Soccer Tactics

70 Soccer Tactics and Tips

Soccer Tactics and 70 Tips for U8 to U18

The 70 soccer tactics and coaching tips below were written in reply to emails from coaches who were losing or had weak teams. About half the tips will apply to most youth teams that are U8 and older, but about half the tips are for weak soccer teams and don't apply to Travel teams. Look for ideas that might help your specific team. How a great Travel team with 100 percent great, motivated players can play is very different from a Recreational team that has unskilled, slow, non-athletic, unmotivated players.

The 2 best things a coach can do are to use SoccerHelp No Lines Soccer Drills so players develop strong fundamental soccer skills, and to motivate players to come to every practice, to hustle, to give 100% effort, to be Brave and not afraid of contact (there is a SoccerHelp drill to teach that), and to have good team spirit (see How to Motivate Soccer Players for ideas) . Our drills are fun and players will see fast improvement - for those 2 reasons they will want to come to practice.

  1. Dribbling is the most important soccer skill. To be good dribblers, players must able to dribble thru traffic while under pressure. Dribbling around cones is NOT a good way to train players to dribble in traffic while under pressure. The best way to train players to have great dribbling skills is by playing the Free Dribble Across a Square SoccerHelp Practice Game as a warm-up to start every practice. Every player has a ball and players dribble thru each other and keep score, so there is traffic and pressure to play fast - this Practice Game trains instinctive reactions. You will see results within 2 practices. We invented this drill and it is exclusive to SoccerHelp. Below is a typical of the results you can expect -

    "At every practice we do Dribble Across a Square, etc. - the poise my boys have on the ball is leaps and bounds above other teams now. Before, we were 4 wins 5 losses. Last season our record was 9 Wins 1 Tie." Coach T, U12 travel, MA

  2. Train Your Players to Be Brave, Tough and Aggressive. Use the free Aggressive Soccer Drill to toughen up your players and get them used to contact so they don't get pushed around. If you are a Premium Member, also use the Win the 50/50 Ball No Lines Drill to train players to win 50/50 balls. Below is what coaches say:

    "This is working beyond belief. Some of my timid girls are now amongst the toughest on the team." Mark, U1OG

    "This made an immediate improvement on how to fight for a ball." Coach Chuck, U10B

  3. Teach Aggressive Receiving - Aggressive Receiving means to train your players to be alert, ready for passes, to expect passes to Open Space (instead of always to their feet), and that they MUST anticipate bad passes, aggressively stop passes, and move to the ball before a defender can get to the ball. The exclusive SoccerHelp Dribble Around Cone & Pass Relay Race Practice Game is the best way to teach Aggressive Receiving Every pass isn't going to be perfect and Receivers need to NOT expect perfect passes. Also, you will want to teach your players to Pass To Space (instead of always Passing to Feet) because that teaches them how to use Open Space and your attack will be much faster and better. For Passing to Space to work, your Receivers need to be taught that a pass might be made to Open Space instead of to their feet. You will want to praise and reward Aggressive Receiving and make a big deal out of it until that is the normal way your players play. If you are a Premium member, check out the Practice Game to teach "Passing to Space" at Below is what coaches say:

    "We played Dribble Across a Square and Dribble Around the Cone and Pass Relay Race at every practice, and the results were phenomenal." Greg, U9

  4. Do you scrimmage at practice? If you do, reduce scrimmaging to 10 minutes or less per practice. Scrimmaging is an inefficient way to teach skills because most players don't get enough time on the ball. If you need to teach positions or formations, do a slow walk-thru. SoccerHelp No Lines Drills are a MUCH better way to teach skills because in many of them every player has a ball. Also, some kids play with more enthusiasm in their real matches if they don't scrimmage at practice. If you scrimmage, scrimmage without a Goalie as explained at Small Sided Scrimmage Without A Goalie.
  5. I notice that you use the iron-on patches with your team. Your biggest needs are aggressive play, defense and scoring, so I would only give patches for those 3 things. I would give a patch NOT ONLY for actually scoring, but also for BEING IN POSITION TO SCORE - if your players do the right things, they will start to score. Once they learn to score, you might want to stop giving patches for goals, but for now you need to do that to teach them how to score. Your team must also develop a DESIRE TO WIN. If you get more patches, buy the V and A patches... when you win, make a big deal of it. Don't give patches for participation - give them for effort, achievement and aggressiveness. The exception might be a patch for practice attendance, but you can give one for each 2 or 3 practices attended. Practice attendance is critical to the success of your team.
  6. How to Teach Passing and Receiving - For U8 and older, a great way to teach passing and receiving is by using the Dribble Around Cone & Pass Relay Race No Lines Drill. It is a Practice Game where pairs of players compete. It teaches passing, how to play fast, Aggressive Receiving (being alert and moving to the ball), passing while running, and a more.
  7. Do you have sports drinks and water at the games? If not, try that -- it can make a difference (there's a good article about Hydration)
  8. Regarding equal playing time: Most leagues require each player to play 50% of the game - check to see what your league requires. If a player won't try or hustle or do as you ask, they shouldn't expect to play as much as someone who does -- I think that's a fair approach. You have an obligation to the players, but also to the Team.
  9. Have you taught Coaching Rule # 3? It's worth 2 goals per game at U-9 Watch How to Defend Soccer Goal Kicks, Punts and Throw Ins Video
  10. Have you taught First Defender/Second Defender? How to teach it is at Quick Team Improvement.
  11. I recommend that you make a BIG DEAL of BRAVERY and tough, aggressive play and give a B for Bravery Patch for it -- the BRAVERY patch really works.
  12. You're right - you MUST have tough players at Fullback and Stopper -- that is CRITICAL.
  13. If you Defend Deep (if you leave your Fullbacks deep), think about letting your tough Fullbacks play most of the game or even the entire game (perhaps rotating 3 players at those 2 positions).
  14. Try the Win the 50/50 Ball Game and use it to teach players to slow down the attack if they can't win the ball.
  15. To keep yourself motivated, try the Motivational coaching quotes... I read them myself.


More Soccer Tactics and Tips

12 More Ideas to Help a Losing Team
2 Stopper Formation
"Rules" for Rec Fullbacks
22 Coaching Rules
Teaching Terminology

Hi Tom,

I understand that you are playing against teams that have All Stars on them and that are older, and that you have an average Rec team with some weak, unmotivated, unaggressive, and slow players.

Have you been Pushing Up your FB's? If you do, you will get killed against older, faster teams. The only chance a weaker team has is to play a conservative defense. Your Forwards won't be able to score much against older, better players, but their Forwards will kill your defenders.

**Keep in mind that your team can't play like an All Star team or a travel team - you have too many "weak links". That's why the Pushing Up style of play can work for them but not for you. Don't try to copy the approaches used by select team coaches - in some ways they have an easier time coaching than you do - you have to deal with unmotivated, unaggressive, unathletic players and weak links and they don't.**

My thoughts are:

  1. I like the game you mention as a teaching tool, but not as a reward -- it is a form of scrimmaging and has the same problems and you are playing it far too much. I suspect your players are enjoying themselves so much and getting their competitive need satisfied that it reduces their enthusiasm for their real match. So, I recommend you stop playing it. Also, that game is not efficient -- think about it, for half your practice you only have one ball for 10 players. Use games where there lots of touches and lots of balls.
  2. The improved skills WILL pay's like climbing a ladder... by next season you will notice that they are several steps above the competition.
  3. Keep rewarding and encouraging bravery and aggressive, tough play. Give the rewards in a meeting after the game with the players and parents watching and praise specific acts of bravery -- only reward bravery and aggressiveness when it actually happens. I suggest ONLY giving blood patches for acts during your actual games, not for practices.
  4. Keep working on Coaching Rule # 3: During the game yell "Mark Up!" I had to do this for several seasons, but they will start to learn to do it themselves when they see the results. HERE'S an idea: Designate a special Patch to give for stealing the ball on Goal Kicks, throw ins and punts.
  5. Tell your players that they each MUST do their job and trust their teammates to do their jobs - that's what teamwork is. Reward them for doing THEIR job -- not for trying to do someone else's job.
  6. You're right, your Stopper must cover the corner (see # 7 below)
  7. I want to recommend you try a different formation with 2 FB's and 2 Stoppers and leave those 2 FBs Deep all the time - DO NOT PUSH THEM UP -- a 2-2-2-1. It is easier to teach Defense that way -- assignments are clear and this should solve your defense problem. You leave the FBs in front of the goal and the Near Stopper pressures balls in the corner. It also has the advantage that the 2 Stoppers can Push Up to the Halfway Line to support your attack. Have your FB's stay deep (don't come out of the Penalty Box except to kick away a loose ball) and tell them THEIR JOB IS TO DEFEND THE GOAL FRONT. Here are some simple RULES to teach your 2 FB's:
    1. Don't go past the Penalty Box Line except to kick away a loose ball.
    2. Just kick the ball hard, straight ahead -- don't dribble it.
    3. DON'T go past the Goal Post toward the corner -- that is the Stopper's job. With 2 Stopper's (Left and Right), the closest Stopper should pressure the ball in the corner -- that is THEIR job -- and the Far Stopper MUST go to the Penalty Box Arc to stop crosses and attacks that come back to the Center. When the ball is to one side, the Near FB should move to the Goal Post and the Far FB should shift to the Center of the Goal. The Near Stopper should shift to pressure the ball and the Far Stopper should go to the Penalty Box Arc to protect the Center (don't let your Stopper try to be a FB -- he MUST sat out a little and not get in the FB's way).
    4. Teach them this: "Where will the other team score from?" Answer: "In front of our goal."
  8. If you play a 2-2-2-1, put your fastest best player at Forward and leave him Pushed Up as far as he can go ALL THE TIME -- that will keep at least 2 opposing defenders tied up and off your half of the field when the opposing team is attacking.
  9. Read "22 Coaching Rules" on Premium.
  10. Yes, you need to teach terminology. The way to do this is on the field by walking around. The same thing with your entire team to teach positions and Shifting and Sagging-- put them on the field and walk around with a ball and watch them shift -- move back, then up, then from side to side and to the corners -- do it in slow motion so they can absorb it -- so do it for the next 2 practices for about 10 minutes per practice. It's okay to have 2 players at one position or let them move to different positions, if they play more than one position. Go slow and watch where they are and move them to the correct spot. Make your FB's stay in front of the goal and make the Stopper stop at the Halfway Line and make them drop back fast when the ball is turned over.
  11. Try to find 2 or 3 good FB's -- teach them how to play that position and let that be what they play.
  12. It will help you greatly if you coach during your games - by that I mean if you give direction to players who are on the field. You can't afford the luxury of just letting them play - you don't have enough practice time to teach everything at practice, so they must learn during their games. Get a parent to help with substituting and water. It will help greatly if you or your assistant coaches the Defense (FBs and Stoppers) while the other one coaches the MFs and Forwards (it's impossible to watch them all at the same time). Here's a tip: When giving directions, call the player by name and keep it simple and specific. Example: "John, mark up" or "John, move up 5 steps" or "John, shift with the ball" or "John, stop at the Halfway Line". Being able to watch your players will let you see what you need to work on. It will be best if you coach the Defense for a half and then coach the Offense the next half - that way you will see where work is needed. It's very important to agree up front with your assistant about whether your FBs are going to Push Up, and if they are, how far, and what are the "rules" you want to teach your Fullbacks, Stoppers, MFs and Forwards. Discuss how you will handle balls to the corner and where the Stoppers should be on those balls, where the Stoppers should stop when you attack, etc. REMEMBER, that all you can expect is for each player to do his job - you must let them stuck to their job - this is how they learn to be responsible and to trust their teammates. This may at first result in a few bad things happening, but they will improve. If you must choose, it's more important for you to coach the Defense (FBs and Stoppers) than it is for you to coach the Offense (MFs and Forwards). You can give your FBs and Stoppers some specific "rules" but there are only a few for the MFs and Forwards - for example: "shift with the ball", "win the ball", tell your Forwards to stay at the Half line when your goal is under attack (or a long kick from the ball), when on your Defensive Half tell MFs to stay a long pass from the ball and to stay out of your Penalty Box except in an emergency. There are more Positioning Rules on Premium. If you use a 2-2-2-1, it's critical that when your goal is under attack that your MFs stay a long pass away from the ball (about 15 to 20 of their steps - longer than a short pass, but not as far as a long kick) and that they shift from side to side with the ball - that way they are in position to win the balls that your FBs and Stoppers clear by kicking straight ahead. The MFs should never go into the Penalty Box unless it is an emergency. These "rules" will give you good field coverage and your MFs and Forwards will be in position to win cleared balls. Hundreds of coaches have successfully used this approach - it works for Rec teams like yours. Your kids are a little young, so keep in mind that they won't be able to learn this as fast as 12 year olds would. (See Coaching During Games for more on this subject.)

Tom, I believe this approach will work better for you than putting more players at Forward -- your problem is defense.

Please let me know how it works and if you have been Pushing Up your FB's -- the more I know about how you have been playing defense, the more I can help. Do you have your Stopper stop at the Halfway Line? If not, you should consider that, or the Stoppers might not be able to "recover" and help the FB's defend. Or, if you play 2 Stoppers and need more scoring, let one Stopper come into the attack and have the other one stop at the Halfway line and shift with the ball.

David at SoccerHelp

(Following is a letter we received from a Coach who had a humiliating loss, and our recommendations for improving his chances of success)

Hi Sal,

First, thanks for being a Premium member.

Before I figured out a better way (the SoccerHelp way), when I coached Rec I would tell my FBs to "Push Up". The idea was that they would "support my attack" and create an "offside trap". But if you think about it, it makes no sense given your circumstances and it really didn't make any sense given mine... the natural result is what happened to you -- you get killed and demoralized because the opposing fast Forwards will get many chances to score on breakaways against your slow Fullbacks. Here's an analogy: in American football if you ask your corners to cover a much faster receiver tight they will get burned for touchdowns. Or in basketball, if you ask a slow defender to come up to the half line to guard a fast forward, does that make any sense? Obviously not.

It doesn't make sense to Push Up slow unskillful defenders against fast, skillful Forwards. NOW, if you had a Travel Team, a College team or a Pro team and had defenders as fast as the opposing Forwards, then YES, push them up. But, as you saw, against faster Forwards you will just give up a lot of breakaways if your Fullbacks are slower. Also, how well can unskillful players support your attack anyway? The risks far outweigh the potential advantages.

If you had NOT given up the breakaways it would have been 3-0.

So, here are some ideas that I recommend to you:

  1. Defend Deep and Don't give up goals on breakaways. NO EASY GOALS! Make your opponent earn their goals. This means you CANNOT push up slow Fullbacks. Since you don't have fast Fullbacks, your Fullbacks must "Defend Deep". If you doubt the success of this strategy, read the Premium Testimonials. Tell your Fullbacks to NOT go past the top of the Penalty Box.
  2. Defend the most important parts of the field and Don't defend the least important parts. You don't have the speed, stamina or skill to defend the entire field, so you MUST defend the most important parts and not defend the least important parts. If you had the speed and stamina to defend it all, GREAT, but you don't.
  3. Stay strong in the Center of the Field. The Center is the area between the 2 goals, as opposed to the "wings"... it is where a Center Fullback or Center Midfielder might play. This means DON'T give up easy goals straight down the Center -- force the opponents to the outside (to the wings). If you force them to the wings, your players will have time to drop back to "recover" on defense.
  4. Protect your Goal Front. Ask yourself: Can my opponent score on crossed headers from the corners? Few U-9 teams can. If they can't score from the corners, why defend them in the corners? Let the opponent have the corners. (If your opponent can score from the corner or can launch successful attacks from there, then you will be forced to pressure the ball when it is in the corner, but only a good team will be able to hurt you from there and usually will have to be U-11 or older).
  5. Give your team and the players on your team a chance to be successful. When I started coaching I tried to let every player play where they wanted. If your league really wants coaches to do that they shouldn't keep score, and they should balance the teams so each coach has equal quality. You have an obligation to everyone to have a FUN experience. You can't have much fun if you get humiliated. If you lose all your games, kids will stop coming; even the weak players you are letting play positions they can't play. NO one will be happy. Trust me -- I've been there and done that. On the other hand, if you let kids play where they can be successful and your team wins some games, most of the kids and parents will ultimately be happier.
  6. Buy Soccer Incentive patches and use them to motivate your players to do what you want and to reward the behavior you want. Right now you are rewarding players by letting them play positions they want to play. The Patches let you motivate them to do what you want them to do: Good defense, assists, hustle, brave play, winning the ball, listening to the Coach, staying in position, coming to practice, etc. The Patches change the entire dynamic. They really work -- read the Patch Testimonials. We will sell over 500,000 patches this year. If you can't iron them on uniforms, read "Where to Put Patches" for other ideas such as T-Shirts, banners, a display board, jackets, socks, backpacks, etc.
  7. Teach your Left side and Right side players (e.g., RFB and LFB) to NOT go past the Center of the field except in an emergency. This will help stop the Bunching and will help ensure you have players in the Center even if the ball is on the Far side.
  8. Play a 2-1-3-1, "Defend Deep" and leave your fast Forward Pushed Up all the time as a "Target Forward". This formation gives you strength in the Center and an extra "layer" (4 instead of 3). It is 2 Fullbacks, a Stopper, 3 Midfielders and a Target Forward. By Defending Deep and using a Stopper, you shouldn't give up any breakaways. This formation also allows you to "hide" weak players at RMF and LMF.
  9. Put one of your best players at Stopper, the other at CMF and the selfish scorer at Forward. The patches will help reward and motivate players to play the positions YOU want them to play. Do NOT give a patch for scoring goals -- scorers get lots of positive feedback. DO give patches for tough defense, bravery, winning the ball, assists, staying in position, coming to practice and other things you want to encourage.
  10. Only let the 3 good Goalkeepers play in the Goal. In fact, it will be simpler to get down to 2 (one for each half). If the other players or parents make an issue of it, tell them that they can practice at home and you will be glad to give them a try, but that only the best 3 will get to play in goal and who plays is up to the Coach. If any parent says anything, point out that you lost 7-0 and that you have to give the team a chance to be successful or no one will have any fun... you can't sacrifice everyone's fun just so a kid can be in goal when he isn't a good Goalie. If a kid is serious, they will practice at home and improve... BUT, your decision must be based on performance, not just practicing at home.
  11. You don't have the talent to play a "possession/short passing" style of attack and if you try you will lose most of your games. Your best chance of winning is to leave a fast Forward Pushed Up and kick long balls onto the Attacking Half (the Half the opponent's goal is on) and hope to get breakaways. This will at least keep the ball out of scoring range on your side and will keep your opponent from getting easy goals. You can try to encourage some combination passing in the Attacking Third.
  12. Read "Stopper Importance" on Premium.
  13. "Rules" to teach your Forward:
    • To NOT come closer to your goal than the inside of the Center Circle. THIS IS CRITICAL. This will keep 2 opposing Fullbacks from pushing up onto your side. Your Forward will get impatient and want to come closer, but you MUST make him stay Pushed Up and if he won't, replace him. His job is to win the long kicks so he can get breakaways. If he does his job, reward him with patches.
    • You are fortunate to have a Forward with enough skill to "take on" and penetrate the opposing defense. Let him do that. In fact, encourage it. He will score some. Encourage the CMF to trail the play and watch for rebounds. Perhaps you will eventually get some teamwork. but that is rare at U-9. I would rather have one great dribbler who can "take on" the defense than 2 average players. If he can attack from the side he might have a better chance than attacking straight on... but I'm not sure how to cause this to happen.
  14. Teach Your Fullbacks these "Rules":

    1. Clear the ball STRAIGHT AHEAD. That way your Stopper, MF's and Forward can shift with the ball and know that it will be cleared straight ahead.
    2. Tell the RFB and LFB to not go past the Center of the goal except in an emergency -- show them where the Center is.
    3. DON'T go inside the Goal Box except in an emergency (this way they will stay out of the Goalies way).
    4. DON'T go more than a pass past the "Near Post" (show them what this means - about 10 steps). This will keep the Near FB from getting pulled far away from the Goal Front. When the ball is toward the corner, the Near FB should have shifted toward it and the Far FB should have shifted to the Center of the Goal, the Stopper should be the First Defender of the ball in the corner and the CMF should have come to the Penalty Box Arc to protect against crosses to that area.
  15. "Rules" for your Midfielders:

    1. When your Goal is under attack, your MFs should stay a pass away from the ball AND SHIFT with the ball, BUT the RMF and LMF should not cross the Center.
    2. When your Forward is attacking, let your CMF come into the attack and go into the opponent's Penalty Box, but tell your RMF and LMF to shift toward the Center and try to stay between the ball and your goal AND tell them to NOT go into the Penalty Box. That way they won't get in the way of your attacking players AND will be in position to stop a cleared ball or at least slow down a Counterattack.
  16. Responsibilities when the ball is in the Corner on your Defensive Third. When the ball is toward the corner, the Near FB should have shifted toward it (but no farther than a pass past the Near post - about 10 steps) and the Far FB should have shifted to the Center of the Goal, the Stopper should be the First Defender of the ball in the corner and apply "Passive Pressure" (do NOT rush the ball), and the CMF should have come to the Penalty Box Arc to protect against crosses to that area.
  17. Tell your players that teamwork means that every one MUST do their job and trust their teammates to do their jobs, and that you will only expect them to do THEIR job.
  18. Read "Aggressive Receiving" on Premium.
  19. Play "Dribble Across a Square" 3 times to start every practice and play "Dribble Around Cone & Pass Relay Race" a lot and use it to teach "Aggressive Receiving".
  20. If you Defend Deep and teach the player how to Clear the ball, you can put an unskilled player at Fullback, even if he is slow. BUT, you CANNOT put a timid or scared player at Fullback or you will get killed. The only place for you to put weak, timid players is at RMF and LMF and just alternate them at those 2 positions. Be sure to Praise your FBs in front of the entire team and give them bravery patches (the red/white patch, sometimes called a Blood Patch) for tough, brave play.
  21. On the Video Clips, watch Coach Doug's video clip titled How to Use Patches for Fun and to Motivate Players
  22. Teach Coaching Rule No. 3: "On the other team's goal kicks, punts, throw-ins & free kicks, mark up behind an opponent & then step in front & steal the ball, or, if the ball goes past you, box out the opponent and win the ball". (A progression from 1 & 2 above). (An exception to this would be when the other team has a free-kick near your goal, where if there is room, you should have your players stay away from your goal so you create an "offside trap" which will keep the other team away from your goal and make it harder for them to score on a header or off a rebound). How to teach Coaching Rule No. 3 is explained in No. 2 of Quick Team Improvement Program. Quick Team Improvement Program

I hope this helps. Please let me know. If you do what I recommend, I believe the results will exceed your expectations. These recommendations are based on the experiences I have had with hundreds of coaches. Again, don't expect good results from just following a few of these recommendations. If you want the best results, follow them all. If you have doubts, read the Testimonials.

David at SoccerHelp

Below are 4 "rules" to keep in mind when assigning positions or choosing a formation:

  1. You CANNOT put timid players in front of the goal.
  2. Keep your best players in the "Center" positions (Center Fullback, Stopper, Center Midfield, Center Forward). The team that controls the Center usually wins. Let your opponent have the "wings" (sidelines), in fact, encourage it. They can't score from there and your team will always have time to "recover" and the opponents will run a lot more.
  3. Put your best, toughest athlete at "Stopper". This doesn't have to be a skillful player -- just one who can definitely stop the opponent's attack. I once had a player who was fast and incredibly brave, but lacked skill. He was a great Stopper. He couldn't dribble well or pass, so I just told him to stop the attack and kick the ball back downfield where our MF's and Forwards were waiting.
  4. Keep in mind that you shouldn't put your best player at Goalie, in fact, try to find a player who has good hands but isn't a good field player. Read "Stopper Importance" for a coaches' comments about this. I often put a heavier player at Goalie, especially a tall, heavy player.

Positioning "Rules"

(The following uses the example of 11v11 formations, but the principles apply to other formations).

The formation you should choose depends on the skill and speed of your team and the skill and speed of the opposing team. IF your opponent is capable of crossing the ball from the Corner to your Goal Front and scoring on a header, then you must pressure the ball in the Corner and not allow clean crosses. In that case, 4 Fullbacks might be required.

Every decision regarding formations and Styles of Play ("Defending Deep", "Pushing Up" or something in between) involves trade-offs. However, the extent of the trade-offs depends on your team's speed and skill. For example, if you have very fast Fullbacks, you can safely Push Up to support your attack, but if they are slow it's not safe to push them up because you risk giving up easy goals on Breakaways.

Typically, playing more players at Fullback or Defensive Mid means you are giving up scoring potential for more defense. This is a decision only you can make based on your team and your opponent's.

Your objective should be to choose the Formation and Style of Play that gives your team the best chance of success.

Unless you have a good reason to play a 3-3-3-1, I recommend you take a hard look at a 3-2-3-2, which is a very balanced Formation (5 to defend, 5 in the Midfield, and 5 to attack). OR, if you need to hide some weak players consider a 3-1-4-2 and put the weak players at RMF and LMF. There is a great deal about the 3-2-3-2 and how to play it on Premium at 11 v 11 Formations.

Your chances of scoring are better with a 3-2-3-2 or 3-1-4-2 than a 3-3-3-1. Put your strongest players at CFB, Stopper, Forward and the CMF position(s).

For spacing, you need to set some "Rules". Here are examples (adjust to fit your situation):

  1. Your LFB and RFB might not come past the Penalty Box line.
  2. Your CFB: You might allow your CFB to Push Up halfway to the Center Circle
  3. Your Stoppers (DMF's) should shift with the ball and not come past the Half Line unless they are "onball" OR to win a loose ball (this way they will be in position to slow down counterattacks and to win cleared balls). The should ALSO NOT go inside your Penalty Box except in an emergency. See below for how to cover balls in the corners. If you play a 3-2-3-2 with 2 Stoppers/DMF's, you can "Stack" them when they get to the half line and let one Push Up halfway to the Penalty Box you are attacking and shift with the ball -- that will put him in good position to stop balls cleared by your opponents.
  4. Your Forwards: When your goal is under attack, your Forwards should stay Pushed Up all the time, shifting with the ball. This will keep at least 2 opposing players off your Half and give you the opportunity for Breakaways and to win deep balls.
  5. Your MF's: When your goal is under attack, your MF's should shift with the ball and NOT go closer than a long kick from the ball. That way, they are in position to win long cleared balls. On attack, you need to let your MF's come into the attack, but keep spacing and play off each other. If you play weak players at RMF and LMF, you will only have one or two good players at MF (one if you play a 3-2-3-2 or two if you play a 3-1-4-2). You will have to count on your Stoppers to stop cleared balls. If you play a 3-2-3-2 with 2 Stoppers, you can "Stack" them when they get to the half line and let one Push Up halfway to the Penalty Box you are attacking and shift with the ball -- that will put him in good position to stop balls cleared by your opponents.

When the ball is in our Defensive Third, how far back should the Midfielders come into the defense to help out? Your midfielders should not go into the Penalty Box except in an emergency. When the ball is on the far side of the field, tell the MF who is farthest from the ball to come to the Penalty Box Arc and stay there to protect against crosses to the center, and the closest MF can help pressure the ball as the First Defender or Second Defender (either the Stopper or the closest MF should be First Defender and the other one should be Second Defender).


Positioning Tips

Formation Selection and Where to Hide Weak Players

and Stopper Importance

Shifting - Importance Of
Defense Assignments Importance
Fullbacks Tips and Stopper Tips
Positions -- "Dialing In" Assignments
3-2-2-3 vs. 3-2-3-2 vs. 3-1-4-2

Following is a letter from a first year U-12 coach who struggled during the season (3-4-1) but kept teaching his team how to play positions and trying different formations and following the tips on Premium about shifting and teaching positions, and went on to win the season end tournament scoring 11 goals and giving up 0 goals in 3 games.

Hi David,

Thanks for the kind words and the additional help!

I will share with you the results of our season, they were amazing!

We played a 3-1-4-2 the first four games of the year because we had so many new and inexperienced players. And we had a couple of players who were very weak and large in stature, so they couldn't run, nor could they kick a ball.

We were 1-3 these first four games.

We then switched to a 3-2-3-2 to solve the Stopper problem I was having, and I put the better of the two Stoppers on the other team's best scorer when they came into out Attacking Third. This helped tremendously and allowed us to win our next game against the best team in the league 3-2. We went 1-1-1 with this formation before I switched again.

I then decided to switch to a 3-2-2-3 the last game of the season. Although this game was cut short right before half time, we won 1-0 and dominated the game, spending most of the game on their half of the field.

So our final record for the regular season was 3-4-1, which I felt was a tremendous accomplishment for us considering the players we started the year with.

But it was what happened after this that is truly amazing.

Our league plays an end of season tournament, which was to start a week later. I held two practices before our first tournament game, the second practice of which we held on the game field. By this time I was able to play the two weak and large girls as outside FB's because they had learned to kick balls and weren't afraid of them. So we went over defensive assignments again and really dialed that in, then I had my 3 starting forwards and 2 starting midfielders go against our 3 starting fullbacks and 2 starting stoppers, basically our starting offense against our starting defense. I rotated players some during this too, but the focus was on defensive assignments and aggressive attacking. We played this for about 45 minutes during the practice on the game field and had a lot of fun and really dialed it in.

From this point on we didn't lose a game. In fact we weren't even scored on. We won the whole tournament, going 3-0 and scoring 11 goals to 0 scored against us! We won the trophies and I got the championship game ball with all the girls' signatures on it! I couldn't believe how well these girls played and pretty much dominated each game we played! I was so proud of them and it was such a great experience for them. All their hard work paid off!

I will mention a few things I found to be critical to our success:

  1. The defensive assignments were critical! Most critical of those was having the center FB play off the near post when the ball was on the wing and the far stopper play at the top of the penalty box. Having the Near Stopper be a First Defender really paid off because the other team had to get past three defenders (Stopper, Near Fullback, and Center Fullback) to get a chance to score. Also critical was having the Far Fullback play in the middle of the Penalty Box (outside the Goal Box about even with the b>Center of the goal) when the ball was on the Wing. There were a few occasions during the tournament games where the Far Fullback playing right in the middle of the Penalty Box allowed her to clear the ball out and avoid a scoring opportunity by the other team's Far Forward. Critical! Having the defense "dial in" their assignments and really play in the right places at the right time really made a big difference. (For how to teach Shifting and First Defender/Second Defender, see no. 3 and no. 4 of Quick Team Improvement Program )
  2. Another important change was moving the girl I used at center fullback most of the season to one of the two Stopper positions. She was unmotivated to play most of the season because she was bored at center fullback. Moving her to a stopper position really brought her to life. She dominated there, which helped keep the ball out of our Defensive Third.
  3. Playing three forwards also really helped. I put our more skilled, fastest player at center forward and she created a ton of opportunities to score, as evidenced by the number of goals we scored (3 our first tournament game, 4 the second, and 4 in the championship game). And we had a variety of scorers too. This really made a huge difference. I played our most physically dominating player, our bull in a china shop, at right midfield and she did a great job controlling the middle of the field.
  4. Also critical: having the Far Stopper and Far Midfielder play in the center of the field when the ball was on the opposite wing! Many times the ball popped out to the center of the field and they were right there to take control and push it up the field. (For how to teach Shifting and First Defender/Second Defender, see no. 3 and no. 4 of Quick Team Improvement Program)

A lot of these critical things were suggested on this website or in forum posts by you! Thanks again for that help and it is amazing how crucial these things really are to winning games. I would regard following assignments to be one of the critical things because it reduces the amount of talent you need on your team. If players are in the right place at the right time, they have a much better chance of winning balls.

Thanks again for all of the suggestions and helping me through my first year of coaching! The information on SoccerHelp Premium was critical. The Practice Games made all the difference! I look forward to next year!

Corey, U-12 Rec

Importance of a Stopper in 8V8 Soccer
2-1-2-2 vs. 2-3-2 Soccer Formation
Analysis, Evaluation and Tips
How to launch a counterattack and score more goals against a Pushed Up Team

(The following letter is very insightful and analyzes the differences in play of a U-12 Rec team using a 2-3-2 formation and a 2-1-2-2 formation, and Pushing Up all the time vs. adjusting to circumstances and occasionally Defending Deep. I want to thank Coach Mark who took the time to write. Notice that their record with the same team improved from 3-4 to 5-2-1 and they tied the best team in their league 5-5, an undefeated team that had beaten them 9-1 the prior season. Coach Mark says of that 5-5 tie: "This was a huge victory for us and a personal highlight of my 4 years of coaching." He describes the Style of Play his team used to launch fast counterattacks against the Pushed Up undefeated team.)

Hi SoccerHelp,

I coached my daughter's U12 girls Rec team the last 2 seasons (assistant in the fall season, head coach in the following spring season). I followed the advice of my neighbor (played college and now coaches) along with your recommendations for a 2-1-2-2 formation. Being the assistant in the first half, I created our lineup and convinced the coach to use a Stopper. Unfortunately, the coach played the Stopper forward essentially as a center midfield. My lineup was transferred into a 2-3-2 and we were constantly getting beat in our defensive zone. The spring session I was able to play the kids my way and offer the following report comparing both formations. I also include comments on adjusting this formation for tough opponents and those playing an offside trap. Thanks for SoccerHelp and the helpful information, even for those of us who are not premium subscribers. Your love for the game shows.

Here are my observations and analysis:


2-1-2-2 lineup with a strong, aggressive, defensive minded player as Stopper and at least one sharp shooter as Forward compared to a 2-3-2 formation.

Analysis, Findings and Tips:

The 2-1-2-2 formation provides greater depth and flexibility than 2-3-2. If the other team"s offense manages to pass one line, the next line is there to prevent further progress forward. This deep formation helps to keep the Center of the Field (length of the field net to net) in your team's control. If the opposing team goes up the side, your team can simply shift left or right while still maintaining control of the central field area.

This formation enables your team to instantly adjust to an opponent's strategy and abilities. If an opponent is not exceptionally strong, push midfielders up for a dominant offense. If an opponent is strong, adjust the stopper and defenders back further and pull the midfield back as additional defense. This latter tactic is especially useful in two cases:

  • When the opponent is "Pushed Up" to create an "Offside Trap" - When the opponent is very good (maybe even more skilled than your team) and/or playing 2 defenders well forward (relying upon the offside rule for "protection"), the remainder of their team is in your zone with a dominant offense. By playing your Midfielders back deep with your Stopper and Defenders, players on both teams are evenly matched (although in your zone) but your team has an advantage for potential breakaways (a fast counterattack against their "Pushed Up" defenders). To counterattack, play your Forwards just onside of the opposing defenders and instruct your team to kick long passes or lobs behind/over the opposition. Your forwards can breakaway the moment the ball is kicked (not before the kick or they'll be offside) and beat the "offside trap" with a great scoring opportunity.
  • Preventive defense - When it's time to close out the game with a narrow lead it's easy to shift each line back to a defense posture and still maintain a deep lineup centrally on the field. You can maintain at least one Forward pushed up as a threat (still onside of course) to keep opposing defense at bay.

Summary of Results for 2-3-2 Formation vs. a 2-1-2-2 Formation (U12 Girls Rec League):

The 2-1-2-2 proved to be superior over the 2-3-2: I had the same basic core team in fall and spring but the Stopper was pushed forward in fall (effectively making the line-up a 2-3-2) and played back on defense the following spring (true 2-1-2-2).

  • Fall record: 3 W & 4 L (last game rained out). We gave up many goals because the Stopper was not able to get back in time to cover breakaways and the remaining 2 defenders were often outnumbered. We played the best team in the league only once and were beaten 9-1 (they were undefeated).
  • Spring record: 5 W, 2 L, 1 Tie. Rotating our most athletic players in Stopper and Forward positions, we kept the ball out of our zone a majority of the time. There were some games where the opponent did not get a single quality shot on goal because they couldn't penetrate our zone. Stopper played defense at center line and was instructed to clear the ball out of our zone immediately.

Analysis of Wins and Losses Playing a 2-1-2-2:

3 wins were major shutouts, 2 other wins were almost shutouts (we gave up only 1 goal each). One loss was only by 1 goal to a fairly strong team.

We lost 1 and tied 1 to the undefeated team which was played two different ways:

  • In the Loss we used Standard Midfield positioning. We were tied at the half but gave up 5 goals to lose in the second half.
  • In the Tie the Midfield played back with Stopper and Defense: They Pushed Up and we used the approach described above to launch fast counterattacks and beat their "offside trap". The result was that we tied 5-5. This was a huge victory for us and a personal highlight of my 4 years of coaching. Our level of play was much better.


Retired Coach Mark

(David's Reply)

Hi Mark,

Thanks for writing. Your letter has made my day. SoccerHelp is a "hobby" job for me -- I have a day job too and it re-energizes me to know that SoccerHelp is helping coaches. And thanks for the kind comments.

I've received some criticism from Travel Team and College Coaches for my ideas such as "Defending Deep". Some people think there is a "one size fits all" approach and that Rec teams should try to play like college teams. I think each team should do what is the most fun and allows them to be successful and to achieve their potential. In my experience, most kids would rather play a good game and would rather win than lose. It's discouraging to get killed and not have a chance. That's why some leagues try to balance the teams so they are competitive. My guess is that the "best" team you played had more fast, athletic players than your team and that is part of why they won so easily when your team "Pushed Up" -- they were simply faster. Your story shows that good coaching and motivation can allow an underdog to have a chance against a stronger team. When a team plays well against a stronger team, it gives them confidence and they start to listen to the coach because they see he can help the team play better.

Your analysis is very insightful and it's obvious that you are a student of the game.

You say you're "retired" from coaching -- that's a shame, you're an excellent coach.

I've set up a free 1 year Membership for you to Premium.

Thanks again and please share any more good ideas -- you're insightful and a good writer. I hope you coach again sometime or share your knowledge with other coaches. I will coach my granddaughter next year in U-4, so I'll be coming out of retirement.

David at SoccerHelp

Tips for a Coach with a Very Weak Soccer Team
8v8 Soccer Formations
Defending Deep Style of Play
How to Select a Stopper, Fullbacks, Forward and Midfielders
Where to Play Weak, Unskilled, Timid Soccer Players
An Approach that is Better than Scrimmaging
Practice Games I Recommend
Coaching Rule No. 3

Hello Soccerhelp,

I have a weak team this season. 1 strong aggressive player (younger) 1 strong aggressive older, 1 older that is medium in skills and aggressive play.

The rest play like they are in a U8 program. They do not know how to dribble, pass or kick.

At practice I am playing "Dribble Around Cone & Pass Relay Race", "Dribble Across a Square" and the "Win the 50/50 Ball and 1v1 Attacking Defending" Premium practice games.

Any other games you suggest?

Also, do you recommend a 2-1-3-1 or a 2-1-2-2 ?

I have two good players and one okay. The rest not so good.

So do I play my best players at forward and Stopper? Or at mid and forward?

I am leaning towards stopper/forward.

I never had such a beginner team before :( scary....

Any help will be appreciated.


Karl, U-10 Girls Rec coach


Hi Karl,

I understand your feelings -- you want to do the best you can to help your team, and you don't want them to be embarrassed or humiliated.

Regarding the Practice Games, just keep playing the same ones and those mentioned below. You will see results after 3 practices. Playing a lot of different games isn't more productive -- it's less productive because it's harder to measure improvement and there is a time loss in learning a new game.

Teach "Passing to Space" (which is MUCH easier and better than teaching Passing to Feet), and "Aggressive Receiving". Here's what Coach Corey said about Passing to Space:

"I tried hard to emphasize passing to space rather than to feet. The girls weren't good enough at passing and trapping to pass to feet. I felt this taught them to anticipate a pass to space and take a shot quick after getting a pass into space from a teammate. I wanted to reduce the amount of time before taking a shot because the defense tended to close in quick if shots weren't quick."

How to teach Passing to Space is explained on Premium.

Play the Premium "Pass To Space, Run With Ball and Shoot Game" to teach Passing to Space and running onto a "through ball" and shooting while running.

Use the Premium "Dribble Around Cone & Pass Relay Race" to teach Aggressive Receiving.

Teach "Shifting and Sagging" with the ball. Read "Shifting -Importance Of" on Premium. Here's what Coach Corey said:

"I would say that a team that is effective at shifting and sagging, and a defense that properly positions itself depending on where the ball is, has an even greater advantage than a team that has faster and stronger players in the Rec league."

How to teach Shifting and Sagging is explained on Premium.

Use the Premium "Win the 50/50 Ball or Be the First Defender, 1v1 Attacking and Defending" practice game to see who is aggressive, to teach how to Win the Ball, and to teach 1v1 attacking and defending.

Play "Dribble Across a Square" as a Warm-Up to start each practice. Play it twice with the square 10 steps wide and then twice with the square 14 steps wide. It's VERY important to follow the instructions for how to coach this game and the other games. For example, be sure the first player to reach "10" yells "Done" and raises her hand so everyone will stop. Then go around and ask each player her score. Congratulate the players with high scores (8 or better -- say "Good job" or similar). If a player got a low score, ask "Why?" It's almost always because they lost the ball on the turn or their ball was accidentally kicked away because they didn't keep the ball close to their feet ("Like a puppy on a leash", as Coach Doug says). Let them turn in the way that works best for them (a Pullback or a "Hook Turn" are usually the best). If they don't know how to turn, show them a Pullback and a "Hook Turn" using both the inside and the outside of the foot. Give them "Tips" that will help them improve. Ask: "Who wants to get a better score?" and then say: "Okay, I'm going to give you some Tips." Here are some tips: 1. You MUST keep control of the ball -- one bad turn and you will lose. 2. When you're in traffic, keep the ball close to your feet. 3. When you see "Open Space", you can kick the ball forward and run to it so you can go faster, BUT you can't kick it too hard or you will miss your turn. The no. 3 tip especially applies when you make the Square 14 steps wide. To win the Game when the Square is 14 steps wide, the player MUST see the Open Space, kick the ball forward and run onto the ball, while still keeping control to be able to make the turn. The 14 Step Wide Square can be used to teach recognition of Open Space and acceleration into open space -- these 2 skills allow players to "breakaway", teach how to see and use Open Space, and teach Speed Dribbling.

Also play the Premium "Shoulder Tackle & Strength on the Ball" game as a warm-up to start each practice. This is VERY important -- it will teach your kids how to avoid getting pushed off the ball.

Give your players "Tips" on how they can improve their scores in the games -- that approach works better than lecturing. Here is an example: Let's say you're playing "Dribble Around Cone & Pass Relay Race". Play it once and ask "Who wants to win this game?" Tell them you will give them a tip that will help them win. Here's an example of a tip: Tell them that the player who starts with the ball can kick the ball in front and run to it as a way to go faster. Tell them they will just have to be sure to not kick it too hard. (Demonstrate or have a player demonstrate). Another tip: Pass the ball as soon as you can after you have rounded the cone. There are 4 more Tips for this game at the Premium version of this game.

I would try a 2-1-3-1 formation.

I would put my most dominant players at Stopper and Center MF, and not sub them unless you have to.

You need a player with some dribbling and passing skill at CMF, because this player needs to be able to score and to help the Forward score.

At Stopper you can put an unskilled player who is tough, aggressive and fast, or a player with average speed who is alert and positions herself well to stop attacks -- just tell her to kick the ball straight ahead to get it off your half of the field -- don't try to teach her to "pass it", she won't have time to think about that. Your MFs and Forward should have shifted with the ball, and they will know the Stopper is going to kick it straight ahead and that their job is to be there to Win the Ball. This Stopper will be your most important defensive player and her job is to stop every attack and keep the ball off your half of the field, even if she must kick the ball out of bounds to do so. One of the best Stoppers I ever faced in Rec was a tall, skinny kid who had no skills, but was very alert, brave, fast, aggressive and would break up every attack we launched. He couldn't dribble -- he would just kick the ball back onto our half (the Half his team was attacking) or out of bounds. We lost to his team -- our only loss of that season. He was everywhere and was the difference in the game, even though he couldn't dribble the ball or "pass to feet".

Teach each player to do her job and congratulate her if she does it. For example, if the Stopper or a Fullback kicks the ball straight ahead and no one is there to win it, it isn't the fault of the player who kicked it, it's the fault of the MF or Forward who didn't shift to be in position to win the ball. In that case, congratulate the player who did here job and tell the other player that she must do her job. This stops the finger-pointing blame game. What you are teaching is teamwork and playing the ball "To Space". You are breaking the bad habit of expecting "Passes to Feet" and blaming the passer if the receiver doesn't Win the Ball.

Your Goalie just needs good hands and to be able to punt, but doesn't really need to have experience. See Premium "Goalkeeping" for what to teach.

Have a foot race and try to find a fast player to put at Forward and tell this player to stay Pushed Up AS FAR AS POSSIBLE ALL THE TIME and to SHIFT with the ball. This will keep at least 2 of the opposing defenders off your side of the field. Teach your FBs and MFs to kick the ball straight ahead (your Forward should have shifted with the ball so she is in position to win a ball that is kicked straight ahead). If the opposing FBs are Pushed Up and the kick goes into the open space behind them, your Forward might be able to get a breakaway.

This Forward and your other players will learn how to shoot while running by playing the "Pass To Space, Run With Ball and Shoot Game" and "Dribble Around Cone & Pass Relay Race" Practice Games.

You can put slow, unskilled players at FB as long as they are brave, you teach them to clear the ball and you "Defend Deep" (don't push them up). You CAN'T put timid or scared players at FB -- if they are afraid of getting hit by a shot or of a Forward running into them, you will get killed because they will block the view of your Goalkeeper and then move aside at the last second -- you're better off to not have a FB than to have a scared FB. Tell your FB's to stay out of the Goal Box unless it's an emergency.

Teach your MFs to stay out of your Penalty Box unless it's an emergency -- that way they will be in position to win cleared balls.

When you are attacking in your Attacking Third (near your opponent's Penalty Box), let your CMF go into the opponent's Penalty Box to help with the attack. Tell your LMF and RMF to ONLY go into the opposing Penalty Box IF they are "onball" -- otherwise have them come to the Center just outside the Penalty Box so they are in position to win cleared balls or balls that bounce out. Have your Stopper move up to the inside of the Center Circle so she can win any balls that are cleared long.

Put your weakest players at RMF and LMF -- these are the players who can't play any other positions because they are timid, slow and lack skills or won't hustle.

4 very important things:

1. Don't "Push Up" your FBs or you will get killed.

2. Play the Practice Games I recommend. Don't waste time on other games or drills -- you don't have time to waste.

3. DON'T scrimmage at practice -- you don't have the time to waste and scrimmaging will NOT benefit your team. Instead, do a "walk thru" to simulate the parts of a game that you need to work on. Here is how Coach Corey handled that (this is at "Shifting -Importance Of" on Premium:

"I held two practices before our first tournament game, the second practice of which we held on the game field. By this time I was able to play the two weak and large girls as outside FB's because they had learned to kick balls and weren't afraid of them. So we went over defensive assignments again and really dialed that in, then I had my 3 starting forwards and 2 starting midfielders go against our 3 starting fullbacks and 2 starting stoppers, basically our starting offense against our starting defense. I rotated players some during this too, but the focus was on defensive assignments and aggressive attacking. We played this for about 45 minutes during the practice on the game field and had a lot of fun and really dialed it in. From this point on we didn't lose a game. In fact, we weren't even scored on. We won the whole tournament, going 3-0 and scoring 11 goals to 0 scored against us!" "I think the girls need to actually experience proper positioning to know what it means. For example, the Center Fullback does not quite know what it feels like to be off the near post during a game without actually being shown what it is like to be there in a practice game with a coach blowing the whistle and showing her exactly where to be (and her seeing where the ball and other teammates are relative to where she should be). Same goes for the Far Fullback (who I had position herself at the top of the Goal Box, centered on goal). Once they got it though, they got it."

4. Teach Coaching Rule No. 3 -- it's worth 2 goals per game.

Try what I recommend thru your first 3 games. Stick with it. It's your best chance. I've helped hundreds of coaches and know what works and what doesn't.

I hope this helps. Please let me know.

David at SoccerHelp