When children start playing soccer at younger ages (U-6 and U-8), the emphasis should be on small-sided soccer. At these ages, teams should use a 3 v 3 or 4 v 4 without goalkeepers. They will eventually move to a 5 v 5 with a goalkeeper when they get to U-7 or U-8. The small-sided game maximizes the number of touches each player gets, and also gives them an opportunity to understand the basic concepts of the game.
At these beginning levels, the players are just starting to learn how and when to pass the ball, and you may have begun to introduce the concept of positions (for example, in 5 v 5 you may designate one or two players at a time to be "defenders," or, to be certain that they get back on defense every time).
At some point, the number of players on the field expands, and the size of the field expands. Now, there is a need to assign positions to the players and to be certain that there are players who defend and players who advance in an effort to score.
You may play 7 v 7 or 8 v 8 (including a goalkeeper) and it is often difficult to decide on a proper formation.
For example, in 7 v 7 you may play a 3-3 or a 2-2-2 or a 1-2-1-2 or a 1-2-2-1. A 3-3 means 3 defenders and 3 forwards. A 2-2-2 involves two defenders, two midfielders, and two forwards. A 1-2-1-2 generally means a sweeper back defender, two wing defenders in front of the sweeper, a center midfielder, and two forwards. A 1-2-2-1 generally means a sweeper back defender, two wing defenders in front of the sweeper, two midfielders in front of the defenders, and a center forward.
There are advantages and disadvantages to all of these formations. A 3-3 may give you a solid defense and a solid offense, but there is the risk of large gaps between the forwards and the defenders. This makes it difficult for the defenders to get the ball to the forwards, and leads to a situation in which three of your players are playing and the other three are watching and waiting. For example, either the forwards are working together in your offensive end to try and score while the defenders are standing and watching at midfield; or, the defenders are fighting an attack while the three forwards stand near midfield, waiting for the defenders to get the ball out to them. With a 2-2 the midfielders have to run a great deal. They will either stay close to each other and cover the entire width of the field, or stay just in front of the defenders, or stay just behind the forwards, often getting involved in the offensive third of the field.
Triangles tend to be an important shape in soccer. The players can form triangles in the 2-2-2 by staggering the lines as play occurs, but the formation can still lead to the players remaining in two straight lines. The 1-2-2-1 and 1-2-1-2 create the triangle relationships from the get-go, but can leave gaps in the field or can result in a single player covering the entire width of the field at his or her position. The 2-2-2, 1-2-2-1, and 1-2-1-2 formations will all present challenges for the coach seeking to have his or her players use the full width of the field.
Whatever formation you decide upon, as a coach you will then need to communicate the concepts behind the positions to your players. Some players learn on the field. Others learn by looking at a diagram. Others learn well from reading and re-reading a textual description of their responsibilities.
To help you, we have prepared a basic summary of the general responsibilities of defenders, midfielders, and forwards. These descriptions track the concept of a 2-2-2 formation in a 7 v 7 game. Before you use them, you need to tailor them to your particular coaching approach, philosophy, and formation. For example, if you decide on three midfielders instead of two, the responsibilities of the center midfielder may differ from the responsibilities for the outside midfielders. You may want your center midfielder to be aggressive on offense or you may prefer him or her to drop back on defense or to mark the other team's best forward or midfielder on defense. You probably want the wing midfielders, not the center midfielder, to take throw-ins. You may want your wing defenders to take all throw-ins. You may want your center midfielder or a wing midfielder closest to the corner to take corner kicks. There are many variations.
Still, we thought it might be helpful to set out the position responsibilities in writing, to allow the players to read and reread their responsibilities, to allow their parents to read something that explains whet their child should be doing on the field, and to focus your thinking about what you want your players to be doing.
Responsibilities Of A Defender
Must be goal side of opponents whenever other team has the ball.
Whenever the ball is between the defender and the goal being defended, the defender needs to get back.
The first defensive responsibility is to slow down the opponents' attack.
Secondary responsibilities include eliminating the opponents' advantage of moving forward quickly and allowing the midfielders and forwards to help on defense.
To accomplish these objectives, defenders must work to force the opponents and the ball to the outside of the field.
Defenders must try not to let ball get past them, not to let opponents get behind them (so the opponent is closer to the goal), and, most importantly, not to let an opponent with the ball get behind them (stop the ball or stop the player - get in between opponent and ball).
If the defender does get beat, he/she needs to recover immediately and get back, either to get goal side of opponent with the ball or to a back-up position of the goalkeeper or the defender who is now defending opponent with the ball.
If the goalkeeper calls for the ball, the defender needs to back-up the goalkeeper.
When other defenders are confronting the opponent with the ball, the first defender needs to both: (1) cut-off passes from opponent, and (2) prepare to back-up the other defender and to again become the primary defender on the ball if the other defender is also beat.
Defenders need to anticipate passes to opponents and step up to intercept passes.
Do not allow opponents to turn. For example, when an opponent receives the ball and his/her back is still to the goal, don't allow the opponent to turn to a position where they can see goal and can shoot.
Defenders need to control balls they receive and carry (dribble) them upfield.
Clear and pass balls to midfielders and forwards (go to outside - not middle of field).
Defenders should follow the ball upfield, staying one pass behind the midfielders, available for a back pass and in position to return a loose ball to the midfielders and forwards. (called "push up" or "move up")
On goal kicks, defenders should stay goal side of opponents, protecting against short kicks.
Defenders need to take throw-ins in defensive half of the field (and perhaps into offensive half depending on coach's preference)
Responsibilities Of A Midfielder
Have to run, run, run.
Need to help on defense and on offense.
Have to control the space between our defenders and our forwards.
Need to be positioned so that one pass from a defender can reach you, and one pass from a forward can reach you.
Midfielders have to receive the ball from defenders, carry it up the field, make a good pass or a through pass to the forwards (midfielders must learn when forwards are offside), or go straight to goal.
Need to receive the ball from the defenders or take it away from the other team, and learn to cross the ball to the other side of the field to the other midfielder or the far forward.
Midfielders have to be one pass away from the other midfielder, to provide support.
When the other midfielder is defending, the first midfielder needs to provide support in case the other midfielder gets beat or opponent cuts toward center of field. This midfielder needs to cut off the pass to other side.
Midfielders need to follow forwards, stay one pass behind forwards, and intercept clearing kicks by other team's defenders.
Need to support forwards (receive back passes).
Need to get back to help defenders, especially on corner kicks and situations when other team has greater numbers.
Midfielders take throw-ins in offensive half or at least offensive third of the field (coach's preference).
Responsibilities Of A Forward
Forwards are goal scorers. Forwards are our front line of attack, our main offensive players.
If the ball is between a forward and the goal or the goal line, forwards must be running to the ball - all the way to the goal or to the goalkeeper.
Forwards have to follow all shots.
If another forward has the ball, the first forward must move without the ball, along with the other forwards, to stay one pass away (as far as the other forward can pass), provide support, look to receive cross or through ball.
Forwards need to go back when we are on defense, to stay close to the midfielders and defenders, but do not usually go all the way back.
Forwards need to go back far enough that the midfielders can pass the ball to them.
Forwards need to stay in front of the midfielders, move without the ball if the midfielders have the ball, prepare to receive a pass or through ball from the midfielders.
Forwards need to learn to stay onside (not offside).
Forwards need to learn not to come back for the ball when their teammates have the ball, learn to trust their teammates to get the ball to the forwards.
Forwards take kickoffs and forwards usually take corner kicks.
Forwards come back into defensive side of field to help pick-up cleared balls, get goal kicks, receive clearance passes from teammates.