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Systems of play - Prove that it works

This can be a very opinionated and sometimes sensitive topic. When we are developing players we need to be clear on what system of play works while we are developing the team for the future. Some coaches have short term goals and play the system that wins them games. The good coaches teach both. They teach a system of play that get's their team results but also sets them up for when they move to 9v9 and 11v11.When I am conducting coaching clinics I always say to the participants, "The proof is right there in front of your eyes." If your team plays  7v7, 9v9 and then at 11v11 they have no idea how to play it, then something has gone wrong. I am going to write about my experiences I have had while coaching a team through the development phases. This involved taking a team from 7v7 to 11v11. The proof was right in front of my eyes. I took over a U10 team that lost their first game 22-3 and played in the lowest division in the state. At U13 that same team is now competing in the Premier division. I do not need to justify the system of play. Seeing the team play 11v11 and be comfortable doing it was all the proof I needed. This may not work for all coaches but it certainly worked for the group I had. When I took over the team I had a philosophy and a long term goal. I told the parents to start judging their development when the boys are 13 / 14 years of age.

At 7v7 we played 1-2-3-1

Tactical instructions when in possession (See diagram) – The player with the ball has at least three players available for a pass. One behind, one to the side and one ahead of the ball. As the players mature we expect the player on the ball to have more than three supporting players. The 1-2-3-1 formation creates triangles all over the field and enables the players to make lots of diagonal passing.

• If the opposition does not have a forward when we are attacking, one of the defenders will step into the middle of the midfield and play as a holding midfield player.

• When possession is lost the wide player gets goal side on the opposition wide player that is closest to their goal if the opposition are playing a 1-3-3 formation.

U11 and U12 football is 9 v 9 with goalkeepers. The formation I used for 9 v 9 is 1-2-1-3-2. I did try 1-3-2-3 a few times but the performances and understanding of the system was poor, even though we won games

The mentality of players will start to change when we move to development phase II. The results for the games are now posted and the players can look at the tables to see how they compare to the other teams. Players look at the teams who are winning and losing and then figure out which are the ‘easier games’. We have to teach the players to ignore the standings and play to their maximum potential. Players have to give it their best effort on that particular day and whatever the result, the players can walk off the field and say they did their best.

• Anticipation – Players must react quickly when possession is won or lost. Win the ball, find space. Lose the ball, get goal side.

• The player with the ball has at least 3 players supporting their play. One play supports behind, one from the side and one forward. This will gradually move to more supporting players as the players mature.

The two defenders must stay focused when we win possession. The two forwards must stay focused when we lose possession.

U13 - U18 football is 11 v 11 with goalkeepers. The players that have come through development Phases I & II will be capable of adapting to many formations. 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 will be taught at phases II & III. If the team plays 4-3-3 then I decided if we wanted one or two holding midfield players. The full backs are encouraged to move forward when attacking. If the team is not getting any luck with one forward, we went with a 4-4-2. My players were ready to switch formations on the fly and each player understood their role in each formation. Changing formations is also a good way for players to start fresh. For example; If the team was not getting any success in the first half then I switched the formation. This change helps young players to approach the second half with a positive attitude. It also helps if the coach can put the blame on their own shoulders by telling the players that it was their fault for playing the formation and that they think another formation / strategy would work better.

Once you move to 11v11 you hope that your players will be confident to play numerous systems. You do need to be flexible. I have tried 4-3-3, 3-4-3, 3-5-2 and 4-4-2. It never really affected the performances. The players seemed excited to try new things. I really believe that the early years of playing the above systems helped the players develop into intelligent players. The one thing we really struggled with was having the one striker down the center when playing 4-3-3. We really needed two strikers because my wide players did not play as free as I would have liked.


It also makes me laugh when teams try the system that is the current fashion. It was 1-4-2-3-1 when Mourinho first hit the scene but now Chelsea have changed the rules with playing a 3-4-3. There is nothing wrong with following a trend if it works. Sometimes coaches just throw it out there because it works for others. If you would like to know more about the above systems and the game day information given to the players, let me know

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