soccer formations

Soccer Formations: Do Not Start Here, Arrive Instead!

Ask a coach about their philosophy, strategy, or tactics… And, they will likely respond with soccer formations they like to play. When I coached high school soccer, interviews for assistant coaches usually started like this:

Q: How do you like your teams to play?
A: I like a 4-4-2.

The Wrong Way To Choose Soccer Formations

Many coaches start with soccer formations and then build their team around them. Certainly, this approach is simple and easily fits into the coach’s vision and knowledge of the game. However, it often results in under-utilizing the players’ strengths and over-exposing their weaknesses. Thus, the coaches do not get the most out of their players. For the younger players this can lead to frustrations. Worst yet, it may even turn them away from the beautiful game. Their weaknesses are exposed and success is hard to find.

The Right Way…

You should arrive at soccer formations only after:

  • considering the coaching philosophy and strategy,
  • the players’ strengths and weaknesses,
  • and the tactics a coach will use during the game.

To move forward we need to define these terms as they relate to coaching youth soccer.


Do I coach to win or to teach? In youth soccer, we are almost always coaching to teach first. But, we also recognize that players must enjoy the game in order to learn it. Winning goes a long way in providing that enjoyment. Personally, I want to win, but never at the expense of teaching the day’s top lessons.


How will I achieve teaching a lesson while also giving the players a chance to win based on their strengths and weaknesses? Will I set up a strong defense first? This may keep us in the games because most of my team comprises unskilled and nonathletic players? Will I set up a strong midfield first? There are several players on my team who are very skilled and able to control the flow of the game. Will I set up a strong attack first? Several of my players are strong and fast and others are able to get the ball to them in the attack.


On offense, will the team move the ball up the field through the midfield? Or, will it bypass the midfield to get to the forwards quickly? On defense, will the team pressure the other team high and try to keep the game in the other team’s half of the field? Or, will we focus on protecting our goal and therefore positioning most of our players near our box? This would keep the other team from having much space in our half of the field.


Based on the answers to the questions above, you will arrive at your soccer formation. This will tell you how many defenders, midfielders, and forwards you will use – and how they will be positioned. If your strategy is to move the ball through the midfield – then you might want to consider more midfielders in your lineup. On the other hand, to put pressure on the opposing defense you might consider more forwards. To deny the other team space in front of your penalty box, consider more defenders.

Real Life Example

This season I am coaching a Boys U-11 recreational team (8v8 competition format) that has only 2 players who are skilled enough to connect passes with other teammates (players’ strengths and weaknesses).

With it being a recreational team, everyone gets equal playing time and those boys are only together on the field for about half of the game. While we work on improving our skills in practice, currently in games I have to reduce the amount of chances the other team gets by denying them space in front of our goal with more defenders (strategy). I am teaching (philosophy) the the team to relieve the pressure by sending the ball out wide early after we win it in order to attack up the sides (tactics).

Based on those factors, I load the defense with 4 defenders (denying the space), 2 midfielders (one shows wide and springs us into attack while the other provides balance centrally), and 1 forward who is sent to relieve the pressure and attack the other team’s goal (with the midfielders coming in support).



As soccer formations go, a 4-2-1 is not what I want to play, but until we get better skills and learn to be a bit more aggressive in practice, this is what must be done to put the players in position to be competitive.

By the end of the season I hope to teach several more players enough skills to be able to use them as connectors in the midfield at which point we will change the strategy to move through the midfield and therefore our soccer formations to include more midfielders.

This could result in a more balanced 3-3-1 formation. If I can get even more players to improve their skills, I would go to a 2-4-1 formation. The 4 in the middle would be positioned in a diamond that would provide the most triangles. Triangles are really important in soccer as discussed in this post.

As always, I hope you find this post useful. Think about how you arrive at your soccer formations and how to set up your team for success. Please ask us any questions you have or provide your comments. We are here to help!

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