Overloading to Underloading

By John Cartwright

The Issues of SPACE and TIME are probably the most important factors we naturally and constantly assess in our daily lives. Without these important judgements life would be a tangled mess .…. so would playing the game of football!

Decisions on SPACE and TIME in the game in both attacking and defensive situations must be first recognised and acted on quickly to exploit or resolve them. The development of players with regards to SPACE and TIME issues in the game must be carefully introduced and wisely adapted by coaches as players move up the playing ‘ladder’.


Young players need to practice in both suitably sized areas and groups that are consistent with their stage of learning and playing ability. The practises must provide realistic game situations in which decision-making for individual skills and tactical awareness can be learned and improved; for this to happen and be successful in the early stages of development young players must be given sufficient TIME and SPACE in which to make those decisions.

The type of practice during the early development years must have an emphasis on OVERLOADING (extra players against a lesser number of opposing players) this situation can begin with large overloads and as players develop it is gradually reduced until even numbers are reached in the practises. Following this UNDERLOADING (less players against an extra number of opposing players) in practises is gradually introduced as players move from junior up into youth and senior playing levels.

I believe that the playing of games should always be an ‘examination’ of work (practises) already completed as well as   practises being used at the time. Games should examine ability levels……. the playing of equal numbers 5v5: 7v7; etc. is not the best way to ‘test’ the ability of young players. Practises and the games that follow should include the same aspects along the development ‘pathway’, if not, teaching, learning and ‘testing’ factors cannot be conjoined to provide a satisfactory and reliable assessment of player improvement.


UNDERLOADING should be a natural extension of the practice programme. The work completed during the earlier development years that forms a playing foundation for young players must continue but increase in difficulty. At Youth and senior levels of the game players must continue to improve both in skills and tactical appreciation to enable them to encounter more difficult situations at the higher levels. UNDERLOADED practises combined with related ‘games-testing’ should be used by coaches to gradually create the realistic problems associated with the ever-increasing lack of TIME and SPACE encountered at senior levels. As with OVERLOADING practises, coaches should employ UNDERLOADING in both practises  and in games in gradual stages to create the increasing lack of SPACE and TIME when playing competitively at senior levels.

If players are brought up through a development program that introduces the game to them in careful and realistic stages, their emergence into senior football with all the playing qualities required to deal with SPACE and TIME issues would be far better than it is today.

8 thoughts on “Overloading to Underloading

  1. This type of coaching ,understanding and detail, is paramount if we want to cleverly and gradually develop outstanding players.
    5 to 15yrs of age are the most important development ages and we need coaches to be trained with the ability and understanding to use these important tools that John has identified. Great blog.

  2. I agree that the mistake is often made that when a coaching practice has been completed the coach sets up a game of either 5 v 5 or 7 v 7 to test the understanding or improved abilities of the players. This is an unrealistic expectation and the game, as John says, should be consistent with the practice of continuing to have the overloading element in the early stages, to assist the players in the development of the new ideas and technical skills.
    So in the Game Practice of the Premier Skills methodology, the players have been introduced to, and practiced the new ideas and skills in, Small Group Practice and Small Area Practice with the aid of overloads. This element of overload continues in the Game Practice with two floating players who play for the team in possession in the 5 v 5 or 7 v 7 game. These floating players can either be added to, or taken away, as the players improve, or are found to require further help on their way to acquiring the skills and understanding to play the game.

  3. In matches the beat teams who ‘keep the ball’ seek to overload in areas around the ball …especially in midfield areas ( Guardiola’s Bayern and Barcelona are obvious examples) so the practices John relates have realistic match-like elements, conversely underloading can occur when players ( who are outnumbered) must show an ability to ‘stay on the ball’ to retain possession or penetrate in attack.

    The game is not always about equal numbers but exploiting advantageous situations to manipulate a penetrative possibility – either individually or collectively,

    The English hame often lacks the individualism needed to create such a situation of overloading in midfield or up top. A truly effective game style/vision requires overloading, including central back players joining in to outnumber the opposition around the ball.

    Once achieved, when the ball is given away, it is easier to press and get the ball back, but like all good things it must be worked on the training ground as John suggests.

    • Hi Brazil 94. Yes Guardiola’s teams seem to have the ‘best of both worlds’ in their playing styles; each has the individual playing quality to either join in to ‘overload’ situations or, if under severe pressure, they have players who are able to forge ‘their own pathways’ and exit difficult situations with a positive result.
      It has often been said that ‘simlicity is genius’ when related to football; I disagree. For me simplicity is only an option for players to choose. The genius is being able to make the correct selections……..when to find simple answers to questions in the game or when to use individual skills to answers difficult questions in the game. Being able to use either option is the pinnacle of playing ability. We need to be producing more ‘total players’ in all positions on the field … including goalkeepers….. who can answer whatever question the game asks.

  4. Hi everyone, Interested in the lack of responses so far to this really interesting piece by John.

    Must have got people thinking?

  5. The expression, “simplicity is genius”, is often used without giving it sufficient thought and not, I think, in the context that Ron Greenwood intended in his book, ‘Yours Sincerely’.
    The challenge for English football is to develop players who can contribute moments of great individualism but the problem is that too many coaches are more concerned with producing a ‘simple game’, which means a predominantly passing game from the youngest ages upwards. This stifling of individualism from the earliest age has been going on for far too long. I think that running with the ball must be coached and encouraged far more with young players. They must be coached to see and recognise space and then break forward into it with the ball, instead of always making early, safe passes which so many do.
    Dele Alli showed great control, awareness, touch and a superb shot with his goal against Crystal Palace. I hope that he is allowed to fully realise his potential at Tottenham by developing his individualism by breaking forward from midfield with the ball, cutting across the pitch and going through gaps in the opponents’ defence. I thought that Ross Barkley showed a lot of potential when he first got into the Everton first team but when I have seen him lately he is giving safe, easy passes. Young players are bound to have ups and downs of form, but I hope that his full potential is going to be fully developed.
    Dimitri Payet is charming the crowds at Upton Park because he is so clever on the ball and both scores and creates goals. But we seem content for English players to do the donkey work of winning the ball and getting it to foreign stars like Payet to produce the magic. But we must develop our own versions of Payet by studying his play and then by coaching accordingly to produce imagination and creativity.

  6. This blog has got me truly thinking about the player development pathway and the importance of planned progression and effective practice and patience when working with players. There are true gems of insight in these words. I tend to here debates every weekend on the sidelines extolling the players to do less , take no risks, keep it simple. From lots of adults who are in fear of mistakes. But I feel we are de-skilling players if we ask them to always fear pressure get rid of the ball rather than stay on it.
    The definition of simple that John gives is what should be at the core of young and youth players development programs .
    Premier Skills “Practice Play” methodology building blocks is a great body of work and so simple and logical

    Fantastic blogs

  7. Hi Robbie…I think that to be clever on the ball does not mean taking unnecessary risks. A young player learns to make correct decisions so if he puts his goal at risk by over-elaborating close to goal then he learns by the experience and his decision making improves. He needs his coach to be both patient and firm but to encourage and coach him in the development of individualism.
    At the moment John Stones is receiving some criticism because he has been responsible for Everton conceding goals due to risks he has taken on the ball around the penalty area. But it is his decision making that has been faulty. Roberto Martinez will realise this and help him over his sticky patch.

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