Get your team into shape!

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.

Be patient

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.

Stay in lane

Objective: To help young football players understand they don’t need to bunch round the ball.

Set-up: Mark out a 30×20 yards playing with a goal at each end.

The pitch is divided into three channels (lanes) running from one end line to the other with flat cones.

Play 3v3 to begin with and put one player from each team in each lane.

Goalkeepers are optional.

How to play:

  • Players can pass, tackle and dribble but they can’t go out of their channel.
  • If they leave their channel (even if it is just by stepping over the line), they concede a free kick where the infringement took place.
  • Swap the players to a new zone every two or three minutes.


1. After playing 3v3, widen the centre lane and play 4v4 (2v2 in the centre lane).

2. When playing 4v4, allow two players of each team to be in any lane at one time. If a third player from that team wants to enter that same lane, one of the two players from that team must leave the lane before he can enter it.

3. Set up three teams of four players. Two teams play “winner stays on”. (I play one goal wins the game).

When playing winner stay on, add these conditions for balls played out of bounds:

  • Balls kicked over the end line result in a corner kick or goal kicks in the usual way but balls kicked across the side line mean an automatic loss for team that last touched the ball.
  • This encourages the waiting team to stay alert and be ready to start playing as soon as the ball goes into touch.

4. Do not assign players to a specific zone. Instead, allow movement between zones provided at least one player from each team is in each zone.

For more soccer coaching tips and products visit Soccer Coaching Club.



This is a fun way to practise attacking and defending skills. It also helps develop football “vision”, communication skills and tactical awareness.

Age group: U6s to U14s.

Equipment required: Some cones to mark the playing area, two small goals, training vests and a ball.

Number of players: Whole squad.

outSet-up: Create a 30-yard square with a small goal on opposite end lines.

Split your squad into two teams (the Rs and the Bs in the image below).

Each team stands next to you on the edge of the playing area.

Tell the teams which goal they need to score in.

How to play: Throw a ball into the playing area and shout a number.

That number of players from each team run into the playing area, compete for the ball and try to score in their allocated goal.

  • As soon as a goal is scored or the ball goes out of play, shout “Out!” and the players return to their teams.
  • Then shout another, different number.
  • Vary the numbers from one to the total number of players in each team.

Progression: Play with a goal in each of the four corners. This encourages your players to keep their heads up and switch play to the open goal.

Allow your players to choose the number of players who will compete for the ball. First, team R chooses then it’s team B’s turn to choose.

For more soccer coaching tips and products visit Soccer Coaching Club.

Positions and team formations in youth soccer

When children start playing soccer at younger ages (U-6 and U-8), the emphasis should be on small-sided soccer. At these ages, teams should use a 3 v 3 or 4 v 4 without goalkeepers. They will eventually move to a 5 v 5 with a goalkeeper when they get to U-7 or U-8. The small-sided game maximizes the number of touches each player gets, and also gives them an opportunity to understand the basic concepts of the game. For a discussion of how to use small-sided soccer in your coaching sessions, visit this link.

At these beginning levels, the players are just beginning to learn how and when to pass the ball, and you may have begun to introduce the concept of positions (for example, in 5 v 5 you may designate one or two players at a time to be “defenders,” or, to be certain that they get back on defense every time).

At some point, the number of players on the field expands, and the size of the field expands. Now, there is a need to assign positions to the players and to be certain that there are players who defend and players who advance in an effort to score. You may play 7 v 7 or 8 v 8 (including a goalkeeper) and it is often difficult to decide on a proper formation. For example, in 7 v 7 you may play a 3-3 or a 2-2-2 or a 1-2-1-2 or a 1-2-2-1. A 3-3 means 3 defenders and 3 forwards. A 2-2-2 involves two defenders, two midfielders, and two forwards. A 1-2-1-2 generally means a sweeper back defender, two wing defenders in front of the sweeper, a centre midfielder, and two forwards. A 1-2-2-1 generally means a sweeper back defender, two wing defenders in front of the sweeper, two midfielders in front of the defenders, and a centre forward.

There are advantages and disadvantages to all of these formations. For example, a 3-3 may give you a solid defence and a solid offence, but there is the risk of large gaps between the forwards and the defenders. This makes it difficult for the defenders to get the ball to the forwards, and leads to a situation in which three of your players are playing and the other three are watching and waiting. For example, either the forwards are working together in your offensive end to try and score while the defenders are standing and watching at midfield; or, the defenders are fighting an attack while the three forwards stand near midfield, waiting for the defenders to get the ball out to them. With a 2-2 the midfielders have to run a great deal. They will either stay close to each other and cover the entire width of the field, or stay just in front of the defenders, or stay just behind the forwards, often getting involved in the offensive third of the field.

Triangles tend to be an important shape in soccer. The players can form triangles in the 2-2-2 by staggering the lines as play occurs, but the formation can still lead to the players remaining in two straight lines. The 1-2-2-1 and 1-2-1-2 create the triangle relationships from the get-go, but can leave gaps in the field or can result in a single player covering the entire width of the field at his or her position. The 2-2-2, 1-2-2-1, and 1-2-1-2 formations will all present challenges for the coach seeking to have his or her players use the full width of the field.

Whatever formation you decide upon, as a coach you will then need to communicate the concepts behind the positions to your players. Some players learn on the field. Others learn by looking at a diagram. Others learn well from reading and re-reading a textual description of their responsibilities.

To help you, we have prepared a basic summary of the general responsibilities of defenders, midfielders, and forwards. These descriptions track the concept of a 2-2-2 formation in a 7 v 7 game. Before you use them, you need to tailor them to your particular coaching approach, philosophy, and formation. For example, if you decide on three midfielders instead of two, the responsibilities of the centre midfielder may differ from the responsibilities for the outside midfielders. You may want your centre midfielder to be aggressive on offence or you may prefer him or her to drop back on defence or to mark the other team’s best forward or midfielder on defence. You probably want the wing midfielders, not the centre midfielder, to take throw-ins. You may want your wing defenders to take all throw-ins. You may want your centre midfielder or a wing midfielder closest to the corner to take corner kicks. There are many variations.

Still, we thought it might be helpful to set out the position responsibilities in writing, to allow the players to read and reread their responsibilities, to allow their parents to read something that explains whet their child should be doing on the field, and to focus your thinking about what you want your players to be doing.

Feel free to use these pages as you see fit, and to edit them and change them to make them consistent with your approach. You may want to prepare a separate description for the left midfielder and the right midfielder. The same may be true for the right and left forward or right and left defender. Your goalkeeper may take all goal kicks, and so on.

Soccer tactics and young children

It never ceases to amaze me how many youth soccer coaches expect 6, 7 and 8 year old children to be able to play in (and hold) a particular position on the field. The same coaches can often be heard shouting ‘spread out!’ or ‘stop chasing the ball!’ and, no doubt, wondering why their players are taking absolutely no notice.

Similarly, I’ve heard children as young as 5 or 6 described as “a natural defender” or “a striker”. Even worse, some young soccer players are labelled as not fit or quick enough to play in outfield positions and are stuck in goal for whole matches – even whole seasons!

In the article below, Curt Brand describes why it is usually unreasonable to expect children below the age of about ten to properly understand the concept of space and movement on the soccer field, never mind positions or ‘tactics’.

Soccer tactics and young children

by Curt Brand – “D” Licensed U10 Coach, WAM United Willington, Ashford and Mansfield, Connecticut (USA)

Six and seven year old children will quickly understand that soccer is a game played with a ball. They will more slowly learn that they cannot touch the ball with their hands, become more proficient at the skills you have tried to teach them, and run around the field with great enthusiasm. However, they will be much slower to learn the tactical concepts of the game. They are just not developmentally ready for this lesson yet. Having said that, teaching tactics to this age player is not appropriate. Let’s talk a little bit about teaching tactics.

Soccer, although it is played with a ball, is really a game of space and movement without the ball. Unlike some other sports, (baseball, for instance), soccer does not really have positions. Rather, players have differing responsibilities which change as the ball and the other players move about the field. In a strict sense, only the goal keeper really has a “position” to play.

In your first game, you will observe that all of the players will chase madly after the ball in a pack. Occasionally, a stronger player will get a foot on the ball and it will pop out of the pack. Instantly, the pack scurries after the ball and ingests it, the ball disappearing within a forest of little churning legs. As the season progresses and the players develop their skills, you can try to teach them some tactical awareness, but don’t get frustrated when you discover that they learn these principles very slowly.

Once the players have developed some skill and comfort with simple passing, you can then introduce the concept of movement.

A successful pass is made not so much by the player who delivers the ball but, by the player who makes a run to get open.

At the six and seven year old level, a good run is any movement which takes the player away from the pack which surrounds the football.

After years of listening coaches plaintive pleas of “Don’t bunch up”, I am convinced that most first and second grade players have great difficulty internalizing the concept that sometimes you chase the ball and sometimes you don’t. Save the truly exceptional neophyte, most young players either chase the ball all the time (whether they have a prayer of getting it or not) or never go after it (soccer as an on-the-field spectator sport). Ideally, one player will go after the ball and the other teammates will spread out, looking to get open for a pass.

Choose the few players on your team who appear to be most advanced and try to teach the concepts of space and movement on the field. You can also yell, “Don’t bunch up!” as long as you don’t get frustrated when they don’t listen. Relax — space and movement are nine year old concepts.

Formations and positions for U8s

by Rick Meana – Director of Coaching, NJ Youth Soccer

Formations and “designated positions” are not appropriate for U6-U8 play.

Why, do you ask?

Because children at this age do not understand, do not have the capacity to grasp the concept of “functionality.” They don’t understand that the pieces make up the pie as a whole. They only can understand that pieces exist, but don’t understand how they contribute to the make-up of the whole. In school they learn about basic math, reading, and writing, with an emphasis on fun discovery and development. They are not grouped by accountants, lawyers, or doctors, each having their own curriculum. Everyone receives the same basic curriculum that helps form a foundation for later education and applications.

Before players learn functionality, they need to first experience basic movements. Through spontaneous uninhibited play, children can learn to solve problems, invent, create, and become aware of their physical relationship with their environment. Small-sided game play offers all these factors, and in addition, contributes to skill development. This becomes a foundation for the next levels of play.

Besides, the use of terms such as ‘defenders’, ‘fullbacks,’ ‘midfielders’, and ‘strikers’ are analogous to asking a six-year-old to describe the duties of an accountant or lawyer. Do defenders just defend? Not attack? Does that mean that they need to stay close to their goal? (Usually, these players have been seen standing on the edge of their penalty box 50 yards away from the action – after being instructed by their coach to stay back.) These are literal definitions of positions that are misconceptions of the game of soccer. Usually, these misconceptions derive from other sports where positions literally are constants of what action players’ perform/areas of the field, i.e., baseball. This is not true in the modern game of soccer.

Let’s take a look at the modern “adult” game to gain a perspective. Players who are termed “defenders,” are becoming notorious for scoring goals, while “forwards” who have become famous for their scoring prowess must now be able to defend and chase down assertive back players. Coaches have also had to convert forwards to defenders because of a shortage of attacking defenders. Players today, no matter their position, need to be fluent in all “soccer skills.”

Midfielders, once known for their ability to launch attacks and work at a high rate for 90 minutes are being converted to defenders, and so on. All this goes to show that positions and formations aren’t the answer. Besides, it is not necessarily being in a designated “position” or being a part of a formation that helps the players solve the problem/situations in the game, but rather the ability of the player to read visually the cues, that is the movement of the ball, movement of the teammates and opponents, and quickly execute a movement/decision that will be effective.

Soccer is a game where the players are constantly changing their movement and activity patterns because the game demands – fluidity, interchangeability, unpredictability, quick thought and execution. Adherence to the formations will not aid players in developing the foundation of the game needed to meet these demands.

The activity in “small-sided” games, where players are not inhibited by formations and positions, result in a variety of movement patterns, more contacts with the ball and other players, and is more challenging to a player physically. It also offers many opportunities for players to make decisions and solve problems based on the conditions that are encountered in the game. This is the “learning environment” that is best for the players at this age and maturity level.

Further proof that this environment is best; can be seen in those professional coaches, who in order to economize their practice, efficiently use small-sided games often, to provide a more challenging environment than 11-a-side play. And that is proof- positive that small-sided games, are important for this age group, however, formations and designated positions should not be used by coaches of U6-U8 players.

Throw-ins (part 2)


Throw-insApart from the importance placed on passing and shooting, coaches rarely emphasize the technique of the throw-in in practice. Yet, it is a basic method utilized in the game of soccer. This is especially true in the youth game, where because of the technical deficiency of the players, the ball frequently goes out of play resulting in a throw-in. And, 99 percent of the time, the throw-in ends up going to the opponent. I strongly feel that the throw-in is not necessary for U6-U8 game play.

On any given weekend, I have watched numerous games where feeble attempts are made by U6-U8 coaches to “mold” the bodies of their players, hold down their feet, demonstrate, and explain their version of a proper throw-in. Incidentally, it is done incorrectly as the player either drops the football in front of them, or in an effort to bring it back over their head, they drop it, throw it to the other team, or fire at the face of the nearest victim-sometimes this just happens to be the coach. And worst of all, when patience has run out, the game is allowed to continue and the player is allowed to re-enter the field with a “slight nudge” by the coach, having learned an improper throw-in.

All this should indicate to the coach that something needs to be fixed. It indicates to me that too much time is spent in the games trying to deal with this phenomenon, when this is something that needs to be practiced outside the game first. So much time is spent, that I have estimated over 25 percent of the game time is wasted trying to deal with this. That’s 15-20 minutes less the players are in contact with the ball. Less contact with the ball means downtime, downtime results in boredom and disinterest.

A solution to this problem would require modifying the rules of U6 and U8 play. Coaches should emphasize the importance on the technical application of the throw-in in practice.

For U6 and U8 play, I strongly recommend that when the ball goes “into touch” or outside the sidelines, the ball is put back into play by the player choosing to either dribble or pass. Also several balls should be placed around the outside of the field, so that when a ball goes out of bounds, time is not spent trying to chase it down. The nearest ball is played in, being careful that no stray balls roll onto the field.

Since the hands of a U6-U8 player are not properly developed for the proper execution of the throw-in, more emphasis needs to be placed on providing the players with more opportunities to manipulate the ball with the foot. Not to mention, throws that result in someone getting a ball to the face can also be avoided – the pass or the dribble – is a safer alternative while maximizing chances to play the ball with the foot.

To learn the proper technique, and technical application, the following should be stressed. First, coaches at any level should teach their players how to correctly hold the ball. For U6-U8 coaches, this can be done to teach the habit of securing the ball which later on can be used to teach proper technique for catching in goal keeping as well.

Coaching Implications

1. Secure the ball with both hands, ensure that the index fingers and thumbs are as close as possible (almost forming a “W” or “u” shape with fingers on the ball).

2. Bring the ball over the head just behind the ears with your arms loose and elbows bent and flared out.

3. Stand with your feet a little than shoulder-width apart with one foot in front of the other (start at a standstill first, then add 1 step, then 2, and so on).

4. Face the field.

5. Bring your head, neck, shoulders and trunk back, bending at the knees. 6. Thrust the ball forward resulting in your entire body going forward.

7. Release the ball as it just goes past the head.

The throw-in is a pass; so therefore, it should have all the characteristics of a pass, i.e. played to a teammate with the proper pace so that it can be controlled easily and possession can be maintained.

Throw-ins (part 1)

A throw-in is awarded when the entire ball goes across the touchline. An opponent of the team who touched the ball last throws in the ball at the point at which it went out of bounds. The object is to maximize territorial gain while ensuring that a teammate can gain possession from the throw. A player should collect the ball and get into position as quickly as possible after the ball goes out of bounds in order to take advantage of teammates who might be breaking away toward the goal.

To do a legal throw-in, the ball must come back over the head (referees usually look to see if the ball goes back past the ears) before being thrown forward; the ball must be thrown with both hands on it, and it must be released immediately after passing the front of the head (no spiking is allowed); both feet must be in contact with the ground when the ball is released; both feet must be behind or on the touch-line; and no twisting of the body is allowed to propel the ball further. There are two basic ways to do a legal throw-in. One is to step forward with one foot in the direction of the throw, and drag the toe of the trailing foot as the ball is thrown. The other is to simply stand with both feet firmly planted and throw the ball in. Both ways are effective … which style is used is a matter of player preference.

Here are the fundamentals of a proper throw-in, from ‘The Nose to The Toes’:

  • Secure the ball with both hands, ensure that the index fingers and thumbs are as close as possible (almost forming a “W” or “U” shape with fingers on the ball). Fingers should be spread to maintain control of the ball.
  • Bring the ball over the head behind the ears with your arms loose and elbows bent and flared out.
  • Stand with your feet a little more than shoulder-width apart with one foot in front of the other (start at a standstill first, then add 1 step, then 2, and so on). If you prefer, place your feet parallel, shoulder-width apart.
  • Face the pitch.
  • Bring your head, neck, shoulders and trunk back, bending at the knees.
  • Thrust the ball forward resulting in your entire body going forward. Parts of both feet must remain on the ground at all times, behind or on the touchline.
  • Release the ball as it just goes past the head.

The throw-in is a pass … therefore, it should have all the characteristics of a pass (played to a teammate with the proper pace so that it can be controlled easily and possession can be maintained).

The most common error in throw-ins is lifting the foot. This error almost always occurs because the player is trying to throw the ball too hard, and almost always occurs in players who use the method of putting one foot in front of the other … they lift the dragging foot in an unconscious effort to get more power on the ball. If you notice you are lifting the foot repeatedly, switch to doing throws by standing with your feet together. Your main job is just to get the ball on the pitch. By taking the pressure to set distance records off, your chances of a good throw are greatly improved.


  • Scan the pitch while collecting the ball.
  • Look for an open teammate.
  • Throw the ball quickly, to keep the opponents off balance.
  • Throw the ball where you will get the greatest territorial gain.
  • Throw the ball so that it is easy for a teammate to control.

There are three important rules to remember:

  • A goalkeeper may not catch a throw-in.
  • There is no offside on a throw-in.
  • No goals may be scored by throwing the ball into the goal directly from a throw-in.

Note: If the ball does cross the line directly from a throw in taken by the defending team, it is a corner. If the throw is taken by the attacking team, the referee’s decision should be ‘goal kick’.