Currently, some variation of a 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 is employed most predominantly at the youth and professional level. Additionally, the transition to more club-based versus team-based organizations has lead to a similar formation from top to bottom of more and more clubs.
Aided significantly by U.S. Soccer's mandate of a flat back four for all Development Academy teams, zonal defending has become the standard with the sweeper-stopper becoming nearly extinct. Over the past few years the twin striker system has also started to disappear aided by the release of U.S. Soccer's Curriculum.
One of the true joys in coaching is the decisions we get to make during the match to give our players the best chance for success. And so it is no surprise - at least to me - that in this hyper-competitive world of youth soccer the sweeper-stopper is making a comeback.
First, it is important to understand how a zonal back four matches up with the two front system. Each center back has both a player and space to defend. Training was centered around 2v2 attacking and defending. If a team employed a simple man-marking system of defending both strikers were accounted for.
When defending with a sweeper-stopper, a third player was needed to mark the second forward and when one striker "marked" the sweeper he essentially took two defenders out of the game. The 3-5-2 with two man markers and a sweeper also became popular for this reason.
As more teams transitioned to a one or three-front system three things have happened.
(1) Teams that want to use a man-marking system are left with an extra player so he has naturally dropped back to provide cover to the back line.
(2) The lack of variety in the opponents formation has made it easier to prepare for an upcoming match.
(3) The 3 back system disappeared almost completely.
It has become easier for coaches that focus on results to return to a formation with 3 marking backs and a sweeper. It allows a level of accountability for each player to sort out their mark and it provides coaches the opportunity in training to spend more time in other areas instead of zonal defending. Players aren't asked to solve problems and the risk of poor communication is mitigated.
Another result of fewer sweeper systems over the past few years is they have become more difficult for players to attack. So much practice time has been dedicated to breaking a back four that the deep sweeper is seen less by our players and therefore initially more difficult to solve.
Finally, when utilizing a sweeper coaches are able to select a more athletic player who may be a multiple sport athlete who lacks the technical ability necessary for today's back line players and limited practices and/or games to learn the principles of defending.
As we finish out this World Cup cycle we will see another shift in formations and systems of play, but we can also learn from the last cycle.
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