Picking The Perfect Starting Lineup

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Picking a starting lineup for a football match can be a difficult task for any manager. There are so many different considerations that must go into the decision of who starts any match. This can range 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.

YOUTH

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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 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 or over the course of the season. 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.

ELITE

Puzzle Pieces Soccer

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.

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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.

Perhaps one of the most important considerations at the higher levels of the game is determining how you want your team to play. If you want your team to play a possession based style of football, the players in the starting 11 should reflect that through their on-the-ball ability, passing range, vision and off-the-ball movement. For a more counter-attacking style of football, a bit more physicality in terms of speed and strength may need to be required. This is another example of how the starting 11 does not need to be the strongest eleven players, but the players who are going to achieve your intended outcomes for the game and fit best into your style and system of play for the match. Again, there are so many different considerations when picking the perfect starting lineup and this is why introspection and reflection are so important pre and post-game.

WHAT’S IMPORTANT TO YOU?

Another crucial element to picking the perfect lineup is deciding what characteristics of starting players you value most. I personally have seven key factors that determine playing time for me at the U13+ level. This includes:

  1. Effort
  2. Attitude
  3. Attendance
  4. Leadership
  5. Self-Belief
  6. Positional Strength
  7. Translation of Learning / Performance

I am constantly observing my players’ effort and attitude and ensuring that they are engaging with these two characteristics in a positive manner. All the players know that these two things (which are easily controlled by them) are what I value most and what will determine their playing time after U13. Setting that expectation is very important so the players know how they can earn more playing time and a place in the starting 11, rather than the players just thinking because they are talented that they will start no matter what and that their effort and attitude doesn’t matter. Leadership and self-belief are also two characteristics that I really value and so players who show great desire in both areas have the potential to play more. Attendance is equally important as it has the potential to demonstrate a willingness to improve. However the effort and attitude that a player demonstrates during a session is more important than their attendance. It’s all about what they are willing to give and how hard they are willing to work to achieve the intended outcomes. Attending a session is useless if the player isn’t willing to work hard, listen to the coach and learn. Finally, performance is a more obvious key factor and it is simply part of the seven because even players with the best effort and attitude might not always perform to their full potential, just like how the most talented players can also have games where nothing goes their way. When picking the starting 11, I might look to the performance of the players in recent practices or games. This goes beyond just their effort and attitude and extends to what they actually do with that effort and attitude and how they contribute to the team. Lastly, positional strength is also a very important consideration as for example your left-back might not be one of the best eleven players on the team, but might be the best in their position and therefore should be given the chance to start if they have the right effort, attitude and attendance.

The seven key factors listed above are what I value most and I encourage all coaches to think about what it is that they value most when picking their starting 11 or determining how much playing time various players accumulate.

FINAL CONSIDERATIONS

This article goes beyond the basics in helping coaches and managers decide on their starting players for a match. Many considerations have already been mentioned, such as level of opposition, style of play of opposition, your team’s style of play and formation, personnel available, injuries and suspensions and more. However here are some additional considerations when picking the perfect set of players to start a match…

  • Which players will bring something different or particularly necessary to the game and give the team the best chance at achieving our intended outcomes?
  • What type of player/personality do I need in each position?
  • What players should start as substitutes and why?
  • How much playing time should every player get & why? Are the starting players likely to get more playing time or less?
  • Can equal playing time be achieved?

Asking all of these questions will help coaches and managers more effectively pick the perfect starting 11. For more tips and tricks check out more articles in our Coaching section and follow @coachingtms on Twitter.

CONCLUSION 

There are many important considerations when picking players for a starting lineup. At the youth levels, coaches should remain as unbiased as possible and starting the first set of players that are at the match is a great way in order to do exactly that. At the higher levels, coaches should look to develop a framework of what characteristics they value most and then look to reward players who fall most in line with those characteristics. Considering who is available, known facts about the opposition and the impact that starting a match or not will have on a player are also very important details that should be looked at. This guide provides a framework on exactly what can and should go into determining a perfect starting 11. Feel free to reach out with any questions you may have on our Contact page. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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