One of the most basic questions you need to address at the beginning of each season is how to set up or organize your team. Let’s take a look at some options and the reasons behind them.
Triangles are the fundamental “shape” associated with the game of soccer. Generally, we want the player in possession of the ball to have two options to choose from to move the ball on, and we want defenders to have two points of cover (or one point of cover with a balancing player). In both cases, we are talking about three players who could be described as the three points of a triangle.
As we go forward and discuss a series of team shapes, please note the triangles that form between players. It is also worth noting that when describing team shapes with numbers (i.e. 4-4-2) we always start at the back of the team and move toward the front.
Small Sided Teams
Virtually every country in the world has moved toward allowing younger players to play 7- or 8-a-side soccer. The reduction in numbers from 11v11 allows young soccer players more chance to touch the ball and therefore to develop. Playing with smaller teams and getting kids more time on the ball in games is good for the players and good for the game.
Your small-sided team will eventually become an 11-a-side team, and you will want to have a teaching process that remains consistent and allows for a smooth transition to the bigger field. So, the way you set up your small-sided team has importance for the transition to the larger 11v11 game.
If you have a vision for how the 11-a-side team will play, it becomes fairly easy to decide how to set up your small-sided team.
It is increasingly recognized that playing soccer in smaller teams is beneficial to the development of younger players. At the youngest ages, 4v4 is highly beneficial. Teams playing 4v4 should be arranged in a diamond. If you arrange 4 players in a diamond, that diamond isactually made up of 4 triangles that can be drawn between the players.
While 7v7 (6 field players and a keeper) is relatively rare in the US, it’s worth mentioning as a building block for 11v11 teams. Teams playing with 6 field players are most effectively set up using a 2-3-1 shape. That shape replicates the “front six” of a 4-3-3 set up in the 11v11 game. The shape sets up a variety of "natural triangles" between players and provides width, depth (support behind the ball) and penetration (support ahead of the ball).
In the United States, we most commonly play 8v8 (7 field players and a goalkeeper) with our youngest age categories. The choice of 7 field players gives us 2 solid options in terms of the set-up of our team. We could play 3-3-1 or 2-3-2. Both set-ups have potential benefits.
Playing 3-3-1 with 7 field players allows for a smooth transition to either 4-4-2 or 4-3-3. The team’s set up is symmetrical, and for the most part, the players can be taught how to interact by playing 3v3’s in practice. Having a single forward will force the players in that position to both get behind the defense and to hold up the ball and bring other players into the game. The line of 3 at the back should be able to handle covering the width of most fields defensively, and the 3 midfielders should allow the team to attack across the entire width of the field, “stretching” the opposing defense. Note that when the wingers and backs move forward, the team is organized in 2 diamonds that come together at the center midfield player.
Setting up your team as a 2-3-2 also combines 2 diamonds from 4v4 (center midfielder is “shared” by both diamonds) in the same way that 3-3-1 does with the exception that the diamonds are now side by side instead of one on top of the other. Setting up your team in a 2-3-2 will allow your players to relate to each other as units of 2 and 3. If you are doing a lot of 2v2 and 3v3 in training sessions, you should be able to help the players relate that into the game with relative ease. Playing with 2 backs instead of 3 will force the 2 players to be more active and solve more problems, and playing with 2 forwards will always provide your strikers with closer support. When moving on to 11-a-side play, 2-3-2 allows a fairly simple transition to 3-2-3-2 by adding a back line of 3 additional players.
Full Sided (11v11) Teams
There are several ways of laying out an 11-a-side team. We will look at three possibilities here. Keep in mind that each option has its own strengths, and each generally concedes something or has a weakness. It is important to realize, though, that the weakness of some set-ups can actually be strengths in terms of improving your players in the long term.
If your team has played as a short-sided team using 2-3-2 as its shape, adding another line of 3 players at the back to move to 11v11 is a simple way to make the step up to playing with a full side. The players are “naturally” arranged in triangles from the start, and you will have a numerical superiority in the midfield in most cases. Players still related to one another in units of 2 and 3, which is very useful for a number of straightforward training activities.
Playing with only 3 at the back has both a cost and benefit. It is difficult for 3 players to cover the width of most fields; however, the need to cover all of that space and solve problems without help will make your defenders more effective when you move to a back four. In the short-term you may give up some avoidable goals, but in the longer-term you will be better defensively.
If you have played 3-3-1 as a short-sided team, you will very naturally transition to a 4-4-2 by adding one player to each line. Having four players in the back and midfield adds width to the team to help spread the attack, and one of the outside backs can get forward while the line of 3 players you’ve played with in the past remains to guard against counter attacks when the ball is lost. The four players in the midfield and the back four will cover the width of the field relatively effectively while defending.
If you play against teams with 3 central midfielders or with 5 in midfield, you may be numbers down in the center of the field, but you can still defend very effectively with your two banks of four playing in a zone. It may be necessary to designate one of your central midfielders to “hold” in a more defensive role in front of the center backs when attacking.
The 3-3-1 shape employed with a small-sided team also transitions smoothly into a 4-3-3 shape. Playing with 3 forwards allows your team to make the field longer and wider when you have the ball, forcing your opponent to defend the whole width of the field. It also allows for your team to pressure the opponent’s defense with 3 players when the ball is lost. Playing with 3 central midfield players often allows for your team to have numerical superiority in the center of midfield where the game is often won or lost; however, your outside backs will need to be able to get up into the flank midfield areas to pressure opponents.
If your team keeps possession of the ball well, the outside backs can be very dangerous getting forward into the attack, but if you struggle to keep the ball, your wingers may need to come back and defend to cover the opens spaces on the flanks of the midfield. When they retreat in this way, they risk being “pinned back” and unable to get forward to support the center forward. When this happens it can be hard to counter attack your opponent.