A first game of 9v9 for both teams on a bigger pitch with the offside rule.  It was an interesting match, and the Sharks adapted well to the new rule, got used to the size of the pitch as the match wore on and welcomed a new permanent player Seb who enjoyed a scoring debut.

There was also a second match for Alex and a debut for another younger player Jamie – who experienced his first taste of Sharks’ action in an excellent guest appearance.

The Esher groundsman had marked out the 9v9 pitch especially for this match – and the first thing that struck us all was the size.  It was a much bigger area than the boys have been playing at 7-a-side and it took some getting used to.

Both sides were bunching a bit in the middle of the pitch and those out wide were tending to drift into the centre. It made for an intense early midfield battle with acres of space unexploited on the wings.  But as the match wore on, the Sharks started to use the width much better.  It should suit our passing style and our quick players, who will be able to take advantage of the extra pitch to frighten opposition defences in the season ahead.

The offside rule was also something new to cope with.  I think our brief training session on Saturday had helped a lot and the Sharks seemed to cope better than Esher throughout the game.  We were certainly caught offside on fewer occasions, so our front players were holding their runs well to stay onside, and our defence was catching Esher players in offside positions well.

Defensively, it’s a difficult concept for the boys to appreciate.  All season we’ve been telling them to get back and cover the space at the back. Now we’re telling them to push up and not worry about the space in behind.  It’s counter-intuitive, so it will obviously take a while to perfect.  But even with a lot of shifting of positions, with Martin, Phin, Gabriel, Francis and Wiktor all having time at Centre Back on Sunday, they were starting to understand that they need to push up, even to the halfway line when we were in possession.

In match terms, we agreed to play three “halves” of 20 minutes each, so we could rotate players and systems.  In fact, we went with a 3-4-1 formation, which worked well throughout.  The two central midfielders were able to control the centre area and spread the ball out wide.  At the back, it was a familiar set up with one centre back and two full backs.

Esher made a quick start and scored a goal almost from the kick off, when one of their wingers ran with the ball down the right, past a few Sharks’ tackles and poked the ball past Rory from close range.

It wasn’t the best of starts, but the Sharks soon found their feet and got back into the game well. Wiktor and Seb began to dominate midfield

while Gabriel at right back and Francis combined well down the right hand side to create chances. Martin was assured at centre back, while Ben and Phin combined down the left as the half wore on. Nile was holding the ball up well and paying it off intelligently and it seemed a Sharks goal would come.  Alex and Jamie came on for some action and both slotted in well to an increasingly good Sharks’ performance.

As the second half got under way, it was all Sharks. Seb and Wiktor were linking up excellently with Ben, Gabriel and Alex and soon the Sharks deservedly took the lead with two quick goals.

The first came from great work down the right wing by Wiktor who beat his man and crossed the ball dangerously into the box. Ben met the cross and shot but the keeper saved it well – only to see it bounce off a defender and into the net for a Sharks’ goal.

Soon afterwards, some excellent interchange play involving Nile, Seb, Ben, Wiktor and Alex led to a neat through ball to Seb, who was onside and in the clear.  He controlled the ball well and placed it confidently past the keeper for a 2-1 lead.  A scoring debut and a fine goal, coolly taken by the excellent Seb.

At the other end, Esher were creating chances too – albeit getting caught offside a lot. They were dangerous from corners, which they were managing to whip in with height and power, despite the extra width of the pitch.  Rory made some outstanding saves to keep them out, including one shot from point blank range that he managed, somehow, to tip onto the bar and over.

Esher did score though, with their next attack, but the half ended without any further goals.

The final ‘half’ saw some big changes for the Sharks with Jamie bravely volunteering to go in goal, Francis stepping in at Centre Back, with Nile and Rory full backs and Phin and Martin into midfield.

By now, the Sharks were starting to use the full width of the pitch and we created some fine chances – Ben had three clear chances but just couldn’t put them away. Wiktor and Phin were combining well in midfield and Alex was working well upfront.  At the back the stand-ins were doing a fine job.  Jamie made some great saves to keep Esher out.

On such a hot day, the boys were starting to tire by the end of the game – and Esher were really pushing for the winner.  It looked as through they’d snatched it right at the death as Jamie pushed out a fierce shot with a great save and an Esher forward slammed the rebound into the net.  But as we’d discussed with the boys on Saturday, the goal was ruled out for offside because the Esher forward had been in an offside position when the original shot was played.  Although he was not given offside when the shot came in, because he was not “interfering with play”, as soon as the ball came back to him, the flag went up because he was now “interfering with play” by gaining an advantage from his offside position.

It’s not an easy rule to understand straight off – and even the referee asked for clarification at the end.

A draw was a great result for the boys, bearing in mind Esher are a league above us and we were fielding two under age boys in our squad, plus Phin, who virtually walked from his transatlantic plane onto the pitch (although you wouldn’t know it from his excellent performance as usual).

A few more 9v9s will be vital to get used to the new pitch dimensions, and the demands of the offside rule.  But an excellent start to 9v9 for the boys and a great debut from Seb who will be a superb addition to the squad for next season.  And a special mention to Jamie and Alex – both of whom more than held their own against the older boys.

Have a great Easter all – see you after the break for some more friendlies and the start of the summer tournaments.

Damien

Thanks as usual to Kasia for the great pics; a bit more difficult now the boys are playing on a bigger pitch!