Positional Play in Football
Eight steps to teaching kids how to understand positional play
Let’s be entirely up-front about this. This is aimed at coaches who want to develop good soccer players. It
is a long-term plan. You will definitely give up goals and lose games while trying to implement this. You
will be working against a majority of coaches who encourage a very direct style of soccer that results in a
kick and chase strategy that is focused around their strongest player. That type of soccer works at younger
ages when physically dominant kids can have a disproportionate impact on the game. Gradually that
changes and if you have been focusing on teaching proper positional play, your team will be far beyond
these teams tactically when the physical differences start to level out.
If you are working with our youngest players you can use it as a general plan to guide you through minisoccer.
If you’ve got slightly older kids you may see areas that you’ve already covered thoroughly and see
how some other points are connected to where your team is at. In other words, it may connect the dots for
what you’re already doing.
Even if you don’t plan on taking a team right through from mini and into divisional soccer, what you will
be doing by following this plan is creating players who do not have to have a lot of bad habit un-taught by
another coach down the line.
The bracketed age groups are a guideline for when these ideas are most important.
1. Technical Skills [U6 – U18]
Becoming a skilful player is not something that you teach in a year or two. It is a process that
takes years and years and never really has an endpoint. These skills are essential to positional play.
- Balanced stance when receiving and making passes
- Ability to strike balls with both feet and different parts of the foot
- Ability to receive passes across the body by opening up
- Ability to control ball with one touch that takes you somewhere (rather than just stopping
the ball dead in front of you)
- Ability to bring the ball under control with different parts of the body
- Ability to shield ball
- Ability to turn quickly in either direction with ball
2. Leg strength and mechanics of striking the ball [U6 – U16]
This is essential for other points to be able to evolve. If you do not have the ability to play a driven
ball half way across the playing field you’re using, you will be at a disadvantage. If players sense
they will not receive a pass because their teammates are not capable of reaching them, they will
abandon proper spacing and wide positions and creep closer to the ball.
- Tactically, it makes sense to put players with good leg strength in the middle of the park
and encourage them to knock passes to players who are not crowding in
- Good leg strength gives the ability to incorporate spaces you create; it allows you to
reach wide players and to switch play. It gives you options beyond the player who has
moved to a close support position.
- Allowing players to focus on the mechanics of striking the ball needs to be done in a low
key, slower paced environment in pairs or three’s.
i. Start with calm demonstration and give them plenty of room on the field to
concentrate on what they’re doing
ii. Stress mechanics over power and gradually have them build up to more
powerful swings at the ball
iii. Make sure this is done with both feet
iv. Good mechanics when striking the ball can overcome a lack of leg strength
3. Spacing and appropriate passing distances [U6 – U8]
Proper spacing is a function of the time needed to receive a pass and then take a second touch
(shot, dribble, pass) before an opposing player pressuring the person making the pass can switch to
the player receiving the pass.
- Good spacing prevents one defender from covering two attackers, thus giving a ‘choice’
to the person with the ball
- The antithesis of good spacing is leaving one or two defenders 30-40 yards back behind
the play. This just narrows options, leads to turnovers and to players getting bored. Yes, it
will probably lower your goals against in the early years but at the expense of teaching
several of the fundamentals covered here
- Here are some general guidelines for appropriate spacing by age
i. U6 – U7 : 6 –8 yards
ii. U8 - U10: 8 –12 yards
iii. U11 – U12: 12 – 16 yards
iv. U13- U16: 12 –24 yards
v. U16 – U18: 12 – 30 yards
- Players should be expected to be able to play a firm pass and receive a firm pass over
4. Movement off the ball [U6 – U8]
One of the most important concepts you can engrain in young players is how important it is to be
moving even when they don’t have the ball. To start with, even movement for the sake of
movement sake is a big step. Make them feel they are an important part of the game the whole
time they are on the field. Once they get over the idea of only playing when the ball is in close
proximity you can start teaching applied movement, or movements specific to certain goals like
creating space, providing options for teammates, denying attackers space, etc.
- Movement creates options, for you to receive a pass, for the ball carrier to give you a pass
and for other teammates to receive a pass.
- Defensively, movement can narrow options and force attackers to play in directions more
advantageous to you
- Start teaching movement to areas within age-appropriate passing distances while
5. Support angles / Body Positioning [U8 – U12]
Players need to recognize that the other’s team job is to impede their forward progress and that
while proper spacing and off the ball running will help their team, it is crucial that they move into
positions where a pass to them will not be intercepted. As an adult, familiar with angle and
velocity, these positions look painfully obvious. But it’s not to kids. It’s important to see how
these two go hand in hand.
- A good supporting angle with good body positioning allows your teammate to easily
reach you with a pass that bypasses a defender and cannot be cut out and can easily be
controlled with a first touch that takes you in the direction you want to play
- A great support angle with excellent body positioning is what allows your teammate to
play you a critical pass that bypasses a defender and that you either strike at net first time
or release another teammate first time for a strike
- As players get older and the game gets quicker and spaces get smaller, finding support
angles necessary for a successful pass become only half the equation. The other half is
how you position your body so your first touch opens you up to what your options are.
Receiving a pass in a position away from any support is a red flag to a smart defender to
close you down and pressure you immediately.
- This is where great players make the game look simple. They ghost into minute spaces
where the slimmest of angles for a successful pass exist and they position their bodies in
advance to play a balanced, well weighted pass to a teammate who scores. To an
untrained eye, it just looks like they moved five yards and made a simple pass but the
timing, anticipation, balance, and geometry involved are quite complex and had to be
figured out very, very quickly.
6. Width and Depth [U9 – U11]
Bearing in mind the premise that when you have the ball you want to make the spaces bigger to
give you more time and when you’re defending you want to make the field as small as possible to
increase the chances of winning the ball back. Getting players to provide width and depth
maximizes the area you have to work in and creates more space centrally for players to operate in.
- As you advance from your goal to the other goal you are constricted by the width of the
field and the players on the other team
- You must play the ball past these players while keeping it in bounds.
- Logically, if you are trying to play through four midfielders, you have a better chance
using the full width of the field rather than the width minus 20 yards.
- Encourage wide midfield players to get their heels on the line and look for support
positions and up and down the touchline; this will provide better passing angles.
- Strikers provide depth by by pushing back on the deepest defender while staying onside.
This leaves room for them to come back into to receive a pass of for central mids to make
forward runs into.
7. Creating Space and Denying Space [U10 – U18]
This really could (and will) be an entirely separate seminar topic. Many of the points already made
involve elementary way to create space. Players first of all have to be able to identify what a
‘dangerous’ space looks like and then learn how to create it. From an attacking perspective, you
are looking for:
i. Spaces in behind defenders
ii. Spaces that lead to overloads (ie. 2 v 1’s, 3 v2’s)
iii. Spaces that isolate defender away from support
iv. Spaces that set up a shot
- Attackers, once they recognize these spaces, have to learn how to manipulate defenders
into creating them. Timed, determined runs to or from certain areas will either drag
defenders away from the space you are trying to open up for a teammate or allow you to
exploit a space and receive a pass.
- This is such a difficult concept and requires so many other skills to do effectively. It also
requires a willingness to work hard and selflessly as a lot of the time you are creating
space for other teammates and not for yourself.
- From a defensive perspective, once players can recognize the dangerous spaces, they
need to become decision-makers and constantly adjudge whether they should be staying
tight on their mark or backing off and trying to nullify a dangerous space. This is a
- Ideally, defenders try to force attackers to play where they (the defenders) have numbers
and thus the best odds of winning the ball back
- Defenders try to eliminate dangerous spaces behind them
- Outside backs position themselves to try to force wide players down the line and
hopefully out of play; don’t allow crosses are square balls back inside.
8. Choosing a formation [not age specific]
Obviously, this depends on the format for the age group you’re coaching. What’s important is that
the formation have balance in terms of logical spacing and support options, width, depth and all
the players have an understanding that their position is not an anchor that ties them to a particular
patch of grass.
For six a side, a 1-3-1 provides width, depth, natural support angles and good spacing. Moving to
an eight a side league, 2-3-2 does the same. The most common eleven a side formations are 4-4-2
and the 3-5-2 which is becoming more popular. For me, the biggest drawback with the 3-5-2 is
you have to have exceptional work rate from your wing backs (the outside mids). They have to
also be very strong defensively while still being able to get forward and put crosses in. It does
however give you the extra player centrally which is good at younger age groups where wide play
isn’t as prevalent.
There are factors that will mitigate for or against your ability to teach kids positions. Soccer is such a fluid
game that it frustrates the best efforts of coaches. This is not football where the game is a series of highly
scripted plays sent in as a response to a particular (and static) situation. It’s not baseball where almost
everyone watching can anticipate what the person with the ball is going to do (ie. Batter hits the ball, fielder
will throw to a base to get him or a base runner out). There are no timeouts where you can call them to
together and reiterate certain points and you don’t really have the luxury of making substitutions for
specific situations (ie. Pinch hitters, three point specialists, etc.). The game is designed for players and
coaches have to make their influence felt in deference to this or they will end up very, very frustrated.
Here’s what can help or hinder your progress:
Common sense (not just you, but your players): players who are quick to recognize patterns and guess
outcomes are going to learn positional play more easily. Players who can process information you give
them and see it as part of a larger picture will do better than those looking for literal directives.
Work rate: You can be great technically and you can be smart but if you aren’t willing to work hard to
create passing angles, to provide width and depth and to create space for yourself and your teammates with
off the ball running you are simply not going to do well. Fitness is a factor but the willingness to work hard
is more important and is a very difficult thing to coach.
Your ability to teach rather than preach: Issuing loud commands in the absence of context will get you
nowhere. This is not chess. You are not moving inanimate objects about a board. The underlying intent is
that you are teaching the players to recognize situations and opportunities so they can make good decisions
themselves. To do this, you have to get them to see that they have stake in the decision making process.
You do this by asking them questions rather than yelling instructions. “Are you in a good position to
receive a pass?” “What’s going to happen if we turn the ball over right now?” “Did you take a first touch
that opened you up to your options?” Get them to take ownership over the decisions that have to be made
rather than waiting for a command from you.
Quickness over 5-10 yards: I’d rather a player who was quick over 5-10 yards than one who was fast over
40 yards. While both are assets, you will use your quickness far more than your speed. Positionally, it
allows you to create passing angles much quicker and allows you to get team shape right more quickly.