PYSL Strategy

A Game of Thirds

When talking about the game of soccer, it is often advantageous to talk about the field in terms of Thirds. Good teams seem to play differently in the three Thirds.

Back Third or Defensive Third

This is the area between the goal line and about 40-45 yards out from the goal being defended.

Offensive Considerations

  1. This is the area of the least amount of risk.
  2. Any defender within five yards of the ball considered to be applying pressure.
  3. Passing is the preferred method of relieving pressure.

Defensive Considerations

  1. Be very patient defending.
  2. Do not tackle unless absolutely sure of winning the ball or when supplied with immediate cover.
  3. Close up space near and in front of the ball.
  4. Special Note: "Let other team take the risk."

Front Third or Attacking Third

This area extends between the goal line being attacked and about 30-35 yards out from goal.

Defensive Considerations

  1. Risk everything to try to win ball back.
  2. Immediate chase.
  3. Most goals are scored in soccer when the ball is regained in the offensive third of the field.
  4. Gamble, guess, try to intercept passes; try to tackle; try to force mistakes instead of waiting for the other team to make a mistake.
  5. Do not foul...this allows other team an easy clearance.
Offensive Considerations Play with the most risk because the gains are high if successful. If unsuccessful, still have the whole field to defend.
  1. Risk Interception.
  2. Frequently wait until last second before passing; draws defender as far away from goal as possible.
  3. Need to try passes that go very close to defenders; limited space to work in.
  4. Risk Tackle.
  5. When dribbling, try to get defenders to commit by perhaps showing ball and taking it away.
  6. Goals are gained when teams willing to take a chance; try dribbling past individual defenders.
  7. Be comfortable with the idea of losing the ball; take risks; realize that this is the worst part of the field to have the ball if you are defending, so do not be afraid of them gaining possession.

Middle Third

This is the area between the back and front thirds; the considerations of risk and safety are basically an equal mix in this area, in both attack and defense.

  1. Do not want to swell in the middle third; always looking to play the ball forward.
  2. Do not force the ball; may mean changing the point of attack, switching fields.
  3. Look for or try to create the most space, then attack it.
  4. Willing to lose possession going forward more than while trying to maintain possession.
  5. If players cannot play the ball forward then try to get the ball to someone who can.

4-4-2 System of Play

The 4-4-2 system is the most popular in today’s game. It consists of four defenders, four midfielders, and two forwards. At first glance one might think that this system would limit scoring due to the lack of forward power. This is not always true. In this system, the midfielders and outside defenders are much more active in the offensive attack, thus resulting in goals.


Defenders in this system can play in many different ways. They can play in the diamond formation, much like they would in the 4-3-3 system. They can play flat across the back of the field in a line (flat back four). They can play in an arc shape, eliminating the stopper position and forming a double sweeper. They can also play three flat across the field with the sweeper hanging behind in the middle ready to clean up any mistakes. Which way you want to set up your players depends a little bit on personnel and comfort. As far as responsibilities go, they are very similar to the responsibilities the defenders have in the 4-3-3. The only difference occurs when you play in the arc with a double sweeper or if you play the flat back four. In these cases the position of stopper is eliminated and you are left with two players that fulfill the role of sweeper. Generally you will use one of your sweepers as a strictly man marker. You pick the opposing teams best attacker and have your extra sweeper mark him all game long. Other than that, the defensive roles are all the same.


Midfielders of the 4-4-2 consist of four athletes: The right and left midfielders still exist and carry out the same duties as with the 4-3-3 but a new member of the midfield moves in. This addition to the midfield plays in the middle of the field along side the center midfielder. The two become an offensive/defensive duo and do their best to hold the middle of the field and control the game. Often one player will take the role of the attacking midfielder and the other the role of the defensive midfielder, although those labels are not branded in stone. These two midfielders may swap roles as long as they communicate and let the other know when a switching is going to occur. These four midfielders start looking a bit like the defensive diamond mentioned in the 4-3-3. Because the middle of the field is now occupied with two central players, the defense can afford to eliminate the stopper position, due to the excess help in the central midfield. The attacking midfielder is expected to also step up the other way and help produce some offensive scoring power, though now that the extra forward slot has been removed.


Forwards in this system consist of only two athletes. These two athletes have a very unique job. They must work together the entire game, rarely separating themselves by more than 10-20 yards. Together they must work to close off angles and defenders from clearing the ball out of the defensive areas. These two forwards must become so comfortable with each other that they can predict where the others next move will be. It is very important for these players to be fast and agile. It is important that these two players be in fairly good shape. Now that there are only two of them up front, they must pick up some of the slack for the missing third forward. The attacking midfielder, as mentioned above, should also help pick up some of the slack but the responsibility of scoring goals is still that of the forward so they must really work hard and work together to accomplish their goal.


The 4-3-3 consists of four defenders, three midfielders, and three attackers. At one time this formation was the dominant style of play for teams at all levels. Currently it is a formation that is being used for younger groups of athletes just starting to play the game. It is the easiest and least complex system to learn, understand, and play within. Lately, due to the lack of scoring in American soccer this system is making a slight comeback in higher ranks, yet still plays second fiddle to the very popular 4-4-2.


The defensive positions consist of a left and right fullback, sweeper, and a stopper. The left and right fullbacks play in front of the goalkeeper and behind the midfielders on their respective sides of the field. The sweeper plays in the middle of the field and is the very last defender. The only player behind him is the keeper, so this player needs to be very reliable. The stopper also plays in the middle of the field. The stopper is positioned approximately 10 yards in front of the sweeper. The correct shape for these players should be the diamond shape.


These two positions are probably the most varied in the game when it comes to skill level. What I mean by that is, at younger ages (5-12) these players should focus mainly on defending their side of the field and clearing the ball when necessary. They are responsible for sending balls long into space for the forwards to run onto as well as looking to play the ball into the feet of open midfielders. Speed is not that essential for outside fullbacks at a younger age. Now as the level of play increases (13 through college) the outside fullbacks become much more than just defensive players. These outside fullbacks become essential members of the offense making runs up the sideline, at appropriate times, and looking for crossed balls for scoring opportunities. They can also carry the ball down the sideline and look to get crosses in themselves. In this case it is important to have speedy outside fullbacks. They must be able to get up ands down the field very quickly in case of a counter attack. It is very important that outside fullbacks do not get carried away with the amount of offensive runs. They must judge the opportunity and only go on the occasions they feel they will actually result in them touching the ball or taking a shot. If an outside fullback makes too many unproductive runs, they run the chance of getting tired and not being able to get back and defend their goal, like their job description indicates.


The sweeper position is one of the most crucial positions on the field and should be manned accordingly. A sweeper needs to be smart, fast, skilled, and very comfortable with his/her abilities. Because they are the last line of defense they very rarely make offensive type runs. Their job is to control the back. They are the leader of the other three defenders and it is their job to back the other three up at all times. If is the opposing team is coming down the right side of the field the sweeper needs to be ready and able to back up his right fullback should they get beat. The sweeper needs to do it all. They must be able to clear the ball, send the ball to open space for the forwards (generally aiming for the corner flags), clear balls out with their heads, control the other defenders, stop breakaways from happening as well as work with the keeper in setting up defensive situations such as corner kicks, free kicks, etc. The sweeper is an extremely important position. This cannot be emphasized enough.


The stopper is generally a bigger player. Speed is not a must here but one thing that is important is a must for consistency. This player must do things the same way constantly and not be sporadic. I say this because if they get beat in an unexpected manner, their only safety net is the sweeper who will most likely be so caught off guard by the mistake that they too will miss the ball and a breakaway occurs. This player’s role is to simply stop attacks from happening. He/She is to strip the opposing team of the ball and distribute. The stopper is not a playmaker or a showboat. He/She is the simplest player on the field. Win possession of the ball and get it to another player on your team. Although his/her tasks are limited, the stopper is still an extremely important position.


This system consists of a left, right, and central midfielder. These three players are generally the nucleus of your team. They are always in the middle of things and more often than not create most of the team’s scoring opportunities. Midfielders must be able to play great defense as well as offense. These players must be versatile and very athletic.


The left and right midfielders should be the most fit players on the team. They will be asked to do an awesome amount of running during the course of the game. They must support the forward in front of them and compliment the defender behind them to be successful. These two players are often the ones who cross the ball in and around the goal. They must have strong legs and be very unselfish when it comes to scoring. They should not be shooting too much from their corners of the field. If they do wander into the middle of the field then they should be ready to shoot, but in most cases they will be running up and down the sideline hitting crosses in for the forwards to convert into goals.


The center midfield player should be the most talented player on the field as well as the athlete with the hardest work ethic. Everything should essentially work through him and his presence must be known by all. He is responsible for switching the field of play from side to side, setting up forwards for shots, winning all 50/50 balls, playing great defense, shooting from distance and basically playing the role of “player coach” while on the field. He/She must be a very vocal leader and instructor. The center midfielder has an advantage over every other player on his team, that being he is closer to every other player than anyone else. He/She can turn 360 degrees and should always have someone within 10-15 yards away to pass to. They also have the opportunity to play the long ball into space for on-running forwards. This position is the most crucial and should be looked upon as so. This position is generally held by one of the captains on the team.


They are very similar to the midfielders in that they play straight across the field in a right, center, and left forward. There is a grave misconception about the forward position. Many believe that you are only an effective forward if you can score goals. Scoring goals is obviously an incredible attribute but a forward who sets goals up and collects assists is also very valuable. Some of the greatest forwards in the world are the ones who set big time goal scores up for all of their goals. That behind the scenes forward is important.


These two forwards should always be looking to score. Their first thought should be to shoot, but their second thought should always be, is there a better way. These forwards are often the ones setting plays up. Often times the angles on goal that these players run into don’t equate into quality shots. Because of this they simply pass the ball towards the middle and allow the center forward to finish the job. These players should be good dribblers, and have at least one solid move that they can use to beat defenders. Speed is a nice attribute to an outside forward, but good skills can replace speed sometimes.


This player should be the team’s best shooter. The center forward will be, or at least in theory, should be shooting the ball more times than anyone else on the team. This player should be fast and crafty with the ball. His/her small ball skills should be excellent. They should be able to dribble and control the ball very close to their bodies and work well in tight places. More often than not, when coaching a team you will notice a player who just seems to have a knack for the goal. That is the player you want to play center forward. He/she should be the most selfish player on the field. This doesn’t mean that they never pass the ball, but it does mean when they have a mediocre shot, they take it. All other players should (most of the time) pass off mediocre shots but the center forward should always take the chance and use his/her abilities to the fullest.


This formation is often used by higher levels of competitors such as collegiate or professional teams. To be successful with this formation you must have exactly the right amount of talent. Because the talent is so precise to fit this formation, youth teams who randomly select players, often don’t have the luxury and talent to use this formation.


Defenders in this system consist of three athletes: a left fullback, right fullback, and a sweeper (center fullback). These defenders must stay tightly together, no more than 10-25 yards apart from each other at all times. They form a slight triangle in shape with the sweeper nearest his own goal. That means, from left fullback to right fullback the distance should be no more than 50 yards. These three fullbacks must work together, sliding back and forth across the field supporting each other and making sure that all attackers are accounted for. Generally, the two outside fullbacks will mark the two opposing forwards “man to man” all game long, leaving the sweeper free to help out whenever necessary. Because there are only three defenders, they are much less likely to make offensive runs. Only if they are absolutely sure that they will score or assist in a goal should they make an offensive run and leave the man their marking. Again, this defensive strategy is only for the most skilled of teams and very confident defenders.


Midfielders in this system consist of five athletes. This formation allows for three central midfielders and two outside midfielders. Again, skill levels come into play here. This formation cannot be run by a team unless the skill level is excellent. With three players in the middle it is critical that they all have tight ball skills as well as communication skills. They must all work together in attacking, defending, maintaining possession, winning 50/50 balls, and controlling the overall pace of the game. These five midfielders can be murder on the opposing team if skilled, but they can also ruin a team’s chemistry and ability if not trained properly. It takes a very special group of individuals to create a successful five-person midfield.


Forwards consist of two athletes. These two athletes have a very unique job. They must work together the entire game, rarely separating themselves more than 10-20 yards. Together they must work to close off angles and defenders from clearing the ball out of the defensive areas. These two forwards must become so comfortable with each other that they can predict where the others next move will be. It is very important for these players to be fast and agile. It is also important that these two players are in fairly good shape. Now that there are only two of them up there they have to pick up some of the slack for the missing third forward. With the additional fifth player in the midfield, the forwards receive a little bit more help than they would from the 4-4-2 formation but still need to work together to produce.


The 3-5-2 system is definitely not for everyone. In fact it is not for the majority. It is good however to be familiar with it. Picking a formation is simply up to the coaching staff. You want to pick the system that will best exploit your talents and support your less talented individuals. Keep an open mind though when picking formations and don’t be afraid to try something totally new and unorthodox because who knows it could be the best formation yet.