Our league (United Soccer Club) transitioned from 8v8 to 9v9 this year. In any event, in any league you play, you will encounter variations of small-sided games. As you balance development versus results, the way that you align your players at young ages says a lot about your motive.
I believe, without reservation, that the optimal developmental formation for SSGs (7v7, 8v8, 9v9) requires you to play 2 Center-Mids. This opinion has been years in the making. Are there other formations that would be easier to get forward? Yes. To score goals? Of course. The problem is that at the ages where the players are playing SSGs, you have to balance development heavier than tactics or results.
In the new 9v9 setup, I see most coaches play a 332. The lone center-mid is left to spray the ball forward for the forwards to run onto it. To me, this is seed of the 442. My problem is this: if you can teach players how to build through the middle and teach 2 players to operate in that boundary-free zone, they can always play “direct” 332 style when necessary. But the reverse is not true.
I played competitive tennis as a youth. I loved overheads. I loved to spike them (play them short). I was taught by a wise coach to play deep overheads – preferably in the corners – but in no case should I spike them. He told me that if I could learn to play deep overheads, I could always spike one when appropriate – but knowing how to spike doesn’t mean you know how to play a proper deep overhead.
Using 2 CMs in youth soccer is the same to me. Will it slow down your attack? Yes. Will it cost you goals? Yes. But, if you can start building the concepts of having 2 CMs learning to work together in the middle – learning how to move in support (either away or to each other), it is like learning to hit a deep overhead. As a coach, you just need to do it.
So, for the last year my 9v9 teams have played a 323. And, for me, I do not see a 433 like Real Madrid – they are not all 3 “forwards” for me. I have a lone forward with two wingers or attacking midfielders (however you want to call them) that provide width to the attack. They are expected to track back and defend but not all the way back to the touch line. The their defensive duties usually stop around the penalty area or a touch higher.
But, for me, the bottom line is that you need 2 CMs in the SSGs to encourage play through the middle and encourage technical growth, not selling out for short-term results.
You can follow my education on coaching soccer on this blog. I was a clean slate starting in ’06 and relied on coaching experience and coaching education to form my foundations. At that time, the US Youth Coaching guidelines (through Reyna) were to teach and work toward a 433. I took that to heart and tried to apply it and its concepts of short passing, ball on the ground, etc.
So, for one reason or another, I felt like I was caving to use a 442 – that somehow it was below me. That I was selling out for direct, kick ball results if I used it. How naive.
While reading Alex Ferguson’s bio and a few other books (I list them on the site), I learned that there are a lot of variations in formations and tactics. And, the player’s tactical role matters more really than whatever formation you think you are using.
So, while coaching my U14s (they are a top Division 1 team in the Houston area), I continued to work and work and work with the center mids on spacing and building through the middle – taking advantage of the number advantage in the middle (as most teams we played used a 442 direct approach – even in the A bracket in Division 1). But, week after week, I noticed we seemed to gain little advantage with the spare midfielder. They continued to struggle with spacing – not giving enough space to each other or giving too much. Most often, though, they would crowd each other in possession. And, we were still scoring mostly on the counter.
So, I tried something new. I wanted to create more space in the middle for the mids so I went to a 442 and, aha, we were able to build through the middle. We actually possessed more. It was an “aha” moment for me. Here are my lessons learned:
U14 players, even elite college-bound ones, are still kids. And, as I continue to learn, the hardest thing to coach is the middle because it requires more cleverness and the spacing decisions are not as obvious (no orientation point). Quite simply, simplifying the approach can make it easier for them to play the right way.
If your team is struggling with spacing, decisions, etc., consider a formation that is more simple so that they can use their mental energies on creativity on the pitch not on trying to remember where they are supposed to be for the formation.
It is what I learned a long time ago with kids – less is more. If you give them fewer players and more space, they will do more. If you put more players in smaller spaces, they struggle. They are not sure what is their job and someone else’s.
I still think it is important to learn other formations – this team plays a 433, 4231, 352, and now a 442. They are learning and my job is to educate. Even it it means suffering a result. As a coach, be open to ideas and learning.
I am still learning all the time. Just watching the boys play in a 442 taught me a lot. As a coach, I feel like I should always be learning something new.
I don’t agree that we should be told what formation to coach from a national standard. As a coach, you should teach your players all different variations. I don’t agree that US Youth Soccer should be telling coaches which formations to use and those ideas get dated. The most important thing for me is to use a formation that best helps to teach ideas to my players – whatever that may be.
When I am coaching for a result (like a Cup or competition game), even then my formation depends more on the players I have that day and their characteristics then some genera guideline.
*While researching images for 3-2, I found this wonderful article from Brendan Donahue. I emailed him and received his permission to re-publish it here. Thanks Brendan!
This is an article to provide coaches a few options to consider. It is NOT intended to be a training session for young players.
The transition from the 4v4 game with no goalies to the 6v6 game can be a bit overwhelming for players and coaches. It is the first time the goalkeeper is introduced as a member of the team and throw-ins and goal kicks are introduced to the game. All of these new facets of the game can make for a difficult transition for everyone involved. Although the technical development of the players MUST remain the priority of all coaches, it is helpful to understand various ways you can align your team. Please note these formations are something a coach should be aware of, but not spend a great deal of time focusing on. Please encourage players to cover spaces and not remain in a certain position!
Remember to rotate all players so they experience playing in different areas of the field!
Here are a few options to choose from and reasons why you might select to align your team in this fashion. I have inserted triangles to show how players should remain connected to one another. This includes the goalkeeper:
Option 1: K-2-2-1 (back to front)
This formation will allow you to maximize the width of the field, while still having a strong amount of cover at the back (notice the keeper should not be planted on his goal line). One area you’ll be conceding in this system will be the central midfield. This might not be the best option at the youngest age groups. The single player up top can become isolated from his/her teammates and the team may struggle to create goal scoring opportunities.
Option 2: K-2-1-2
If you choose to align your team in this fashion you’ll be in a good position to control the middle of the field, while conceding the space out wide. Defensively this is a better option for young players. They learn to remain compact and not get beat down the middle of the field. If they move as a group they’ll be able to limit the space for the opposition to attack through. However, it is difficult for players to learn to “widen out” and create space once they regain possession. This can be a good option to select if you are playing against a stronger opponent. You will also have closer support when one of the players up front receives the ball.
Option 3: K-3-2
Let’s examine this formation a bit closer!
This (K-3-2) would be my preferred playing style. You have excellent cover at the back while having good numbers to control the middle of the field. One of the keys components, if you choose to align your team in this fashion, is that you encourage the flank players at the back to “attack the space” in front of them.
“Building out of the back” (pictured right): Notice how when the right wing player attacks the space with the dribble that the two other players at the back slide over to protect the space at the back. One of the reasons I prefer having the additional player begin at the back is that young players are generally more comfortable when they can see the field in front of them. If you start players higher (K-2-3) up the field, the front players will spend a lot of the game facing their own goal.
Midfield or beyond (pictured right): When the team is in the opposing half of the field it is okay for the central defender to step into the attack if he is under no pressure, but the other players at the back should recognize this and “pinch in”. Please observe how the goalkeeper does not remain on the goal line, but instead moves toward the top of the penalty box to remain closer to his/her teammates.
Opposition in possession (below):
In this picture you see an example of poor team shape! White is defending too much of the field and the players are “disconnected” from one another. It is important when the opposition is in possession of the ball that players learn to try to get “compact” and defend as a group.
Proper Team Shape (Below):
(Pictured right) Notice how the white players limit the space for red to play through by remaining closer together or more “compact”. If the central defender steps closer to the oppositions forward, it will discourage the opponent to play into him. Observe how the keeper adjusts his/her position when the central defender moves forward. The two forwards (on white) should try to remain close to one another and begin to work as a group.
Ball on the flank (opponents’ possession):
White continues to remain “compact” by shifting to the “ball side”. This will limit the attackers’ options on the “near side” of the field. By remaining as a unit you will give the opposition far less open space to play through and create more opportunities for your players to regain possession.
Before deciding on “What system to play” or focusing on your team defending you must recognize that defensive success is first and foremost based on quality 1 vs. 1 defending. Getting pressure on the player with the ball is vital if the rest of the team is to carry out their defensive responsibilities. Only when this pressure takes place can the remainder of the players get “compact” and take away space from the attacking team.
Offensively, it is easier for young players to find space on the flanks. It is important that coaches encourage this in training by choosing exercises such as the Four Goal game. The exercises should allow the players to “discover” the answers for themselves without constant instruction from the coach.
This season I am coaching a U9 boys team. It has been a while since I have coached this age group. I love it. We are privileged to play in the Houston Texans exclusive Academy development league where emphasis is on technical growth rather than outcome (i.e., no punting). The game is 6v6.
While it is more appropriate to focus on technique at this age, it is important to teach the boys ideas of tactics and formations. This is a great age to introduce the concept of how to name a formation (from the defense first). In the National Youth License, Sam Snow recommended a 3-2 formation. His advice was based on simplifying the game — why add a midfield line to complicate it. I am using his concept this season. While, at the end, you will note I completely disagree that coaches should be given tactical advice and instruction during the game (other than guided questions), I do believe that you can spend time teaching the boys or girls what the formation is, what the names of the positions are, what are their responsibilities. Then, at the beginning of each game, select a player and have him use cones to lay out the formation (calling it by name). Let them teach. Quiz them on the names of the positions. I do it at at the conclusion of a training session, beginning of a game, etc. Never more than 1-2 minutes.
Here are my lessons learned:
3-2. I like it a lot. The center back keeps back and maintains shape while the right and left back are free to move up. Yes, kids will struggle with this concept, but, on a small field, most of them want to attack and defend at this age. From my experience, at 8 they have not developed the “I am a forward only” mentality yet. For the 2 forwards, we call them our “wolfpack” and they are encouraged to win the ball, working (“hunting”) together. Here is what I love about losing the midfield line — it teaches the forwards to come back and fight in the middle. If you place a kid in the middle, particularly an advanced one, it could develop bad habits for the rest of the team who become over-reliant on distribution from one advanced player. We rotate players at all positions and, the fact that there are only 2 lines means instructions are simple. Thus, game coaching is focused on improving technical aspects (“can you dribble to find space” “can you take the defender on” “can you block a shot” “can you move to support where the player with ball can see you?” etc. etc.) rather than tactical instruction (which should, in my opinion, be almost nonexistent at this age).
2-1-2. This is my old formation. I always had a few kids who were tactically and technically very advanced. So, I could sit them in the middle and everything looked great. Parents were happy. We won. This was selfish coaching and damaging to the center mid as well. At an age that they should be exploring creativity, I had them passing out of problems to forwards who ran onto through balls. Yes, we won a lot of games, but, in the end, it was a mistake. I am not saying this formation is a mistake …. I am saying they way I did it was. I used it and placed players in it based on our likelihood of winning a match. With the boys I have now, since I rotate them about the field, having 3 lines would be hard to do. I believe I can teach the concepts of how to play CenterMid without having one (move to the ball, use back foot, switch field, etc., etc.). Those concepts can be taught no matter the formation. Again, not saying this is wrong but, for me, I am having a much better experience with 3-2.
2-2-1. This formation again has 3 lines so you are going to be spending time explaining the middle one. It is always the midfield line — the kids have no problem playing forward or defense. The midfielders have to work backwards and forwards. When you watch it at U9 or U10, it looks like a 2-3 because the midfielders have a hard time tracking back. Oddly enough, in a 3-2 the outside backs have a less difficult time because they know they are a “defender.”
Again, thanks to the Texans for letting us participate in a league where, while the games are competitive and the competition is fierce, we are able to focus on technique and growth.
Writing about youth soccer, player development, and the professional game.