For the past three summers my friend Philip and I have been coaching a competitive youth soccer team in Kingston, Ontario. It is one thing to write and talk about tactics but it’s a whole other thing to run a team. So many other factors come into play such as man management and fixture management, not to mention the issues unique to youth soccer such as scheduling practices, dealing with parents, and maybe most importantly balancing development and results. At a young age the focus should be on developing skills of players as well as their tactical awareness. I remember helping run a local tournament and I watched over a game of teams that couldn’t have been older than 10. One of the teams were short a few players and not only that but they were also obviously of lesser skill. The coach of the better team with a full 11 simply wanted the best result. In that situation I would not play a full 11 as I don’t think it would teach my team much but I admit I would be in the minority there. However, this coach not only played a full 11 but he played his best 11, rarely making substitutions, and yelled derisively at his players the entire match. He was not teaching them anything with his screams he was simply pushing them to run faster and harder and motivate them. Rather than passing the ball around, working overlaps, letting players try different positions or learn new formations he was attempting to rack up the biggest score. In my mind that is something reserved for higher levels and age groups and even then it is questionable.
This article will focus on a match Phil and I coached this past summer. To give you a background of our team we were a U18 squad (17 and 18 year olds) playing in the Level 3 ERSL division in Ontario. For those not familiar with the soccer pyramid in Ontario the winners of Level 3 ERSL win promotion to OYSL, the highest level of amateur youth soccer. We finished the season mid-table which was fairly successful for us given our squad. This specific match took place in a tournament in Montreal. It was our second match of the tournament and we ended up winning 5-2 against a team that was fairly similar to us in skill level. In fact our entire group was evenly matched and it was a shame we missed out on advancing by a single goal. The following is a sort of tactical review of the match I wrote a couple of days after the match itself. (Note: We are the blue/yellow team in the diagrams)
In our second game of the Brossard tournament we put in a fantastic performance where we created chance after chance and thoroughly outclassed a team and it showed on the score sheet. There were many factors that came together to create that performance, from individual ability to determination to luck, but one of the factors was tactics.
In the first match of the tournament we lost 2-0 to a very solid team in a very even game. In that game we played a 4-3-1-2 against a team that played a fairly traditional 4-4-2 shape. In that game I feel that our most dangerous and best player was the 1 that found some space in between the lines between their midfield and defense. Their team was very solid at the back (they lost 1-0 to OSU, the eventual winners, in the semi-finals) and we created the best chance of the match. Unfortunately we weren’t able to beat or draw a very similar team, but the performance was decent enough and with the success Phil had been having in the season with the 4-3-1-2 we decided to keep with it for the next game.
As the teams lined up for the second match it was surprising for us to see Falcons line up with a sort of 3-5-2. The midfield five was lined up with a bit of a defensive midfielder but the back 3 was very traditional. Instantly we saw that they had the tactical advantage. The two outside backs would man mark our two strikers leaving their most central defender free. One of the three central midfielders would drop back and mark our attacking midfielder. In possession their central defender would step up and it was obvious to see he had good ability on the ball.
Figure 1 shows how the teams lined up at the start of the match. You can see how the Falcons D C is free to cover for his defensive partners when we attack and how their extra man in midfield lined up to mark our AM. When they had the ball their comfortable on the ball D C stepped up and our midfield was overrun. Quickly Philip and I made the decision to switch to a 4-3-3.
This figure shows how we lined up with our switch to the 4-3-3. The first thing to jump out is the difference in arrows between the two figures. In figure 1 Falcons have their D C stepping up, but in figure 2 our F C is basically man marking him giving him no opportunity to join the midfield in possession. The arrows indicate our desire for our wide forwards to drag their outside backs wide. Usually Phil and I prefer a narrow formation because it is so difficult to score from crosses at this level, but that was not the goal of the arrows. Their goal was to drag the defender out of position so that the other two forwards or one of our central midfielders could fill that space and be 1v1 against his defender.
Defensively we retained a basic 7v7 shape. Our fullbacks tracked their wingers, the two center backs marked their strikers and we had a 3v3 in the middle. The advantage for us was that when we broke forward we had a 3v3 while when they attacked they had a 7v7. It was easy for us to retain possession by bypassing the midfield because a quick pass forward meant we had three forwards battling three defenders. We clogged the middle so that when they tried a quick ball forward they had more defenders to deal with. In the end, less attackers v. defenders (assuming an equal number) is better. A 1v1 is more dangerous than a 10v10. Their coach never made an adjustment and his team paid for it. He yelled at them for not giving an effort but he was at fault for never switching his tactics.
In the end there were many reasons we won the game. Our first goal was a well taken set piece, our second was a bit of luck, and those two goals gave us the confidence to go on and win the game. But that match showed the tactical superiority a 4-3-3 can have versus a 3-5-2. It also showed the growth of Phil and I as coaches being able to recognize when we were at a disadvantage. But maybe the best thing it showed was the growth of our players. When we switched to a 4-3-3 from the bench the players immediately knew what we wanted and when we gave individual instructions to subs they carried them out perfectly. Overall in my three years of coaching that was my favourite match to coach and one of the best performances from any team I’ve been a part of. What this match showed is that when two teams are evenly matched skill wise tactical awareness of the players and coaches can win the game, even if you’re 18 years old and playing youth soccer in Ontario.
Being with the same squad for three years allowed my friend and I to train our players’ tactical awareness. At this level coaches usually teach one or two formations and they are usually a 4-4-2 with a flat midfield and a defense consisting of a sweeper and a stopper or a 4-3-3 that is flat in all three bands with little fluidity. Players don’t learn different formations and if they are skilled enough to play at a higher level they are at a disadvantage. It also robs them in general of one of the joys of the game, that is different strategies and formations facing off against each other. Often they go out with zero instruction and simply fill the space indicated on the chalk board where their name is. My hope is that youth clubs start hiring coaches based on their actual soccer knowledge rather than parents of children who are on the team. I understand that sometimes a team has no option for a coach and unless a parent steps up that team will fold, and that is admirable, but the onus is on the club to find coaches and give them training and for local coaches to put in the time and effort to teach a group of strangers.