For the younger ages of the California competitive leagues the boys have played in, sides are eight players each, and don’t move to the adult 11-a-side game until the spring season of U11. Ben is in his second season of 11-a-side, while Nathaniel has a few seasons of 8-a-side still to go. Since we try to be informed spectators of each, I thought it would be interesting to comment on the 8v8 formations as they relate to the adult formations.
Wikipedia’s coverage of soccer (“association football”) topics is extensive—covering players, club and national teams, tournament histories, and aspects of the game. The article on soccer formations gives an overview of both the historical development of formations and a summary of the current common formations. We’ll use it as a basis for identifying key adult formations; the article covers many more.
For formations with three rows, defenders–midfielders–forwards, an 8 player formation can be derived from an 11 player formation by subtracting one player from each row. Since the four row formations are refinements of the midfielders into a pair of sub ranks, we treat formations like the 4–2–3–1 and 4–3–1–2, as variations of the 4–5–1 and 4–4–2, respectively.
4–4–2 → 3–3–1
You’ll see a lot of teams playing the 3–3–1, as it’s the recommended 8v8 formation in the US Soccer curriculum. Although your striker has to work hard to apply pressure on his or her own, he or she benefits by being the focus of attacks up the middle. This formation has natural width and a well-populated midfield, although I haven’t seen many teams that encourage their outside defenders to make runs forward. (So we see many conservative 3–3–1 teams.) When your team moves up, you’ll find the 4–4–2 is one of the recommended 11v11 formations for U12 in the US Soccer curriculum. (Your striker may find the transition challenging, as they will have to pair with a peer, rather than be the single focus.)
4–3–3 → 3–2–2
The 4–3–3 is the other recommended 11v11 formation for U12 in the US Soccer curriculum, so it’s natural to hope that it’s 8v8 reduced form would be easy to use as well. However, the midfield and forward part of the resulting formation is narrow, meaning that it’s easy for opponents to find space to work through; against a 3–3–1, the 3–2–2 is at a numerical disadvantage in the midfield. I’m not sure I’ve seen any team line up in a 3–2–2.
4–5–1 → 3–4–0
Ben’s team in 2012 ended up playing in a 3–4–0 for much of their spring season. I believe what the coach was trying to address was the forwards’ tendencies to not come back on defense once possession was lost. The drawback is that, without a single striker occupying the defense (to maintain length), the opposing defenders can come forward and capture cleared balls easily. It’s also unclear which of the midfield is responsible for pressuring the opponent, although teams with good individual defensive instincts or training might enjoy the flexibility of having the closest player apply the pressure.
3–4–3 → 2–3–2
Wigan Athletic under Martinez in recent years stood out in the Premier League for playing a 3–4–3. Its reduction, the 2–3–2, might work as a tactic for a 3–3–1 team trying to bring more offense to bear in the final portion of a game. The two defender line will have to be very strong, or your keeper will be very busy.
3–5–2 → 2–4–1
Nathaniel’s team often plays in a 2–4–1 since they have a number of outside midfielders willing to run from goal line to goal line and cover the opposing outside forward when on defense. Risky like the 2–3–2 if the defenders aren’t strong and coordinated, although the extra player in midfield should stop the opponent from finding overloads as easily as they might against a 2–3–2.
5–m–n → 4–(m-1)–(n-1)
I haven’t seen anyone playing four defenders in 8v8, because we haven’t seen anyone willing to give up most of their offensive chances by clamping down defensively. (Most youth tournaments award points for goals scored, in addition to the game result, so losing 2–3 can be better than tying 0–0. In other areas, you might see youth teams happy to draw…)
Translating per-position comments
If you are trying to describe each position’s responsibilities in an 8v8, the key difference between the responsibilities in the adult formation and in the reduction comes from the change in each row from an odd to an even number of players. That can be made even simpler: the even-numbered rows need to be very clear about how to divide their coverage of the field (left-right or left-center left-center right-right), while the odd-numbered rows should find this allocation clear (solo or left-center-right). For some formations, positions are otherwise almost unchanged: the wide players in the 3–3–1 have the same responsibility to go forward as their counterparts in the 4–4–2. But, much like our striker in the 3–3–1 must learn to coordinate with a second striker in the 4–4–2, so will the central defender in a 3–m–n mesh with a partner in a 4–(m+1)–(n+1).