Individual duels comprise a large part of any football match. So it’s vital that our players feel comfortable beating defenders and facing opponents one-on-one. Below, we examine why 1v1s are so important, discuss the different skills that can help players to be 1v1 dominant, and present some practical examples of exercises to help players improve their dribbling, ball retention, and composure in 1v1 situations.

In This Article

The Importance of 1v1s

The ability to beat opponents is a vital skill. Football matches are often a series of 1v1 battles taking place all over the pitch, so helping players to develop the composure and technical skills to thrive in these situations is essential to preparing them for competitive matches.

Coaching ball mastery is a crucial first step when working with young kids, but we must also give them opportunities to practise their skills in an opposed space before they make the leap to larger games.

“Dribbling is the number one priority in the learning process,” explains Kris Van Der Haegen, an architect of the famous Belgian Model of player development. “The 1v1 situation is crucial in Belgium. If a player masters the 1v1, they have mastered the game.

“It comes down to duels; everything that the players learn in 1v1s, they relearn in 2v2s, 3v3s, and so on, right up to 11v11. They are doing the same things — all that changes is the complexity of the game.”

Ultimately, helping players to be comfortable on the ball when under pressure lays the foundations for further skill acquisition. And one of the best ways for them to build that confidence is to become 1v1 dominant.

The Different Types of 1v1 Skill

Beating defenders 1v1 doesn’t just mean dribbling past them; there are many different ways for players to create space for themselves, get beyond their opponent, and win individual duels. “When we talk about the value of 1v1s, I instantly think of young players learning the game,” says PDP Co-Founder Dave Wright. “There are lots of different ways to work on them. For instance, 1v1s could also mean duels from different angles and different sides; they don’t just concern dribbling — the ball-retention aspect is equally important.

“Look at the popularity of possession football in the modern game; teaching kids to retain the ball, be brave in possession and take lots of touches, and be able to get into duels and wriggle out is crucial to enabling them to play that way.”

In the elite game, roughly 80% of receiving situations occur with pressure coming from behind — not in the form of face-to-face duels. As such, we must strive to help players develop the different components of individual possession — skills such as movement on and off the ball, scanning and awareness of surroundings, effective use of body shape, composure in possession, and first touch and dribbling ability — so that they are equipped to evade pressure and beat their opponent when these scenarios arise.

Practical Examples: 1v1 Attacking Practices

PDP’s Session Plan Library contains a wide range of 1v1 practices, covering a variety of learning outcomes. Below, we examine some of the best examples of 1v1 practices centred upon attacking play and beating defenders.

Beating Players

This practice encourages players to dribble, run at speed, and beat their opponent as often as possible.

  • Start with two opposing teams and two neutral players.
  • Each player has one direct opponent on the opposing team. Each pair of opposing players has one ball between them.
  • Set up a long playing area with goals (one for each pair of players) at either end.
  • Players score by dribbling into their opponent’s goal. Their opponent attempts to stop them and score themselves. Players can beat their opponent 1v1 either by dribbling past them or by combining with a neutral player.
Set up a rectangular pitch and you can add scoring zones which players must enter to shoot if you have goals, or players must dribble through gates. Reds attack one way, yellows the other. Blues are used as neutral bounce players. If red loses the ball to yellow, yellow can attack. Add a time limit for attacks if needed and rotate players through neutral role as a rest option.

1v1 Challenge

  • Randomly scatter gates, roughly one metre apart, within a rectangular playing area.
  • Half of the players (our attackers) start with a ball and half without (our defenders).
  • Attackers score points by dribbling through the gates; defenders try to stop them.
  • Defenders become attackers when they win the ball (and vice versa).

The 1v1 Challenge creates many 1v1 duels within one playing area. It requires players to decide when to drive through a gate and when to protect the ball, while also encouraging them to work on different methods of ball retention. Beating defenders and dribbling into space are the primary attacking skills developed in this exercise.

Half the group have a ball and half do not. Players aim to score through as many gates as possible by beating their opponent. If the defender wins the ball, they become the attacker. Work on timed sets and manage the distances as this practice is physically demanding.

Defender on the Shoulder

The Defender on the Shoulder exercise helps players practise dribbling into space while coping with pressure from behind.

  • Set up a long, thin playing area with an attacker (and a ball) at one end, a goal at the other, and a line demarking the shooting area part-way down.
  • An opposing defender starts one stride to the side of the attacker.
  • The attacker scores a point by running with the ball beyond the marked line and then finishing in the goal. The defender gets a point by winning the ball and carrying it back to the starting line.
  • Play begins as soon as the attacker touches the ball.

From an attacking perspective, this exercise affords lots of repetition of driving into space with the ball and fending off pressure from behind. In addition to working on dribbling skills, it challenges players to be composed, quick, strong, and determined.

Set up a long rectangular area. Players start at one end opposite to the target goal. The multiple stations are marked out to show how this activity may be set out for a whole team training group.

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