It can be easy to overcomplicate things when it comes to gameday tactics. But, as coaches, we should remember that our priority is not winning matches, but supporting the development of our players — and that our use of tactics can play an important role in this process. In this article, we discuss some of the key considerations when creating tactical plans, and how we can coach tactics within the context of youth football.

In This Article

Accounting For Our Players’ Needs

Before creating a tactical plan for our team, it’s important to consider the context of our players and coaching environment. “We need to look at the age and stage of the players first,” explains PDP Co-Founder Dave Wright. “For instance, whether you’re coaching 7-a-side, 11-a-side, or mini-football will obviously have an impact.

“With really young players, I’d stick to a couple of principles. Just getting them to make the pitch big and make the pitch small at the right moments is a good place to start. Ultimately, football is a game of space; it’s an invasion game where we’re trying to progress downfield. If kids can learn to receive beyond or between opposition players and lines from young ages, they’re going to be more tactically flexible in the long-run, because they’ll often find themselves with more space and time to play.”

Wright asserts that key principles should dictate our tactical approach, and advocates using positional games to help players develop these skills: “Cruyff said that every moment in the game, apart from goalscoring, occurs within a positional game. You have in-possession and out-of-possession work, as well as that transition moment. These games can hone players’ abilities to receive under pressure, in tight spaces, and progress the ball — and that transfers to gameday.

“Essentially, we need players to receive with time and space and try to face forward as often as possible. If our philosophy is based on that, what we do tactically can be pretty fluid.”

Giving Players Different Experiences

When determining tactics for our team, it’s also important that we remember to give kids a variety of playing experiences. “When teams are chained to certain formations or gameplans, the learning is quite limited, and it can be detrimental to players,” explains Wright. “If a kid gets to their late teens and they only know how to play in one formation, the system has failed them.

“Being fluid and exposing players to different challenges is vital. In his Masterclass with PDP, Andrew Watt [Youth Development Phase Manager at Fulham FC] discusses how the club has shifted from playing set styles through the age groups to an approach that gives coaches more autonomy, enabling them to use formations better suited to their players and their developmental goals. This type of outlook could be much better for the long-term development of our players.”

Wright notes that, by taking a less rigid approach to tactics, we can also manipulate team shape in order to give players specific challenges related to their development — for example, by selecting a player at fullback to give them more opportunities to make forward passes or runs, even if it’s not their regular position. “Tactical flexibility,” he says, “is only going to help the players develop.”

Working On Defensive Tactics

For coaches, the out-of-possession part of the game — where we’re trying to nullify the opposition, or perhaps counter-attack against them — often lends itself best to tactical work. “I definitely prefer to be more structured defensively than I am in-possession,” says PDP Coaching Advisor Dan Cooke. “A big factor in attacking success is the unpredictability of what’s happening, but if we’re very structured in our attacking shape or I’m telling the players exactly what to do when the ball’s in certain positions, we can limit creativity and become more robotic. So I’m less demanding in-possession than out-of-possession.”

According to Cooke, we can also let our opponents’ tactics inform our own tactical approach in order to create learning opportunities: “If you know how other teams are likely to play, you can structure your learning around that. For example, if an opponent likes to play more direct, we might focus on defending against long balls in the training sessions leading up to the game. If we’re smart, our opponents provide authentic learning opportunities throughout the year.”

The Benefits of Shared Ownership

Finally, like other areas of coaching, we shouldn’t be afraid to give players ownership when establishing how our team plays. “My coaching philosophy has always been centred upon shared ownership with players,” says Cooke. “I recognise that I don’t know everything, and I don’t want to limit players to my perceptions of the game. I also don’t want to limit the scope of what I see on the grass to my own perceptions.”

“Sometimes the questions and solutions that players come up with can be really thought provoking,” adds Wright. “If we have 20 players around us, that’s a lot of different ideas — we don’t have to be the font of all knowledge. Appreciating that can be empowering for both ourselves and our players.”

The Key Points

  • When working with young players, we should prioritise individual development and coaching key principles of the game.
  • It’s essential to give players experiences of different tactics and team shapes.
  • We should be less structured in-possession than out-of-possession, so as not to stifle our players’ creativity.
  • Accounting for opposition tactics can provide authentic learning opportunities throughout the season.
  • As coaches, we should empower our players and embrace shared ownership.

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