Picking your starting lineup for a football match can be a difficult task for any manager. There are so many different considerations from fitness levels to injuries to work ethic to commitment to your opposition to the way different players mesh together or fit into the intended style of play. This guide aims to help coaches and managers know how to pick the perfect starting eleven for any match.
In youth sports, a great way to pick your starting eleven is to simply choose the first players to arrive to the game. Playing time at the youth level should be equal anyway so the starting lineup should not be an overly stressful consideration. As a youth coach, I like to start the players who show up to the field first. Showing up early not only sends a message that you as a player want to be there and are committed to playing at the competitive level but also that you are taking the necessary steps to be ready in time to start the match. Who is going to be more game-ready when the referee’s first whistle blows: the player who arrived an hour before the match or the player who came walking in ten minutes before? It’s an easy answer.
You could also pick starting players based off of effort, work ethic and attitude in the previous practice. That way players still get the idea in their head that the starting lineup is based on how much effort they put in and as a result will be more motivated to perform at a higher level. However, with that kind of method, biases start to come into effect. Work ethic, unlike arrival time, is subjective and biases will come into play. In youth sports you want to remain as unbiased as possible when coaching. This is why picking players that come to the field first is such a great system. Because that way your starting lineup is in the hands of the players (and the parents that drive them to the games) and previous biases are almost entirely avoided. If you want to base your starting lineup around the previous practice, perhaps pick the players who arrived to practice first or stayed the longest after the session to help the coach or continue practicing their skills.
However, if picking players for a starting lineup at the elite level, obviously talent and the personnel of your squad is the biggest consideration. However, understand that your starting eleven is a puzzle and that every piece of that puzzle has to mesh together. Certain players might be second or third choice in their position in terms of their ability, but might edge out those that are more talented simply because they fit the system or offer the team the necessary balance and symmetry required.
One key consideration in developing this perfect puzzle is in being aware of your opposition’s strengths and weaknesses, the system they play and how you plan to break them down. If your plan is to exploit wide areas, you shouldn’t be deploying wingers who like to come inside. If your plan is to play long-balls high up the field, you shouldn’t be starting your slowest and smallest player up front. It’s all about finding the right balance and discovering the puzzle pieces that fit together in the best possible way.
Equally crucial to understanding your opposition’s strengths is being aware of what makes your own team tick. The best central defender on your team might also be the slowest player on the team, which would mean they need to be paired with someone fast. Similarly, a player might get into the starting lineup through their role in allowing other players to flourish. With all due respect, Olivier Giroud was not the most talented player in France’s World Cup 2018 squad. But by playing in a specific target-man like style, he allowed his team to get the best out of ultra-talented players like Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe. Similarly, pairing a ball-winner in N’Golo Kante and a ball-player in Blaise Matuidi allowed France to get the best out of the silky smooth dribbler Paul Pogba, who was brilliant at the tournament. With an example like France’s 2018 World Cup winning squad, it’s easy to see how picking a best eleven is all about finding the puzzle pieces that fit together in the best possible way.
Now this may be difficult in analyzing your own team, but it comes through practice. You might have to try several different formations or several different personalities in different positions. But once you achieve that perfect balance, the team will flourish and you will feel like one incredibly accomplished coach.