3-4-3: The rationale for use with U13 to U18 girls

We’ve seen a move from the traditional 4-4-2 to a somewhat brief flirtation with 3-5-2 and now the trend is to either 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 which, to me, can be indistinguishable. I still don’t know which one Spain was playing in the World Cup because it was so fluid. If you were Vincent Del Bosque it was a bit like the proverbial kid in a candy shop. The reality is that none of us have such a luxury of riches and when we go to set our starting eleven out for a game, it’s done with a very different set of variables.

I have always maintained that a formation, for youth players that are not part of professional academy setup (where tactics and formation are what drive the curriculum and the players either fit that or they are replaced rather), needs to be driven by the strengths and weaknesses of the players you have at your disposal. A secondary consideration is if you know if your team is going to be relatively strong or weak within the division you are playing in, the formation can be tweaked to factor in whether you’re going to be spending a lot of time defending or attacking in your games. More to the point, if you’re going to be on your heels most of the season you can’t afford to have your two most influential players up front as they will not get the ball much and not be given the opportunity to influence the game much.

But the tactics that derive from your formation do not exist in a bubble. You may have strengths and weaknesses on your team but they are relative to the teams you will be playing. So what has to enter the equation when deciding on formations are the characteristics of play at the age and level.

Those characteristics are what has increasingly led me to play 3-4-3 with my team. It felt wrong initially but the risk:reward ratio consistently proved it to be worth it.

So here are what I see as the characteristics of play for gold level soccer (ie. second tier) in our neck of the woods (which I doubt is dissimilar from other woods).

Goalkeepers:

  • Average, at best, shot stoppers
  • Poor on crosses
  • Decent distribution but often poor technique on punts and throws
  • Poor control of box
  • Poor communication with strikers
  • Tend to tune out when play’s in the other half and lose awareness of proper starting position when opponents regain possession

Defensively:

  • Defenders make poor decisions about when to pinch forward to press the ball and when to drop and take space away
  • Few outside backs are willing and able to jump forward and overlap into the attacking third
  • Clearances are unpredictable and often lead to second chances for the other team in dangerous areas of the field
  • Communication in general is poor and is especially problematic when it involves the goalkeeper
  • Corner kicks are given up too easily
  • Outside backs are not given adequate cover by central defenders when they need it
  • Defenders generally win more than their fair share of 1v1’s when attackers try to beat them unless it’s just a matter of a faster girls kicking the ball beyond them and creating a race to the ball
  • Defenders are less comfortable on the ball, technically, than midfielders and forwards and this leads to them lumping long balls forward without any other intention than to get rid of the ball.
  • Heading of the ball is poor throughout the team but generally better among defenders than mids or strikers
  • Defensive shape varies wildly by team but as a general rule most teams are slow to push up and take space away after the ball has moved out of their defensive third.

In Midfield:

  • The game tends to be very scrappy with a huge number of 50-50 balls created through bad first touches and ill-advised passes and a general lack of technique
  • Reluctance to move ball across the field by midfielders (also the case, as mentioned, by midfielders). Balls played are overwhelmingly long and direct towards the opposition goal for forwards to chase onto. Very few long switch balls.
  • Few midfielders have the ability to consistently get forward to support strikers in the attacking third
  • Transition play is at best average with decent attempts to get pressure on the ball quickly after a turnover but this is usually down to individuals rather than a coordinated effort by groups of players.

Attacking Third:

  • Teams for the most part rely on quick strikers to win footraces to long balls over the top
  • Strikers rarely show the ability to link up and play off each other
  • Teams tend to attack in two’s or three’s at most with gaps between those attacking and those staying back and watching them
  • Crossing is poor and rarely picks out individuals
  • As was noted regarding the defensive third, there are lots of second chances available from poor clearances
  • Finishing is generally poor with the chances:goals ratio far too high in most games
  • Corner kicks tend to be predictable and not designed to take advantage of teams’ own attacking strengths or defending teams weaknesses
  • Shooting while running at pace is poor
  • Lack of sophistication in 1v1 battles by attackers
  • Lack of sophistication from strikers playing with their backs to goal with a defender tight on them
  • Poor decision making from wide players regarding when to cross, when to take on defender 1v1 and when to play laterally to another mid or defender.

Others may disagree with these as characteristics of play but since I believe them to be true they inform how I think my teams, at these levels and ages of play, should be organized. I say informed because, again, I need to factor in the strengths and weaknesses of my own players. For this example I’ll use my U16 Gold 1 team but I’m now starting to make these assessments of my U14 Girls Y League team as well as they have now started training and will begin league play in May.

My U16 team is one of the stronger teams in their division. They won the league at U14 and again this season but have never done as well in Cup play. I’d summarize them along these lines:

  • They are technically very strong relative to the rest of the teams and have a very good understanding now of what their shape should look like in almost all aspects of play
  • Their movement to support the ball is very good
  • We dominate possession in almost all our games
  • We did go undefeated this season but we did tie seven of 16 league games and most of our wins were tight. This showed both parity in the league and excellent mental toughness in our team.
  • The defenders are meat and potatoes types who stay home and don’t wander forward much.
  • We have a holding midfielder that I feel is the most dominant player in the league.
  • We have too many wide midfielders and none have the pace and/or ability to beat a defender 1v1. When we need that I pull a striker out of the middle to play that position.
  • Our strikers, except one, need too many chances to get their goals.
  • When the crosses do come in, they are generally above average
  • We don’t have a keeper so the girls all take turns in goal. Some more than others. Because they are not natural keepers, I encourage them to play very high and almost ask as a sweeper for the long balls over the top (we only gave up nine goals in league play)

So if I meld the characteristics of play with the strengths and weaknesses of my own team, it leads me to this.

  1. We control play but don’t score enough goals given our ownership of the ball
  2. Our wide mids are good at crossing but not beating defenders 1v1
  3. Our strikers  like other teams need more than their fair share of chances to score
  4. We are defensively sound with stay home defenders
  5. Most teams attack us centrally with long balls over the top and we play 90% of our games on artificial turf where the ball runs more than it does on grass
  6. Most keepers in the league have a poor save % so a relatively high percentage of attempts on goal end up going in
  7. There are a lot of turnovers in the middle third of the field

Given all of these I think it makes sense to play 3-4-3 most of the time. We keep our three defenders quite central because that’s where the balls are played to for the most part. The outside mids are told to make quick assessments about when to swing crosses in and are encouraged to play them in early from deep positions rather than trying to get beyond defenders. They are told to cross anytime the outside back starts to committing to them and a central defender pushes up to provide cover. If we have three attackers in the box, they cannot afford a spare defender and the target area for the cross becomes the space just inside the centre back who has come over to support the outside back. Because most of the keepers are part vampire (afraid of crosses…think I’ve used that one already here) we can hit general spaces and have a good chance of getting to them before the keeper.

Beyond that the wide mids are expected to get their heels on the line when we’re bringing the ball out from the back to give us width so the back three can play out through them and enable them to pull opposition fullbacks towards them and still have time to supply good early service to strikers from deep positions.

By limiting the forward movement of our outside mids we make it reasonable to expect that when we are defending a ball played down the side opposite to them they can make up more ground and fill in as the outside back on the weak side.

This allows our back three to shift over as a unit for the relatively few times they need to defend an attack down the wing. For the most part though, as said earlier, opposition attacking play is very predictable in how central it is and how reliant they are on long balls over the top. The fact that we play almost all our games on a fast surface (artificial turf) means that if I tell our keepers, who are all really player and quite good with their feet, to always have a high start position, they can sweep up a lot of those balls that are running away from strikers.

Keeping three out and out strikers gives us two things. It gives us an extra target in the box for crosses and it gives us an extra body for all the poor clearances that sit around waiting for whoever is gong to get to them first. By attacking in fours and fives, we create a lot more chances which is what we need to get goals.

Still, the whole thing is predicated on our team being able to set the tone for the game and have it played at our pace. Most teams say they keep possession and don’t boot it away but we simply cannot be successful playing that style and must keep the ball and rely on providing lots of options for the ball carrier. When we are able to stamp our authority on the game that way it enables us to successfully take advantage of what is an unbalanced formation overweight with attackers.

It has its perils though and a few teams were smart enough to see what we were doing and have players stay very high and wide on us to try to stretch our back three. I had to convince the defenders to stay compact and trust that they would not be able to accurately hit 30-35 yard switch balls. For the most part that proved true. In fact the only time it was a regular issue issue was when we scrimmaged against Steve Kindel’s U14 Boys Metro team and they regularly hit diagonal balls over and behind us to a very fast forward who played quite wide (as a true left winger).

But U14 Boys Metro teams do not share the same characteristics as divisional girls and if we were playing such teams regularly that would force a change of tactics.

I wish I’d kept track of the numbers of times we scored when we were playing 3-4-3 this season. It started as a tactic when we were behind or tied and  needed a goal in the last 20 minutes. As it proved successful, we played it more. When we only had 12 players for our first Cup game and were missing two outside backs we played it the whole game and won 5-0 (against a Gold 2 team). We did the same in our next Cup game and were up 2-0 in the first 10 minutes before it all went sideways and we lost 4-2 (worth noting I moved back to 4-4-2 when we got up by two).

Would it work for every team in U13 to U18 girls? No. And I’m not advocating that. Really all I’d advocate for is choosing a formation and tactics based on the players you have available to you and the characteristics of play you are likely to face on a regular basis. Try to find areas you are strong and pair them with a formation that will exploit some of the weaknesses you see in the level of play you face each week.

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85 Responses to 3-4-3: The rationale for use with U13 to U18 girls

  1. K says:

    Why switch tactics from natural 3-4-3 to 4-4-2 in cup when 3-4-3 was so fruitful?

  2. Gregor says:

    We still played more 4-4-2 than 3-4-3. We went 3-4-3 when we needed to take chances and then as it proved to be useful without costing us defensively we played it a bit more but even by the end of the season we were probably still playing 4-4-2 quite a bit more than 3-4-3. As I said, the 3-4-3 was really forced on us in the first Cup game because I only had 12 players (several were still away on spring break trips).

    If you meant why move away from it when we were up 2-0, good point. I switched keepers about the same time and put a girl in who didn’t play there much through the season. Thought adding another defender would shield her more from shots and let us get to the half safely up 2-0. Totally got that one wrong.

  3. Coachrich says:

    Formations should be starting points for the players and teams only. Coaches should be teaching possession, build up, tactics and how formations can be adapted to change shape depending on what is or could be going on with the play and where it is on the pitch. From my experience girls can be taught. learn and execute this at U12.

    IMO what is the most important thing to teach and develop in the players is individual and team creativity on top of the communication, fitness, skills, techniques and tactics. That they need to be adaptable to to the play so formations become flexible. creative opportunities and fun for all the players. I refuse to follow the traditional bowling alley run and dump (rigid formations and playing tennis) that is based on a players size and athleticism as it’s not what the game is about, what the players deserve or what the families are paying for.

  4. TM says:

    Good article, Greg.

    I coach Metro boys and I’d say most of the characteristics of play that you have identified here also apply to them, especially at younger ages. I have also experimented with 3-4-3 this season with decent results (general team play was far superior than when I had to revert to flat back-4, later in the season).

    As for the discussion over the role of formations, while from the purely theoretical standpoint I do agree with coachrich, my personal opinion is that with the (ridiculously) limited time our coaches have to work with their teams (typically 2 practices a week) and taking into account that most players just do not experience soccer enough to build an understanding of how “real” soccer is played, better results are achieved if the players have a tactical foundation from where the coach can expand. Yes, it can be somewhat rigid (at first, hopefully) but my personal observation is that it is easier and faster to build their game IQ if they begin from a semi-sound understanding of their positioning in the field and roles within the formation of choice.

    BTW, the linked article below, from Anson Dorrance, hits some of the same points we are discussing here. Worth the read.

    http://www.missionvalleyunited.com/docs/Can_Systems_Assist_in_the_Development_of_Players_.pdf

    • Gregor says:

      That was a very interesting take on 3-4-3. Dorrance mentions a few things I didn’t. He sees a huge advantage in pressuring back fours with a front three as a huge advantage. True if you can teach U13 to u18 gold level players to consistently pressure well as a coordinated unit. That’s something he rightly expects collegiate players to be able to do.

      He also sees more opportunity for chances to attack 1v1. Not one of the characteristics of play that I see at our level of play but I agree that having three front runners definitely opens up those opportunities.

      Bit surprised that almost all of his eight ‘defending’ points refer to how the front three defend as opposed to the back three.

      Great link. Thanks.

  5. Colin Elmes says:

    Sportstown FC HPL feedback from BCSA et al….

    “There was a very strong commitment to a structured and consistent 4-3-3 system throughout the Club. This may suggest a lack of flexibility and reduce the ability to recruit from the widest pool of players.”

    So Greg(or) dont be so rigid…. 😉

    • TM says:

      You should forward the feedback to FC Barcelona and let them know that BCSA strongly disagree with their (likewise) approach of having a “strong commitment to a structured and consistent … system throughout the Club” .

      I’m certain that if they only knew the opinion of our soccer luminaries they’d repent their ways and make something out of their youth program. 😉

      • Colin Elmes says:

        Thanks TM.

        …and to the Dutch Federation, the Australian Federation etc etc.

        Only in Canada they say…. pity

        USSF just put out their natl curriculum. Go have a look there as well.

      • Rasta says:

        Be careful though boys – using Barcelona, Dutch soccer et al to prove that a structured commitment to a consistent 4-3-3 is the best thing.

        Don’t forget that they start with teaching players to pass, to develop great technique and understanding. First they are good individuals and ‘THEN’ they can start discussing structure and commitment in the 4-3-3.

        No matter what system one commits to, the individual player is paramount at that level

    • Gregor says:

      There’s an assumption that as soon as you put numbers on a page it precludes a flexible approach tactically. As I said in the post I still don’t know if Spain was playing 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 or even 4-3-2-1. That’s down to movement and individual players being tasked with particular roles and responsibilities.

      I’m sure for some of Spain’s games, Villas was told to play quite wide on the left (for whatever reason) and in others Iniesta was told to play higher off the striker.

      The formation is just the starting point. While the roles and responsibilities in our 3-4-3 were fairly well defined we did take a more flexible approach when we played 4-4-2.

      And I know you’re still trying to make points related to BCPL and BCSA…

    • Ras Island says:

      Teaching player in a structured 4-3-3 is by no means rigid and I don’t see it as being lack of flexibility to say that it will reduce the ability to recruit from the widest pool of players.

      4-3-3 has componets of 4-4-2 in every sense. I don’t see a players “recruited for a 4-4-2” failing to adapt to playing a 4-3-3.

      Depends what type of 4-3-3 you are playing. With two holding MF and 1 attacking just behind FW very similar to playing 4-4-2 (with withdrawb striker), with 1 holding MF similar to diamond MF in 4-4-2 when you get to the roles and responsibilities of each player by position.

      So in summary – you have the structure of 4-3-3 but you are teaching players complete football with ability to adapt. There is never a game you can a truw 4-3-3 formation. I would argue that 4-3-3 is a variation of 4-4-2.

      • K says:

        Exactly what I am trying to teach my kids this summer too, Ras. Formations are foundations, within which there must be a lot of room to be creative.

    • Rasta says:

      I believe the flat four is not a good system for teaching young players U-13 to U-15 how to play good 1 vs 1 defense and how to play help defense without worrying that they are out of “shape” – the favourite buzz word for defense right now.

      I look at soccer in the professional leagues and the defenders are lacking in 1 vs 1 defending because they are depending on the zone shape instead – forwards are getting many wide open chances on goals because each defender is thinking the other will pick up the forward.

      I think that to develop defenders (all over the field) I work a lot on covering man on man, or sagging to help, learning to switch when necessary. Proper defending is being replaced by a flat four or zone.

      At to the 4-3-3 (which I think is a good formation). I could go on and on with this but I think it is played too rigid in the Provincial system.

      Four defenders staying back instead of the outside backs getting up in the play – A la Barcelona, since we are discussing them. While the forwards are very rigid – one on the left, one on the right, and the all alone up front (and very little movement)

      Since we are on Barcelona – once their game starts, I ask you to tell me who is the left forward, who is the right forward, and who is up front. Total fluidity, movement between forwards switching, running off the ball, etc. Beautiful to see.

      My team plays a 4-3-3. My outside backs up and down the wings – my forwards interchanging. We work on this in shadow play and/or offense vs defense every week in practice. The team has done very well to this point – 70 goals for and about 15 against. They play very aggressive man on man and help defense. Best of all the girls are growing and urged to take 1 vs 1 challenges or move the ball quickly as the situation desires.

  6. Colin Elmes says:

    Female soccer players in general.

    very poor at heading(with purpose) especially in crowds under pressure( just getting contact is sometimes the beginning goal). It all comes down to “I don’t want to get hit in the face”

    GKs- generally poor- just watch goal recaps of last few Women’s W Cups and you will see multiple balls go in from distance over top of GKS- make the net smaller?

    spin on ball- even the upper level players cannot read spin very well- leads to a compromised and unsecure first touch over and over. Dont understand why this is…..

    Girls are generally risk averse and collective in nature. That is why your full backs dont get pushed on( I am a defender and will let my team down…). I have even told players if you get pushed on and we get exposed at the back it is “my fault”- removed all responsibility from them- and many still wont make the journey…. go figure

    • Gregor says:

      “cannot read spin well”. This still surprises me. You’re playing on turf and you see the ball come off of a player with spin and see that it’s going to hit the ground, catch in the turf and spin considerably one way or the other….but very, very few of the girls read this.

      Agree about the risk-averse, collective bit. Plus technical proficiency is still so rare that those with it are generally put in more influential positions. Not always the case but way more common to see weaker technical players put at outside back. Hence more players there are less likely to push forward, knowing their limitations on the ball.

      • Rasta says:

        Technical proficiency definitely hampers any type of formation planning so that has to be a priority of coaches before/during formation training – I think.

  7. Brendan Quarry says:

    I guess the big question is: do you coach youth players to their limitations or do you coach them to move beyond those limitations? For example, yes, most girls are risk averse and defenders, in particular, don’t like to push up. So do you coach a 3-4-3 to compensate for that risk aversion or do you coach 4-3-3 and try to get them to overcome that aversion?

    • Gregor says:

      You coach them to go beyond their limitations in training. You coach for collective success in games.

      I don’t buy into this ‘results are not important’ position. Results are important. Not, as I’ve said, the most important aspect of youth soccer coaching, but it is important that we teach kids what it takes to succeed, what it feels like to succeed and how to handle defeat. That means we have to value winning. I know very few kids, at these ages, who don’t care about winning.

      • Brendan Quarry says:

        Just don’t agree. The problem we have in youth soccer is that we coach them to train one way in sessions and then we coach them completely differently in a game because we’re coaching around their limitations in order to get results (ie. wins).

        Kids care about winning because we adults place so much importance on it and they learn that. At girlsCan last weekend, the U18 academy team had a game in which we continually gave the ball away. After expressing my disappointed, I then told the players that I would count our passes completed rate for the next game. At halftime, our passes completed rate was an impressive 81% (158 passes, 38 giveaways). Girls felt very good about that accomplishment and yet the score was still 0-0 at that point.

      • Gregor says:

        I have three kids. I’ve seen them in a variety of team sport settings and I’ve seen them playing with friends in the park and at school when they’re not aware I’m watching and believe me, my kids and pretty much all the other kids playing care about winning. They argue about who won. Sometimes for days. I think the amount that people care about competing is primarily inherent and is then either enhanced or mitigated by the experiences and environments their parents put them in. Consequently the ones who are genetically quite competitive are more likely to have that fostered by parents by putting them in sports more than the kids who are not as competitive by nature. I can remember being incredibly competitive over totally meaningless little playground games when I was four. I think I was the norm and not an exception.

        I think you created a competitive situation by challenging your team to successfully complete passes rather than score goals. They did it well, felt they had ‘won’ and felt good about it. I’ll also bet that by challenging them that way some of those passes ended up being counter-intuitive and counter-productive to the true aim of a soccer game: scoring goals.

      • Brendan Quarry says:

        Yes, you’re absolutely correct. They felt that they “won” because the definition of “success” was redefined for them beyond the narrow notion of winning the game.

        You’re also correct that there were times when the ball was passed negatively when the team could have attacked more forcibly. However, once the team acquires the technical and tactical ability to possess the ball then one can progress to other aspects of the game such as attacking the goal with more purpose – without giving the ball away thoughtlessly and recklessly.

        BTW the academy team ended up winning 2-0 so that passing eventually wore down the opposition.

      • Rasta says:

        You are absolutely right Gregor.

        All the time we spending teaching the tactics and technical skills, and courage to use them are aim towards winning.

        Winning is definitely a indicator of teaching success. Of course winning isn’t everything, but playing to win and teaching to win and striving to win when properly equipped is what we are to teach for.

        Otherwise we grow kids who think it is okay to lose as long as they are learning how to play–attitude all the way up to our National teams.

        You can see it at our top level where we don’t go out to win because we were told that winning isn’t everything – look at our formations to start games – 4-5-1 or 5-4-1???

        Teach the kids to play to win and we will have top players who want to win and believe they can.

      • Brendan Quarry says:

        Not true, Rasta. Check out all the top European football academies. They downplay the pursuit of winning in the interests of developing skills. Developing one’s skills will always take time and often the pursuit of winning can hinder skill development because perfecting something means that you’re going to make mistakes. That doesn’t mean you ignore the pursuit of winning but it has to take a back seat while ability is being developed.

      • Brendan Quarry says:

        Downplaying the importance of winning at the youth level does not mean you downplay the importance of “competing.” I’m talking about downplaying the strategies that coaches employ in order to win. Those strategies tend to discourage skill development and risk taking.

      • Rasta says:

        Brendan

        If by pursuit of winning you mean just a formation, or size of players or a style just to win a game then I agree.

        I mean developing skills to take people 1 v 1, shooting technique, fluid passing, vision – all to be creating chances to score. To learn to defend well as a team and in one vs one situations. Most of all to compete all the time.

        Whether U-13 or U-18, winning is an indicator of how well all the above is proceeding.

      • Brendan Quarry says:

        Yes, that’s what I meant. I’m critical of the pursuit of winning when it involves strategies that hamper the development of players. Not sure I agree that “winning is an indicator of how well all the above [skill] is proceeding.” I wish that were the case but the reality is that in order for those skills to develop, there has to be failure along the way. For example, if you’re going to teach your team to play out of the back, they will probably get scored on in the beginning more than teams that pound the ball forward. Mistakes are a necessary part of that evolution. But eventually they’ll play out of the back very well and it will bear fruit. You have to worry less about winning in order to get to that place.

        Too often, the pursuit of winning at the youth level means risk aversion – mitigate mistakes. Don’t get me wrong, if you’ve taught them well then all the skills that you cited above will win the day (most of the time). I just think it takes time.

        Having the “desire” to win is a critical competitive component for players. I agree with you on that. I’m simply critical of the strategies employed to mitigate creativity and development in pursuit of the short term gains of trying to win. For example, how many times over your youth coaching career have you seen teams pass back to their keeper?

  8. Brendan Quarry says:

    Not trying to be overly contrarian here but I think there is way to much thought given to tactics in youth soccer. In my opinion, until young players can’t string together 6-8 passes in a row on a consistent basis, tactics are meaningless. Just a bunch of men over-thinking things and trying to influence the outcome of games.

    • Brendan Quarry says:

      sorry, meant “until young players can string together 6-8 passes…”

    • TM says:

      Under different environment I’d agree, but…

      A typical kid in Europe or South America will have seen, live or otherwise, 1,000s of football games by the time they’re 13 and most likely has a decent understanding of how the game is played (in their respective neck of the woods). Also, if he is one of the very few that go on to play football competitively, he has already a decent first touch (club selection takes care of that) and practices 3-4 times a week (plus games) with his club, which will focus on improving his technique and developing tactical aspects of his game.

      Now contrast this with what we have here, where lots of “high performance” players are used to practice with their clubs only twice a week, almost never watch soccer games either live or on TV (yes, I changed the name of the sport on purpose), etc. etc. You end up dealing (as a club coach) with players without first touch, passing skills AND no clue of how to position themselves on the pitch and where to go with or without the ball.

      Realistically, one can’t do it all with the 2 practices you get. So, my compromise approach has been to allow academies (RT, TSS) to work on the kid’s technique and I try to build their tactical understanding of the sport (something that, because they are prevented from having teams year round, academies typically struggle or are prevented to provide).

      • Rasta says:

        Teach them good first touch/passing skills/how to position themselves and have more than 2 practices per week!!!

        Don’t just leave it to the academies coaches!!!

    • Gregor says:

      Agree that an ability to maintain possession under reasonable pressure is the first indicator that teams are ready for any kind of tactics beyond “Boot it!”

      Curriculum (Twitter style):
      U6-U10: 90% tech skill development; U11-U13: learning to keep possession as a group: U14-U18 play in attacking, middle and defensive thirds.

      • Brendan Quarry says:

        Very true but let’s be honest, very few U18 metro girls teams can even string together 6-8 passes. In this case, however, it has more to do with how they’re taught to make decisions rather than technique. Yes, technique is still not where it should be but by the time they reach U18, they have such a limited view of how the game is played. Even with our U18 academy teams over the years, who are quite technically advanced, I spend the first 8 weeks just focussing on changing their decision-making process because they constantly give the ball away and don’t seem to understand that this is actually a bad thing. Once that changes, then we’re able to look at other aspects of the game.

      • Gregor says:

        re: U18 girls metro teams not being able to put 6-8 passes together.

        There’s definitely girls metro teams at all ages that struggle with this because technical skill relative to overall athleticism is low enough that teams are generally rewarded for using speed and strength to pressure in defense and play long balls in attack more than they are punished for it. The speed of play still overwhelms most teams even if they are trying to keep the ball and play. Anson Dorrance refers to this in the article linked to above by TM. Definitely more of a problem on the girls side.

        Until teams are punished by technique for rushing in and trying to strip the ball away when they really should be delaying there will be a tendency for teams to pick more big, fast girls than smaller, smarter players.

      • TM says:

        Hence, why I believe in early focus on tactical aspects and teaching how they should TRY to play so that, hopefully, their decision-making improves, even when the players are still not (technique wise) quite capable of doing so properly.

      • TM says:

        With the byproduct that (my own kids are good examples of this) I end up putting players out there that may struggle later on to convince some coaches that they should start for them because: 1. they don’t play direct enough; 2. they pass “too much”; 3. they slow down play “too much”.

        Well, forgive me for believing that this is a thinking men’s (or women’s) game….

      • Brendan Quarry says:

        Very good points. As I’ve said before, soccer is unique because in other sports there is what I call “counter-balancing ineptitude.” For example, in hockey if you can’t skate and can’t handle the puck very well, that’s counter-balanced by the defender who also can’t skate very well. Same in baseball. If a kid can’t hit very well, that’s counter-balanced by the fact that the infielders can’t catch and can’t throw very well.

        But then take a look at soccer. When a kid can’t dribble, pass, or receive the ball very well, the defender is unimpeded. She can run around freely and dynamically. So there’s a huge advantage at the youth level to actually NOT having the ball. That’s why you always hear parents and coaches yell PRESSURE whenever the opposition has the ball in their defensive half. That’s also why smashing the ball down the field, close to the opponents goal actually works in winning games because you’re essentially giving the other team the albatross around their neck – the ball. And yet having (possessing) the ball is exactly what’s required to develop as a player. In other words, the strategy to win at the youth level is the antithesis of what’s required to develop as a player.

      • Brendan Quarry says:

        Sorry, I was referring to Gregor’s excellent comments:

        “Until teams are punished by technique for rushing in and trying to strip the ball away when they really should be delaying there will be a tendency for teams to pick more big, fast girls than smaller, smarter players.”

  9. Ras Island says:

    Kids in North America suffer from over coaching and too much structure…..I know some of us earn a living coaching but truth of the matter is players lack creativity in Canada because the game is too organized. I have spoked to parents whose kids are now University age and have been on Provincial teams etc but have never players soccer for fun in an environment where making mistakes is okay, not judged, not yelled at, not watched by an adult.

    We are worried too much about tactics at U13 – U16 here that we restrict experimentation and as a result our players suck.

    • Coachrich says:

      If the structure was dump, run and don’t take chances, it takes some time to retrain them into a possession game. I found this out when I started the Women’s Program (MWSL & PCSL) in Richmond…..seems years ago.

      I had some practices where my U15’s came out to practice with the MWSL U21’s. The women woke up when they saw the kids playing total football, running set plays and having fun. Didn’t take the women long to figure out that playing smart, creative and adaptable was having fun.

      IMO the sooner players are taught tactics and decision making go hand in hand the better the players will enjoy the game and the sooner they can leave the coaches to sit on the sidelines watching them enjoy their games.

      I differ than Gregor in that teams should be taught attacking, middle and defensive thirds as soon as players are in a select environment.

    • Stephen Burns says:

      Good post, Ras Island. There is too much rigidity at times and not enough room for creativity. We often create robots rather than soccer players.

    • TM says:

      I was thought so but of late I’ve begun to see this for another angle.
      Thing is, I began to think back on how things are in Brazil in sports other than soccer and you know what? Kids in those non-dominant sports ARE over coached, suffer from tactical rigidity and all the rest we observe here in soccer.
      But it was the way found for us to be more or less competent in sports where there is no critical mass to allow for the “organic” player developement we have in football.

      Take basketball for instance (which I played growing up). I learned the game in a club environment, was always coached, learned soon that I should always go for a safe layover rather than trying something fancy, etc. etc. I was never very good but could play miles around most people in my school. Why? At PE, recess, in the streets NOONE would play the orange ball, that’s why.
      Now, even with an insignificant number of kids playing the game for fun, Brazil has had succes in the international stage. Not as much as the US, of course, where tons of (poor) kids in the inner cities play in the streets and develop their creativity and technique. So, we’ll never have a Jordan but we can compete reasonably well with most countries.

      So, knowing that soccer will never be a dominant sport here or in the US, I’ve been thinking that maybe the coaching thing is a necessary evil?

      Thoughts?

  10. Colin Elmes says:

    There has to joy first. Without that, nothing else matters.

    The Guardians Barry Glendenning lambasted the “bullshit artists who try to complicate a perfectly simple game by waffling on interminably about formations and tactics…. in a bid to to make out they are more clever than anyone else. There is, of course, a time for such talk, but as somebody clever once said about analysing humour, dissecting football to that degree is like dissecting a frog. Nobody is particularly interested- and the frog dies.”

    Bob Paisley( still the only coach to win 3 European Cups) once said to his side kick Joe Fagan “What does going round the back mean? Were not burglars, are we?”

  11. Stephen Burns says:

    As usual, Gregor, you have put together a very good post. However, I do disagree with the results being important in league play in community soccer. Having coached at the U-15 Metro level this year, I made it clear with the parents at the start of the year that the league games were essentially going to be used as practice games until the Provincial Cup. We experimented with many formations throughout the year as we were a team who was going to finish in the middle of the pack. There were 4 teams noticeably better than the rest of the teams so we wanted to give ourselves a chance to compete with these teams. Winning was never mentioned during the season because I have yet to meet a player or coach who has ever stepped on the field to lose a game(unless people have taken a bribe but I won’t go there). With this in mind, it is safe to assume that all players step on the field with the desire to win. Right?

    With this in mind, we put together a plan for the season and where we wanted to be at different points. I encouraged to girls to avoid looking at the standings. We managed to take points from the best teams in the league and also lose to the teams who were at the bottom of the league. The girls told me they did look at the standings and this had some impact in their mental approach to the game DESPITE warnings from us(the coaches) about complacency. Anyway, I believe it is important for kids to experience different formations as it is often dictated by the strengths of other teams and most importantly, strengths and weaknesses of your own team. Injuries and players being unavailable due to other commitments plays a role in this too.

    I have also coached at the high school level for 14 years at South Delta. This coaching is different as we must win league games in order for us to progress to the next level. It is more about tactics and motivation as there is very little time to practice much else. We have played 13 games in the last 5 weeks with sporadic practices thrown in there.

    Keep up the good work, Gregor. I enjoy your articles and will never hold your weakness in Caps against you.

  12. Colin Elmes says:

    As predicted, there is currently Gregor, myself and about 5 other people posting on this blog. You can never find a Ladbrokes when you need one…… 🙂

    • Gregor says:

      The world is waiting for the “BCPL Sucks (until we get in)” blog by Colin Elmes.

      Gotta go coach, so you’re down to four.

      • Colin Elmes says:

        you have now mentioned that acronym twice even though you signed off on it a few days back. Are you already missing the celebrity status that this topic afforded you?

        I have long forgiven the establishment for their critical error in this regard 😉

        “We may not be used to it, but I reckon we could do without coaches”
        Hristo Stoichkov

      • Gregor says:

        Stoichkov was born the exact same day as me! And he’s been a coach since 2003.

  13. Brendan Quarry says:

    There was some mention earlier of Anson Dorrance and his 3-4-3 formation which I know that he very much believes in for the women’s side of the game. I’ve always been an Anson Dorrance fan. He was really one of the first coaches to write about the importance of understanding of gender culture when coaching female soccer. Interestingly, when TSS had a college showcase event about 3 years ago, we had quite a few well-known US schools in attendance. When the topic of Anson Dorrance came up, more than a few of the college coaches were scathing in their assessment of his style of play. They felt it was holding back the progress of women’s soccer. Essentially they said it was a style that relied on athleticism and brute force – pounding the ball forward and capitalizing on the opposition’s mistakes. I have no idea whether this was truly an accurate depiction or merely the resentment of someone who’s won countless NCAA championships but it was interesting and definitely caught me by surprise.

    • Stephen Burns says:

      I’ve read his book……..watched several of his dvds and to be honest……meh. I can see how coaches feel that way about him. Once again, it is safe to say that his players are the products of many other other coaches. He gets the ‘finished’ product and just has to put them on the field to win. It is very easy to coach in an environment where the best players in the country want to go. Having said that, the numbers North Carolina has put up under him is quite remarkable.

    • Gregor says:

      Anson Dorrance likely lost a lot of fans and credibility when he settled a long standing sexual harassment suit brought against him by former players. Because he wasn’t found guilty he hasn’t been chased from the game (the university just has to pay a fine and Dorrance has to undergo sensitivity training for the next eight years) and is still able to coach. I’d imagine there’s a bunch of people in that soccer community who have no time for him as a result and know more of the details than have come out in the media.

      • Stephen Burns says:

        I’m sure he isn’t the only big name who has been involved with such allegations. It really is pathetic that a coach could even consider going that route and being in that position. The game has no place for coaches like that……at any level.

      • Gregor says:

        Agreed and always surprised and shocked by institutions that either support it tacitly or cover it up. Eventually it comes out though.

  14. Gregor says:

    Note: Played 3-4-3 the whole game with my Y League team (80% ’97 girls; 20% ’96 girls) against Sukhi’s Metro team (’97 girls) tonight and given it was the first game they’d played it went very well. We won 4-2 with three of the goals coming from really nice build up play. Conceded one from a corner and another another when our back three got caught square and they threaded a ball through for a striker to go in clear on our goalie.

    Pleased with how it seemed to suit our players and with the possession and chances we created but we’re still susceptible to goals against like the second one against today. Should be some high scoring games for us this season. The thought of it is already rubbing my inner centreback the wrong way…

    • Brendan Quarry says:

      There’s a good Anson Dorrance DVD on playing the 3-4-3. I played this formation with my 91 team from a few years back. In the DVD, there’s an excellent discussion between Dorrance and DiCicco on the merits of 3-4-3 vs 4-3-3 (DiCicco favours 4-3-3 on the women’s side).

      One hesitation about the 3-4-3 is that most colleges play 4 at the back so shouldn’t we be teaching young players how to play that way?

      Also, playing 4 at the back allows you to slow the game down sometimes and build up from back there (especially since most teams only have 2 strikers so it’s essentially 4v2 or even 5v2 if you count the GK). Girls soccer is so frenetic as it is and 3-4-3 may exacerbate that tendency. Just a thought.

  15. valleysoccer says:

    Congrats on the win Gregor. It was our first game also, and we played a 3-5-2 formation, which by the second half the players were beginning to understand better.
    Its just frustrating players are not being taught tactics/formations or positional play at the earlier ages.
    Things like “play which ever way your facing”, looking for angles/windows, and the concept of a second defender. I personally think alot of coaches just offer drills off the website or dvd’s etc and do not understand the importance of classroom sessions with reference to team shape, and formation. Even at the 8v8 (Under 11/12) it is appaling seeing everything going forward without recognizing the need to start again or keeping possession. Teams have difficulty putting 3 passes together.

    Look forward to watching some of the Coastal Cup finals this weekend, as I would hope our game is showcases with an attractive, creative brand of soccer. Good Luck Rasta by the way.

    Thanks once again Gregor as this group at Coastal is much improved from last year

    • Brendan Quarry says:

      One thing I always notice in girl’s soccer is that 80% of turnovers are caused by forward passes that should not have been made. Girls are constantly racing forward into brick walls with the ball. There’s no patience in possession. This is also partially (or not so partially) due to coaches never wanting their players to pass back for fear of making mistakes.

      The other issue I see is that girls are never encouraged to dribble to change their angle if no immediate pass presents itself. They’re constantly told to pass quickly that whenever there’s no immediate pass to be made, they pass anyway (ie. giving it away.) when pressured. They have a narrow view of dribbling. Girls are led to believe that dribbling only involves getting “around” a player (ie. Cristiano Ronaldo) vs getting “away” from a player. When you watch Barcelona play, you’ll notice how often these guys dribble but it’s mainly dribbling in order to change angles. I feel that we could do a better job teaching girls the importance of dribbling. The expression I like to use is “sometimes you have dribble to find a pass.”

      • Coachrich says:

        Great description of Canada’s youth bowling alley soccer and what we should be teaching instead.

      • The Kop says:

        Hurray a comment from someone who understands.
        Your first point is spot on as girls will pass forward regardless because it seems the safer option.
        Also I think the ball is seen as something to be rid off ASAP rather than to love and cherish.
        How many times in girls soccer do you see a girl put her foot on the ball and have a look around to see what option is best suited.
        Sadly dribbling for both beating a person and to create new lines of attack is very much under appreciated in our game.
        Brendan you can have my kids anytime.

      • Ras Island says:

        Some of those technical skills require playeers toi invest in watching the game………..telling them at practice or games can only do so much.

      • Gregor says:

        “One thing I always notice in girl’s soccer is that 80% of turnovers are caused by forward passes that should not have been made.”

        I know what you’re saying but I’d have to say that there’s just as many giveaway attributable to a poor first touch as there are to errant forward passes.

      • Fred Cutler says:

        This is exactly right. I am a victim of no coaching whatsoever in youth soccer and I’m still learning this as I continue to play and watch hundreds of games in my 30s and now 40s.
        It implies that we need conditioned games and more and more conditioned games. Less one and two touch conditions; more six or eight touch!
        Again, Barca is a model: watch Iniesta, Xavi, even Messi when he’s not going forward. The dribble at all kinds of angles to find angles. Look at Scott Parker, who’s not the most gifted technical dribbler, but he understands this dribble-to-protect and dribble-to-get-to-a-pass idea. Pirlo is a master, as was Nedved before him, and Jack Wilshere is another good example of a prodigy on this point.
        I think ultimately, getting this dribble-to-pass into kids heads will help other players move to space off the ball because it creates time for them to find space.
        If we encourage passing too quickly, they don’t see the incentive to find space because they don’t have the mental tools to get to the space that will be ideal after the next pass that comes so quickly.

    • scott says:

      Some great observations. I think we can do a much better job of teaching tactics/formations, if we teach and reward better spatial awareness at the younger age groups. We have to teach skills when they are young, however some kids obviously figure out the spatial aspect earlier. So they avoid the pack or linger on the edge of the pack and try to get the ball away from the traffic and into open areas. But few kids have that figured out yet so they hustle and bustle and battle for the ball. That battling does help develop foot skills and control so coaches let them go for that. So we end up rewarding kids with some decent skills and good coordination and athleticism and then try to teach them the tactical side of things. But I believe we can and should teach more spatial/tactical aspects earlier, without hindering the creative side of things.
      Also up until now Canadian soccer coaches have not had ipads. Look out kids! Just wait ’till you see those 3D animated diagrams. I’m sure moving forward we will produce kids with a sophisticated tactical knowledge to match their fitness levels and dribbling skills.

    • K says:

      Not teaching tactics at u11 and 12 is something promoted the world-over by the best footballing nations and clubs in the world. So on one hand I agree. However, after a year of u11 I have come to the stark realization that tactics are needed to be taught at u11 because the kids are not otherwise immersed in the sport as they are in the “best footballing nations”. Our kids just aren’t exposed enough to the sport when not at their 1.5 hour practice once or twice a week to not teach tactics unfortunately. BUT, for me the answer is 3-4 practices a week – ie, why is OK for a baseball or hockey team to do this without complaint from parents but not soccer?

  16. RR says:

    Does anyone think that younger players can develep a sense of tactical awareness, however meager, through gaming (FIFA 12) better than by simply watching the game played on television? In other words, does learning by working out problems for yourself within the context of a video game work better than seeing the problems solved (or not) by someone else on screen? Certainly no substitute for doing it for real, but it would be interesting to see if there is at least one redeeming feature of the console generation.

    • K says:

      Depends on how good they are at FIFA 12! (Probably play the same on there as they do in real life – forward, forward, shoot, score….or try to)

  17. Carolina blue says:

    It’s pretty educational and enlightening to read Monday morning centerback. Could someone with some insight please explain why the provincial team program has no consideration for the club coaches or a desire to work cordially with teams still in coastal cup play? Why doesn ‘t bc soccer work hand in hand with the select coaches in allowing to fulfill their cup play?

    Players work all year for a chance to play in the provincial cup and personally I find it totally ridiculous the provincial teams are having a mandatory weekend in Richmond.

    Some of the highlights I hear from other provincial teams “is a mandatory American idol competition” with players coming prepared with costume and song

    Horray for our pathway to the world cup. Too bad parents second mortgage their house for American idol tryouts or swimming escapades

  18. Canadian Spur says:

    Over 60 comments on a post not about BCSPL!

    I know this discussion was largely around the merits of the 3-4-3 in girls soocer. Does it make as much sense on the male side of the game where attacking with width seems more common and there is less hesitation to play the ball back? (I said less hesitiation…still still too much direct play for my liking.)

    • Gregor says:

      I’d be interested to hear what others have to say about it working for boys teams but, as I mentioned, the shortcomings become apparent when we scrimmaged, 11v11, against a younger boys Metro team and they quickly sussed that long switch balls were the achilles heel of what we were trying to do. The fact that we couldn’t dominate possession also was a problem.

      • K says:

        For boys? 4-3-3/4-5-1 for boys. Puts them in a position to carry play as well as enter into the physical battles they crave. Allows full backs to be part of offence. Also allows for the more varied degree of physical development to be placed appropriately on the field. IE, the kid who can actually switch the play from one channel to the other at 13-14 years old compared to the lad who really is only able physically to complete 10-20 yard passes accurately at the same age.

  19. Fred Cutler says:

    I’m a huge fan of playing one less across the back than is standard in the boys game. I mean two at the back in U11/U12 and 3 at 11-a-side. Gregor’s long justification is fabulous, but for me it’s simple: until about U17, fullbacks are wasted when there are midfielders directly in front of them. They look forward and are told to be there ‘ for support’, which is like telling them not to bother playing. They have almost no defensive purpose because crossing produces so few goals, mostly because directing a cross goalward is a slow-developing skill and only some can really ever do it reliably.
    If we put youth players in a shape, the priority should be angles/diagonals, avoiding the marching battalions feel of 4-4-2 at all costs, even the cost of giving up a goals that start with possession in wide positions.

    • Brendan Quarry says:

      I think it all comes down to how we coach the back 4. I jokingly say that when a girl’s team is without the ball, their back 4 is “defending” and then when their team is in possession, their back 4 is “waiting to defend.”

      I like having 4 at the back to slow the game down and to stretch the depth of the field. It’s also a great way to teach girls to be patient in possession because there’s such a numbers advantage at the back. I also keep metrics – counting how many times certain players get on the ball. I remember last summer coaching the U18 academy team and my center mid got on the ball 35 times in a half and had a passes completed rate of 78%. My full back had a passes completed rate of 100% but only got on the ball 7 times. That showed just how unengaged she was and I told her that number had to be in the twenties – at minimum. Girls respond to metrics – as opposed to observations which they tend to feel is a personal judgement. That’s all Dorrance stuff. He’s a big believer in metrics – especially on the female side of the game.

    • K says:

      Then why are you telling the fullbacks to “just be support”?? I can tell you that is most certainly what I do not tell my full backs.

      • Fred Cutler says:

        I’m talking about 8-a-side or very early days of 11: 10, 11, 12 year old boys. Even if you teach the overlapping run to boys fullbacks at this age it requires more cognitive development than most boys who are placed in this position have (i.e. the kids who are given the central midfield role are usually capable of it, but they’re not singled out as fullback material). And it obviously requires awareness by wide midfielders. I think that kind of linked play by two players in a formation with one in front of the other is not really practical with boys until about age 14 or 15, and only then at higher levels of play. Much more productive is to force diagonals/triangles with the formation. And those formations encourage more fluidity and creativity. 4-4-2 is about discipline, which may win games but in my view doesn’t help us where we need help most: creativity and adaptability.

      • K says:

        Not had an issue with my fullbacks overlapping at u11 at all. Took some reminding, true, but in general they all wanted to attack and didn’t have an issue running past the wide mid – it was made easier in a 3-2-2 than a 3-3-1, to be fair. Can recall some fullbacks getting 10+ crosses in a game from attacking third. (and our team was NOT particularly strong).

  20. Coachrich says:

    What can girls learn before U14 –

    Attacking – 1 (sweep), 2 (wingbacks), 4 (top and out of the box) and 3 in the box

    Midfield/Transition – 1, 2, 4. 1 and slanted 2 (striker and wing) to side of play

    Defending – 3, 1 (stop/rover), 4, 2 and 1 (striker slanted to side of play)

    Fun to play as it’s creative and flexible for the players as there are no bowling alleys or walls as players adapt. Everyone can defend or score by being creative depending on what is happening or could happen in a 9 grid field system. Pretty basic stuff once the girls hear the words chess and checkers.

  21. Beth says:

    I coach several teams and age groups, but this definitely applied to the public middle school soccer program that I coach. I have 100+ girls, spanning a very wide range of athleticism and ability, but this still applies to most.

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