Game time - but you don't know anything about your opponents (or, when you scouted them, it turns out that 2 of their best players were missing, so it looks like you may have goofed in your assessment of them). What do you do now? If you are an experienced coach, you might want to go to the Checklist for a list of factors which you will want to assess in the first 5-10 minutes of any match. If you have less experience, keep reading for some more detail about what to look for and why.
When you don't know anything about your opponents, you normally will decide to play somewhat defensively at first. Start with your better players towards the middle/back in order to get a feeling about the relative strength of the opposition before getting burned with an early goal which might demoralize your kids. If it turns out that you thought that they were weaker than they are and you miscalculated, then you will need to make some rapid adjustments early. You will probably need to rotate 1 or more of your stronger players to the back line which will buy some time while you analyze the attack more closely.
In general, the order in which you are going to want to assess the teams are as follows: first, assess your own defense. Because the whole point of the game is to score more goals than the opposition, you don't want to give up lots of easy goals, so looking at your own defense is always the best idea. Secondly, look at your own offense, and see if there are any obvious weaknesses in their attacks. Third, check your opponent's defense for weaknesses that you can exploit. Fourth, check your opponent's offense for weaknesses that may help your team defend against them. Fifth, assess the referee team to see if they will be a negative factor in the game. For example, you probably will not want to use an off-side trap if you do not have quality ARs - or have no ARs at all.
You need to assess which team is dominating the game. By this, we mean which team seems to always have possession of the ball (either constantly or by regaining possession very quickly). In particular, pay attention to whether your opponent is getting constant attacks on your goal in the opening minutes, as this is a clear signal that adjustments may be needed.
If your team is on the ropes defensively, this is usually due to one or more of the following factors:
Sometimes, of course, the situation will be utterly hopeless - because you are facing a team which is entirely composed of the younger brothers or cousins of Pele, Ronaldo, Denilson and the rest of the Brazilian National Team's top stars. If this happens, and keep in mind that it happens to every youth coach at least once or twice, the absolute best fall-back plan is to praise your opponents to the skies. Tell the kids that, if they work hard, they can get as good as these guys. Admire the shots; admire the great ball work; admire their awesome dribbling/passing skills; and promise the kids that you will work very hard to get them to be as good as these guys, but it is going to take awhile. Reassure your players that the only problem is lack of experience and training. Heck, if these other guys have been playing soccer for 5 years, and your kids started just 3 weeks ago, there SHOULD be a big difference. Admit it - and give your kids some way to rationalize their "failure". Tell them that, against a team which is this good, you will be pleased if you get 1 shot on goal per quarter (or limit the score to 3 goals per quarter).
And, if the reason that you are getting beaten is because your team is tiny or young compared to the other guys ,which often happens where clubs use 2-year age breaks, point this out. Tell them that you are sure that they will do much better next year, when they are the older players. In short, reassure constantly; praise individual good effort; try to find some goal that is achievable; and reassure yourself (and your parents) that kids have very short memories and will be ready to play again within a day or less. Turning to the immediate fixes, here are some instant cures that can help:
Once you are satisfied that your team is holding up against challenges well, then it is time to focus on how you are doing offensively. You will want to take a look at three areas: what you are doing immediately after you get the ball; how quickly the attack is being mounted; and what approach is having the most success.
It is very important to look at what your defenders and/or midfielders are doing with the ball when they regain possession - because you need to maintain possession for a reasonable amount of time in order to mount a successful scoring drive. Are they blindly whacking it up-field, or are they taking enough time to find a target? When they look for a target, is anyone bothering to get open - and call for the ball? Are they carrying the ball themselves if no pressure is applied? If a defender is carrying the ball, is his supporting mid dropping back to cover?
You also need to look at how quickly the attack is being mounted. Often, young players want to streak off towards goal as soon as they get the ball and this means that the forwards and defenders are ending up in footraces. Unfortunately, there are going to be lots of times when the other team will have players who are as fast or faster than yours or will stay deeper than yours, so they have a head start. In general, it's foolish to base any attacking strategy entirely around winning footraces unless you have an exceptional speedster. Even then, you should be careful to avoid over-reliance on one player(as smart coaches can figure out ways to shut him down. In order to build an attack, however, it is necessary to slowdown the attack to give the midfielders time to recover - and to give the defenders time to push up and support the attack. One of the best ways to get this extra time is to pass the ball to the sides, or to pass back to another player who can switch the point of attack to the other side.
In addition, you need to look at whether your team is varying its approach if their initial efforts are not working (i.e., taking the ball down the opposite side or going down the middle if one side seems to have an exceptionally strong opponent). If they are not, you need to suggest this at your earliest chance (but, obviously, do this quietly). If your team has varied its attacks, which ones seem to be the most productive?
After looking at your own defense and fixing any problems, and then looking at your offense (and making adjustments needed), it is time to look at the weaknesses of the opposition. Experienced coaches may be able to do this while making their assessment of their own players - but newer coaches may find that it is more productive to look at their own team's weaknesses first, then look at those of the other team.
Obviously, the first thing that you want to find out is whether they have any obvious holes in their defense. Has the opposing coach put a slow-poke or lazy player on defense? Which side does he play on? Do their mids bother to recover or just watch from the midline? Is the keeper clumsy (drops balls frequently)? Does the keeper have particular problems with certain types of shots (ground balls or air balls)? Does the defense play anyone deep, so that you might be able to capitalize on offside? Does the defense push up too far? How is the defensive speed when compared to your offensive speed? Do any of their defenders tackle well? What do their defenders do when beaten (just stand/watch or keep hustling)?
Based upon your observation of the weaknesses of the opposing defensive group, you will be able to make suggestions to your players about where and how to mount attacks that will have a higher probability of paying off.
After looking at these other factors, you will want to assess any obvious weaknesses in the attack of the opponents. Look for predictability. Who are their obvious "go-to" players? Who are the obvious ball-servers? Do their attacks always come down one side of the field? What type of support is provided to the attackers? How many attackers are usually being sent forward?
This information can be very helpful to you in deciding if you need to tell certain midfielders to mark X more tightly, or if you need to move your defenders around to take advantage of attacking weaknesses. Be sure to look at what the attackers do when your team is on a scoring run. Do they come far back into their defensive half to try to get the ball? Do they leave anybody at the midline? If all of their forwards drop back, you will want to drop your defenders with them - and maybe just leave one player near the midline to apply immediate pressure if any balls start heading back out. By allowing your defenders to guard the opposing forwards deep in their defensive half, you substantially increase your chances of winning the ball back in scoring distance of their goal - which is usually worth the risk if your defenders are trustworthy (and will stay with their marks).
As a beginning coach, you learned to do a quick analysis of the game during the first few minutes, starting at the back and working forward to see if you had any glaring weaknesses. You then went back and looked for areas where your opponent was clearly weak and/or your team was clearly superior. Here is a checklist of questions that you may wish to ask yourself, as you go through this analysis.
(See also "Dealing with Officials".)