Thoughts on U11/U12 8v8 Formations

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?

Leave a Reply

  1. @Jay I think the US has reached their plateau and will steadily decline. Just look at the crap they put in the license modules (F,E, and D for example)

  2. Coach Aaron,
    I am intrigued by your statements about the 3-1-2-1 but can you give more specifics about how you use this formation. We have girls with some talent but mentally they do not seem to grasp their positions very well at this stage (U10). Can you clarify the roles of the players in your scheme.

  3. I just coached a season with 2-3-2 on an 80 yd field. I considered this an intermediate step since I inherited a team that was used to 3-1-3 (previous coach did not understand the middlefield). It was successful at times but more often than not we gave up a lot of goals. I think that had more to do with the fact that I have some great players and some pretty bad players but this is a recreational league and I do play everyone equally. The disparity between my best and worst players was what caused most of the goals we gave up. This spring I will be switching to a 2-4-1 with a diamond middlefield. The CDM will be able to help the defense as well as attack. I will keep you posted on how we do when the time comes.

  4. Please Please Please take the time to go do coaching courses. Get you licences! They are not the end all be all of coaching, but they will drastically move you away from the bonehead notions that are being written here. If you wrote in your post anywhere, “My U10 or U12 team went undefeated and has the lowest goals against average in the league.” THEN YOU HAVE FAILED THE KIDS ON YOUR TEAM. I’m sorry if your offended, but the emphasis at this age should be on psycomotor skills, coordination, technical abilities and teaching them to be compitent in 1v1, 2v2 and other small team tactics up to about 4v4. I am a college coach and it is really disheartening to read about U10 coaches designing formations around what will give them the best chance to win. Develop competitiveness in individual moments, like how many juggles they can do, how many passes in a certain time, how many times they can dribble up and down weaving through cones. Use the US national team technical test (which you can find online). Please Please Please, stop teaching them that the measure of success in wins and losses. YOU ARE FAILING THE KIDS ON YOUR TEAM. WINNING MATTERS, BUT NOT AT U10!

  5. 1st year competitive league coach trying to find the right balance of playing the better players and pleasing all the parents. Starting to realize I can’t please everyone. 12 players on the team one player with great skills, 4-5 decent players who play hard, 3 who working hard and getting better, and three who if I had a do-over I would’ve not taken.
    After a slow start in Fall (0and 3), we turned our season around by giving the better players much more time on the field. Winning came at a price, after our strongest game we ever played, two parents approached me after the game and were very upset due to their kids playing time. A big meeting with the club ensued. I stood my ground on the kids playtime and the season continued. My question is what is the proper playtime for very weak players on a competitive team?
    And what’s the best way to relay this to the parents?

  6. @Coach Larry

    Write this formation on a sheet of paper and look at the many options you have as triangles. Versus making girls run laps I have them run in formations of triangles. They hate it but when the kickoff wistles blows it just becomes natural (very nice to watch as it develops in them). The roles are simple, if our team has the ball everyone is on offense and must stay dedicated to their zone (triangle on their side of the field). We lose posession and it becomes man to man, with nearest defender attaching. You will find that 9 times out of ten they will be covering within their triangles automatically.

    @soccer coach
    You are so right. In case you didnt notice I never reacted to comments on how much they win. When I was bashing the license modules I was referring to their on field strategies, not their philosphy on mental developments.

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