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.