I see lots of soccer coaches talk about the importance of building free play into practices. The current US Soccer practice framework is called “play-practice-play.”
I, too, was once a believer of this and tried it, but changed my mind when it seemed move the kids backwards on development.
Thinking about how I learned basketball in my childhood, 90% came from what I call cross pollinated free play. That is, I played soccer informally with lots of different groups of folks and from each group, I learned different things and, I think, they learned stuff from my group.
I also played with folks of all different ages, older and younger, and of differing skill levels. The older or more skilled players transferred their knowledge and skill, implicitly and explicitly.
Free play at soccer practice, especially among the same team or group of teams, is a sterile bubble that misses out on this cross pollination. It tends to be a Galapagos Islands of evolution. What evolves from that free play, doesn’t match up well when tested against folks with more cross pollination.