Choosing the soccer formation that is best for your team
Width in Attack vs. Depth & Strength in Center of Soccer Field
Trade offs between Soccer Formations with Width vs. Depth
Width is Better if you Have a Great Team with No Weak Links
Depth Helps Prevent Fast Soccer Counterattacks
Winning vs. Skill Development - Can You Have Both?

Note From David. The soccer formation you choose can have a great deal to do with how successful your team is. The soccer formation you choose should be one that gives your team a chance to be successful, not one that dooms them to failure. One of the biggest mistakes I see is youth coaches choosing a formation because they have seen a pro team or a great travel team use it. If you have 100% great players who are fast, you can use a formation that has a lot of width because you will be able to use the width to attack yet are fast enough to recover to defensive positions, but if you have a typical youth team, you might want to use a formation that has more "Depth". The correspondence below is from a coach who was having success with a 2-1-2-2 soccer formation but was encouraged by a college coach to switch to a 2-3-2 formation because it has more "width". The question is, what is best for his team?

Below is part of correspondence from the Premium Forum. It has been adapted for this article.

To the Forum:

I had the pleasure of recently getting my E license recently and during the course the instructor (a pretty successful college head coach) and I had a chance to discuss the 2-1-2-2 soccer formation that I have been successfully using.

The biggest weakness of this soccer formation in his eyes is that it violates the concept of width. Having been around basketball coaching for many more years than soccer, I understand his point. When you are trying to advance the ball, you need width to create space or lanes in which to advance the ball. On the other hand, as a defense, you are trying to stay compact and shut down the lanes of advancement. Therefore, he encouraged me to move to a pure 2-3-2 formation as the best way to teach "shape" (triangles and diamonds).

We then engaged in the philosophical discussion of when does winning take precedence over learning and he agreed that at some point winning is important to learning.

I would appreciate your thoughts.

Coach B


Hi Coach B,

I will be interested in hearing how it works out.

Keep in mind that some of the coaches who teach the license classes start with the assumption that a team has 100% great players, like a good college team would have. Unfortunately, much of what is best for college teams doesn't work well for most youth teams that have a mixture of players of varying abilities.

The questions I recommend you consider before changing your formation are:

  1. Do you need use a formation that has "width" in order to score? As I recall, you were winning most of your games.

  2. Can your team use the extra width to score? Are your players good enough to use a Style of Play that allows them to use a lot of width? To use the width you need to be able to make a lot of consecutive passes. Is your team able to do that? Do you have the practice time to teach your players to play that way? Is it even possible to teach them to play that way?

  3. What do you give up on defense? There are definite trade offs. You are giving up "depth" which will make it easier for an opponent to launch a fast counterattack.

Also keep in mind the generalizations that a lot of coaches use when discussing soccer formations. Anson Dorrance, the most successful college coach ever (he has a 94% winning record and his teams have won 20 NCAA Championships), plays a 3-1-2-1-3 formation, which has a lot of "depth". Notice how his formation is strong in the Center of the field (between the 2 goals). Some might generalize and call it a 3-4-3, but that isn't how he plays it - the Fullbacks are a "Flat Back 4", but he doesn't play the midfield as a Flat 4 - the midfielders such as his Stopper can play wide when attacking to bring width to the attack but on defense will be in position to stop attacks, and the most dangerous attacks are in the Center because most goals are scored from in front of the goal. Also notice that the 3-1-2-1-3 formation allows the Attacking Midfielder to either move into the Attacking Third or play the Middle Third. I think it is a very flexible formation and he has obviously has great success.

Below is from the SoccerHelp Dictionary and discusses width and depth:

Width in Attack: Attackers want to "spread the field" and get width in an effort to find open spaces to move the ball (e.g., down the side lines) and to "stretch" the defense so holes are created that the offense can attack and penetrate. Defenders, obviously, want to prevent this by maintaining cover, depth, support and shape.

Width in Defense: Too much width in your defense is bad. The wider your defense is, the more spread out and the easier it is to penetrate. Your defenders should stay close enough together to support each other, but not too close (if they are too close, they lose effectiveness and can't cover enough space). Your defense should be just wide enough to slow down the attack (i.e., just wide enough that the attackers can't easily go around you) and should "shift and sag" so there are multiple layers of defenders between the ball and the goal. As your team gets older and plays better teams, the attackers will start to "switch fields" and use a wide attack as a way to get around your defense and to loosen it up and you will be forced to play wider.

Depth: Depth on defense means having several defenders (ideally, multiple layers of defenders) spaced between the ball and the goal who are in a position to "recover" in time to stop an attack on their goal. This and First Defender/Second Defender are the most important defensive concepts. Depth is the opposite of a "flat" defense. Depth in attack means having support to the rear so the ball can be passed back or "dropped".

As for winning vs. skill development, I think you can have both and that they go hand in hand (i.e., good skills plus motivation and good coaching will lead to winning). As a soccer coach, you want to choose a formation and Style of Play that gives your team a chance and not one that dooms them to failure - that is part of good coaching. I know you understand that your players must have skills in order to win against good competition and that a good soccer coach will develop player's skills, motivate players to hustle and be brave, and have effective practices that prepare the players to be able to play fast while under pressure.

Please let me know what you do and what works and what doesn't work.

David at SoccerHelp

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