I get hits from search engines all the time on some of my discussions about 6v6 soccer formations, so I guess it’s time to talk about 8v8 formations. If you’d like, you can read my previous posts on the subject below:

In my first post I touched on 8v8 and noted that teams with strong defenses were winning, at least in our Rec division. You’d be amazed how many coaches still put their weakest players back on defense, then can’t figure out why they’re allowing five goals a match. Back then we saw a number of formations in Rec, from 3-4 to 1-2-3-1 or 1-2-1-3, with the latter ones much more structured (players stayed in very small areas of the field). Recently teams seem to have migrated to a more free flowing 3-4 almost across the board (some will say it’s a 3-2-2, but it’s pretty hard to tell!) Now that I’ve coached 8v8 at the travel level a bit, it’s interesting to see what works and what doesn’t.

Obviously, the first thing to consider as a coach is formations are only as good as the players using them. You will find your players will drive you towards a successful formation, not the other way around. We’ll touch on why in a moment.

Most U12 Rec teams I’ve seen play will use a simple 3-4. The three defenders can usually stop most attacks given the lack of passing at that level and the four up front can make for a strong attack. The better teams often push all three defenders up front and try to seal things off at midfield. In Challenge last year, we played a 3-2-2 or a 3-1-3. Three defenders helped us stop many attacks, even if less skilled players were in back. But the formations had a few problems. 3-1-3 leaves the midfield too open so our forwards rarely got any service. The three forwards want to stay forward, so the sole midfielder had to try and cover it all – not likely. Plus you find your midfielder strongly tempted to come back and help defend on strong attacks, leaving your midfield wide open except for your center forward (who you expect to be pushed to midfield by a smart defense).

After some debate and watching some stronger U12 teams play, we switched formations this season. What I describe here is based on our experience with girls – though I have seen boys teams use this often as well. We have a strong group of players who can play defense, so we decided to go with two defenders. Initially we decided to go with a 2-3-2 since it setup so many natural triangles. (Bonus points to the first person who can say which collegiate women’s program made the 3-4-3 a success!) We told the strikers/forwards that they were in no ‘position’ in terms of left or right. They were encouraged to go where ever they felt they had the best chance to score without getting near their teammate. But we found that we would often end up with one midfielder again trying to settle things down in the circle, since our wings were told to stay wide. So we shifted to a 2-4-1 formation. This provided more coverage at mid field where so many goal kicks and punts go at this age. On the attack we push five up front with two defenders at midfield and our players forming a W in front of the goal (wings deep, striker in the goal box, center mid’s just outside the penalty area). On defense, we rely on our two main defenders with support from the two center midfielders who will come back on wing attacks, corners, goal kicks, etc. From a front to back point of view, we try to keep our striker between the opponent’s goal and midfield, our wings between the opponent’s goal and a few yards over mid field, our midfielders between the 18yd line on each end (yes I know it’s not actually 18 yds in 8v8 :) ), and the defenders between our goal and midfield except on corner kicks or deep attacks when a team leaves one or none of their strikers at midfield. Our keeper plays almost as a sweeper, clearing balls outside the penalty area she can clearly win before an opponent is able to transition to an attack on a throughball.

Now this is a risky formation because you only have two defenders and most teams bring four attackers in 8v8. However, we rely on our defenders ability to intercept passes, back each other up well, and win 1v1 challenges along with the two center midfielders coming in to support. Even against teams who pass very well, we’ve kept scores low and most we let in are breakdowns/mistakes vs the other team moving the ball through our defense. In watching some top level U12 girls teams, many use a similar formation. But your defenders have to have serious confidence to do this and they have to play together well – backing each other up as needed. If we find a team taking the risk to bring five against us, we’ll have one of the midfielders hang back a little more than usual. Eventually we want our midfielders to get the idea that when one is fighting for a free ball going towards our goal, the other center mid should be drifting towards the opponent’s goal. Step by step as they say.

The formation has worked well for us as we’ve only allowed 3 goals in the regular season. Tournaments have been less successful, but we’ve also found that our team struggles in tournaments and also that many of the fields we play tournaments on are at the shorter range of the 8v8 field requirements. In those cases we probably could switch to a 2-3-2 since the forwards and defenders are often closer to midfield to help ‘take up space’ I should have tried that last weekend but didn’t.

So for those of you coaching 8v8 – what formation have you found works for teams at your level? Are you still using three defenders, or have you stepped up to using two? Do you stick with one formation only or have you found that you switch depending on what you face. Do your players know the difference between the two formations?