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Basic Guide To Formations and Positional Training

Most teams (and new coaches)are thrown into games after just a few practices - often before the coach has had any real chance to teach the players anything. Thus, new coaches often feel intense pressure to "win¾, and may take early losses personally. This can lead them to worry excessively about where to put their players to maximize their „wins¾, when they really should be worrying about giving players enough experience in all parts of the field that „specialization¾ isn¼t necessary.

These same fears of „failure¾ (ie., not winning) also can cause some youth coaches to focus on a few stars and relegate the rest to the bench or supporting roles. When this happens, most of the kids don¼t learn anything or have any fun - and even the development of the „stars¾ can be harmed in the long run.

How You Define "Winning" Will Affect All You Do

It is important to let players and parents know what the coach defines as „winning¾ at the start of the season. In their developmental years, kids really do „win¾ at soccer or any other sport if they have fun with their friends, learn enough about the game to become a fan, and get some healthy exercise. Numerous studies show that, while kids certainly enjoy winning contests, their short attention span allows them to quicklyforget the score in the last game (at least unless some adult makes a big deal out of it). In addition, because kids naturally are more focused on their own performance than on the performance of the group, kids can be perfectly happy if they had a great game themselves - even if the team lost in a blow-out.

Because kids have these wonderfully short memories and an engrained focus on „me¾, any coach can have a „winning¾ season bysetting the kids up to succeed at some task in every game - and praising them for this accomplishment. Of course, a good coach also wants to teach them to work together (and to whittle down the „me¾ focus a bit), so good coaches also will want to include some team objectives which encourage the kids to work together (e.g., „Let¼s see if we can get 3 passes in a row in each quarter¾). So, don¼t be afraid to use a long-term focus and to define „winning¾ in a way that everyonehas a fair chance at succeeding.

Develop A Long-Term Focus

The first few games simply show the skills (if any) which the kids had been taught by any prior coaches - and maybe their natural athletic talent (if any). So, the last thing on the mindof a new coach should be worries about winning the early games. Instead, the focus properly should be on long-term skill development. When this happens, the wins ultimately will start coming to your team as they become one of the more skilled teams onthe field. This can take up to a year or more, so be sure to let everyone know in advance that you do not intend to worry at all about the short-term won/loss record.

How does a new coach who knows nothing about soccer get these kids trained and organized, so that they will be the most skilled? It is not very hard, as long as you keep it simple.

Basic Soccer Positioning Is Easy

Soccer is a very simple game. It has only 3 basic positions which are used in attacking, and only 3 basic positions which are used in defending. This is why many soccer clubs are movingtowards 3v3 and 4v4 games at the younger age levels, so that players get a very good foundation in this basic positioning. In addition, by playing 3v3 or 4v4 soccer, younger players end up with substantially more contact with the ball, which improves their skill level and makes things more fun.

Basic Defensive Positioning In a Nutshell

The 3 basic positions of players on defense are best described by the acronym "PCB" (Pressure-Cover-Balance). The person closest to the ball is called the First Defender, and his job is to provide pressure on the ball.

The second-closest person who is goal-side of the ball (meaning closer to his team's goal than the opponent) is called the Second Defender. His job is to provide cover (as his job is to immediately become the pressure person if the attacker gets by the First Defender). In addition, the Second Defender frequently will have the additional job of guarding (called "marking") another off-ball attacker to whom the ball might be passed for a shot. Typically, the Second Defender will chose to mark ball-side of his mark if possible (but will mark goal-side if he cannot provide proper support for the First attacker or if he knows that his mark is much faster than he is, so that he needs a lead to keep from being beaten).

The defender who is in the deepest position (closest to goal) if a line were to be drawn from the attacker to the goal is called the Third Defender, and his job is to provide balance to the defense. In essence, he is providing additional cover for the two primary defenders, and also watching out for additional incoming attackers making runs towards the center or far post areas of the goal.

All players should be taught these basic principles, and how to apply them in a game setting. It also is very important that players understand their supporting duties to those players who are immediately around them (e.g., that someone who is a midfielder understands that they will be the pressuring defender if closest to the ball, and that they must loop around to provide cover for the defender behind them - and pick up his mark- if beaten by the attacker). Sometimes, young players mistakenly believe that, unless they have been given the job title of "defender", they do not have defensive duties. Indeed, some coaches refuse to even use the label of „defender¾ in orderto avoid this confusion, and just refer to the players at the back of the group as „backs¾, in order to reinforce the idea that everyone is a „defender¾ when their team does not have the ball.

Often, especially for young players, it is easier if they learn the basic positioning in terms of Pressure-Cover-Balance (rather than using terms like First Defender). Thus, all that a young player needsto know if that the closest player to the ball is the Pressure guy and to know what the job of the Pressure guy is. Ditto for the Cover guy and the Balance guy.

Basic Offensive Positioning In a Nutshell

In the attack, there are 3 basic positions. The person with the ball is called the First Attacker. His job is to retain possession while getting the ball as close to goal as possible through dribbling, passing or shooting.

The player(s) within an easy ground pass of the First Attacker are called Second Attackers. Up until the time when the ball is advanced to within scoring range of the goal, the primary role of the Second Attacker(s) is to prevent loss of possession, while still allowing the ball to be advanced forward if at all possible. Prior to getting into scoring range, a single Second Attacker typically will position himself so as to allow short relay passes between himself and the First Attacker (in order to move the ball around the defenders). Of course, the ultimate goal of the attackers is to get the ball past all of the defenders and into unobstructed space within scoring range of the goal.

Thus, as the ball moves within scoring range, the role of the single Second Attacker switches from a "safety-first" orientation of keeping possession (which may even mean moving the ball away from goal inorder to keep it) to the more active role of setting up a shot on goal by himself or the First Attacker.

At this point, the Second Attacker's objective is to move into a position which will allow the First Attacker to pass the ball into "scoring space" behind or to the side of the defenders (i.e., space from which an immediate shot can be taken). The positioning of the single Second Attacker will depend on the number of defenders to be beaten. Normally, however, a single Second Attacker will position himself on the far side of the defenders and set up within scoring range of the far post area, which allows him to distract and/or pull one defender away from the central goal area (or, if unobserved, to sneak in the "back door" while everyone is watching the attacker with the ball.

Where there are two Second Attackers (close supporters) available, they will position themselves to form a moving triangle with their on-ball teammate, by moving into space between or to the side of the defenders so that the ball always has a clear path to their feet. As the ball is moved into scoring range, one of these players often will abandon his close support role and will become a Third Attacker (although this job also may be taken up by any other off-ball teammate who can fulfill the duties).

The Third Attacker's job is to unbalance the defense by making deep runs, usually to the far side of the goal. By doing this, the Third Attacker pulls defenders away from the goal mouth, distracts the keeper and defenders in front of the goal, and opens up space in front of the goal which can be exploited by incoming teammates.

All players need to be taught these basic principles of attacking support. In particular, they need to learn the concepts of setting support triangles (basic keepaway) and how to moveto create basic 2-man and 3-man attacking support, because these tools are essential weapons used by all soccer players to maintain possession in tight spaces and create scoring chances.

Applying These Basic Positioning Principles In Games

Ideally, your players would not be required to play any games before they acquired some basic ball skills and learned some basic soccer positioning. In truth, most clubs probably would bebetter off if they held skills contests instead of games for beginning players (like races to see which team could dribble around all of the cones in the shortest amount of time). However, many clubs throw the kids into games before they are remotely ready to play, which causes coaches to pull their hair out as they try to figure out ways to organize the kids so that they have fun and put their skills to some use.

Part of the puzzle can be solved by making some preliminary decisions about the „style of play¾ which your team will use on attacks and defensively. Because attacking is harder to learn than defense, it often can be helpful to pay more attention to defensive skills at the outset - as this can hold down the scores against your team while your kids are learning the basics (and narrow losses can help to keep parental morale up, especially if the kids clearly are having fun and getting praised for their work).

Picking A Defensive Style of Play

With just a little direction, even very young players will be able to understand that, if their team sends everyone to the opposing goal, their own goal will be wide-open and vulnerable toa counterattack. But, of course, if everyone stays back to guard their goal, they won't ever score (and, besides, this would be boring).

Ask them for their solutions to the defensive problem. One of the first suggestions which you probably will get is to leave somebody by the goal. However, when you ask for volunteers, you are likely tofind that everyone will want to be in the attacking group.

Well, if nobody wants to stay to guard the goal, then what other solutions are available?

Option 1: Man-Marking

One defensive solution is to have everyone pick one of the players on the other team to guard when the other team has the ball. Instantly, you have introduced the concept of marking - and following your mark. But, what happens if somebody loses his mark (either because he gets distracted or is slower than his mark)? Well, then you need to have the nearest available player jump in and cover for him, right? This is the second basic element of defensive support - and needs to be learned (and re-learned) constantly. However, man-marking may be unsuited for players below u10s, as they tend to be very distractable. In addition, because of smaller player size/strength, most opposing players tend not to be scoring threats until fairly close to goal - so it may be a waste of defensive manpower to mark players outside of scoring range.

Option 2: High Pressure Defense (Defensive Swarm)

If young children are put onto a field with a soccer ball, divided into teams, and just told to use their feet to kick the ball into the goal of the opponent, they will instinctively play "swarm ball" (or"magnet ball" or take the "beehive approach to soccer"). Why? Because they all like to be together and to stay where the action is. As a result, they instinctively are applying a defensive style which is known as „high-pressure defense¾, wherebyseveral players try to surround the opponent and keep him from going forward.

Is the swarm a "bad" thing? Not from a defensive standpoint. The swarm actually tends to be very effective at shutting down attacks by an opponent - at least until the opponent has learned to spread outon its attacks and has developed the skill to accurately pass the ball to open players. Moreover, kids tend to adjust automatically as the swarm becomes less effective, so the size of the swarm becomes smaller over time - even without coaching intervention.

Whether or not to permit a swarm obviously will depend on the number of players whom you have on the field. In 3v3 or 4v4, it will be harder to swarm with more than 2 players, because you will leave your goal wide open if you commit too many players to the swarm. In 6v6 or above, it is possible to use a multi-person swarm fairly effectively.

Option 3: Low-Pressure Defense

Another defensive solution is available which also can be easy for younger players to execute. In this solution, you can send 1 player to slow down the person with the ball (and another oneto back him up) in order to give time for everyone else on the team to get back and make a swarm in front of the goal area. This is called "low-pressure defense," and is an approach which can work well IF the pressuring players know how to do their jobs and IF the retreating players remain alert to the need to become the pressuring players themselves if the ball is played to an attacker who is close to them. In fact, many top-level international teams use the low-pressure defensive system, so we werenot kidding that a defensive „swarm¾ is not necessarily a bad thing. Of course, once attacking players are within scoring range, they usually must be marked - particularly when opposing players have developed the leg strength to make lofted shotson goal.

Handling Other Common Defensive Problems

What happens if the other team has some really fast players? Well, if you also have some really fast players who are good defensively, one easy solution is to man-mark these particular threats (even if you are using a low-pressure or high-pressure system overall). Bear in mind that even a slow defender can be quite effective in stopping a speedy attacker once he learns basic defensive footwork and positioning. Lots of players who have had exposure to other sports such as basketball already will have been exposed to these concepts. Essentially, the job of the initial pressuring defender is to slow the attacker down by getting in his way, steadily dropping back as slowly as possible - and not making any attempt to win the ball until cover has arrived. This is a job which anyone can do with practice, so do not allow your slower players to avoid learning these vital skills because of their lack of speed.

Picking An Attacking Style of Play

Once you have decided on the best way to defend your own goal, then you are ready to decide the best way to attack the goal of the opposing team. Many youth coaches are inclined to put their biggest/fastest kids as attackers to try to outrun the opposition, and to try to get the ball to these speedsters as quickly as possible by having their defenders „boot it¾ down the field. This is a style of ball which is known as „boot-ball¾. It is somewhat similar to an attacking style which is known as „direct play¾ (although done with considerably less finesse).

Although this approach may be effective initially, it tends to produce terrible soccer players in the long run. Why? Because it promotes over-specialization (nobody gets to be an attacker except for 1-2 stars), and because it fails to teach any of the players how to retain the ball in tighter spaces by using teammates. Over time, the early-maturing players who were the „stars¾ on these teams lose their size/speed advantage as puberty starts to level the playing field. Because they only know how to be a fast-break forward, most upper-level teams will not be interested in them. Meanwhile, the supporting players whose only job was to mindlessly boot the ball upfield to the stars will have learned no ball control skills, and likely will have only mediocre defensive skills as well. So, resist the temptation to adopt the boot-ball style of play.

In the long run, the best future training for players is to teach „possession-style¾ soccer based upon the basic offensive positioning noted above. In this approach, players are taught to control the ball well by using their body and feet to shield it from an opponent; use supporting teammates to move the ball in tight spaces by means of short passes (which get longer as they develop strength and ball control); and to have the courage/ability totake on a pressuring opponent by dribbling. By developing these skills early in a 3v3 or 4v4 setting (as well as in smaller settings of 1v1, 2v1, 2v2, etc.), the players will have little difficulty when extra players are added into the mix - as these extra players simply will provide additional options on where to move the ball.

For suggestions on how to train your players in these basic positions, see the Practice Plan section .

Picking Formations For Older RecTeams

Okay, but what if you are stuck with a team which is playing 8v8 or 9v9 or 11v11 - even though it is plain that many of them need lots of remedial work in basic skills? And, what happenswhen you get your team assigned only 2 weeks before your first game - so that there is no possible way to hope to have covered even beginning 1v1 work before you are thrown to the sharks?

You are not an idiot. You know that, unless you have solid credentials as a coach, many parents and players may start questioning your abilities if your team starts losing its games by big margins. And,your job of player development may be complicated by the fact that your team is blessed with at least 1-2 players who have little athletic talent/interest, or who have physical/mental impairments which make learning more challenging (so it is unlikely that these kids will become soccer players even if you spent every waking hour on the task). Sometimes, the kids on the team may have lots of overall athletic talent, but may be smaller/younger than average and cannot expect to win footraces or pushing contests with kids who are one foot taller and 50 pounds heavier, so you may have to face the reality that short-term wins are very unlikely, no matter what you do.

When you are facing these types of predicaments, it may become necessary to use some initial positioning assignments just to buy the time needed to work on the basic skills of the core group of players (bearing in mind that it may take 2 or more seasons to accomplish this). While it IS possible to play virtually positionless soccer from the beginning (even with older groups) by adopting an approach based upon natural swarming , it may be so unfamiliar to your audience that you decide that it is more trouble than it is worth. So, if you decide to use positional assignments for your group, then here are some suggestions.

The First Few Weeks

For the first few games at least, consider putting your best players on defense. While you probably will not score, at least you will avoid getting quite as badly clobbered. As quickly as you can, try to develop a few promising players to work in as wing defenders (which will allow you to rotate your more seasoned players into the central midfield or even into a forward role). It is generally considered that the hardestjob on the field is sweeper (or central defender, if no sweeper); the second hardest is center midfield and central defender (with a sweeper behind him), followed by center forward, left defender, left mid, right forward, right defender, left forward, and right midfielder. Typically, for weaker or less-talented players, it is conventional wisdom to put them in one of the easier positions and sandwich them between two solid players (so that there is good cover if they run into problems).

Take Care With Positional Rules

Having started out with assigning players to particular positions in a formation, it may be difficult to try to abandon the positional approach later. All is not lost, however.

Why? Because you can set positional rules which allow maximum flexibility to participate in the play. For example, those players who are assigned to act as wing defenders can be given positional "rules" to cover opposing attackers - but will not have their feet nailed to the midline. Instead, they will be permitted to follow the opposing attackers anywhere (so, if their mark drops back to his own PA to try to get the ball, your defender will be on his heels trying to steal it back and put it in the net). Your sweeper likewise will be given great freedom to simply play off of the main group of teammates as the trailing defender (the 3rd Defender - or Balance person). If everyone is at the opposing goal, then he can move up as well - and even score if the ball comes his way. Your center mid will be assigned to act as the fill-in for the sweeper, and assigned to drop back to cover if the sweeper goes to goal. Other players will also be given support duties for the players beside, in front of, and behind them.

Adopt Developmental Rotation Plans

Additionally, you will create a plan to train your players so that, over the course of 1-2 seasons, most will be able to play in any position on the field. Finally, you will spend considerable time teaching the fundamental principles of support and defense (as well as the skills at their foundation). As a result, as your players gain the knowledge and skill to apply these principles, their "positions" ultimately will serve more as guidelines for their major area of responsibility while they are in this particular relative space.

What initial formation should you choose? The basic decisions involved in choosing formations are covered in the Advanced section, along with a discussion of various common types of formations. However, regardless of the formation which is chosen, you must remember that your ultimate goal is to develop every player to the point where he can do any job on the field with reasonable competence and that, to reach this goal, each player MUST know the basic principles of offensive and defensive support.

Specialization Is For Advanced Players - Not Beginners

As players get to high school age, it is likely that they will start to "specialize" in one or two particular areas of the field which best suit their talents. At this stage, coaches willpay greater attention to adopting a formation and style of play which capitalizes on the special skills/talents available, while masking any weaknesses, because the players have progressed intellectually to the point where their brains are ready for thechallenge of complex tactical decisions - and have developed emotionally to the point where they are more willing to make sacrifices of their individual goals for the goals of the group. Even at this age, however, coaches must be mindful of their duty to work on correcting those weaknesses, instead of merely trying to cover them up.

Do not make the mistake of treating beginning players like older players. There is a huge difference between a 17 year old player and an 8 year old. Furthermore, there is a huge difference between a 12year old beginner and a 12 year old who has been playing soccer for six years.

New players need to gain experience in all positions. Don¼t try to „hide¾ them in positions which will cover up their deficiencies. This is the lazy coach approach. Far better to take the timeto develop their skills, so that they do not need to be hidden.

Of course, this does not mean that a player should be forced into a position/job for which he clearly is not ready. Many shy players are relucant to play goalkeeper, for instance. While it may be okay to give them chances to try this out in practice, and push them to try, games may be a different story. If they really think that they will humiliate themselves at playing keeper, they will rarely do a good job there. Ditto for players who are fearful of playing forward or back positions. So, if you get a shy one or perfectionistic one who is afraid to try new things, you may need to take a longer term approach to their particular development. As long as you are keeping the player¼s development in mind in making positioning decisions, rather than focusing on the „wins¾, you should pat yourself on the back.

Will you make mistakes? Of course. Some probably will be doozies. But, every game or two, you will have some little tyke who gets the wonderful „I can¼t believe I did it¾ grin on his face as he attempts something which he never thought was possible - and it works. Be careful about those grins, though. They tend to be addictive!

Updated 27 October 1998
Overview | Principles | Resources | Practical Guidelines | Game Day | Very Young | More Reading