGs are matches where the number of players and the playing space are reduced in order to increase footballer participation. This makes the match more intense than an 11 vs. 11 match. We know a lot about the possibilities for adaptation that these SSGs can offer, depending on their characteristics.1,2 The intensity of these exercises can be manipulated or affected by various factors, including the number of players involved, the size and shape of the playing space, the duration of the exercise and recovery period, the rules of the game, the coach’s enthusiasm and the method of scoring a point or goal. Clearly, the potential SSG adaptations depend on the specific conditions in which they are being played.
One of the least studied areas is the effect of SSGs in relation to the level of the players. Few studies have researched the differences in response to this type of task for footballers at lower levels. As often occurs with other areas of study in football, our understanding is based on research carried out on samples of elite sportspeople. However, the methodology and exercises used by professional teams are soon taken on by teams in other categories. Are we sure that the effects will be the same?
A study published some time ago may give us clearer answers.3 The objective of this study was to analyse the relationship between the playing level (amateur vs. professional) and the physiological, physical and technical-tactical impact in three SSGs: 2 vs. 2, 3 vs. 3 and 4 vs. 4. The professional footballers belonged to a French team (n = 20) that won Ligue 1 several times and was participating in the Champions League that season. The amateurs (n = 20) played in a category equivalent to the Third Division in Spain. Table 1 shows the characteristics of the SSGs. Table 2 shows the average values and the typical deviation in each SSG after playing to one ball touch, two ball touches and free play. As can be seen, there are significant differences in almost all of the physiological responses and the physical and technical-tactical activities. Professional players are able to cover a greater distance at a higher intensity. They are more successful when passing the ball and miss significantly fewer balls. Finally, their blood lactate levels and their perceived effort are significantly lower than those of amateur players.
The results suggest that SSGs could be very useful in improving physical condition and technical-tactical abilities in footballers. However, it appears that SSGs demand different responses depending on the level of the players. The most important differences occur when tasks are carried out with just one ball touch. Coaches should allow at least two touches per possession of the ball for amateur players, due to their lower technical level. In any case, more research including study samples of semi-professional and amateur players is needed. Coaches in these categories should take the physical, physiological and technical-tactical responses of SSGs proposed in literature with caution, since they may not be useful for training their players or at the very least would need different adaptations. We should also keep in mind that there are very different playing levels within a single category. Research to improve intervention (Research-Action) is essential for any club.