by Jeff Pill
One of the biggest decisions that a youth coach faces when planning for his or her team is the decision of what system of play should be employed. In fact, this is a question that coaches want answered as they are looking for whatever edge they can get as they prepare their team for league play. As each coach plans for the beginning of the season, consideration needs to be given to what “system of play” the team is going to use.

There are so many things to consider when picking a formation for your team, and these decisions are multiplied whenever a discussion is entered when the different age groups are considered.

When making this decision, I think it best to keep in mind a few basic principles, balancing them out, then, making our decision on what system to play.
Here are a few things that need to be considered when picking a system of play:

1. The decision should be based on the individual player characteristics and personalities on the team. For example, if the team has only one player that is effective at playing up front, they may decide to play a system that only has one striker, such as a 3-6-1, or a 4-5-1. If their keeper is not very mobile and thus makes the team vulnerable to balls played over the top of the defense, a team may decide to play with a sweeper. Look at the strengths and weaknesses of the team, and plug that in to the equation when looking to choose a system of play.

2. The decision should be based on the opponent that you play. Perhaps they play with three players up front, and, your team is accustomed to playing with only three the back. Perhaps the decision will be made to play with four in the back against that opponent, or, perhaps one of the central midfielders will need to sit back a bit and play in front of the opposing team’s strikers. Or, if the other team’s wing backs have been identified as being weak, it may be beneficial to play with traditional wingers in the attempt to isolate these weaker players on the flanks, thus exposing them. Of course, all of these decisions need to be balanced with the thought that at times too much attention can be placed on the characteristics of the other team, thereby drawing attention away from what your team does best. A fine balance needs to be maintained.

3. The decision should be based on what the coach’s vision on how the game should be played or how familiar the coach is with the system and his or her knowledge of teaching that specific system. Before an attempt is made to try a new system, the coach needs to make sure that he or she understands the strengths and weaknesses of each, and, how to coach it. It seems better to stay with what you know well, than to attempt something that you do not know anything about. Again, doing what you do well, instead of trying something different, even when you know that it is what is needed. Study first, then make the change when you are comfortable with the information that you can give to the players.

4. The system should accentuate the strengths of the group dynamic as a whole and should minimize the weaknesses of the group collectively. Of course, training time can be devoted to working on the weaknesses in order to improve upon them, and, time can be given in the effort to stabilize a teams strengths. In the mean time, a system can cover up the rough spots, and claim advantage to your strengths.

5. The decision should take into account the developmental level of the players. In other words the sophistication of the system should take into account the abilities and level of comprehension that the players posses. It makes no sense, with the younger players, to devise complex plans of attack, based on overlapping attacking players and a clever interchange of positions when your team does not claim the technical expertise to carry out the plan, nor the cognitive ability to understand that system. Soccer is a simple game and the players should be able to recognize it as such. Keep to the basic principles and do them well.

6. It should be remembered that systems do not win games, it is the player’s ability to carry out the plan that wins the game.

7. Choice of the system can be based on the environmental conditions that the game is played. If it is raining hard come game day, and, you find yourself on a field that is less than average, playing with a sweeper behind the defense may be a good way to approach the game, and, putting a fast player on their back to force mistakes in the difficult conditions may be a good adjustment. If a team is used to playing with five midfielders and finds themselves playing on a very small field where they are just getting in each other=s way, perhaps playing with 3 or 4 midfielders instead may be a good choice.

8. With the younger players, U-12 and below. The major consideration for the coach should be to teach the principles of play instead of a formation for results. Make sure that players understand the principles of support, cover, creating space, pressure, depth, etc.. Teach these first, using small sided games and activities that challenge players to solve a problem on the field. With the U-6’s and U-8’s, a formation is really not a huge part of their play. Having fun, and coming back next year are the major goals. A formation, for these youngest players, is a place to start the game. But, once the whistle blows, I can pretty much forget about maintaining a balanced formation. With players that do have a bit of an idea, a realistic expectation for some U-10’s, our job is to keep things real simple.

It may be a good idea to keep the field balanced. For example, if you are playing 8v8, play a 2-2-2 and take the one additional field player and let them be a rover, going where the game tells him or her to go. If the game is balanced, the person plays in the midfield. If the team is struggling, the rover may find herself in the back of the team. Wherever the game needs this player, it is there where he goes. For 11v11, play a 3-3-3, then have the rover goes where the game dictates.

This is not an exhaustive list by any means. However, it does give us some things to think about, and some principles to adhere to when choosing a system of play for our teams. It is important to remember that overall, my main thing to remember is that the coach needs to make decisions on what is appropriate for the team. We need to adapt to the players, instead of having them adapt to us. Choose a system that fits them. Then, we can refine and interpret the smaller points to make us effective as a team.

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