I enjoy coaching youth teams and testing out new formations. Young players always like to learn and try something new. It makes you feel like a team when everyone knows their new role, so you can outsmart your opponent.
Which soccer formation is best for under 12’s? For a defensive system choose 4-3-1, for a neutral formation choose 2-4-2 and for an attacking formation pick a 2-1-3-2. Play to your team’s strength and have appropriate players for your formation.
Formations for youth games is different than selecting one for an adult game. Young players are sometimes unsure where to be on the field of play. Be sure that you train for a couple of weeks before lining up against an opponent.
One of the best ways to introduce a new formation is by changing one player at a time. This could be during a game or at the half time team talk. Dropping one player back or moving one forward allows the players to gradually adapt to a new system. Too many changes at once can cause chaos!
When I was a youth player, my coach did not have a formation board, not even a piece of paper! I remember once feeling unsure of where to be, so I played safe and did not venture forward. So be sure to have a tactics board to give the player on the pitch an idea of where to be. Here are a couple of tactics boards on my best gear page. As a minimal, have player positions for defense and attack.
- Best Players
- Weak Areas
- Player Combinations
- Isolated Players
- 2-4-2 Player Zones
- 2-4-2 Defensive Positions
- 2-4-2 Attacking Positions
- 2-4-2 Danger Zones
- 3-4-1 Player Zones
- 3-4-1 Defensive Positions
- 3-4-1 Attacking Positions
- 3-4-1 Danger Zones
- 4-3-1 Player Zones
- 4-3-1 Defensive Positions
- 4-3-1 Attacking Positions
- 4-3-1 Danger Zones
- 2-1-3-2 Player Zones
- 2-1-3-2 Defensive Positions
- 2-1-3-2 Attacking Positions
- 2-1-3-2 Danger Zones
Before we look at formations, for those that are newer to the game here is a diagram of a soccer field, to show what is what.
Soccer field infographic
Formations – Positions – Systems: Considerations
Choosing your formation to play will depend on the following key points. Getting the best out of your players is the intention when picking your system.
A common saying in soccer is to build a team around your best player. Wherever that player is playing, who do they work with the best? Players often have a favorite player to play with when playing – this may be because of a knowledge of what they can do and where they will be. A trust factor.
If your best player is a midfielder that can play a ball 60 yards into the corner, have a winger that is willing to run into space.
An opponent will look for weaknesses in your team and any good coach will make changes in the game to utilize your weak point. Be sure to minimize the risk by pairing players up who combine well.
You might have a central defender who is good at heading the ball but is slow. Players who play next to each other ideally complement one another with their attributes.
Having pace is always a good trait for a team. Whether it is the full-back in recovery or a winger taking on a player, it can be an influential aspect. That said, you don’t necessarily need pace if you have players like Iniesta and Xavi, who can control the ball and pass with accuracy.
A player with pace is best placed in a position that will be dangerous. Have them in a position where they will more often face a 1-on-1 situation.
Tiki Taka is widely known for its combination play. That is short, quick passing with one or two touches, played a speed that hard to close down and intercept.
When players are in their positions, they will not only be combining with those directly next to them but those on a diagonal. So a full-back will be linking with a central midfielder. Forming combinations can be highly effective, you ideally need to play in triangles.
A player ideally will have two options when to pass the ball – this is the triangle. Players waiting for a pass will be constantly moving to create an opportunity to pass. When the ball is passed there will be a new triangle of players that should be on the move away from their markers.
In a 5-3-2 formation, the full-backs are expected to work the full length of the field. They can become isolated. It is important when picking players to play there that they have the right attributes. They need a good ‘engine’ to get up and down.
The same applies to a lone striker, they need support, from other players or with a quality pass. The striker will often be playing against two defenders, so they either need to have the pace to get behind or they need to be able to hold up the ball.
2-4-2 Formation – Positions: Diagrams
- Strong Midfield
- Wide players
- 2 strikers
- Can turn to a 4-2-2
- Defenders can be exposed
- Strikers need to defend from the front
For this youth under 12’s formation, you need two wide players that enjoy running. Most often for youth games, the play will be central, so they won’t be needed as much.
It is a balanced formation with two permanent defenders and two strikers. The key is with the midfield and how they defend an attack. There must be runs from the middle to keep the opponents on the back foot.
2-4-2 Player Zones
As mentioned, the wingers are required to cover the length of the field, so they must be good runners. More often than not the ball will be central. The player zones for this formation are simple and easy for a youth team to grasp. As with most formations, it is best to be compact in defense – players go narrow, closing the gaps. Spread out in attack, creating space and opportunities.
This formation relies on combination play between two players that are paired – defenders, midfielders and attackers. They must work together (it is best to build up a bond in training and pair them together). On occasion one the midfielder will attack and the other will support.
2-4-2 Defensive Positions
In the defensive positions, the attackers will close down players with the ball near the halfway line – but also be ready for a counter-attack and get in space. The main problem areas are covered in this system when the players are in position.
It might be advisable to have one of the attackers drop back into the center when defending to stop the attack from the middle, through the midfielders.
2-4-2 Attacking Positions
Two strikers in the box will always cause problems for the opposition and that backed up by the midfield – it’s an attacking line-up. Depending on the type of wingers you have, they can either attack the box and help the strikers or they can cover for the two central midfielders when they attack,
With the two strikers, it is always good to get crosses into the box and cause problems. It won’t always create a goal, but persistence will pay-off. The goalkeeper should be on the edge of their box, so they are ready for any balls over the top.
2-4-2 Danger Zones
The corners of this formation can cause problems if the opposition has good wingers. You will need to decide is the defenders follow the attackers or stay zonal. As mentioned the midfield needs to be able to help the defense so they are no isolated.
Because the formation is flat, there are pockets of space in between the defense and midfield. When out of possession, the midfield should be closer to the defense, making a compact unit.
3-4-1 Formation and Diagrams
- Solid defense
- Strong foundation
- Counter attacking
- Striker can be isolated
- Striker needs to be very strong or fast
- Needs runners
For a good formation to begin with for under 12’s, the 3-4-1 is a good place to start. With players covering the dangerous areas, it can make the team stable.
For this formation to work you must have a good striker (and alternative for injury). They must be able to hold the ball up, bring others into play, or be fast so that they can take on a player. The winger must attack and support the striker.
3-4-1 Player Zones
The fullbacks can move forward when in possession, but their main priority is to defend. The central defender will always be defending and it is ideal if they have good speed, so they are not beaten by any runs.
The wingers will focus on attacking, so this formation is good if you have two players that can dribble the ball past players. The wingers will not always be back in place for defending so the central midfield and defenders must expect it. The striker must look for the spaces to run into for a through ball and be around the goal for crosses.
3-4-1 Defensive Positions
This formation provides plenty of cover in the goal box, with three players the attacking team will find it difficult to break down. With two midfielders in front of the defense, they cover the spaces in between the lines. At times the defensive sides will go out to cover the wings, so the team must shuffle across to cover.
The striker will stop the opposition defenders from playing the ball and they will find space so that they can attack. It is important that the striker is not around the defenders so that they can hold the ball up and bring other players into play.
3-4-1 Attacking Positions
In attack the wingers will be pushed up the field, ready to support the striker and running from this angle can cause a lot of problems. The striker must move in all directions to look for space to cause problems.
The advantage of this formation is that the two midfielders can support the attack knowing that they have three defenders behind them to cover for any counter-attacks. When the ball is in the opponent’s box, the two wide defenders can move forward a little so that they are slightly advanced – this can build up the attack again if the ball goes back.
3-4-1 Danger Zones
The center of the defense is well covered with three defenders for under 12’s. Problems can occur when the ball is out wide and the winger is forward. Normally it is best for the defender to go wide and for the other two defenders to move central to cover the goal.
Again, as this formation is flat, there is space between the defense and attack, so the midfield must drop back to minimize the gaps. The two wide defenders must be close to the center back, if they are spread out, gaps will appear for the opponents.
4-3-1 Formation and Diagrams
- Need good fullbacks
- Isolated striker
- Restricts attacks
For an under 12’s team with a good striker, the 4-3-1 formation could be good for you. It is a solid base to work from. Setting up like this will limit your opponent, which allows you to develop your style of play and system.
The key to this formation is the striker and the fullbacks. If the fullbacks can time their runs forward and cover themselves when needed, it can be highly effective.
4-3-1 Player Zones
The fullbacks will advance when in position, like a wingback. This is not always expected by the opposition and can catch them out. It is the role of the central midfielder to cover for the fullbacks if they are out of position. The wide midfielders are to keep close to the center midfielder and not to be dragged out wide too often. If they are out wide on the byline, it should be when attacking.
As with any formation that has a lone striker, they need to be supported for it to work. The support will mainly come from the two wider midfielders, and this is backed up by the central midfielder and fullbacks. —
4-3-1 Defensive Positions
This is one of the hardest formations in the under 12’s to break down. When all of the players are in their defensive positions, all the danger areas are covered. The midfielders are ideally placed to block the lines through the defense.
The team is compact here but they must be ready to counter-attack. From this shape when the ball is regained, the players must move wider to create space. Dribbling skills are needed to take the ball in an advanced area before they can find support.
4-3-1 Attacking Positions
In attack, the formation covers the key areas and everyone has their own space to attack. The two central defenders will always be at the back, which gives security for the other players to advance.
Movement is key for this formation, as shown in the defensive shape, it can look like a restrictive shape, but now on the attack, it looks dangerous. The two wide midfielders must get in the box as often as they can when in possession to cause problems.
4-3-1 Danger Zones
The main problem for this system is the position of the midfielders. When the ball is on one wing, all of the midfield must shuffle across to keep the gaps limited. The fullbacks will face many one-on-ones, but they must not let the attacker behind them.
2-1-3-2 Formation and Diagrams
- Two strikers
- No width
- wide players stretched
For most games in the under 12’s the ball will be central, so this formation is suited to be played if you see the ball mainly there in your league.
This formation gives an attacking edge with a solid midfield. Two central midfielders, one defensive and the other attacking. There could be in danger on the wings if the players and not communicating.
2-1-3-2 Player Zones
As normal with the wide players need to athletic, so they can cover most of the field. This is highly important to give some width so the team is not stretched. Two solid defenders that work together to keep it stable at the bank, along with the defensive midfielder.
The team has its strength in the midfield with the 3 players and one supporting, this along with two strikers gives an attacking look. As mentioned the areas on the wing are not covered well – this can be overcome if the team effectively shuffles across as a unit.
2-1-3-2 Defensive Positions
We can see the central part of the field is covered well, but this demonstrated the vulnerable areas out wide. So the wide midfielders will be responsible to cover the wings, so they need to be able to run a lot.
When the ball is in the box, the team can transform into a 3-3-2 formation, which gives the team an adaptable system. If the team is under a lot of pressure the strikers can drop back further to help out and keep the team compact.
2-1-3-2 Attacking Positions
Two strikers in the box that work well together is positive and this can be made into a front three when the attacking midfielder breaks forward. Again the wide midfielders will be required to give with, supplying balls into the box. The defensive midfielder should always be available to keep possession of the ball and start attacks.
2-1-3-2 Danger Zones
The corners and wide areas are the main concern. As mentioned the wide midfielders can trackback and cover, if they have the energy to get up and down. A back-up to this problem is for the players to move back towards goal and keep the formation compact at the back and deal with any crosses that come in.
Free PDF Download: Under 12’s 9 vs 9 Formations – Infographic – Tactics Field
Where do you put your weakest player in soccer? A weaker player will be supported by teammates around them and not be exposed to a one-on-one situation defending their goal.
Which position is best in soccer? A central midfielder will enjoy all parts of the game as they will be involved in defending and attacking.
How do you become a good soccer coach? Players enjoy training when they have a ball and especially when there is a match. Keep them happy with training variations and a focus on playing as a team to build unity.