Total soccer for children

When should coaches start assigning specific positions to young players?

By Mike Woitalla (from Soccer America Magazine, January 2008 issue)

We see it so often one wonders whether American youth coaches are getting their soccer advice from Garry Kasparov.

“Kids come up to the halfway line,” says Sam Snow, U.S. Youth Soccer’s Director of Coaching Education, “and actually balance themselves not to go past it, because they suddenly realize, ‘Oh my god, there’s the line that I’m not supposed to go past.’ Their arms are swinging, it’s almost like they’re on a balance beam or something.”

It’s a prime example of overcoaching – prevalent even though it’s generally agreed that pickup games or street soccer spawned the world’s greatest players.

And because it’s widely lamented that American children don’t play enough soccer in unsupervised games, where they’re allowed to experiment and enjoy the freedom of the sport, the sensible response is that organized soccer for young children replicate a pickup-game environment.

One of pickup soccer’s main characteristics is that players explore the field as they wish and decide on their own how to position themselves. I am constantly impressed with how even very young children begin to comprehend positioning without being instructed.

Snow recommends that coaches not worry much about talking to children about positions at the U-6 and U-8 levels.

“We’re saying, from U-10 on up, begin to tell them the names of the positions, show them where they are, but don’t screw them into the ground,” Snow says. “Don’t say, ‘You play here and you’re not allowed to go beyond a certain part of the field.'”

At the higher levels, teams interchange positions. Making players rely on instructions in their early years isn’t likely to prepare them to read the game on their own. Besides, the children’s instincts often make more sense than the sideline instructions. Manny Schellscheidt is the head of the U.S. Soccer Federation’s U-14 boys national development program and Seton Hall University coach. He sees older players he calls “position stuck.”

“When they don’t know exactly what to do,” Schellscheidt says, “they go to the spot they’re most familiar with regardless of what the game is asking for.”

The easy answer to the question of when to assign positions is to make it moot by using a small sided format, as recommended by U.S. Youth Soccer (U6: 3v3; U8: 4v4; U10: 6v6; U12: 8v8).

“The small-sided game environment for preteen players aids the players in learning concepts of play, for example positioning as opposed to positions,” says Snow.

Schellscheidt says, “It needs to be small enough so positions don’t matter. That’s the best solution. If coaches would have the patience to graduate their kids from really small numbers, one step at a time, that would be the most natural and the most potent education the players could possibly get.

“They would learn to deal with time and space, and how to move around and have some shape. The problem is we go to the bigger numbers too early.”

Even if the league doesn’t use a small-sided format for its games, Schellscheidt recommends that approach in practice. Above all, don’t scream orders from the sidelines and shackle players to areas of the field.

“It destroys the children’s natural instinct of being part of the game,” he says.

Bob Jenkins, U.S. Soccer’s Director of Coaching Education and Youth Development, says youth coaches are “skipping steps” when they try to organize and discipline young teams to play within a formation at a stage when they should be focused on the 2-on-1 situations.

Overemphasizing positions, Schellscheidt says, demonstrates the difference between team development and player development.

“There’s such a difference,” he says. “You can divvy up the field, make players rehearse what they’re supposed to do in their small areas, and as far as team development it works fine because they can find a quick way to get results. It’s a short cut to success, but the kids don’t become good players.”

U.S. Soccer’s “Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in the United States” is pretty clear on the subject of allowing young players to make their own decisions on the field:
“A team of 9-year-olds who hold their positions and maintains a steady group of defenders who rarely, if ever venture into the attack, looks like a well-disciplined and well-organized team.”

But U.S. Soccer does not recommend this approach, clearly stating it isn’t how to develop good players:

“This approach hinders the player’s ability to experience and enjoy the natural spontaneity of the game. It does not allow players to have an equal opportunity to go and ‘find’ the game based on what they see from the game or to handle the ball and develop instincts for the game.

“These are skills that they will need at the older ages and that are often lacking in the older players.”

(This article originally appeared in the January 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)

The numbers game – building up from small sided games

How 1v1 leads to 4-3-3 and it’s role in player development

a youth soccer coaching article by Larry Paul of the Burke Athletic Club

Changing the number of players in a team can change the way the team plays. It can mean new responsibilities or opportunities for everyone. The structure, or form, that the game takes is called systems of play. Here, Eric Cantona argues, tongue in cheek, against these systems in favour of a high risk 1-1-8, takes you to YouTube. It’s the “Just let them play school” taken to extremes. While this is good theatre it’s not practical advice. After all, Eric couldn’t have played the role of the playmaker at Manchester United without those six or seven players behind him doing the dirty work. And he never could have learned all of his great attacking qualities by “Working harder, not smarter” as a youth. Someone else was moving the piano.

In youth soccer development the numbers 1v1 to 11v11 play an important role. They provide a clear starting and ending point for evaluations and learning, a simple path that provides both the tools to measure and assist in the process. This one element of the game, the number of players, provides you with a powerful way to help the players develop their TIC and to make a greater contribution to the game. In the end that’s all the players want; to have an impact and to play a role in the outcome.

1v1. The basic form of soccer. Each player is learning opposite lessons in the game. Without a basic grasp of this level what follows will be much more difficult.

2v2. Working with a teammate. Cooperating to achieve an objective.

3v3. If two’s company and three’s a crowd you had better sort it out here. Now the game revolves around a shape and a centre.

4v4 is special. It’s the smallest form of real soccer and the fastest way to develop an appreciation of all of the basic tasks and skills. Generally the four players assume a diamond shape, it’s the most efficient and effective way to cover the field and that creates the following learning opportunities.

The sweeper can learn to play as a centre-back. Their basic task when in possession will be to build up the attacks and support the midfielders. When the opponents have possession they’ll have to mark the striker 1v1.

The midfielders first defensive task is to neutralize their immediate opponent, again 1v1. In possession they also have to help in the build up and then support their own striker. Getting forward to score goals is a bonus, a supplementary task. They learn the roles and skills of the right and left midfielder through their position and responsibilities.

The top player can learn the role of the target player and/or striker. These jobs require different skill sets and will depend a lot on the qualities of the player themselves. They will also have to defend against the opponents sweeper, a la 1v1.

The beauty of 4v4 is that the players interchange positions as they see fit, as the situations dictate. They change within the flow of the game to meet the needs of the team. This flow cannot be effectively controlled by the coach, it’s up to the players to see and develop their “Feel” for when to go, when to stay and which job is most important. If a player is comfortable in a specific role they can develop a level of expertise in it. They adopt it as their own. In any case, over time players will have to use both feet in attack, defence, to dribble, pass, tackle and shoot in all of the areas, i.e., right, left, top and back, of the field. They have to fill all of the basic roles, i.e., ball winner, goal scorer and playmaker, of the real game. They have to deal with hundreds of 1v1’s, 2v1’s, 2v2’s, all of those smaller forms in the context a real game.

5v5 – Without goalkeepers. With the addition of an extra player one of the basic tasks from 4v4 will be duplicated. This affects the distances, angles, space and tasks of all of the players. On the smaller field it also encourages the use of two line play.

3-2, adding the 5th player up top. This creates a three player back line because the midfielders don’t have to go forward as much and have less space to do so. It changes them to a right and left fullback’s that work alongside the center back. When the opponents also play a 3-2 one of the back players will be free. If it’s one of the outside players they can practice playing as a wing back. If they are marking the opposition, the centre back is free and can play as a libero. Up top the second striker can play off of the first. One player can assume the role of target player while the other plays as the striker. The 3-2 alignment encourages building up from the back because the team’s balance favours it.

2-3, adding the 5th player to the back. Now the midfielders don’t need to come back as often so they play farther up. This works well when you are better then your opponent. If not, the two back players will be under constant pressure and will have a hard time building up the attack. When both teams play this way the game usually degenerates into two different 3v2’s, one in each half of the field. A team must make up in superior qualities what it lacks in numbers. Since the build up precedes the attacking phase if back players aren’t up to the task the game can get ugly fast.

1-3-1, adding the 5th player to the midfield. Only the best players and teams should try this. It demands a high level of technical and tactical qualities, especially from the central midfielder. Not only do they have to understand their own game but they need to know where everybody else is at all times. The central midfielder will need to fill in all of the other roles as players move and be comfortable in them all.

5v5 – With goalkeepers. This is basically the same as 4v4 on the field. The addition of a goalkeeper has little effect on the other four players roles.

6v6 usually means the introduction of a goalkeeper. The five players on the field follow the same outline as 5v5 above. 6v6 without a goalkeeper is not seen in competition. In training it’s a good way to present the basic tasks of 7v7 and to force an aggressive defense.

7v7 one of the standard small sided games. The examples below assume a goalkeeper;

3-3, the basis for three attackers in 11v11. This is the smallest form for developing wingers. Each flank player in the top line, each winger has an immediate opponent, i.e. they need to develop their 1v1 skills. They have a marked central striker, i.e. a target to play to and an opposing goalkeeper who cuts out the poorer crosses. The large goal offers the choice to cross or shoot. This is a good form for introducing 4-3-3 and 3-4-3.

4-2, the basics of the counter attacking game. You can use this form for teaching either, the four back players behind two central midfielders, or, the four midfielders behind the two central strikers in 11v11. The former encourages a counterattacking philosophy and develops a holding midfielder while the latter can help to develop the playmaker. He or she has three players behind them to defend and two players in front of to find. That means fewer defensive responsibilities and many opportunities to find a target or carry the ball forward. The communication and the separation of tasks between the two central back players is a key learning point. This is a good form for introducing the 4-4-2 forms.

2-3-1, this structure asks a lot of youth players. First, the lone striker will find themselves isolated quite a bit. The outside midfielders must be able to cover the entire length of the field, corner flag to corner flag. Because of this they will constantly find themselves chasing the ball, an opponent or both. Because of their defensive responsibilities they will be starting their attacks, and making crosses, from deep positions and this does not develop the wing play qualities of the 3-3. Because the lone striker won’t be able to pressurize the opponents back line effectively, one or more of the midfielders will often push up. However, if they are starting from positions too far back they get forward too late. The ball passes by them and the back two are exposed. Finally, unless one of the three midfielders drops back to play with the back two, the back two players will not have many chances to carry the ball forward or join in the attack. They have problems building up and resort to the long ball. Teams that use this form will need to rely on strong physical qualities as opposed to technical/tactical ones. This is a form for developing the 3-5-2 form.

3-2-1, the Christmas tree. With an emphasis on defence this takes the 2-3-1 to a new negative level. The difference between the two forms is that in the later there are two full time defenders and three part timers while the former is reversed. The change is in one players basic tasks. The problems are similar to the 2-3-1, an isolated striker and midfielders who have to cover a lot of ground. The advantage is the increased strength of the back line. The extra defensive player can help to reduce the midfielders need to come back. Two players can cover the back when the third joins in the attack. This is a good form for developing the 4-5-1 or 5-3-2.

8v8, the other standard small sided game. The biggest change between 7v7 and 8v8 is it’s easier to play three real lines in 8v8. When you use three players as the basis for a line there are only three players left. (Some coaches try to use a 2-2-2 but this does not adequately cover the field.) By using the basic forms from 7v7 some of the forms you can make are; 3-1-3, 3-2-2, 3-3-1, 4-2-1. All of these forms use three lines with a minimum back line of three players. The eighth player creates the need for an even greater separation of tasks, the extra line and that lengthens the team. A four player line might be overkill in protecting the width.

9v9 to 11v11. These are considered to be full sized games.

The bottom line on player development.

Player development should have a clear starting and end point. – It’s not a random set of technical skills without context. 1v1 to 11v11 contains all of the moments, tasks and TIC. You have to know where you are, where you’re going and how you are going to get there. This progression does that.

It should follow a simple and logical progression. – The different sizes of the game. Use uneven numbers to bridge the gaps.

It should take into account to individual differences. – The coach should look for, cater to and develop the players strengths first. Build on what they can do before obsessing on what they can’t. Also, avoid mass solutions. Not all of the players suffer from the same diseases.

The coach must balance between the present and potential qualities. – Use the different forms and roles to explore potential. Todays striker is tomorrows centre back.

Ultimately a players development is measured by their contribution to the game. They don’t get style points, they need to get the job done.

Their contribution to the game rests on their general and special qualities and how they are applied to the game. – Everybody is different. This is why Festival play is such an important part in development. Players learn about differences in themselves and others.

These qualities can be enhanced or hindered by the role they are assigned in the team. – With older players match the qualities to the role. There are only two reasons why players fail. They are at the wrong level or in the wrong position. In recreational soccer having players at the wrong level goes with the territory. Having them in the wrong position goes with the plan.

Put the pressure on!

When you consider that lack of pressure on the player with the ball is one of the primary reasons that goals are scored, and that goals are plentiful in small sided games, taking a few minutes to understand pressurising is time well spent.


team pressureTo be effective the pressurising player should be on the goal-side of the player with the ball at a distance of not more than two yards, diagram on the right. The pressurising player should always remember that his job, wherever possible, is to keep the opposition playing in front of him and deny the opportunity for the opponent to pass the ball forward… Players who are pressurising opponents should adopt a position which will allow them to turn quickly. It is important that the defender should turn through 90, not 180 degrees.”

In order to achieve this the defender will need to position him/herself slightly off of the attackers direct line to goal and stand sideways on. That is, the feet should positioned so that they are not facing the ball directly, but rather the space that the defender wants the attacker to move into.

Stay sideways onIn the diagram on the left the blue defender is showing the attacker to his right side. This makes the play predictable for the defender. If the attacker tries to cut behind the defender, the defender only needs to step back or turn and show the attacker into a channel on the other side. This also allows the defender to poke tackle with the foot closest to the ball, turn and block tackle with the foot farthest from the ball and if the attacker pushes the ball past the defender and tries to run onto it, the defender can easily step in front of the attacker and win the ball. These 1v1 moments are very much a cat and mouse part of the game. The attacker will try to use the ball as bait, some type of move or simply run past the defender. It’s up to the defender to exercise control and restraint and wait for the correct moment and only then attempt to win the ball.

Don’t recover too deep

tactics“Before a player can challenge for the ball he must recover either level with the man with the ball or preferably on the goal-side of the man with the ball. It is, however a mistake to recover too far beyond the ball into a position where the ball can still be played forward.”

By taking the path in fig. 1, number 9 will recover to a position where the blue player won’t have any trouble passing the ball past him. Number 9 will have to turn and run back again. The path in fig. 2 puts number 9 closer to the blue player with the ball. Now, even if he can’t win the ball he has a good chance of keeping the play in front of him.

Recovery Lines

recovery lines“Should a player be in doubt concerning his best line of recovery he should follow the following guide. Players on a flank should follow a line towards the near post, players in central positions should follow a line towards the penalty spot. Once a players reaches a position on the goal-side of the ball the line of recovery and marking or supporting responsibilities should be reassessed. Defenders who are outnumbered should also retreat towards their goal.”

It’s also a problem in youth soccer that children don’t recover far or soon enough, especially on the flanks. Often outside defenders follow an attacker who has beaten them rather then recover towards the goal. This results in their staying behind the ball, close enough for a Kodak moment, but not close enough to be of any use. Young players on the opposite side of the field often fail to recognize that there is a problem. The distance across the field removes them from any responsibility, so, they don’t start running until the ball, opponent and their own goal comes into view. (This is a popular moment for coaches and parents to get involved in the game.) Recovery lines resemble a funnel. The team needs to regroup and concentrate in goal-side positions. Remember the words of Coach Kit Carson, “Head ’em off at the pass.”

Challenging For The Ball

1) Start fast, arrive slow. The defender must make up the distance between himself and the opponent while the ball is in flight. This is the time that the attacker doesn’t have control and the defender can move in for an interception or tackle. If intercepting the pass is not likely, the defender should slow down just before getting to the attacker.

2) Intercept. When a defender is marking a player that is waiting for a pass it’s best to intercept the ball. This way the attacker gets no touch. The defender will need anticipate the situation and move into the line of flight of the ball before the attacker does.

3) Tackle. If an interception isn’t possible then tackling is the next option. The defender should consider an immediate tackle if; he has a free supporting player in a good position; he arrives at the same time that the ball does; the pass is poor and gives the attacker problems; the attacker has poor control; the defender can totally dominate the attacker. These decisions must be made in a matter of seconds in a dynamic situation and the defender must be careful not to commit a foul. (5v2 is a good game to teach defenders how to pick the correct moment when to go into a tackle.)

4) Force the attacker inside or outside. There are times to force attackers into the centre of the field, i.e. the winger wants the full back to play the ball into the centre. And there are times to force the attackers down the line. In these situations it’s important that the individual decisions are in agreement with the overall team plan. This is the same thing as reducing the passing angles.

5) Prevent them from turning. If the attacker has controlled the ball and is facing his own goal then the defender needs to be close enough to prevent him from turning. An attacker facing his own goal is much less of a threat then one facing yours. Also, turning with a defender right behind you is a very difficult task. The ball is often put the ball up for grabs.

6) Stay on your feet. Going to ground is a last resort, desperate measures for desperate times.

7) Launch a counter attack. The moment of winning the ball can present a golden opportunity for a counter attack. The opponents can be spread out supporting the attack and several may have moved ahead of the ball. The defence maybe in no position to stop a quick strike.

8) If you can’t win the ball, control the situation. Finally, if the defender has done everything properly but cannot arrive in time to intercept and a clean tackle is not possible, then he should contain the attacker and show him into the least dangerous space.

Team Pressurising

There are two basic philosophies for team pressurising, high and low pressure. The first is found in the playmaking style and is marked by an aggressive, force the error approach. The second is more useful in counter attacking play where time favours the defence and mistakes by the attackers are are guided and encouraged.

Teams that allow themselves to get stretched from end to end or side to side will have a hard time pressuring their opponents. When the opponents regain possession teams need to get compact and establish their defensive shape. The following will help team pressurising:

1) Staying within the plan. One of the first things that a team needs to do is to before they take the field is to decide generally how they want to play. While this can become involved at the minimum teams should have an idea how they will defend as a team. How far up field will the team defend? What will everyone’s role be when the opponents regain possession? How will the lines react to each other and the individuals in the lines? Without a plan it’s every man for himself, a sure way to disunity and disaster.
2) By the back players pushing up. This includes the goal keeper. Teams at the higher levels now flood the midfield. Playing with a sweeper ten yards behind the backs is “so 70’s” and obsolete. Back defenders that fail to rapidly push up allow big gaps between themselves and the midfield.
3) By the top players dropping back. The days when the forwards were all glory and no work are long gone. The forwards represent the first line of defense as well as the last line of attack. Teams that play with three forwards can pressurize must deeper then a team that plays with two.
4) By shifting across the field. The entire team will need to shift across the field to counter the opponents threats. This helps to minimize the space between players in each line. It’s normal to find the right back in the centre of the field when the ball is on the left flank.

Teaching positions to young soccer players (U-9, U-10, U-11)

By: Chico Borja, NSCAA National Staff Coach

When is the right time to teach younger teams field positions?

You might say, aren’t we neutralizing a younger player when we ask them to stay in one position? I then could say, even at such a young age, aren’t we neglecting the creativity of a player and his or her ability to think on the field?

I believe there is a happy medium. Continue to teach the kids the basic skills like trapping and dribbling. Furthermore, spend as much time as needed showing them how a ball can go forward but how it can also go from side-to-side and sometimes backward. This is the perfect time to introduce the word “build” in your practices. To build means to create. Let me give you a little background!

During my professional playing days in Wichita, Kan., I was asked by a good friend of mine to attend a try-out for an under-8 boy’s soccer team. About 25 to 30 kids showed up, including my son Piri. There was only one coach “committed” to training these kids, so one of the parents suggested they find another coach and create two teams.

Every parent, without missing a beat, turned their heads toward me and waited for an acknowledgment. I was and still am very critical of my son, so reluctantly I agreed to coach my sons’ team. I was still a player mind you, so coaching was not necessarily something I thought was hard to do. Boy was I wrong. It has taken me the last few years as an NSCAA National Staff member to realize that.

Well, back to Wichita and the “Stars” soccer team. We started practicing trapping, dribbling and passing and yet for the most part, during our games, the kids never used those skills. During the games, the kids would just kick the ball and run after it. The kids played what we then called “bunch ball”. Two bunches of kids, one from each team, running after the ball as it ricochets from player to player. After a few minutes, one of the kids managed to kick the ball straight toward the other goal. Another player was fast enough to beat everybody else and managed to kick the ball hard enough to score. The goalkeeper, scared to move in either direction, was just standing on the goal line.

As a former player, I figured out quickly that I needed to put the fastest player as a forward and keep him there, and have a strong kicker as a defender and keep him there. My formation was a keeper, a defender, a “bunch” and a forward; my son. Hey, I was the coach and he was fast. Well, that formation lasted about a month. Without prior coaching knowledge about when to teach players the different positions, I took a chance. During one practice, I started to teach them one by one the different positions and what each one did on the field. I placed cones at each position and took the players on a walk-through from goalkeeper to center forward. Yes, the kids were all 8-years old but I got their attention. We played what I now know to be a form of “shadow play”. The players started on each cone and we went forward! The players had to be mindful to stay together on the left, center, and right sides of the field. They passed the ball forward from one position to the other until we found the forward player. We practiced this drill for about 20 minutes each practice.

After about a month, I introduced switching the field. Yes, switching the field! They would pass the ball forward until I yelled “it’s closed,” which meant there were imaginary players in front of them and that they needed to stop and pass the ball backward. The receiving player would then pass the ball across to a player: the stopper, sweeper or midfielder in the middle, and then to a player on the other side of the field. We worked on this drill for about 20 to 30 minutes each practice. Needless to say, after about two months of practicing shadow play, there was a huge difference in our team and the rest of the league. We went from bunch ball to switching the field and thus playing a more developed form of soccer. Those were the days of 11-on-11 games for the younger ages. Now, most of the youth leagues, depending on the group, play games with fewer players on the field.

I believe, contrary to popular belief, that you should spend some time teaching younger teams the different positions in soccer. By using small-sided drills and games, it develops the player faster. You start with a basic 4-player formation on a small practice field. The players can create triangles between the back player, the outside players and the forward player, thus creating better understanding of passing and supporting angles.

The “swarm”? A legitimate team shape?

How many times have you heard a coach or parent call out “John, remember your position!” or “John, you’re supposed to be playing fullback!” during a game? How many times have you done it yourself? I’ll plead guilty right away. Sometimes it seems like coaches (and some parents) are obsessed with getting the kids to play position. Is this ok or are we making unreasonable demands on the kids and as a result spoiling their enjoyment of the game? Remember, in AYSO, the game is for the players, not the coaches or parents. The short answer is that there is no short answer, but in this note I will try to cast some light on the matter, and perhaps help you see the issue of playing position from a different perspective, that of “team shape”.

First, the answer depends a great deal on the age of the kids. I would expect that by 12-14, most players understand why positional play is important and what the field positions are, but I would not expect everybody to succeed in translating that into actual game play until 14-16. In contrast, at age 5, I would expect no understanding and no interest at all in playing position. Obviously sometime between ages 5 and14, coaches are expected to teach positional play and (we hope) that the players will catch on. The key question is when and why? My belief, based on many years of coaching this age group, is that we generally try to do this too early, and that this is the root cause of a lot of the sideline shouting on the subject. Sadly it sometimes also leads coaches to teach bad habits that become a liability in later years.

Anyone who has watched 11-a-side (or even 7-a-side) at the 6-8 age is familiar with the “swarm” – everybody chasing the ball and nobody playing position. In contrast, you may also have seen players standing in fixed positions on the field, especially defenders standing on the edge of the penalty area. Which mode of play is more fun? Since the kids will chase the ball if given the chance I think the answer is the swarm. It is obvious which is better exercise. You might be surprised that I also believe that the swarm is better at developing soccer ability. But isn’t it important that the kids learn to play position? Certainly, but not until it is necessary, and definitely not at the expense of developing the basic instincts that a soccer player needs. If I had to pick the most important characteristic of a good soccer player, it would be “hustle” – the desire to win the ball, get open for passes and deny opponents space to play or receive the ball. These abilities can go a long way to make up for pure soccer skills. Every coach loves a player with hustle! Yet it’s hard to teach, especially if the formative years are spent standing around playing position!

Playing position only matters once the skill level and mental development of the kids has risen to the point where it makes sense to them and is also actually useful in the game. This happens rather later then most people think, not usually before the age of nine in average kids. Defensively, the need to play position arises once the opposition can kick the ball a long distance or can dribble or pass out of the swarm and break away. In either case it becomes more important for the defensive team to cover the strategic areas of the field. As defensive abilities improve, the offensive team has to pass the ball to find open space and try to isolate defenders one-on-one. This requires that the players spread out and stretch the defence. Once players mature enough to loft the ball thirty yards or more, as happens between age eleven and fourteen on average, good positional organization becomes very important, both offensively and defensively. But playing position away from the ball requires mental maturity, putting team before self, something that also only develops in the early teen years. Fortunately the game moves much faster at this level and frequent changes of direction and location of play occur, so that participation is ensured for everyone, even when playing position. This is simply not the case in the younger age groups and playing position often literally means no touches of the ball for long periods. This can’t be right for young players.

If you watch a top-level game, you will see that the players position themselves so that the team as a whole has a definite “shape”, with the players generally spaced evenly in that shape, so as to cover the whole territory. As the game develops, players are constantly adjusting their positions relative to one another and to the actual play. On defence the shape contracts in an attempt to deny space and put more players near the ball (a kind of swarm!). On offence the team shape expands to try to create space and break the shape of the defence. What you will hardly ever see is a player standing still. Players are constantly in motion, fine-tuning their position, covering for their teammates and compensating for changes in the opponents’ strategy. The offside law plays a key role in encouraging a compact shape on defence. By making it illegal to for an opponent to receive the ball in an offside position behind the defence, the law encourages defences to push towards their opponents’ goal and limit the space for their opponents to play in. This is another reason why teaching defending players to stand on their penalty area is wrong – it allows the opposition to freely use the space between the half-way line and the penalty area without the risk of being offside and develops a bad defensive habit that is hard to break later.

Team shape is what I concentrate on when introducing positional play. More than anything else, I want the players to “stay connected” as a unit and not break into separate groups. I want the whole team involved all of the time, so I am always encouraging my defence to move up the field to at least the half-way line when we are attacking. Sometimes my team will give up goals on breakaways that might have been prevented by having the defence on the penalty area. That’s a small price to pay for teaching the right long-term strategy and having all my team involved in the game.

Many of the difficulties of teaching positional play are made worse by playing too many players on a team, because this increases the “need” to assign them positions in an attempt to avert the swarm. The right answer is to adjust the number of players on the team to the development level of the players! AYSO National is committed to reducing team sizes in the younger age groups and we are in the forefront of this process in the Palo Alto region. In 1998 we introduced the 4-a-side program for the boys Under-7 age group and it has been very successful. It has many benefits, not least that teaching positional play is a non-problem by design. In the 2000 season, 4-a-side was extended to both the Under-8 and Under-7 divisions, and 7-a-side was introduced for the Under-10 and Under-9 divisions. In 2002, the Under-9 divisions switched to 5-a-side, as the jump to 7-a-side was too much for many players. The gradual increase from 4 to 5 to 7 players allows coaches to teach the beginnings of positional play, without becoming overwhelmed by the complexities of 11-a-side.

Four main moments in soccer games

Current thinking in soccer divides games into four main moments; own team in possession, losing possession, opponents in possession and regaining possession.

This should not be confused with attack, defence and transition. It is larger than that. Thinking in the latter leads to isolated responsibilities and positions. Players become attackers or defenders in mind and action. This results in back players that do not support effectively when their midfield is in possession and top players that don’t contribute when the opponents have the ball. This limited view opens the way for a disconnect within the lines of the team.

From a practical point of view the majority of youth coaches will be concerned with own team in possession and opponents in possession while training. This results in most small sided games restarting with one team in possession and the other without. This offers a very clear picture for both teams and the coach to start from.

Thinking in terms of the main moments can help to bring structure for the player and the coach. For the player, they need to understand what their primary task is in each moment. Understanding their task leads to better positioning which helps technique. But possession in youth soccer changes rapidly, so rapidly that many young players cannot keep up with the game either physically or mentally. They either can’t get to the correct position or have no idea where it is. This creates a stressful situation for the player and is a major reason why team play breaks down.

Simplifying observations provides structure for the coach. So many things go wrong that a list of errors and mistakes would be endless. Too much information is as bad as not enough. When the focus is kept in one moment a clearer picture of a real problem will emerge. Since you cannot cover everything in a session, concentrate on the biggest problem you can find. This starts with defining which main moment contains the biggest problem.

After settling on the main moment comes the smaller moments. Example, own team in possession, our goalkeeper has the ball. Where should the outside backs be? How deep should the centre forward be? Or, the opponents have possession and their central midfielder has the ball. When does our central defender have to step up and assume responsibility? At what point can he stop conceding space and must commit to the ball? Seeing “moments” can aid in a better understanding of soccer situations and problems. A soccer game is an event, it is not a a thing. Events exist in time, things exist in space. Viewing soccer as a thing leaves out the very important temporal element. Opportunities and situations in soccer appear and vanish in a fraction of a second. Coaches need to consider this when reading the game and setting up their practices.

How to stop bunching around the ball

I coached U-8 boys to an undefeated season and difference was that we didn’t bunch. Not bunching allowed us to pass. Passing allowed us to control possession. Possession yielded shot opportunities. Shots lead to goals: 39 goals for, 7 goals against.

Here’s the drill:

Scrimmage using a Dutch 4X4 training method field – 40X30 yds.

Two goals 6-8 feet wide at EACH end set nearer to the side than to each other. Indirectly teaches spatial thinking (very hard to do).

Attackers could look up (new concept for 7 year olds) and make a choice as to which goal to attack, i.e. which goal was most open. Forces defenders to cover an open goal AND a goal that was likely to be attacked. Whenever defenders magnetized to the ball and subsequently got burned when play quickly switched to the more open goal and a goal was easily scored, I would stop and give a 15 second lecture, citing the situation that just occurred, about why its wrong for every defender to race to the ball. The situation was repeated many times before they finally started catching on.

When the players start bunching remember to blow the whistle and ask why; before too long they will scatter as soon as they hear the whistle blow.

How to play the through ball

What is a through ball?

The through ball is a pass (usually a long pass) into a space behind the opposition.

Three conditions must be satisfied at virtually the same time:

  • The opposition back line needs to be high up the pitch. There has to be at least 15 yards or more of clear space for an attacker to run into.
  • The player in possession of the ball needs to be able to spot the space behind the opposition back line. To do this he needs to be able to control the ball with his head up.

The player in possession of the ball also needs to see that there is a player ready to run onto the through pass. This player needs to be in the correct position – it’s no good if the space is on the right and the attacker is on the left.

When is a through ball likely to be on?

There’s often a chance to make a through pass whenever the opposition has pushed most of its players up into an attacking position. Following a corner, for example, or a free kick near to your goal there will probably be a great deal of empty space in front of the opposition goal.

In these situations, a quick through ball can be a killer pass and it is an excellent way of mounting a fast counter attack.

Why coach it?

When carried out correctly, the through pass is an exciting move that can be devastatingly effective. Your players should be taught how to recognise the moment when a through pass is a possibility and be allowed time to practise it.

How to coach the through ball

Warm up by splitting your players into groups of three or four and playing piggy in the middle in small grids.

Change the player in the middle every minute or two and award points for every successful pass.

Coaching notes: Encourage the player on the ball to play with her head up and be decisive. The pass should be played as soon as an opportunity presents itself.

Encourage the receiving player to keep out of the defender’s “shadow”.

Game 1: Long Passing

Set-up: Divide your players into two teams of four or five plus two defenders.

Create a 30×20 playing area, divided into horizontal thirds: zone 1, zone 2 and zone 3. The middle third – zone 2 – is a relatively narrow “no go” zone that players cannot enter.

Team A and the two defenders go to zone 1, team B go to zone 3.

How to play: Team A pass the ball between themselves until they can spot an opportunity to earn a point by making a long pass to a player in zone 3.

The two defenders attempt to win the ball. If they succeed, they swap places with two of the players in team A.

If a long pass is made successfully, the defenders go to zone 3 and team B attempts to earn a point by making a long pass back into zone 1.


  • Increase the size of the central “no go” zone.
  • Restrict players to two or three touches.

Game 2: Passing Through The Thirds

Place a goal at both ends of the same playing area.

Divide your players into two evenly matched teams and play a small-sided game with the condition that a goal scored following a pass through two thirds of the pitch counts double.

Coaching note: To encourage your players to spot counter-attacking opportunities following a set piece, you can restart the game with a corner every time the ball goes out of play.

Finish the session with 4v4 games on separate pitches. No coaching, just congratulate any players that attempt a through pass.

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