In the early years, team shape and formations should be very far from the coach’s mind.
At U4s to U6s, or even older, the emphasis should be on teaching basic skills, playing 3v3 or 4v4 and allowing your players to get as many of touches on the ball as possible.
There is no need to try to make children play in recognisable positions and they should be free to express themselves in whatever way they choose.
But once your players have developed reasonable passing, receiving and ball holding skills, they can be introduced to the the concept that allows football teams from Old Town U9s to Manchester United to play “proper” football: Team shape.
What’s the difference between a team formation and team shape?
Team formation is the arrangement of players on the pitch.
2-2-2, for example, is a common seven-a-side formation that has two players in defence, two in midfield and two in attack.
3-3-2 is a nine-a-side formation with three defenders, three midfielders and two strikers.
The position of goalkeeper is assumed.
Team shape, on the other hand, is how you want your players to spread out relative to each other within your chosen formation.
Click here to see an image that shows the relationship between team shape and team formation.
What shape do I want my team to have?
It doesn’t matter if you’re playing 4v4, 7v7 or 11v11. The shape you’re looking for is a diamond.
Why a diamond?
A diamond is a simple shape that most children can visualise.
It’s also a logical shape for your team. The top of the diamond provides a focus for your team’s attacks, the two points on the side provide width and the base of the diamond provides stability and a platform to mount attacks.
How to teach your team to play with shape
Begin by asking your players to draw a diamond on a tactics board or make some diamond shapes with cones. Then explain why you want your players to become “your little diamonds”.
Once you’re sure that everyone knows what a diamond looks like, put four players into a diamond shape on the field and walk around holding a ball in your hands.
They should mirror your movements as a unit and maintain the diamond shape, no matter where the ball is.
Every player should move forwards, backwards and sideways as though they are joined together with string.
Progress to playing a 4v4 match with both teams starting in a diamond shape.
Your instructions are simple: To move the ball to the sharp end (the point of the diamond nearest the opponent’s goal) as quickly and directly as possible. If a direct pass isn’t possible, the ball should be passed around the other points of the diamond until it is.
Tell your players that if they can’t pass the ball forward, they should try to pass it sideways. If a sideways pass isn’t on either, pass the ball back to the base of the diamond.
Tip: Don’t be tempted to put your players in set positions. It’s easy to tell Susie she is always at the right point of the triangle or tell Mary she is always at the top of the diamond but the emphasis should be helping your players to understand that it doesn’t matter who is playing on the right side, left side, or at the top and bottom points of the diamond… as long as someone is.
They should be encouraged to look around and fill spaces, not get totally focused on maintaining their own position.
Don’t expect your team to abandon the swarm and begin playing like Barcelona overnight.
Many hours of practice (playing games like Lane Soccer) will be required before young players start to play with anything like a recognisable shape.
The maturity of your players will have an impact too. For team shape to “work”, your players have to be able to put the interests of the team before their own desire to get close to the action.
But some of your players will mature faster than others and it only takes one or two children to lag behind the rest in terms of putting the team before self to force you to postpone your plans until every player is ready.
But if you are patient you will, one day, have a team of players who know where they should be at any given point in the game and what they should be doing when they are there. to practise passing, shooting, dribbling and changing quickly from attack to defence.