As a coach with more years of experience than I care to remember, one thing I’ve learned never to neglect is my team’s formation – whatever the type of soccer.
You would never go into an 11-a-side match without thoroughly reviewing the exact system you want your guys or girls to play, yet so many coaches fail to approach smaller-sided games with that same attitude.
Why is that? Sometimes it’s down to treating 7v7 or 5v5 as just a bit of fun, with no need to get all tactical. Well, there’s not much fun in getting blown out 12-1 just because your opponents had a formation and your team didn’t.
Another reason is that some coaches don’t know many proper 7 v 7 soccer formations, so they won’t know which is best for their side. But now we’re going to change all that, looking at the formations I use that have led to success for many of my teams.
Got yourself a new team or one in need of a total revolution? This is the formation to start with!
In soccer, particularly small-sided soccer, possession is critical, and this system will allow all your players to keep control of the ball, even if they aren’t the best with the ball at their feet.
This position is often called the 2-3-1, but I like to keep the central midfielder deeper, so for me, it’s the 2-1-2-1!
The focal point is our central midfielder, who will ideally be your best passer and someone who can dribble effectively.
In attack, this central player can act as a pivot, spreading the ball to either of the two wingers, stretching the play, or play through balls to the striker, who can run off the shoulder of the last defender.
You may want to use the wingers more if your striker is a target man, but go more direct if your striker is pacier.
If the opposition is drawn to the wingers, that will create space for your midfielder to run into, allowing them to link up with the striker or attempt on goal themselves.
But that’s not to say we are relying on them. Instead, our defenders can play the ball down the line to the wingers, who can cut inside or look for the striker.
If the wingers need support, the midfielder will be there for a simple back pass, or a defender can even maraud up from the back on an overlap.
Whatever the option, the attack will be maintained if you build up patiently and don’t force the ball into a sometimes isolated lone striker.
Two of the defenders offer a solid foundation, while the midfielder can drop deeper if you’re holding on to a lead or in need of more support.
Not everyone has Virgil van Dijk at the back. If your defenders aren’t the best ball carriers, they at least know they have options, with short passes available to their fellow defender, to the midfielder who should always be showing for the ball, along the line to the winger, or back to the goalkeeper if needs must. It’s a safety in numbers approach!
The 1-3-2 Formation
It’s the last match of the season, and you need to win by five goals to win the league. This is the formation you turn to!
It’s not just for desperate situations; you can turn to the 1-3-2 if you have a more attacking outlook or want to control the ball in the middle of the park.
Two strikers obviously create a more significant goal threat, and the midfield trio can provide them with plenty of opportunities and support, both through the middle or from out wide.
The ideal situation here is to have two strikers with different qualities, which I had with one of my teams which recently secured promotion. One large target man to hold the ball up for the more diminutive finisher worked time and time again!
The obvious disadvantage here is the one man at the back, who can quickly look exposed if you lose possession in open play.
You need to ensure the midfielders are well drilled in getting back to support, but a center-back who can make that clean tackle under pressure is a must.
They must also be confident on the ball and able to pick out a variety of forward passes. Otherwise, they’ll be putting themselves under a ton of pressure!
You might concede six in a match with this formation, but what does it matter if you score nine?
The 3-2-1 Formation
After an attacking option, let us check out the best defensive option!
The countdown formation, the pyramid, the Christmas tree, whatever you want to call it, this is the one to go for if you want to make like an 80’s Italian manager and value clean sheets above all else.
It also comes in very handy when you’re up against the free-scoring league leaders, or maybe if you don’t have the strongest goalkeeper who could do with fewer shots reaching them.
That’s right, three defenders at the back offering a robust, sturdy approach to 7v7 that any opposition attack will find hard to break down, however many attackers they throw at you.
I would recommend a flat back three, don’t try anything more complicated that could potentially compromise the rigidity of your line-up.
But like a middle-aged dude losing his hair, this formation leaves you a little thin on top.
The pair in midfield will have to be the engine room in your team, running between the lines, supporting each other well, and, naturally, linking up well with the one striker.
That striker will have to feed off scraps, so you need them to be both clinical and efficient. They won’t get chance after chance, you’ve got to have a striker who only requires one opportunity to find the back of the net.
It takes a lot of patience not only to get the ball forward but to hold your formation and create those chances. Only players with the right mentality and belief in this style of play should be used for this setup.
I know I said you should keep the back three flat. Still, suppose you can be a bit more adventurous. In that case, the wider two of the three can operate as wing-backs, charging up the wings to support the front three players, similar to the English Premier League team Liverpool uses under Jurgen Klopp.
If one wing-back gets forward, one of the midfielders can get up in support of the striker, while the other can sit deep and act more like a pivot, creating a much more imposing attack.
Be careful because this can only work if your wing-backs have incredible energy! It’s all very well them bursting forward, but if they don’t have the lungs to get back again, you’ll be exposed, and you may well have just played with fewer defenders in the first place!
What not to use: 2-2-2
And finally, for anyone wondering where the 2-2-2 formation is, I advise you to forget about it completely!
Far too stale, far too rigid, the opposition will have great fun running between the lines and opening space on the pitch your team won’t be covering.
Any adaptation can prove challenging for players who have only worked in one position. The lack of options moving the ball forward makes the opposition’s life easier, hinders the poorer passers, and limits the more creative players.
For me, nothing comes close to a 2-1-2-1 for that dynamism and variety that it offers. It’s a solid all-rounder that can be used by both higher and lower-level teams of all ages and quickly adapted.
Very much a good starting point that you can modify to suit your players’ abilities better, the 2-1-2-1 is one that I can quite comfortably stick to.
A junior side I coached went from obscurity to playoff contenders in weeks simply by switching to this formation. I then implemented it at a senior team who, despite ability, were not living up to their potential because they didn’t have a set formation. The 2-1-2-1 sorted that out pretty quickly.
As for the other two I went over, they certainly have their merits and are helpful for particular situations.
Of the two, I’d have to choose the more attacking 1-3-2 formation. It’s a little gung-ho, but soccer is supposed to be fun! Let’s go out there and score some goals!