Initially Placing Players in Positions



Youth soccer can be tricky when it comes to initially placing players in positions.  In order to prepare for games, this is when coaches start applying their “art” to soccer.  There are many factors involved, including which formation to use, but often it comes down to how the coach feels about what combination of players will accomplish the best outcome.

The decision on a formation may be based on the types and skill levels of the players, or it can simply be the system with which the coach is most comfortable.  In either case, it comes down to knowing the abilities and the temperaments of the players themselves.  See “Introduction to Soccer Formations.”

At the most basic level, the coach is going to need goalkeepers, back defenders, midfielders, and forwards.  Each of these youth soccer positions carry with them a certain skill set.  Goalkeepers need to first be good with their hands and should have a desire to play the position.  Back defenders need to first know how to mark and track an opponent and how to get and stay “goal-side” (between the opponent and the goal).  Midfielders need to first understand that they are needed on both offense and defense and should like to run.  Forwards need to first demonstrate the ability to score and to have an attacking mind-set.

Before making any decisions regarding youth soccer positions, the coach should evaluate his players.  This can be done informally, by simply watching how the players perform, or formally, by setting up a system of notes.  Some of the tools available to coaches include:

–          Observe:  make a point of looking specifically at each player individually

–          Test:  set up drills to evaluate how well players can perform certain skills

–          Experiment:  see which players interact better with others

–          Ask the players:  talk with each player to see if they have a preference

–          Independent review:  obtain the assistance of a knowledgeable outside observer

–          Scrimmage results:  move players around during scrimmages

–          Awareness:  determine if players understand the changes they need to make in their play when they are in different parts of the field

–          Success:  monitor players’ achievement and enjoyment

There are a number of classic generalizations which may be applied to placing players in positions.  These are:

–          Goalkeeper:   tall, lithe, likes basketball (“rebounder”) or wide receiver in American football; shows no fear, wants to play there, good eye-hand coordination, a leader, vocal (good communication); has ability to punt and/or throw

–          Defenders – understand “goal-side,” want to get in the way (willing to go in for the tackle); ability to recover; have a big kick

–          Central defender – leader, vocal (good communication), understands and can implement “support in defense” (knows to run and cover for a defender who has been beaten)

–          Midfield – overall skills, overall fitness (endurance), really likes to run; grasps getting forward and getting back (wide midfielders and traditional wings – ability to cross)

–          Forwards/strikers:  goalscorers, aggressive, desire to put the ball in the back of the net; low shot, quick, “selfish;” demonstrate running to space to receive a pass

–          Center of field (backs, midfielders and forwards) – ability to play in space (contrast – players who have problems in space and need the “comfort” of the sideline)

–          Speed on wings – fastest players, both on offense and defense, to the outsides

–          Naturally left-footed (both on offense and defense) – on the left side

–          Strength up the middle – strongest, all-around-skilled players, at center back, central midfield, and center striker

–          Central midfield – “best” all-around player

Once the coach is comfortable with the evaluation of the players:

  1. Decide which formation to use.
  2. Determine the specific position names to be used for each position within the formation.
  3. Draw up the formation, with each position name (using paper or diagramming software).  Be sure to show the direction of attack and which goal is being defended.  Hand out copies to the players.
  4. Have all players memorize the position names and their relative locations on the field.
  5. Decide where to place the players for the best fit in the positions.
  6. At the next practice, place the players in position on the field.  Tell them to look around and recognize where they are in relationship to each other.  Move the whole team as a unit forward (“on attack”) and backward (“on defense”), making sure that everyone maintains their relative position to each other.  Tell all of the players that any one of them could wind up in any position at any time, so they need to learn everything about all of the youth soccer positions.  Quiz the players on the position names (e.g., point to a player and ask, “What position is he in?”).
  7. At the next practice and subsequent practices, demonstrate what is expected from each player when they are in each position.  (As a coach, this is one of the hard parts.  This is often called “functional training” for soccer.  An example of this might be, “that a back defender in this position should never kick the ball into the middle of the field in front of our own goal, but should turn the ball toward the nearest sideline and kick it as far upfield along the sideline as possible.”  Another example is a back defender more than willing to take on responsibility for wall building.

The most important note about placing young players in positions is ensuring that they are not type-cast.  The coach must not get caught locking them into a certain position at the expense of them not getting to play elsewhere on the field.  All players should be exposed to all positions.  The best defender of today may be the best goalscorer of tomorrow.  As such, coaches must remember that skills development and small-sided games in practice are fundamental at young ages.

Coaches must also note that placing players in positions exists in the larger context of program objectives, while trying to be competitive in games.   Especially at the youth level, such considerations as equal playing time, equal exposure to different positions, and proper player development, must be factored in to the placement decisions.  For example, four different goalkeepers may be used in games with each being rewarded with time in the field.  Also, it’s simply a fact that all players are not created equal.

Coaches are forced to draw conclusions, and make decisions, about real children.  A playing-time chart can be developed to ensure equality and less-skilled (or tentative) players may be “hidden” at right back or at left-wing.  Coaches must also remember that they may never know who is going to be the “late-bloomer.”

© Copyright, John C. Harves