Category Archives: understanding the game

positions: attackers & defenders

My view on positions is that there are only two: attackers and defenders. On the field, a player is an attacker if our team is in possession of the ball. If the other team has the ball, we are all defenders.

That means, for example, that when our goalie has the ball, she is an attacker looking for the best distribution option for us to penetrate into the Final Third. If the Striker takes a shot and it’s blocked and the other team gains possession. The Striker is now a defender whose job is to chase and regain possession of the ball, preferably close to the other teams goal.

As the ball moves around the field, we want to maintain the general shape and relative location of players. Players have freedom to shift and switch positions on the fly. For example, if our Striker starts dribbling towards the Left Wing, she has options to play farther ahead to support the Striker, or switch places with her to become the Striker.

Shape in the Attack

shape when attacking

Notice in the picture above that our shape when we have the ball should be deep and wide and fill the field. This opens up spaces on the field that we can then use to move the ball around and get into scoring positions. However, at this age level, we want to make sure the girls stay close enough to each other that the can make and receive passes to the next closest player.

The lines all over the field show passing and dribbling lanes created by our shape. We’re trying to work the ball up the field and get passes to the attacking areas inside the other teams Penalty Area so we can take shots on goal.The best places to get the ball into those zones is from the sides, corners, and end-lines shown by the darker passing and dribbling lines (usually by #11 & #7).


Transition is the time right as we take over or lose the ball to the other team. We must quickly organize ourselves for either attack or defense. This means that no matter where we are on the field, we need to make sure that we are immediately looking to penetrate the other teams defense and shoot, put pressure on the ball if the other team has it or get back to make sure our area of responsibility is covered. Transition happens fast and is typically where most goals (for us or against us) come from during games. A couple off key things to remember during Transitions are:

  • We need to get to the ball fast and first
  • If the other team has the ball apply immediate pressure and delay to give us time to recover on defense
  • If we get the ball in the Defensive Third we need to quickly pass the ball out and up to a safe zone
  • If we get the ball in the Middle Third we need to possess the ball and look to get the ball wide and up
  • Forwards penetrate the defense and get the ball to one of the attacking/shooting zones
  • In the Final Third, shoot, pass to someone that can, or dribble somewhere you can shoot. If all else fails, we want to maintain possession of the ball, get it to space and start again.

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shape when defending in our defensive third

The best place to play defense is on the other teams half of the field. So our Forwards and Midfielders must immediately pressure any ball any time the other team takes it away from us in the Final or Middle Third. Then we go (transition) directly to attack mode.

When we are on defense, we squeeze into the center of the field and force the other team wide where they won’t have good scoring chances. The area inside the red zone is an area where we want to leave no player uncovered and no ball un-pressured. The really red area is where we are being ultra aggressive in getting the ball out of that space and to the sides of the field or to the green “safe” areas on the field.

The Attacking Mid and Center Forward should remain high and fill gaps between the defense and the center line. This allows for a quick counter attack from a long or stray ball from the back. It also serves as a pressure relief valve for the defense. Otherwise the attacking team just regains possession in our end and keeps the pressure on.


team shape: system of play

Each player has two roles: attacker and defender. However, that doesn’t mean traditional positions haven’t gone away. This is especially when we’re on defense where it’s important to cover the assigned area of responsibility, get back between the ball and our goal, and provide support for the team.

This season for the U10s where we play 8v8 we’ll be playing what’s called a 2-4-1 (or 1-2-4-1) with the keeper, 2 players in our back line, 4 players in the middle line (in a diamond), and 1 players in the forward line. For U11 and above we have 11 players on the field and we’ll use a system called a 4-5-1. The principles of the positions are the same in 8v8 and 11v11 with just the number of players on the field being a different.

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team shape & formations

The numbers on the field represent a traditional way of referring to positions on the soccer field. For our 2-4-1 system the number equate to the following “positions”:

#1 – (GK) Goalkeeper
#4 – (RCB) Right Center Back
#5 – (LCB) Left Center Back
#10 – (ACM) Attacking Center Mid
#6 – (DCM) Defensive Center Mid
#7 – (RM) Right Wing (Right Mid)
#9 – (CF) Striker (Center Forward)
#11 – (LM) Left Wing (Left Mid)

goalkeeper (#1)

On defense: keep the ball out of the goal, clear the ball to a safe zone when Backs can’t, communicate with the team what needs to be done to best protect the Defensive Third (since the GK has the best view of the entire field).

On attack: distribute (punt, kick, throw, or bowl) the ball to players or space that allow us to attack, push the defensive line forward, play forward when the ball is in the Middle/Final Third to clear long balls played over the defense.

center backs (#4 & #5)

On defense: stay compact in the middle of the field, play “circle to circle”, pressure every ball in the center of the field, cover defenders and passing lanes, clear the ball out of our Defensive Third.

On attack: stay compact in the middle of the field, play “circle to circle”, support back for drop passes and “switching the field” passes, and be ready to quickly fall back if the other team gets the ball.

defensive midfielder (#6)

On defense: get to the ball first, immediate pressure, regain possession, keep the other team out of Defensive Third.

On attack: defend ahead of the back line, maintain possession in the Middle Third, make long passes up and wide, quickly fall back if the other team gets the ball, be the first to pressure and delay during Transition.

attacking midfielder (#10)

On defense: regain possession in the Final/Middle Third, keep the other team out of Defensive Third, defend ahead of the back line.

On attack: maintain possession in the Middle/Final third, support wide, pass to the Wings or to space where the Striker can shoot, look for spaces on the field where you can receive a pass and shoot.

wings (#7 & #11)

On defense: regain possession in the Final Third and attack, support in the Middle Third to prevent the other team from getting to our Defensive Third, if the other team is in our Defensive Third fall back and defend the wide areas outside the 18. However, be ready to quickly run forward for a counter attack.

On attack: get the ball wide and down the field to one of the 3 key passing locations (corner of the Penalty Area, corner flag, end line towards the goal, make a pass to one of the 3 key shooting areas or take a shot if it’s there.

striker (#9)

On defense: regain possession in the Final Third and attack, fall back to the Middle Third to prevent the other team from getting into our Defensive Third, fill gaps in the Middle Third of the field to be able to Transition quickly when the ball get played out of our Defensive Third.

On attack: score goals, be a target for receiving and laying off passes to other players in shooting spaces (1-2 pass), shoot the ball, pass the ball to someone who can, dribble the ball to space where you can shoot, pass the ball to maintain possession in the Final Third.

thirds of the field

The soccer field is broken into three spaces:

  • Defensive Third
  • Middle Third
  • Final Third

the defensive third

  • Our Ball: Dribble Less, Pass More, Pass Long, and Pass Away
  • Their Ball: Pressure Immediately, Push Outside, and Delay

20120917-140856.jpgIf we have possession of the ball in the Defensive Third, don’t take risks with the ball. We want to get the ball out wide and away from the goal as quickly as possible. In our Defensive Third, dribble less and pass more, pass long, and pass away (to the outside and up the field).

If the other team has possession of the ball in our Defensive Third, we want to immediately put pressure on the ball. This gives us time to organize the defense, mark players, and close passing lanes. Our defensive players (and if the other team has the ball we are all defensive players) want to squeeze into the middle of the field to keep the other team from having space to move and pass the ball in front of our goal.

the middle third

  • Our Ball: Keep Possession, Pass, and Dribble
  • Their Ball: Pressure, Delay, Regain Possession

If we have possession of the ball in the Middle Third, we want to take a few risks but to also play it safe. We want to keep possession of the ball by passing and dribbling through the Middle Third to get the ball into the Final Third. We want to provide good support for passes (which means help from outside backs and wings), get the ball wide to the side lines, and play forward quickly.

If the other team has possession in the Middle Third, we want to immediately put pressure on the ball. We can take a few risks to take the ball away from the other team, but not so many that we make it easy for them to get into our Defensive Third. Pressure them, force the mistake, regain possession, and get the ball into the Final Third.

the final third

  • Our Ball: Penetrate into the Penalty Area, Shoot on Goal, Finish (Score)
  • Their Ball: Immediate Chase, Pressure, Get the Ball Back…then Penetrate, Shoot, and Score

If we have possession in the Final Third, we want to get the ball into a position to take a shot as quickly as possible. Keep the ball wide along the side lines and race towards the flags in the corners. This will stretch the defense out and create space for our players to get in front of the goal. From the corners or the sides of the Penalty Area, dribble or pass the ball in front of the goal and take shots. The Final Third is where we want to take risks to get the ball into dangerous spaces for the other team. Penetrate and put the ball on “frame” (the goal) as fast as possible.

If the other team has possession of the ball in Final Third we want to put immediate pressure on the ball to regain possession. Again, if the other team has the ball, we are all defenders. It is better to defend closer to the other team’s goal than ours. The player closest to the ball (probably the attacker that turned it over), needs to be the first to chase and put pressure on the ball. The rest of our players (now defenders) need to take risks to get the ball back.