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).
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- We control play but don’t score enough goals given our ownership of the ball
- Our wide mids are good at crossing but not beating defenders 1v1
- Our strikers like other teams need more than their fair share of chances to score
- We are defensively sound with stay home defenders
- 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
- Most keepers in the league have a poor save % so a relatively high percentage of attempts on goal end up going in
- 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.