Last week a father of a player on my U-9 team asked me when we were going to start working on tactical instruction. I vaguely muttered something about "maybe next year." I should have been straighter with him and said, "In five years time, at the earliest." Regardless of how old they are, I'm more often than not tempted to tell my players to just go out and enjoy the game. Do what you want, play where you want. If the goalkeeper fancies going on a dribble through midfield, let's sit back and see what happens.
The youth director of Bundesliga team Eintracht Frankfurt, Marco Pezzaiouli, revealed in a weekend interview that he's taken the club's U-10 to U-13 age groups out of competitive league play in order to better concentrate on their development. They focus instead on tournaments, where the players can get three times as many minutes on the field. He's wondering if he should do the same with the U-14 age group. "Up to U-14 we don't play in larger groups than four vs. four," he told the Frankfurter Rundschau. "In four vs. four games, the boys get far more touches on the ball and have to make more decisions."
Pezzaiouli added that he sees a lot of young coaches "who spend all day on a laptop designing a game plan and analyzing their opponents. I don't look at my opponent at all. We go out on the field and we play how we want to play. We never adapt our style for a particular opponent. The focus is on our own qualities as a team."
You can certainly argue that scouting an opponent might help you to win, but that's to miss Pezzaiouli's principle point -- it's just not that important to win in youth soccer. The focus must always be on development.
I'd take that point and -- like my fantasy wayward goalkeeper -- run with it all the way down the field. For youth coaches, losing may be the most desirable result. If my team plays well and we lose, I’m pleased with the performance and can stress all the positives. If we play poorly and deserved to lose, then we have plenty to work on in training. There's also the obvious life lesson of coping with setbacks and recovering. Winning is the biggest challenge, because it's harder to stem arrogance and complacency, and to make your players understand there’s still plenty to work and improve on. I actually hate it when parents congratulate me on a win -- I did nothing. I know they mean well, but they're misunderstanding why I'm there at all.
Youth coaches who are in the game to win should seriously question whether they are suited for the role. The priorities should be teaching technique; the motivation of all players to continue improving; fostering a cooperative team spirit; and the firm instruction of respect and sporting values. Again, those are very obvious pointers, but they're constantly pushing against the too numerous coaches who jump up and down on the sideline and comment on, shout about or gesticulate over every touch -- good or bad. Any coaches not in control of their emotions, and who make themselves the constant center of attention, should not be in charge of a youth team at any age group or level of play.
So, back to the original question. What's the best formation for an 11-a-side team? Hey, try two at the back, three in midfield and five up front -- the formation of my very first school team, age 10 (our coach had grown up in the 1930s). We conceded more goals than we scored, but I can recall every player on that team and where he played, and the result of every game we contested -- the shellackings as well as the wins. I went on to play for another 40 years. Meanwhile, those memories are far more precious and enduring than what any aggrieved parent might have thought back then about the wisdom of playing 2-3-5.