Tag Archives: tactics

8v8, 6v6 and SSG: Coaching Fails or, Alternatively, Where a Little Bit of Information Goes a Long Way

225862_1070322646729_406_nSmall-sided (“Small sided games” or “SSG”) soccer has been introduced in the States.  It has, through the years, trickled down to even the smallest clubs.  Courses are taught praising SSG — and that we should “let the game be the teacher.”  We still have a long way to go.  Coaches attend courses and hear what they want to hear.  Then there are those who take it too far — whether by choice or laziness.

Letting the game be the teacher can be a crutch to a coach.  Why bother preparing coaching points, questions, activities — just let them play.  And, if I do that, then I am letting the “game be the teacher.”

But, if you coach/teach players U8-U13 (even older), “letting the game be the teacher” is not an excuse for lack of preparation.  It is not an excuse for ignoring the needs of your team.  In the U8-U13 ages, players are entering the world of team play — and advanced team play.  It is in these times, a little bit of information goes a long way.  What kind of information?

Here are some Coaching Fails for this age group where a little bit of information goes a long way.

1.  Your team concedes lot of goals on goal kicks.  The Coaching fail is not taking time to teach the players how to take a goal kick, where to take a goal kick, options to the kick, where your teammates can be, or maybe even a play.  I do not buy the excuse that we should avoid tactics at these ages.  A few minutes here and there, a bit of organization, and problem solved.  I have no problems with my teams conceding goals, but the kids work too hard to have them give them away because they do not have a few pieces of information.

2.  Your goalie doesn’t know when he can pick the ball up and when he has to play with his feet.  Again, a little bit of information goes a long way.  Even with rotated keepers, it doesn’t take much effort to teach them when they can pick up a ball — most kids, without the information — will assume that even an errant ball, or a rebounded ball off a teammate — is off limits.  What if a teammate passes to them intentionally – hopefully we are teaching our players to include the keeper.  Educate them on the Laws of the Game.  I hate seeing keepers concede silly goals because they just do not know.

3.  Your goalie doesn’t know she can play a higher line than the goal line.  Again, a little information goes a long way.   Plus, it is more fun for the keeper to get involved.  Just give the keeper a little of your attention in the game.

4.  Your team gives away the kickoff most times.  Players taking the kickoff do not know how far the touch forward has to be or can be.  Take a few minutes and teach them some options.  Better yet, give them 5 minutes at the end of practice and let them design their own kickoff.

5.  Your team does not know how to take an indirect free kick (or what the signal is).  Incorporate the hand signal in your scrimmage at end — randomly call fouls, direct and indirect.  I even let the kids act like they were fouled and they get to blame someone.  Then, teach them how to take an indirect kick.  Bring a phone – go to youtube – show them some cool ones.  Let them create their own.  Same for direct kicks – teach them the hand signal.  Show them some examples — let them make their own.  They love working on this.  

At the same time, let your keeper(s) practice setting up a defensive plan for the free kicks.  Teach them an offside line.  When do they want it?  How do they set it?  How can they make sure everyone is marked.  Let the keeper practice the instructions.  Put the wall in the wrong place — let the keeper fix it.  This can be incorporated into the flow of a scrimmage with little effort and disruption.

6.  Your team does not know how to set a wall.  Especially on an indirect kick — they can set the wall inside the box.  Let them practice.  Blow stops occasionally during scrimmage and let them work on it.

7.  This is a horrible one — your keeper doesn’t know how far out she can go before distributing the ball.  They think their area is the goalie box, not the penalty area.  Explain the difference to them.  Give them this information.  This is particularly true if you follow U.S. Youth Guidelines and rotate keepers.  A little bit of information goes a long way for a keeper.

8.  Your team loses possession because of illegal throws.  OK — so you have taught them to keep both feet on the ground — now teach them that the ball must go completely behind their head.  A little bit of information goes a long way.  I hate seeing kids making illegal throws because of this and not knowing what they did wrong (they say – “but my feet were on the ground!”).

9.  Your team concedes a lot of goals on corners.  Well  have you worked on it?  Do you have a plan?  Working on defending corners is great practice because you get to work on this key defensive point:  “can you see the defender you are marking and the ball?”  Or, for young players, how do you “mark” a player?  Give the information — give them a plan — then let them implement it, alter it.  Empower your keeper to control the exercise.

10.  Your team concedes a lot of goals off of punted balls (this is a small-sided games problem).  It bugs you — the other coach imploring his keeper to punt the ball.  It is a small field.  I hate it.  You hate it.  It is not promoting development.  It is particularly tough because players in this range have hard time judging balls in flight.  Plus, I do not want players this age heading punted balls.  So, what information can you share to help?  Have a plan.  If you know the field is small (8v8 and 6v6 fields vary), instruct your defenders to retreat when their keeper picks the ball up.  If your outside backs are pushed up, focus on your center back.  Have them retreat well inside your half.  Yes, you can tell them “don’t let it bounce” but part of the problem is that the player you put back there may have difficulty judging balls in flight (ask Sam Snow).  So, put them in a position to succeed.  There is nothing so demoralizing to a center back or a team to be winning possession, using creative attacks, involving their teammates, only to concede on punted balls to a “fast forward” to a team that emphasizes win at all costs.

Try this.  Tell your center back to retreat and, if under pressure, play the ball to safety.  If they can control it, great.  You get to teach the vocabulary “safety first.”

This is a real pet peeve of mine.  At U9-12, success from a punted ball is fools gold.  In a few short years, those center backs will have no trouble with the ball.  Why teams emphasize it is usually because the coach has made the game about him.

Well, those are just a few examples where a little bit of information goes a long way.  I am a big believer in incorporating the Laws of the Game into my sessions to educate the players on these items.  I think we, as coaches, have an obligation to share this information.

Coaching Youth Soccer: 8v8 Formation Idea — Applying Spanish Team Tactics to a Youth Squad

So…let me start by saying that I have spent way too many hours thinking about this issue.  While development is the goal, particularly in the small-sided years (anything below 11v11), does there exist a formation for 8v8 that complements development?  Or, I should say, that complements development and my coaching philosophy?  My coaching philosophy is player development with the style of play being possession based soccer, emphasizing creativity and mastery of the ball, short passes with the ball primarily on the ground.  I encourage dribbling around defenders in 1v1 situations, while at the same time recognize the value of the give and go and other 2v1 sequences.   I want the boys and girls I coach to be cerebral players and always “think about the next play.”  “Show for the ball” when your partner is in trouble, move to space when he is not.   I believe strongly that all players need to learn all the positions and be able to interchange (that is Code for “yes, little Johnny may have scored 100 goals as a 7 year old but he needs to learn to defend too”).  That is my philosophy in a nutshell.

I have coached 8v8 since 2006.  I cannot count the number of games I have coached.  I have coached players at all levels of skill, both technical and tactical, from basic recreations to high level competitive kids.  I have labored through the years to come up with an approach from a formation to assist the kids in their understanding of the game and their responsibilities.  I do not believe in teaching kids positions in this stage other than basic soccer concepts and theories of defense (compress the field, delay, cover) and attack (enlarge the field, penetrate, support).   So, what are some formations I have used?

1.  2-3-2

This was where I started.  I did not know then but this is an aggressive, attack-minded strategy.  We were recreation combos of 8 and 9 year olds (before they changed the small-sided rules).  I would think this is still a good rec-based formation but one vulnerable to attacks without the midfielders lending defensive support.  Also, it means that 2/7 of your team is laying up top, not really involved in defense.

2.  3-1-3

This was my second formation.  This formation should turn into a 3-3-1 on defense.  This is the year that I coined the phrase for my outside mids (wingers or whatever you want to call them) that “you are a midfielder who occasionally gets to play offense.”  I found that if kids define themselves as forwards, they tend to work less defensively. They come pre-wired with ideas of what a forward should and should not do.  The fewer of them that you have, the better.  This formation worked but it required a lot of management–reminding girls to return from their runs.  It also stretched the center-mid because the outside mids usually did not return.  Now we have 3 players waiting up top…

3.  3-2-2

I have tried this over and over again.  I just do not like the shapes and I do not like the layers.  At the 8v8 years, it is hard enough to learn how to touch the ball, effective dribbling, etc.  I do not want kids thinking in the games of what is their job versus someone else’s.  I want them “playing soccer and thinking about the next play.”  With the wrong kids in the middle, you will quickly find yourself in a 3-0-4, removing the links you need on the field and continuity.  So, now we have 4 up top….

4.  3-1-1-2

So I varied it.  Since I had a hard time getting the boys (this is year 6 and now with boys…) to defend the middle, I turned to Animal Kingdom.  Basically, what I wanted was a defensive-minded midfielder and an attack-minded midfielder.  Since they generally have no idea what those are, we decided to give the Mids animal names.  The boys named them:  Rhino for the defensive mid (a Rhino has armor they say), and a Jaguar for the attacking mid (obviously).  This really worked.  Each game, different kids were excited to be the Rhino or Jaguar.  What’s more, with something as simple as an animal name, it helped them to know where to be and what role to be on the field without a lot of second guessing.  I tell people all the time that a lot of coaching youth is the ability to effectively communicate with them.  In this instance, I let them name the animals.  So, instead of telling them to “get back” — a vague statement — I could say simply, “remember, you are our Rhino!”)  Even though we play a different formation today, we may shift a midfielder to holding mid now, we still call it Rhino.

5.  4-2-1 Winger Attack

This was Coach Tom’s baby.  The two outside defenders operate as wingers.  With only one forward, you are strong up the middle with 2 center backs and 2 center mids.  The problem with this formation is that the workload on the wingers is too high and field dimensions vary too much.  If all 8v8 fields were the same dimensions, there is a chance this formation would work.  But, having been involved in 8v8 for the last 6 years, I can tell you that you never know what you get with a field.  I think full-sided fields are more consistent, but 8v8 fields are all over the place.  If it is on the small side, this formation works great.  But, if it is a large 8v8 field, it is just too much work for the wingers and the boys cannot manage it.  It is a lot to ask mentally too – a player starting as a defender, on the back line,  has to add defensive pressure all the way up the pitch, while at the same time provide cover all the way back.  Our boys just couldn’t manage it.  So, when we were in a bind, we switched to…

6.  3-3-1

It was 2008 all over again, except for this time I was wiser.  Instead of calling it a 3-1-3, where players can get the idea that they are “forwards,” we remove all doubt by calling it a 3-3-1 and again reinforcing the old adage “you are a midfielder who occasionally plays offense.”  I do not think this is that confusing, but it does require some management to remind players of their defensive duties and, alternatively, remind them to go up and attack.  Sometimes we would find ourselves with only one player attacking the goal.  I never loved it, was never loyal to it, and was shopping for the next big thing when the Euros were televised in June…

This is a good formation to teach width in attack.  The midfielder responsibilities transition fine to 442 or 433.


This brings me to today.  Through the summer I worked with some high school girls from Vidor in a 6v6 league.  As I have posted on here before, I love small-sided games, especially for older players.  The small field compresses the game requiring better touch and less space.  Ball control is at a premium, as is the talent of using the dribble to create space (or your first touch).  Some of the girls had a hard time with positions – they tended to define themselves as a forward or defender.  The forwards generally waited for the ball while the other girls battled to get it to them.  My concept of 6v6 is different – I prefer no positions with the requirement that they attack as a team and defend as a team (5 on attack, 5 on defense).  This was a little hard  to accomplish so we modified it 2-3-0: 2 defenders (rotating), 3 midfielders, and 0 forwards.  I used this formation to emphasize that we attack as a team and defend as a team.  I discouraged long counters that stretch our team (making us vulnerable to loss of possession in the middle).  I stole the idea from Spain in the Euros – when they played a 4-6-0.  How did it work?  Fantastic!

While there were still players who tended to “lay up,” the idea started to gel that we all defended and all attacked.  That does not mean that everyone does the same job in attack and defense.  Some pressure, some cover, some support, etc.  But the idea of playing as a unit in a small area of the field, discouraging long passing , encouraging keeping the ball on the ground, started to work.  So, if girls who, for many, had no prior club experience could do it, why not our 10 year old boys, most of whom have played for 5-6 years?

It works!  Not only does it work, it requires less “reminding” than the old 3-1-3.  Somehow, when they know that there are NO FORWARDS, they get the idea of defense.   Again, since there is NO FORWARD, they know that they cannot rely on someone up top to score – they all have to be part of the process.  Mind you, I coach a group of boys that are fairly versatile.  Since we have been together (1 1/2 years), we have not allowed people to play one position.  So, in our first tournament with this formation, everyone played defender and everyone played midfield.  We used four different goalies.  I do provide them with some guidance in the middle by saying two are central mids and the other two outside mids.  But I tell them to feel free to change it as they see fit.  More than half of our team has scored in only two games.  We are still incorporating the winger-cross attack our trainer has emphasized, but, at the same time, we are enjoying a lot more defensive help in the middle from players other than the defenders.  I am not sure it is the ONE (as I have been down this road before), but it sure seems to fit what we are trying to teach and develop.

***Caveat:  I would not recommend this for a team with players who lack tactical understanding of the game.  The two center-mids are not only good technicians, they are good decision-makers.  Some kids just cannot do that job.  For that matter, I would not recommend something with the vagueness inherent in the job description for the kids (like the 2 CMs) for beginning level players.  Our boys compete in the most competitive league in Houston – a very competitive soccer area.  For younger or beginning players, I would prefer a formation that would be easier to teach out of and reinforce concepts I am introducing to them (width in attack, using the CM to link play, etc.)

If you have formations or ideas about game management that has helped you with player development, please post your thoughts.

Coach Clint

Great Quotes on the Philosophy of Player Development

Next week I am sitting for the National Youth License.  It is a multi-day licensing clinic (Tuesday through Saturday).  There is a lot of prerequisite reading (which I love) and one of the documents on the coaching clipboard is about Player Development.  I have posted on this before and I think it is an interesting topic.  Here are a few quotes from the US Youth Soccer Player Development Model (Feb. 2012).  Players are divided into three Zones (Zone 1, ages 6-12, Zone 2, ages 13-17, and Zone 3 18+).  Here is what the manual says about Zone 1:

Zone 1 has a technical emphasis that is accomplished by focusing on player development versus match outcome. The intent is for coaches, administrators and parents of the players to spotlight the process of playing the game, rather than the score. The measurement of success in Zone 1 is the players’ improvement of ball skills, understanding of the rules of the game, playing fairly and learning general game principles. (page 9)

Too often at these ages results matter more than players.  Teams matter more than players.  When we place the importance of the team over the individual, are we helping the player?  I think soccer is leagues ahead of baseball on this. In Select baseball and youth league baseball, for example, there is no training or organization to remind the coaches and parents of this.  It is a win first mentality not matter the harm to the kids, his arm, or his interest.  At least in soccer, we have a system of education to address this issue.  Here is another goodie:

Too often coaches concentrate on a team formation to the exclusion of essential developmental needs. A common question is, “What is the best formation to win?” Some coaches are quick to permanently place a player in a specific position. That is an erroneous decision. In fact, many coaches teach the game by position. This approach has an over emphasis on a particular system of play and the team formation to execute that system. Systems are not the focus, but rather the framework. The decisive factor is the player and his or her individual qualities, specifically technical expertise. Players must be given the chance to play every position in soccer to deepen their understanding of the game. While it takes more coaching talent to do so, teaching positioning prior to the roles of positions in a formation develops anticipation players. Do not lock players in a position! (page 16, Systems of Play)

This material can be found at the US Youth Coaching website.  It requires a membership fee to join but you gain access to practice models, drills, teaching aides, etc.  Here is the link: http://www.usyouthsoccer.org/coaches/Coaches_Connection/.  I encourage everyone interested in coaching soccer to join.


U23 Men’s Update – Canada used 4-3-2-1 to beat U.S. Possession

I am interested in Caleb Porter and his success in our U23s.  I love the philosophy he has – winning with possession.  In Goal.com’s writeup of Canada’s stunning 2-0 upset of the US Men’s U23 team, Porter talks about the tactical difference Canada used, their switch to a 4-3-2-1 to clog up the midfield and frustrate the US possession-attack approach.  Here is what Porter said:

“They set up in a Christmas tree, 4-3-2-1, and it’s not a shape they’ve used…That’s a shape you use to really stop a team and they did that to shut us down.. . It was essentially 3 vs. 5 in the middle.”  (Post-game news conference)

If you ever wondered how tactics and formations can shape a game, this would be a good example.  I have noted on this blog Jonathan Wilson’s great book Inverting the Pyramid where he chronicles the changes in soccer tactics and formations.  As he states, many tactical and shape changes are made in response to someone else’s success.  In this case. Canada, after watching the US U23 Men thrash Cuba 6-0, decided on a new formation to counter the US success.  If you are wondering what the perspective of the successful US midfielder was, here is Joe Corona’s post-game observation:  “They had the two center backs there, two holding midfielders right in front of me, so it was tough to get a rhythm in the middle of the park.”  He also mentioned that the formation by Canada enabled the US to have 2 v. 1 on the flanks but that they did not exploit that well enough.  Corona said: “In that type of game, if the team is going to play that way then you have to beat them wide and I didn’t think we created enough.”

The US Men are now in danger of not qualifying for the Olympics and need a result against El Salvador tonight.  Check in and support these guys.  Here is the information for tonight’s game:  The US Men’s U-23 National Team plays its critically important last Group A game in the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying tournament. With Saturday’s loss to Canada, the US must defeat El Salvador to advance to the semifinals. Kick off is set for 8:00 p.m. CT Monday March 26 from LPF Field in Nashville, Tenn. The match is televised live on the Universal Sports Network, Mun2 and CONCACAF.com. Fans can also follow the match live via ussoccer.com’s MatchTracker.  

Quotes from post-game conference taken from this article on goal.com:  http://www.goal.com/en-us/news/1679/us-national-team/2012/03/24/2990070/caleb-porters-usa-u23-side-caught-off-guard-by-well-drilled.  And here is a link to my prior blog post reviewing Jonathan Wilson’s superb book Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics (Orion, 2008): http://soccerthought.com/2011/11/18/gaining-territory-v-possession-part-i/.