When I started a school futsal club in 2010, I knew next to nothing about the sport. I had played a version of it in Santa Cruz, Bolivia on summer vacations as a youth, but this helped little when it came to teaching the game. Coaching education resources like books and videos were essentially nonexistent. The only way for a newbie coach in California, thousands of miles away from the knowledge centers of Barcelona, São Paulo and Rio, to learn futsal was to experiment during trainings. Like most beginning coaches, I gravitated to the 2-2 formation.
The 2-2 is a natural fit especially at the younger ages. When the keeper has the ball in hand, his teammates form a 2-2 square that fills out half the court. It’s an easy visual and seems more than logical. No one ever questioned it, and I developed all sorts of ideas on passing patterns and rotations. I even wrote a book on it. All the while our club hoisted trophies. I was quite pleased with myself. But then came The Conversation.
In July of 2016, Xavi Closas, the current Barça B head coach, was in town directing USA Futsal’s Elite 96 camp. The night before the clinic began, I sat down with Xavi, Spanish international José “La Roca” Ruiz, and the FC Barcelona staff, over a giant pan of paella and a bottle of Tempranillo. In all my naive glory, I brought a copy of my book to show off. Everyone flipped through the pages while patiently nodding their heads. Looking back, I’m shocked no one bursted out in laughter. Xavi graciously commented on the movement of the players. I was feeling pretty good. But then I just had to ruin my own party and start The Conversation.
“Xavi, how many clubs play the 2-2 formation in Spain?” I’ll never forget The Pause that came before The Answer. Xavi looked pained, and an awkward silence spilled over the room. “Well, well, I don’t think any clubs play it. Maybe the odd recreational club still does.” The walls of my futsal world came tumbling down. I then tucked my book away and waited for the moment to pass. For the next half hour, I stuffed my face with paella and didn’t utter another word. Humiliating doesn’t begin to describe it. And yet, it was the most instructive moment of my coaching career.
From that point, I only trained the 3-1. The first two months were unbelievably frustrating as I had to rewire the players’ thinking and my own. A few months later, notebook in hand, I attended a coaching workshop in Barcelona led by Xavi. Futsal specific versions of rondo, numbers-up, tag, and small sided games filled the pages. Over time it became clear how superior the 3-1 and a curriculum dedicated to creating problem solvers, was. The fluidity of the play, the ease of rotations, the ability to attack the space along the sidelines, all became clearer. This didn’t mean we suddenly won every game. Far from it. But it did mean our players were processing the action at a higher level. They were learning to analyze and act while still having fun. As a coach, you can’t ask for much more.
In 2010, there were countless youth soccer articles and blog posts on how punting the ball and not building from the back was detrimental to the growth of the US player. In the Bay Area, most clubs still punted the ball. It was a proven, winning strategy. K to 9 often led to quick goals if your striker was bigger, faster, and stronger. A decade later, clubs that punt are the exception. Most teams especially at the MLS/DA level now attempt to work the ball out of the back. I suspect the 2-2, like the punt, will eventually go away. And the kids will be better for it.