Introducing Positions Without Shackles

By Chad McNichol

I am firmly against having young kids play "positions" that are part of the adult game. I coach a U-9 team in a league that plays 8-v-8 (including keepers) and my players are now at the transitional age when they can begin to grasp the concept of positions.

The challenge is introducing players to positions without stifling their involvement in the game. They need to comprehend positioning without being restricted to specific areas of the field. One of the worst situations is when young players, labeled as "defenders," stand idle in empty field space, watching the action from the other end of the field.

I've taken the following approach regarding positions:

I have one goalkeeper and two "back players." The other players have no specific assigned role (i.e. there are no "midfielders" or "forwards"). All players are told to stay close enough to their teammates to support them, and close enough to the ball to be engaged in the game at all times.

The two "back players" play slightly behind the "pack" at all times. If the pack advances near the opponent's goal, the "back players" are only a short distance behind. This maximizes their touches on the ball and teaches them the important lesson of linking up with the players in front of them.

When the "back players" fall too far back, I tell them to "join the game." (They understand this instruction better than the order to "pull up.") This instruction also gets them to decide for themselves where exactly they need to be, which fulfills an important coaching guideline of getting the players to think for themselves.

The other players are only told that they are "not in the back." This means they are not to linger next to the "back players" when the ball is further upfield.

The keepers come fully out of their boxes when the ball is at the other end of the field. This teaches them proper positioning for the adult game, and gives them the opportunity to play balls that are kicked far behind the "back players" with their feet - another crucial skill for goalkeepers in the adult game.

This scheme leaves us open to the counterattack, especially against teams that play kickball and run fast on over-sized fields. This is because the "back players" do not hang back with the "cherry pickers" on the other team.

However, I strongly believe that the fear of conceding goals must never trump player development. I'd much rather keep young players engaged in the game, put them in situations that foster creative play, and give my keepers experience with breakaways and positional play, than limit the players' game experiences in the name of achieving a soon-forgotten winning score.

(Chad McNichol is a U-9 boys coach in the Gilbert Youth Soccer Association of Arizona.)


6 comments about "Introducing Positions Without Shackles".
  1. Tim Silvestre, April 30, 2009 at 2:50 p.m.

    Very instructive, Chad, thanks. I often have my "back" players say "Do I have to play defense?" This is one way to deal with that situation. What do advise your "not in the back" players to do on defense? How far back do they come when the ball enters their defensive zone? Conversely what do you have your back players do when the field opens up for them deep into the attacking zone?

  2. Brad Partridge, April 30, 2009 at 3:24 p.m.

    Rather then have positions for u12's and under at our club, we teach our players to identify basic shape. Heigth, Width and Depth. We ask them to try and always establish good shape no matter where you are on the field. To help them out in 6 vs6 we play a 1-3-2 in 8 vs 8 we play 1-2-3-2. Players are encouraged to change positions according to the movement and posession of the ball. By stressing shape instead of positions we allow all of our players to attack and all to defend. Yes, we do get caught with no one defending at times, but that is how we learn. Parents have more of an issue with this then the kids.
    Chad, your approach is good and beneficial for the kids keep up the great work.

  3. J. w. Penland, April 30, 2009 at 3:29 p.m.

    Chad, you may not be giving your players enough credit. My experience is that U8 are perfectly capable of understanding these concepts. I coach U9 in Chicagoland. Instead of focusing on positions, I focus on roles by teaching the commitments of the different players on the field? As the players learn the roles, they understand how to orient during the game. We also teach the players that their role can change during play. For example, with 7 vs. 7, we assign two players to play the role of defense. If person holding the role of defender has the ball and space, he changes roles to attack, and a teammate covers the role of defense. So there is a way to do this without leaving all of them in complete ambiguity without a description of what they should care about in their role (which is like telling a baseball player only that he is an infielder).

    Recently, we re-named our defenders 'super-backs' because we expect them to attack aggressively when they have the ball and space. Super-back is now the most popular role on the team because they love to go on long dribbling runs and run at defenders and use their moves. It is not uncommon to see our defenders serving balls from the endline or in front of the goal ready to finish a play they started.

    Now, I have a special group of players that are very interested, very willing, and nicely skilled which is certainly not the situation on every team.
    With this group (and with many others) I imagine it is safe to teach that some players primary role to keep the ball out of the goal, that some players primary role is to contribute on both ends of the field, and that some players are generally 'up top' to help our team score and hold possession when we win the ball. At least, that is my opinion based on my experience.

  4. Chad Mcnichol, May 2, 2009 at 1:31 p.m.

    Truly excellent comments, everyone. What a breath of fresh air it is to exchange ideas with knowledgeable soccer coaches! I really do appreciate your feedback.

    Tim S.: When the ball enters the defensive zone, for me the concept is no different than when the ball is in any other zone. The objective is for as many players as possible to be in the vicinity to be able to hold possession, preferably by providing support to the teammate with the ball. If the ball comes back deep in our defensive third, anyone can defend or support a teammate who is defending, so they would be able to go anywhere in order to fulfill that objective. The main point for the players who are "not in the back" is to ensure they pull up when the ball is further upfield, esp. to apply fast pressure to the other team when in possession. At times they can linger next to the "back" players in these situations (meaning we're playing with 3-5 defenders at that point while leaving a huge hole in the middle) which is undesirable tactically. Conversely, if a "back" player can attack, they should be encouraged to do so! But as soon as an attack is stifled and/or they're no longer participating in the attack play, they should seek to recover their spot in the back - but no too far back!. A great way to handle this was suggested by the other commentators...if a player pushes up to attack, a teammate can cover that player's role. The only thing I would add is that a player who is available to provide close support to a teammate with possession who is attacking, should seek first to support the attack instead of dropping back to fill the void. Soccer is all about exploiting temporary number mismatches that arise during play.

    Brad P.: I consider your concept of maintaining basic shape as a more advanced version of what I've outlined in this short essay. In fact, it's probably most accurate to refer to my scheme as a very simple shape instead of "two in the back" because the "back" players move freely in and out of the back as the game calls for it. I'm often dealing with players with little experience, so my feeling is that my simple scheme is a good starting point. In any case, it's far superior than the standard, "You're on defense, so you stand way off in the grass jungle, miles away from the action." I swear, some of those poor kids are told to stand so far out in the middle of nowhere that it might be appropriate to call Search and Rescue to pull them out of the wilderness. What you've described is an excellent summary of what I'd like to build towards. Thanks for putting the concept to words, as it helps to solidify my coaching goals for the future.

    J.W.: I really like your use of the term "super-backs". Not only is this the proper term used for defensive backs in the modern adult game who fill an attacking role (Roberto Carlos comes to mind as a classic example), but I'm sure the kids will really gravitate to the concept when it has such a cool sounding name. Again, your thoughts are a great description of what I'd like to build towards, especially getting all players to understand all the basic roles on the field to be able to spontaneously adjust to fill the needed role as the game calls for it. I usually have most of my players for a short 9-game season. You may be right that I'm not giving them enough credit, so your comments will encourage me to try to give them more role responsibility.

    Gentlemen, thanks again for the great thoughts. Please send any other responses that come to mind.

  5. Ernest Irelan, May 15, 2009 at 9:29 a.m.

    Roberto Carlos? Man, he is a SUPER BACK, get a youngster that is comparable to him an you really have something....I used to coach, before the US YOUTH SOCCER new developemental manual came out, but, I believed in putting players in basic positions, my backs were more or less to stay in their defensive positions an pushing up on attack, etc. If one had space, to bring the ball up as far as he could before passing it off, in the meantime, I had a mid drop to fill his position until he came back....this was u-10 team players using 8 players, 3-3-1 plus a keeper. I would rotate players as they learned all positions giving my players a chance to learn all areas of the field an what positions they liked best an also, gave me a chance to watch them develope as to what I saw in them as to what they may develope into. This was a rec. team so the skills of many were very 4 years with one team, I had perhaps 6 that continued to take soccer to heart an play on....when they advanced to u-14 div, I think that most had decided where they liked to play at most an what their capabilities were....thus, we got more into positoinal play in 11v11, the 4-4-2 an 4-3-3 formations. I did use a variation of these positions at times, depending on the team we were playing...I have a question that I have had controrversy over for a long time, "at what age do we start thinking about playing a specific position?" I have a lot of contact with select teams an tryouts now...players want a specific position an train for an above age groups...when they are placed in other postions, they simply are not good in it is obvious, they are not comfortable in these other positions. I can not tell if they are just backing off or it is just lack of training in that position....many have gone to residential academies by this time an have recieved training for specific positions an have training in team tactics for specific positions....I also see players that even tho, they want to play a specific positoin, they are not competent to do so....I simply tell them that there are other players for that position, what do you think about playing in another spot, etc..?...some club DOC's simply offer a player a spot on the team an just place this older age...when players who tried out for a specific positoin arrive at the first training session, they are placed somewhere else an are unhappy, but, stuck with the team until season ends or they quit....I have a son who plays up top as a striker mostly but sometimes , attacking mid....if he were to get stuck in the back at u-16 for some reason...I think he would walk, no matter who or what the team, I really have a serious question for you ...he needs this answer as much as I...he is a terrific finsiher, not just a shooter an play that of most coaches that have seen him consider him one of the best strikers in the, I am not sure if I have contributed to the subject matter but, mho, at age div u-14 I think we should be taking a long look at positional play an players best suited for specific positions...not to leave out an alternate positoin so the player is more versatile , thus, more useful for a team.

  6. Adam Kommers, August 31, 2017 at 1:07 p.m.

    There's a big difference between 8U and 10U. At 10U they can undersatnd positions, and start to play them. 8U is the ambiguous one.

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