Contrary to the popular opinion, a now defunct site called Soccer Squirrel had an interesting article on the value of drills for teaching soccer skills.
In The Squirrel’s words,
The dictionary definition for drill is “any strict, methodical, repetitive, or mechanical training, instruction, or exercise: a spelling drill.” I am an advocate of allowing players to learn by playing, by experimenting and by being provided opportunities to be creative. Having the players engage in something that is “strict, methodical, repetitive, or mechanical” is not going to provide them with a positive learning experience.
It seems this view is partly right, and well, partly wrong.
Learning the sport in a game-like setting is crucial for, among other things, helping players develop the ability to make tactical decisions in a game. “Should I shoot or should I pass?” A player needs to practice in a game-like setting in order to learn the best decisions to make in a game. The pressure and movements of a game are far different than they are even for a drill where pressure is used.
However, it is for that exact reason that drills hold a useful spot in soccer practices. A player practicing their dribbling skills, for example, is going to be far more successful if they have had a chance to use them without the pressure of a defender. Take juggling as another example. Juggling is a skill that requires many touches in order to improve. The opportunities to juggle even in a small-sided game are few, yet the the ability to control balls in the air that juggling develops is crucial to becoming a complete soccer player. As a result, this type of skill can only be adequately practiced as a drill.
Bottom line, it’s important and probably more fun – particularly for younger players – to practice under game-like conditions, but drills cannot and should not be completely eliminated from athletic training.