Tune Up Your 4-4-2
1. If your wing is just pushing up into the final 18 as close to goal as possible without the ball, it is a problem. You are probably losing your width in attack, and possible your depth as well. The player has killed his attacking space and must recover it by backing out of the space, dragging a defender with him.
2. If your wing is attacking with the ball to penetrate the area by dribbling, other attacking players should be dragging their marks wide and out from the goal to create space for the wing. This includes strikers, schemers, attacking Midfielders, and anyone else pushed forward. So, as the wing goes in, at least one other player should be coming out.
3. If your wing has crossed the ball and followed his cross in, consider asking him to keep width so that you have someone to play to wide to relieve pressure if your strikers can not hold the ball against pressure in the penalty area. Knowing that there is always a supporting player on the touch-line ready for a drop will help your strikers. From this wider position, recovery is easy.
4. Take a look at the recovery angle your wing is using. Many players initially recover wide toward the ball instead of directly to goal. You can remind the wing that the defending player always has one advantage over the attacking player - the defender knows where the attacker is going - to goal. Insist that the recovery angle be straight to goal and play small sided games to reinforce the importance of this advantage. For example, play 7 v 7 to goals, but put cones just inside the touch-line near the half-way line and add the restriction that attacking players have to run wide around a cone before entering the attacking half, and defending players are restricted to tackling in their own half. This allows defending players to race straight to goal and to experience the benefits of correct recovery angle.
5. Practice reorganizing your defense by rehearsing it at walking speed and then playing it at jogging speed. Stop frequently at the beginning and ask everyone to look around to see how the shape is looking. Don't just stop when it is wrong, compliment them when it looks good. It's really not the hard once you try it, and the kids can get really good at sorting things out. Your goal is not to mark up 1v1 everywhere. Your goal is to get pressure on the ball and to get a supporting player tucked in behind the first defender at an angle. Marking near the ball is 1v1, more or less, but changes to coverage of space as you move to the side away from the ball.
6. Hesitancy to attack means that you need to explain and rehearse both your crossing attack and your wing attack by running with the ball. For example, in crossing attack, the wings need to know, for example, how to read the position of the central defender and goalie to know whether to cross early, drive to the goal-line and cross later, and so on. These are all easy choices to make if you point out the simple visual cues. The choice of decisions you teach your wings and strikers will then define a lot about your style of play. I am saying that there is not always a right or wrong choice, but there are some choices that work better than others. Let me suggest a couple visual cues and choices that might work for your players in crossing attack.
a) Keeper stays on line, sweeper far from goal - cross early to space behind defense.
b) Keeper stays on line, sweeper comes out from goal - cross instantly to space sweeper is leaving.
c) Keeper stays on line, sweeper comes out from goal part way, stays along line of play between ball and goal - dribble to goal-line to bring sweeper close to goal-line, then drop pass on ground to D or penalty spot.
d) Keeper comes way out, sweeper not on line of play - shoot first time or dribble keeper and shoot
e) Defenders covering goal area, attackers making runs from 18 - lofted cross to the far post
f) Defenders and attackers all running to goal together, facing goal - driven ball to near post You can train these by walking through them with the kids. They have to see it, so they have to walk with you. They can't sit down and watch a demo, they have to see it from behind the ball. Then, ask them to jog through with a ball, one at a time, while you coach the sweeper and stopper to show different situations as described above in a) through f). Look to see that the kids are making the decision you want.
In a penetrating attack, the wing needs to know how to establish visual contact with the strikers so that, together, they can play off the marking backs and work together to get into the space behind those marking backs by change of position or by combination play. Getting the wing to be comfortable taking the striker's space and having the striker check out of that space can be started by showing, then doing with a small group and freezing activity, and then observed in small sided play.
I think once you give your wings a new set of attacking rules and roles, they will be more comfortable in the attack, and more willing to hold their runs until the best moment, lessening the chance that the ball will be played into the space behind them. With better recovery angles and with the discipline to recover killed space instantly, and with the whole team better prepared to change shape quickly, you will probably have less trouble and more success.
7. In a 4-4-2, the running demands on the wings are fairly extreme. Most folks who play out of this system ultimately count on the back side wing to make up for the wing who got beat on ball side. When the opponents play the ball into the space behind your outside right Midfielders, he must recover straight towards the penalty spot to take the sweeper's role. The sweeper has moved up to mark the striker nearest the ball, and your right marking back should have now moved forward to challenge for the ball. This leaves the left marking back to slide over to play sweeper or to stay with his mark, depending, until the outside left Midfielders arrives to cover space in the top left corner of your penalty area.
When the left Midfielders arrives, he has potentially a 1v2 situation against a striker and wing. As he is covering space, he's usually coached not to work to possess balls played into that area of the penalty area, but usually to clear safely.
So, there is a chain of defenders coming from the penalty spot, always supported by the next defender. Beaten defenders recycle back to the spot to then come outwards to the ball. This is not how it actually works in practice, but it is a stimulating mental model that the kids can understand that justifies a sense of urgency in their recovery runs and helps your team keep a very compact shape in defending and helps keep pressure on the ball, with support, always.
So, if your right side wing is getting beaten occasionally and your team is not getting numbers up, look to the other wing to make the appropriate recovery run. Finally, if you live by this, you will die by this if your wings are not disciplined to recover in this way. Your marking backs will change shape to cover 1v1 near ball, making up for the beaten wing, and there will be space to attack at the far side of your penalty area if your far side wing does not recover. A ball played square will find an attacking Midfielders running forward without one of your Midfielders attached, and bad things will happen.
8. With the speed advantage, make sure that when you counterattack you are not playing wide balls to wings when the flatness of the opposing team offers space behind that can be reached with a through ball or a chip. Many potentially great counterattacks are killed by a decision to play a ball out to the wing. Particularly from U15 and younger, many players do not have the strength to drive a ball out and back in less time than it takes a defense to recover shape.
If you have success with diagonal balls to your wings, then train towards crossing attack and all the options mentioned above. When that is working, start working toward setting up the killer diagonal ball with two or three short passes first to interest the opponents into gazing into your midfield. If your wing will have the discipline to hold back on the run, you can build some very nice space behind the wing's opponent that can receive the diagonal ball for your wing. Space, ball, player.