Do you ever come off the pitch thinking that you’ve lost a game you should have won – just because you weren’t organised enough?
Whether you’re playing 7-a-side yourself or coaching one of the many kids teams playing the 7-a-side game, it’s important to have a clear idea of your playing tactics.
As with all forms of football, having good individual players is only part of the formula for success. The other key ingredient is having a clear idea about the way you’re playing; a framework to get the most out of those individuals.
Below you’ll find a range of formations that your team can try out to bring that much-needed organisation and winning-structure to your games.
The basic principles – whatever your formation
All good formations need two things:
Things work best when there is a natural balance to the team. If your 6 outfield players all think they are attackers then you’re going to have major difficulty beating any decent opposition. It’s the same if all 6 of your players are stuck defending. Your objective should be to achieve enough balance between attack and defence, left and right sides.
2. Play to the player’s strengths
I wish I could give you one single formation that will work for every team. Sadly that doesn’t exist because each team is made up of different individuals and you need to find a way of playing that showcases their unique talents.
Maybe your side has a couple of players who can easily cover distances at pace – you might consider playing with wingers. Maybe you’ve got two excellent strikers that can form an effective partnership – your challenge might be to arrange a team to best support them.
There’s no right on wrong answer when it comes to formations. In a lot of cases it will be worth trying a couple of different systems before landing on the one or two that work best for your group. And remember, whether you’re a group of adults or coaching this to a bunch of kids, systems take time and patience for players to understand their roles so don’t necessarily expect instant success.
2-3-1 The Popular Choice
This has got to be one of the most popular formations. It’s heavy on midfielders who are expected to help out the defense as well as getting forward to support the attack. Because of its mix of defensive cover with attacking potential, it’s one of the most commonly used tactics.
+ Provides solid defensive foundations
+ Midfielders can help bolster the defense when needed, as well as support the attack, making this a dynamic formation.
+ Provides width from the left and right midfielders. It’s especially good if they have the pace and stamina to both support attacks and help with defense.
– Places a lot of demands on the midfielders, whose versatility is key to making this work.
– Risk that only two players are back defending if midfield do not have the discipline to track back.
– Possible lack of support to the striker
Here’s what a group of youth coaches thought about the 2-3-1 (by the way, the issues in trying to get youth to adopt this formation are the same as for the adults):
2-1-2-1 – A defensive tweak
Very much like the 2-3-1, but this formation purposely splits the midfield into two attacking midfielders and a more defensive midfielder. Of course all of the midfielders are expected to play a part in attacking and defending, but this formation allocates more of a mix between the team: 3 of the team are more attacking, and 3 are more defending. This is excellent if your defensive midfielder is a good ball-player who can set up attacks as well as cover the defense.
+ Provides balance between defense and attack
+ Allocating a more defensive midfielder reduces the risk of all of the midfielders rushing forward without supporting the defense.
+ Wingers provide width.
– Risk of the team operating as two separate units – the front 3 in attack and the back 3 in defense – rather than one cohesive team.
– Defensive midfielder needs to be tactically aware and a good distributor of the ball.
And here’s what the youth coaches think:
1-1-3-1: Attack Minded
Perhaps you’re more attack-minded and you want to use a 1-1-3-1. This formation keeps one player well back to deal with the attacking threat, whilst the midfielders push forward as a group, keeping a defensive midfielder in a deeper position to support the defender if needed. Not the most popular formation, but one that is used by more attacking teams.
+ Focuses on attacking play – useful where a team expects to dominate the game.
+ Loads the midfield area with players.
– The lone defender will need to be very competent (and fast if possible) as defensive support is limited.
– Leaves a team open to the counter attack
Here’s the view from a youth coach:
3-2-1 – “The Tree”
A more defensive strategy. With three at the back this provides a solid foundation to build forward from. It isn’t supposed to be an entirely defensive strategy though. It can be made to be an attacking formation by pushing the full-backs on for attacks, or pushing the central defender into midfield on the attack (see ‘combinations’ below).
+ Provides solid defensive base on which to build.
+ Useful where playing against better / faster teams.
– Possible lack of support to the attackers
– Possible lack of width and forward passing options when breaking forward
Here’s what the youth coaches said:
Other mentions: the 2-2-2 and the 1-4-1
Other possible formations, but ones that don’t seem to be in common use are the 2-2-2 and the 1-4-1. In theory they are both perfectly balanced between attack and defense but neither of them seems to have caught on in popular usage.
The 2-2-2, appears not to provide much structured width, instead relying on the forward attacking players making the wide runs. But this could still be effective where players have enough positional discipline to make runs either forward or wide, and for other players to cover appropriately for them.
The 1-4-1 is an extension of that principle. If you have good enough players that can join in with the attack and the defense, and have the discipline to do both then then using 4 midfielders who switch between these tasks could be a viable option. Potentially, this provides the most flexibility and dynamism of all of the formations, although I suspect it will feel too unstructured for most.
Advanced Tactics – Blend these formations
The chances are that your 7 players are not going to move around the pitch the whole time in the above set formations. Players will get dragged out of position, need to help cover other areas of the pitch, and may find it useful to adopt different positions when attacking to add the element of surprise. So don’t make your formations too inflexible.
In a small-sided formation, it’s often more sensible to talk about using at least two different tactics. Don’t over complicate this, especially if you’re working with kids (no 10 year old is going to want a vast playbook of tactics), try to limit yourself to talking about two simple shapes: one that you use when defending and another for attacking.
This can be helpful for the players and, unless unrealistic expectations are placed on them, it should allow them to picture their defensive and attacking positions more effectively. Examples of this include the following:
This illustrates how a team might employ a more defensive formation in defense and adapt it to be more attacking when it is going forward. Here, when a team is defending, they play 3 at the back with two midfielders sitting in central positions. However, when defense turns into attack, the two midfielders go forward and wide to provide attacking options, whilst the central defender moves forward into midfield as a holding player. If you’ve got a strong, tactically aware, ball-player in that defensive position then this can be a very effective formation.
Here’s another illustration of how two formations can be blended. Whilst a 4-1-1 formation would be far too defensive for most teams to use for an entire match, this could be the shape that you want your players to take up when you’re defending deep in your own half. As soon as you’re on the attack, your wide players could then begin moving forward to support the attacking effort, making it an effective 2-1-3. Your midfielder would also push on, leaving your two core defenders ready to deal with any attacking threat. Of course this requires very mobile full-backs/ wingers, but can be effective with the right players.
Share your own ideas
Even though 7-a-side only has 6 outfield players, there are a lot of possibilities over how to set up your formation and tactics. There’s no one single solution; each team is likely to have their own specific needs depending on the abilities and understanding of the players. Getting things exactly right is going to take a lot of trial and error, as well as patience, but the benefits should quickly show when your team finally understand the system.
- What formation works for you and your team?
- Which formation is most difficult for your team to play against?
- What extra tips and tactics help you and your team get a winning edge?