It is widely accepted among coaching educators that young players must experience and learn to play in multiple positions (ideally, all of them – even Goalkeeper!) in order to become well-rounded, complete players.
I think this is wrong.
In order for players to become complete, well-rounded, decision-making, problem-solving, creative, and unpredictable players, they must learn to play with no positions.
Yes, this is crazy. Blasphemous. Unrealistic. Impossible. I hear the same responses all the time. Just because it is relatively unheard of, does not make it impossible, and certainly not wrong. After all, don’t we all remember Total Football?
Before I get into why positions are limiting, let’s explore why we use positions in the first place.
We use positions to organize our players and provide structure for them. Without this structure, they would be lost, right? They wouldn’t know where to go, they wouldn’t know what their job is. They couldn’t be held accountable for mistakes or breakdowns.
But do they really need it?
When kids play, is there much structure naturally? On the contrary, it is quite chaotic. And how many kids say things like “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do” or “where should I go?” during tag? Or how many kids do you see creating structure or organizing themselves or peers during play? The answer is few to none. Despite all the chaos and lack of organization, the kids know exactly what is going on – at least to the extent that is relevant to them.
Who is this organization and structure really for? I think it’s for coaches. It’s for the adults who cannot understand, see, or recognize the order and purpose within the chaos. We, as adults, need to feel like we have control, which prompts us to organize players in positions and give them specific (dare I say limiting?) jobs and roles.
Reason Two: To create tactical advantages
Coaches analyze their team – players’ abilities, tendencies, and strengths/weaknesses. Coaches analyze the opponent – abilities, tendencies, strengths/weaknesses. Then we play these chess games to try and counter one another. One coach notices a trend, then makes a change to counter it. Then another trend emerges, and a move is made to counter it.
But isn’t total unpredictability and limitless creativity the ultimate tactical advantage? How can a team counter something when they have no idea what is coming? How can they account for specific players when they have no idea where they are going to be?
If a team has players who can play in all areas of the field and are constantly evolving, they are virtually unstoppable.
But how can you do this when all your players are so different? How can you do this when certain players have a stronger understanding and knack for certain areas over others? Don’t you want them to be where they are strongest or most effective?
The answer is simple: develop them fully from the beginning, and the previous three questions are irrelevant.
I am convinced that the reason players grow to develop these vast variations in skills and understanding is all conditioned. We, as coaches and adults, condition them from day one. Have you ever started working with a young team – say U9 or U10 – and tried to play a match – even a scrimmage – without positons? If so, I bet that it was a struggle (I happen to know from experience that it can be quite challenging). Why do these players “need” the structure in order to play? Because adults have been conditioning them to think they need it. Or worse, conditioning them to not be able to think and figure out the chaos that is otherwise natural to them.
Consider this: Isn’t it commonly accepted that the most dangerous, creative players in the world developed such a style from their streets soccer days? It has been said by some of the most prestigious managers (like Arsene Wenger) that true attackers are a dying breed. That only Latin America is producing such dangerous players because that is where young players are still playing street soccer for much of their young lives. Suarez, Messi, Sergio Aguero, and Alexis Sanchez are some of the recent names that are often mentioned.
Think of playing without positions as guided street soccer.
Players are able to play anywhere and do anything within their technical abilities – they are not confined to an area of the field, and they can create situations that may very well be unheard of or unseen to this day. By playing in such an unpredictable environment, players are forced to constantly think and figure out what they should be doing. They are constantly understanding their surroundings, which are ever changing, and they must decide how to react. Players are forced to understand and recognize the principles of play to a greater extent than the above average soccer mind. Since their surrounding situation is always changing, they must understand how to use the principles of play to solve problems. If the player to their right moves up, what must they do to balance the space? How can they support that move – both in the attack and defensively?
Lastly, if players realize that they may have to perform any possible role on the field, they will be more inclined to improve and work on all their technical skills. If there is an increased chance that a player will have an opportunity on goal, he will more likely focus on being better at finishing. Conversely, if a player knows he may have to get back and defend regularly, he will work on improving tackling and containing. By creating an environment in which players need to be able to perform all technical skills, players will become more proficient technicians.
Players cannot and do no stray far from their given position, as they know that they will have to go back to that spot, and they are responsible for being in that area. The boundaries and options for each player only go so far. Although players will have to learn the principles of play and how to critically think, they only have to account for certain situations, or situations involving players in nearby/complimentary positions. For example, the right midfielder sees the right back with the ball, so he knows he has to get wide to support him. If, at some point, there were two “right midfielders,” players likely would not know how to adjust, as it is not a “normal” scenario. This often results in players only solving usual problems, but struggling to solve unexpected or uncommon situations.
From a technical perspective, one of two scenarios tend to emerge: players either begin to prefer positions or only improve certain skills. In the first case, they will only work on the skills they find necessary for their position – opting to just play those because they are supposedly better at them. In the second scenario, players first learn skills, primarily improving those that come easier or more naturally – which results in players becoming better suited for certain positons.
But don’t players need some sort of reference, something off of which to base their understanding? Like Mozart, who used previously composed works to help him create his own music at the age of three?
No. If players play “blindly,” the possibilities are endless. They do not have some preconceived idea of what their play is “supposed to” look like. By not having been exposed to the idea of structured positions, players can maximize their creativity. Perhaps Mozart’s music could have been even more groundbreaking had he been able to experiment without following the structure of others.
If this is such an effective way to coach, why don’t more coaches try to play without positions?
Unfortunately, I believe it is because coaches do not understand or know how to develop players this way. As I previously mentioned, we have a need for structure, organization, and control, so we have learned and only know positions, resulting in us coaching within that format. It is difficult to understand and recognize order within a chaotic or “unorganized” environment. Some coaches are also only familiar with certain positions and do not fully understand the principles of play. It’s not our fault – it is how we were developed. But we can all learn how to develop well-rounded, adaptable players.
Consider this as a way to make it possible: Instead of teaching positions, simply teach the principles of play. Let them play chaotically. Within the game, we can teach them about depth, width, transition, etc. If we focus on the principles, learning positons becomes easy – and quite possibly unnecessary – down the road.
Furthermore, consider the idea that more of us play this way than we realize. In fact, more of us understand it without realizing it. How often do you see older teams playing keep away or possession in a grid? 8v8, in a square, no directions. Players move all over the place. And they are often successful! This is a great sign that coaches can guide players this way and that players can understand it and translate it to a match. If we begin this way from the beginning – and yes, players are capable of it – the level of our players will increase dramatically by the time they are older, and their ability to translate it to a full-sided match is much more likely.
I understand that players develop differently from a physical perspective – something over which we have limited control. We will have faster players or taller players, and we often see them more useful in certain areas of the field. This is understandable, and within a non-positional scenario, they can spend most of their time in those areas. However, the unpredictability of the style of play will do far more damage to the opposition than simply having a tall striker or a fast winger.
My challenge to coaches: try to coach players at the U6, U8, U10 age groups without positions. 4v4 and 6v6 (5+Gks) are small enough and easy enough numbers for players to understand (even with having been preconditioned) how to play without positions and develop into complete, well-rounded, decision-making, problem-solving, creative, and unpredictable players.
What do you think? Have you played without positions with your teams and players?
–Zac Ludwig is currently the Academy Director at Tri-Cities Soccer Association in Chicago. Before this, his coaching career has seen him most recently as a Youth Coach with the New York Red Bulls
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