Small-Sided Games in football

First of all what are small-sided games (SSG)?

SSG games are games, utilizing fewer players (compared to 11 vs. 11) on a smaller sized pitch.

They are widely used in football training across different age groups and level of play.

From a scientific point of view, Small-Sided-Games provide reliable internal- (such as HR, RPE, and blood lactate concentration) and external responses (such as total distance covered) and therefore can be used as a conditioning format (60).

As mentioned on previous sites, SSG seem to have many advantages (such as football specific movement, technical training, possible tactical improvements and inherent high motivational factors for training) over other conditioning formats (27, 28, 32, 38, 55). It seems that coaches, who in particular have only limited amount of time with the players, might benefit from SSG as they might increase the efficacy of training (60) and even reduce the total training time because of the multi-functionality of SSGs (27, 61), especially in youth players (62).

Besides improvements in the aerobic endurance (14, 38, 42, 43, 57), and anaerobic endurance (43) changes were also seen in change of direction performance (26) of players and technical abilities in youth players (62).

As an initial paragraph regulations and rules that will influence (the efficacy of) the training (17) need to be discussed.

Regulations and rules that affect outcome of SSGs
a) Regulations of the game
Certainly, the pitch-size needs to be linked to the amount of players involved.

Table in accordance to (1, 27, 40, 47) and pitch sizes were little bit smaller for youth players (58)


of players
(m squared)
  General Small (11) Medium (11) Large (11)  
1 vs. 1
10 × 10 5 × 10
10 × 15
15 × 20
2 vs. 2 20-28 × 20-21 (32) 10 × 15
15 × 20
20 × 25
3 vs. 3 25 × 18 (44) 12 × 20
15 × 25
18 × 30
4 vs. 4 30-40 × 20-30 (23, 32, 36, 46) 16 × 24
20 × 30
24 × 36
5 vs. 5* 32-62 × 23-44 (7) 20 × 28
25 × 35
30 × 42
6 vs. 6 49 × 37 24 × 32
30 × 40
36 × 48
7 vs. 7 50 × 35-45 (27)
8 vs. 8 60 × 40-45 (36)
9 vs. 9* 60 × 50 (46)
10 vs. 10 90 × 45       ~4000


When the number of players are kept constant and the pitch-size is increased, exercise intensity increases as well (63).

A smaller pitch size affect physiological aspects of the game (7, 9, 23, 58) and technical training compared to a larger pitch size (9, 47, 71). Curiously, while a smaller pitch size seems to decrease the possibility to maintain ball possession (71), an increase in pitch size resulted in a decrease of passes, turns, dribbles, interceptions, target passes and changes were significantly different for shots and tackles (47, 60) and heart rate response (61).

Generally, an increase of up to 10 meters caused heart rates to increase (and therefore the intensity), while a change of only 5 meters did not alter intensity (61).

Similar responses were seen in youth players and an increase in pitch-size increased heart rate (51, 58).
To replicate tactical demands of different phases of play, it was recommended to adjust pitch size (with and length) of different zones of the pitch (30). It is possible to design SSGs with a more valid representation of the tactical conditions experienced in full-size matches and their use may improve the training effect of tactical aspects of match performance in soccer.

Amount of players
In order to compare the effect of different amount of players during SSG, the relative pitch size (the square area of the pitch divided by the number of players) was kept identical whilst changing number of players (40). There were no goalkeepers involved, no restriction on the number of touches, mini goals to score and all players needed to be in the oppositions half (40).

The smaller SSG (2 vs. 2) showed greater physiological demands (heart rate, lactate accumulation (4) and RPE) compared to bigger SSG (4 vs. 4; 6 vs. 6; 8 vs. 8), although the players had lower sprint duration, lower average maximal sprint duration, lower sprint distance and greater time between sprints. (38, 40, 46, 54, 55, 63).

Interestingly, the number of players had no significant impact on total distance covered, high-intensity distance and RPE in untrained/amateur soccer players (64).

The amount of players on relative pitch-size also influenced the tactical behavior, showing that 3 vs. 3 games were more characterized trough offensive actions (69), while the bigger game 6 vs. 6 showed greater tactical aspects.

If coaches include goalkeepers in SSG, players’ heart rate responses and therefore the intensity of the game was lower (3, 57) compared to no goalkeeper involvement or possession games (33). Similar results were seen in youth footballers (50).

We believe that the lower intensity is not only due to the goalkeepers, but as a result of specific direction of play. Therefore, a lower intensity will also be present if no goalkeepers are involved and the game has a specific direction of play.

b) Rules of the game
Offside vs. no offside
Including offside rule will lower the intensity non-significantly (Unfortunately we cannot find that reference again!)

Number of touches
If coaches incorporate a restriction about the amount of touches per players, some effects will result from this restriction (11, 24, 25). However, the outcome of the SSG session for the players’ aerobic endurance will also depend on a) the technical ability of the players, b) the fitness level of the players.
If the technical level of the players is not sufficient enough for the restriction demanded, no real play will result and therefore no/lesser outcome for the players’ aerobic endurance will be achieved (24).

The fitness level of players will also have an impact on the flow of a SSG (24). If the player inherent no or limited aerobic endurance capacity (for example during pre-season or lower level players) a low amount of touches might result in a bad flow and possible no outcome for the aerobic endurance.

Nevertheless, a restriction of number of passes will increase the intensity of the game (11, 19).

Player numbers up or down/neutral players
Most of the time, games with uneven numbers (such as floaters and/or attacking team can add players to attack) did not change the physiological responses of the players, however increased RPE (– meaning how the players perceived the intensity) for the team with lower number of players (39). Contrarily it increased the physiological demands (70).

Neutral players outside the pitch lowered the intensity of the game (39, 66), the perceived exertion and dribbling actions (66). However, for the neutral players, game formats also had an impact on their demands and it seems that their locomotor activity (external load) was lower (52), however, presented an increased heart rate (52). Bigger formats (4 vs. 4 compared to 2 vs. 2 for example) seemed to elicited greater physiological responses (20).

Man-marking increased the intensity of the game in 3 vs. 3 (59).

Scoring rules
Rules that require the attacking team to have ALL players in a specific pitch was also shown to increase lactate production, however did not change heart rate or high intensity running. The pitch size was divided into thirds and in order to score a goal ALL attacking players had to be in the “front” two thirds (39).

Having a scoring zone at the end of the pitch (compared to having goals) increased exercise intensity in youth football (34, 35)


Coaches encouragement was also shown to increase the intensity of SSG (19, 63, 67). However, intense feedback was shown to negatively impact game performance without increasing the intensity (8).

Fitter players will cover more distance and get greater conditioning in SSG compared to un-fitter players (22, 24).

It seems that SSG inherent greater density of acceleration and deceleration compared to normal match-play (41) and friendly games (13) and therefore seem to display a very effective training option. However, depending on the format and durations, locomotor intensity can be modulated to over- or underload match demands (53).

In order to replicate game demands, training tactical aspects in SSG should incorporate specific aspects about individual pitch size area. Depending on different zones, individual pitch-size should range from 65 – 110 (m2) and length to width ratio of 1:1 and 1:1.3 (31). Furthermore, it seemed that number of players affected the distance to the team’s centroid (the middle/centre point of team players) (2). For example the distance decreased with increasing number of players (2-4 players) however, increased in 5-aside, meaning the players have a greater distance between each other, covering more space suggesting a greater positional organization (2).

Intensity is increased if an end-zone is utilized compared to goals in youth soccer players (36). Furthermore, in less skilled youth footballers, the physiological demand and therefore the possible training benefit of a non-football specific game (such as handball/bucketball) might be of greater a benefit to the players (37).

However, it seemed that SSGs were more efficient to improve the ball handling/dribbling capacities of youth players compared to pre-planned agility courses (15).


Pacing strategies during intermittent activities are influenced by the number and duration of exercise bouts. Practitioners should consider within-game bout duration when prescribing game-based activities to improve aerobic capacity (65). It seemed that continuous formats produced higher load on the players (10).

Furthermore, it also seems that if players are fatigued due to a high load, the technical abilities/actions will decrease (5).

Different SSG were utilized in talent identification (29). The higher-rated players were seen to cover more distance in total and at high speeds.

Most of the SSG reviewed, utilized a 4 × 4 minutes with passive recovery (2-4 minutes) protocol. However, a 3 × 4 minutes with a passive recovery of 4 minutes (56), 3 × 5 minutes with a passive recovery of 4 minutes (60) and 10 × 4 minutes with 3 minutes passive recovery (46) protocol was also used.

Interestingly, manipulation of exercise to rest ratio affected the perceived exertion of players. A continuous block of 8 minutes was perceived as the hardest, compared to 2 x 4 minutes and 4 x 2 minutes (16), however, no technical variable differed between games.

Comparison of bout duration (1× 12, 2 × 6, 3 × 4, 6 × 2 minutes) was performed regarding the internal and external training load in a study in youth players (49). The shortest format (2 minutes) elicited significantly lower %HRmax responses compared to the long (6 minutes) and the continuous (12 minutes) format. This format also showed significantly shorter distances covered in walking and greater distances covered in moderate-intensity running as well as significantly greater total distance covered compared to the long (6 minutes) and the continuous (12 minutes). The 6 minutes bouts also produced lower Lactate and RPE responses than SBD and CON in all formats (p<0.05).


Technical-Tactical aspects
So called task constraints (rules, or game format) led to collective team adaptations (12).

SSG showed greater involvement in technical demands compared to “regular” football (11 a-side) in youth football (45).

No effects of number of players were found for passes, target passes, tackles, and headers. However, significantly more crosses, dribbling, and shots on goal were observed during SSG with lower amount of players (21)

In a nutshell

  • SSG as a tool to train multi-functional (technical, tactical and physiological)
  • Pitch-size changes the technical aspect of the game and the actions performed during the SSG
  • Amount of players on similar pitch-size changes technical aspect as well. The lower the amount of players the greater the amount of dribblings, shots, tackles and touches for each player
  • Direction of play results in a decrease of intensity
  • Restriction of touches will change the demands of the SSG. The lower the technical ability the lower the effect on the physiological system
  • Interval training was proven to be more controlled and training can be prescribed more individually (27)


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