Strategic Thinking

Now that our U10 division is moving from 8v8 to 6v6 in the fall, coaches are going to have to rethink how they arrange their players. It may sound silly to talk about ‘strategy’ at the U10 level, but there’s no reason a coach shouldn’t maximize his team’s ability by strategically arranging his players.

We saw an evolution of thinking in our league for 8v8 over the past couple of seasons and I expect to see the same thing happen as we move to 6v6. I’ve been an assistant coach on a team in U8 where we play 6v6 so I have some thoughts on what we might do next year with our U10 team. Only time will tell. Now take that huge grain of salt along with you as I, a n00b soccer coach by any definition, take you on a journey across the youth soccer pitch.


8v8 – What Worked and What Didn’t

One mistake I saw often was teams that put their weakest players on defense and planted those defenders at the top of the penalty box. By hanging that far back and engaging that late – you’ve let the offense get that much closer to your goal. By using your weaker players – you depend on your stronger ball handlers up on offense to come back on defense – wearing them out. However, even if you use strong ball handlers on defense, leaving them at the box just does your opponent a favor it seems.

In our league this year, defense was key. Take a look at the standings this Spring:

Team
Record
Goals
Scored
Goals
Allowed
#1 6-1-0 33 7
#2 4-1-2 17 7
#3 5-1-1 23 7
#4 4-2-1 14 8
#5 4-3-0 22 22
#6 3-2-2 18 12
#7 2-5-0 15 21
#8 0-6-1 11 39
#9 0-6-1 5 37

Note the number of goals allowed by the top 4 teams. Except for the #1 team, teams 2-7 were within a goal per match of each other. The difference was defense. Yes, keepers make a difference. But at the U10 level, there are NOT many goalies who can stop shots 1 on 1 with most of our forwards in the league. They just haven’t had that much training as ‘keepers’

So what made the top teams successful? I saw three strategies in use. The first was to pack the defense. Put 4 of your 7 field players back on defense as fullbacks, no sweeper, and leave a couple forwards ‘up’ The defensive pack usually had slower players, though many had strong kicks to boot the ball back upfield. Most teams at this level cannot reliably pass forward. They rely on a few good ball-handlers to bring the ball up ala guards in basketball. So the ‘wall’ strategy works often. But if those teams faced an offensive line that had 2 or 3 decent ball-handlers that could pass up and cross towards the goal, they had trouble containing them. So this is an OK strategy for Rec, but I’m not sure it helps the kids who might move to Challenge.

The other strategy is to play 3 defenders in a V formation. You have two fullbacks on the wings who drift towards mid field when their team attacks and the 3rd player is a sweeper at the bottom of the V and tends to go no closer than the bottom of the circle (except on, say, corner kicks where they all move to mid-field to keep cherry pickers at bay.) If the ball comes up the side of the field, that fullback stays there to engage. The others drift back slightly and adjust to cover the other attackers. Done right, this can help a team keep the ball on their opponents side of the field more often than not. But you really need a quick player in the middle playing sweeper that can defend well if a fullback gets burned. In that case the middle player engages and the last remaining fullback drifts towards the center of the field as a 3rd line of defense and to cover open attackers. If the kids understand it and execute – this can work VERY well. The team that finished #1 did this often and my team did it as well. They probably executed on it better than we did but over time we got better and better at it and even in matches we lost, we kept the ball on the opponents side of the field more often than not. But our offense never capitalized. Its a slightly dangerous arrangement in that mistakes can be costly and result in a breakaway, but I found this less common than I feared.

The third strategy is one that can be used in combination with either of the above. It involves taking a skilled player and letting them run the field. Offense, defense, midfield. They chase the ball and try to break things up. This works VERY will against a team of good ball handlers who never pass. It doesn’t work if the opponents ‘pass up’ like they should. More often than not our Rec teams don’t pass forward and the skilled ball handlers try to advance and get caught from behind by these chasers. This happened to my team a lot and I could never get them to understand that if they simply passed to teammates, the fast kid chasing them down would a) not catch the ball and b) would get tired faster due to the extra running they would do.

In terms of offense, most teams played with 3-4 forwards including 1-2 strikers in the middle. Most teams suffered on offense from forwards who would not stay spread out. The wing forwards ALWAYS seemed to drift into where the strikers were. My team suffered from this a lot. Teams who kept their wings and strikers in position scored often, regardless of the defensive strategy in use.

I’m not saying these are the only strategies and my n00b conclusions may be all wrong. But based on my observations, a team that could play a V defense with 2 wing forwards and 2 strikers was the most dangerous. The match my team played in the quarterfinals was against a ‘pack the defense’ team and was the first time my offense executed ‘spread out’ We got scored on mostly when the defense made mistakes. But when they executed – the ball stayed out of our end of the field. If we were staying 8v8, I’d probably stick with this setup while trying to identify better drills and exercises for practice to help the kids understand the basic concepts of a fullback, sweeper, wing forward, and striker.

6v6 – Now What?

With our U10 division moving to 6v6 with a keeper, things get interesting. We likely will play on the SAME size field we always have (60yds x 45yds) which gives the players more room to run, dribble, and pass. In U8, most of the teams played either 3-2 or 2-3. To mix it up, they might move their defenders up towards midfield when their team was attacking to keep the other team’s attackers from hanging out near the penalty box. But you still usually saw the stronger players up at forward and the weaker players at fullback.

One team which was very successful in U8 plays 2-3 and will often put their stronger players on defense as fullbacks with a sweeper in the middle. However the fullbacks are told to watch for open lanes in front of them (since at U8, swarm ball still happens in the middle of the field) and if they see an opening and get the ball – to take it up the side of the field and either cross to a forward/striker or to take the shot themselves. This often works because the other teams play weaker players at fullback. However, even against teams doing the same thing, it can result in very competitive matches. The team I assist in U8 switched to this 2-3 formation with the strongest players on defense and it has worked well for us. After doing this, we tied the top team that has always done this in a very intense match. It’s not a magic bullet, but seems to fit the 6v6 format well.

Some other teams tried 2-1-2 with some success. Since U8 players tend to push the ball towards the center of the field, having a quick play here acting as a sweeper in FRONT of the fullbacks often kept the ball in the opponents side of the field. But against an alert team that starts passing and dribbling up the sidelines and can pass on occasion, it doesn’t usually help and leaves less of a defense should the attackers break through.

In U8 we had another team with a VERY fast player who always played the entire field. He could be at his goal on defense and would catch any opponent on the other end of the field before they did anything with the ball. This is a unique case however as their player has lightning quick speed for his age and doesn’t seem to tire. But if an opponent starts to pass and cross the ball, he becomes much less effective. But at U8, you don’t see reliable passing and crossing much.

So for U10 6v6 it should be….

Ah the million dollar question. What will work best in U10 for 6v6. Not having played 6v6 at U10 yet, I’d love to hear what you all have had work if you coach U10 6v6. What I lay out below is mostly based on past experience in U8 and U10, but I might be wildly off base – so tell me if I am.

How you play your team obviously depends on your actual team and the skill level of your players – the team demographics shall we say. But assuming you have an average team with a handful of skilled ball handlers, some average players, and a couple kids who are there for the fun in the sun, what can work?

I’m leaning towards the strong defense arrangement with the fullbacks attacking and the remaining defense covering when called for. The forwards may not be great ball handlers, but if they stay in the ‘striker’ position, they don’t need to be. The fullbacks will often bring the ball up past midfield and cross or take a shot. Pass reception and shooting becomes paramount for the forwards. Now I’m not advocating shuffling off players into one position at this age based on their skill. You obviously mix it up based on the player preference and the need to let kids play ALL positions, including keeper. But you still can balance that with a smart line up that protects your goal and keeps ALL the kids involved in the game. Mix up a strong and weak striker with 2 strong and one weak defenders. Go with 3 strong defenders who attack as necessary and 2 weaker players as forwards. The forwards will see a LOT of action, but even if they don’t manage to score – you’ve locked down your side of the field hopefully and that one goal you get in may make the difference. Plus the forwards get more action than they might if they are part of a normal 3 forward line with two stronger forwards.

What other formations have you all used for 6v6 in U10? What have you found works best?

UPDATE: The one wildcard for us is offsides and will we continue to call it in U10 this fall. I’ve just put up a new post dealing with that.

Leave a Reply

  1. While you certainly did quite a bit of analysis, I’m concerned that all the tactical discussion missed the point at this age group.

    u10 is non-competitive and records/standings are not supposed to be kept except for aggregate purposes (at the league level to check for blowouts, etc.).

    If you have a kid “chase the ball all over the field” or pack the defense, you are not teaching (IMO) proper concepts of balance, cover, and spacing. Tactics at the U10 level should be simple — most kids at that age still don’t do 1 v 1 defending well so play a simple 2-3, 2-1-2, or 3-2 and emphasize more the things you said — everyone plays offense and defense, the game is about making good decisions (shoot, dribble, pass, shield) with the ball and putting yourself in a good position to support (attack or defend) when you don’t have the ball.

    I get if you are up a goal with 5 minutes to go that you put your stronger players in the back; however, I think the general rule should be to put like players together as much as possible for matches so the stronger players just don’t take over when they have weaker players with them, especially when there are only 5 field players.

    Curious your perspectives after 4 years…

  2. With U10 6v6 I have been playing them as 2-2-1. I am considering 1-3-1. With the 2 defenders I am trying to have them play 1st and 2nd defender more so than left & right, so the thought is I could move one of them up into a defensive central mid role to encourage them to participate more in the attack. The striker is the only player who would stay up as a target player for the counter attack, although that has not necessarily worked out with my 8 year olds. The mids are supposed to come back and they do, and the weak side mid naturally slides to the middle (and beyond unless I remind them). I have the defenders push up on the attack and they are free to overlap up the side if they have space, and a couple are able to do this. The idea here is to try to prepare them to play in more complicated formations as they go up, and to create situations where they can work together in diamond and triangle shapes. I too would be interested to hear how the tactical evolution went.

  3. i am a coach of an u9 6v6 team and i am going to change my formation to the 1-3-1.The reason i am going to do this is to encourage better attacking play.With the single defender covering this allows 4 out of my 5 outfield players to pressure the opposition higher up the field ,preferably in their own half.All the midfielders support in attack and pressure the ball when defending.My lone attacking midfielder will chase and close down any ball in the oppositions half.Whilst im aware a lone defender may be exposed to counter attacking , this can be overcome by instructing the players to get back as quick as they can behind the ball to slow down the attack giving us time to regroup and defend.My moto is “wide when you have it-tight when you dont”,this is something i hope to perfect during the rest of the season.One more point, a 1-3-1 is basically the same diamond formation they play in 4v4 so the change for the kids is minimal.When they come to playing 8v8 all that is needed is to add a defender and striker making the transition from 6v6 smoother.The same with 11v11,adding 1 extra player to defence,midfield and attack is easier for the kids to adapt to.

  4. I coach a 7v7 league (6 outfield players). I will use a 3-1-2, having a very good defender as my centreback that will be the last man while the wing defenders can push up 3/4 field.

  5. I am a coach of a 8v8 girls team and have been utilizing the 3-3-1 for the last 2 years. I utilize a strong center midfielder whom we call a rover and who is an intricate part of our offensive strategy. She is the point of all of our triangles of offense and is the setting point as well. LM and RM are contained to the high point of the circle, yet remain outside to keep the ball wide. We use our striker in the middle, a central wing, so to speak, to “clean up the trash” and that keeps the goalie in check. Our Sweeper is a strong FB that is used in our offensive strategy as a defensive midfielder and with speed can drop back to become the Center FB. This allows us at any one time to have 5 on the offensive side, 4 to control the midfield and 6 defensively. Grant it, it does involve a great deal of movement but the movement is not as such that we do not have at least 4 players in position with the ball at all times. I like the flexibility of the 3-3-1 as it can be switched into a 2-1-3-1 or a 2-3-2 at any time, depending on the need.

  6. I am a coach with a USSF National Youth License. You are correct and should play players in every position. That is the whole point at this age, soccer IQ. To get them to understand the triangle, you must run a 2-1-2. Forget winning and 2-3 and 3-2. This way you teach them about mid-field before they get to 8v8. Just give up on winning and focus on them getting smarter and loving the game. Don’t over coach as well. Be the glide on the side and not the sage on the stage. Winning is not everything but trying to is. Training them to win doesn’t happen until they are 18. 9-12 males is all about learning fundamental soccer skills.