All soccer fans are accustomed to popular formations in the classic 11 v 11 game. Whether it is the age-old 4-4-2, or the Mourinho-esque 4-3-3, or the somewhat forgotten 5-3-2 with a sweeper sitting behind the two center-backs.
Tons of analysis is done on 11 v 11 formations and how the positional set-up can sometimes grant an underhanded team advantage over a better opponent. The same level of scrutiny, however, is not applied to the 9 v 9 version of the game. It is understandable from a general standpoint: there simply isn’t enough global wide-spread interest. It is, however, worthwhile exploring the different set ups in the 9v9 formations.
The 9 v 9 game is primarily played in low-age leagues, U12 or U13. Studying the tactical set-ups in this version of the game is exciting, as it involves the transition of young players from free-ball footballers, to team footballers. It allows them to understand the importance of positional play in soccer, and the lessons from these can definitely be carried onto the adult version of the game (11 v 11).
General Set Up
As with the 11 v 11 game, 9v9 soccer formations are generally made up of four lines of players:
- The Goalkeeper occupies the last line of defense, in between the goalposts.
- A defensive line made up of 2 or more players.
- A midfield line.
- A forward/strike line.
Soccer is a dynamic sport, so the lines aren’t meant to be rigid (i.e. defenders can attack, attackers can and should defend), but instilling the importance of general positions in young players is essential. If you are a central defender, your primary responsibility is to defend at the back, and not rush to the wings to receive the ball. At this level, the emphasis on soccer being a team sport is drilled into young players.
There are tons of permutations on how you can set 9v9 formations in a soccer game. I focus on some of the base set-ups that can then be tweaked to make the most of players’ strengths and weaknesses.
The Classic (3-3-2)
This is likely one of the most common 9 v 9 soccer formations. It mimics the very common 4-4-2 in the 11 v 11 version of the game, taking away one player each from the defensive and midfield lines. The diagram above indicates the general or average position of players, but players are free to move in between these lines depending on the spell of play, while keeping in mind their primary responsibilities and positions.
- The 3-3-2 is a neutral formation, not overloading any particular line in the pitch. It is primarily for coaches/teams that do not want to complicate things, and do not have a thorough idea of their best players and systems.
- It is a good formation for teams that have strike partners who combine well with each other, and lead the line from the front.
- For offensive teams with a good defensive midfielder, the left and right midfielders can move about the central player, allowing dynamism in attack and defence.
- Also a good formation for teams that do not have “dribblers” or pacey players, as the three lines are all occupied by at least 2 players, allowing for passes to be played without covering too much ground.
THE WHY NOTs
- The neutrality of the formation can be a disadvantage. The midfield line may not always have clarity on whether to support the attack or the defensive line.
- Doesn’t always work to players’ strengths. If your wide midfielders are pacey and can dribble, playing them wide in the front line with one forward may be a better option.
- Against teams with a lone striker and a heavier midfield, this formation can lead to being outnumbered in the center leading to loss of midfield control.
- Can lead to isolation of the two attackers in case the midfielders are forced back by the opponents.
The Lone Front-Man (4-3-1)
The 4-3-1 allows teams to play with a back four, which is the standard for most teams in top tier football. The two center-backs are supposed to hold the back-line, while allowing the full-backs to alternate between attack and defense depending on the quality of the opposition, and the phase of play.
The central midfield (CM) player can play a slightly different role here relative to the 3-3-2. Given they now have two center-backs behind, they can focus more on finding passing lanes for the wide players, and the lone frontman. The CM is still essential to defense but performs his defensive duties higher up the pitch.
One of my favorite things about the lone front-man formation is the ability to incorporate width and pace. The wide midfielders (LM and RM) can focus more on pouncing forward in transition, with the consolation that they have full-backs covering the wide defensive zones that may be exploited by the opponent.
Various types of strikers can fulfil the forward role in the 4-3-1. I have two favorites:
- If you have wingers who can cross well into the box, a target man (someone like Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Edinson Cavani) can be fantastic.
- If you wide midfield players who prefer to dribble with the ball and attack spaces between and behind the defenders, a more dynamic forward (someone in the mould of Sergio Aguero) can work wonders. The combination between mobile wingers and strikers can be deadly as they can move in and out of each other’s spaces making it tough for defenders to mark them.
- Great formation for teams with players who are fast and good with the ball. Consequently, also a great counter-attacking formation, with four at the back, the CM allowing for quick transitions, and the wide players supplying the lone front man.
- Good defensive coverage in the backline. The full-backs cover the zones attacked by opposition wingers. Unlike the 3-3-2, the defensive duties of midfielders in the last line are limited.
- Good set up for a team with a target man who can receive and put away crosses, and who can hold up play to allow time for the central line to get involved in the play.
THE WHY NOTs
- Like the 3-3-2, it is easy to get outnumbered in the midfield with three midfielders. Even more so in the 4-3-1 as the wide midfielders are more likely to attack the wide spaces. Requires a defensive midfielder who is composed on the ball and can make long-range passes.
- If you come up against a team that defends their wide areas well, it may lead to stagnancy for the wide players, and isolation for the front-man as their supply lines are cut.
- With a back four in a 9-player team, you may be limited to only four players in attack (and three if the central midfielder is static), which can make it hard to penetrate the opposition.
The Lone Front-Man Holding (3-1-3-1)
A variation of the 4-3-1, the 3-1-3-1 adopts a back-three with a defensive midfielder sitting on top of them. The 3-1-3-1 allows the midfield three more attacking freedom compared to the 4-3-1, as they can rely on the holding midfield player to cover the back line from the midfield. It also allows the central midfielder to advance during attacks knowing there is a holding player covering the back line.
As with the 3-3-2, the back three opens up room for the opposition to attack with width. However, if the wingers are drilled in tracking back, and if the defensive midfielder is vocal and demands the wingers to track back, the attacking threats can be nullified.
Even more so than the 4-3-1, the 3-1-3-1 allows a coach to utilize attacking talent, particularly if there is a holding player that is comfortable on the ball, and willing to do the dirty work of cutting up opposition play.
- Talented attacking players can express themselves fully while not being too pegged down by defensive duties. Granted, the wide-men still need to cover the side spaces to nullify the wide threat from the opponents, but they can still rely on the defensive midfielder marshaling the defense from a slightly advanced position.
- With a talented defensive midfielder, this formation can allow for good possession dominance, and old-fashioned wing play.
- The central midfielder can play a number 10 role, allowing the striker to drift further forward in attacking moves, and become a target for the wingers. This also relies on the defensive midfielder covering the center of the park.
THE WHY NOTs
- Relies very heavily on the holding midfielder to perform defensive duties and quick transitions during an attack. If a team does not have a multi-talented defensive midfielder, this can increase the demands on the attacking line, nullifying the attacking advantages of this formation.
- WIth a back-three, the wide spaces can be exposed to opposition with good wingers in their squad.
- Can lead to isolation of the lone front-man if the team is pegged back by the opposition.
The Heavy Midfield (2-4-2)
The 2-4-2 is an ideal formation for teams that want to dominate the possession. Overloading the midfield with four players either side of two attackers/defenders, allow teams to retain possession in the middle of the park, and try to cut attacking moves higher up the pitch. This formation requires midfielders who are comfortable and patient with the ball. One-touch play is common in this formation in the middle of the park. The midfielders try to drag the opposition out of position, and create a chance for the two forwards up-front.
While the intention is to dominate possession, the two wide midfielders also have to pay heed to the defensive line when the opponents have the ball. With just two center backs in front of the goalie, the wide-men may have to track back in defensive situations to deal with wide threats, in order to avoid stretching the center backs.
Similar to the 3-3-2, you want your strikers to combine well in a 2-4-2. Think partnerships like Yorke-Cole at Manchester United. In addition, given this formation lends itself to a possession based approach, both strikers must be willing to go deep to support the midfield with keeping possession, and make smart and well-timed runs to take advantage of any openings created by out-of-position opponents.
- Good formation for teams who like to keep the ball and are comfortable with it. Also works for teams that have a dynamic midfield, playing quick one-touch passes while dragging opponents out of position.
- Works well against open and less compact opponents, as it allows the overloaded midfield to penetrate the back-line with passes to the front two.
- Enables teams to keep the ball for long periods in the game and wear the opponent out.
THE WHY NOTs
- When opponents are compact and comfortable without the ball, teams may need to adjust to a Plan B, as the 2-4-2 may lead to pointless retention of the ball in the middle of the park.
- This formation may also be vulnerable for exploitation by quick counter attacking sides with width, as they may attack the undermanned back line via a quick transition. This makes retaining possession all the more important.
- Center backs need to be hyper aware positionally; drifting to the wide areas of the defending line exposes massive holes in the center and puts a lot of pressure on the solitary remaining center back. They also need to communicate effectively with the midfield, ensuring defensive duties are carried out effectively and efficiently.
The All Guns Blazing (2-3-3)
This is an option for a team loaded with attackers, and have an “offense is the best form of defense” mentality. I’m not the biggest fan of this, as I believe defense is an equally important (if not more important) part of the game. However, this is an option when a team is very underhanded in defence, or if they are coming up against a weak opposition where an all-out-attack will give them an advantage.
All three lines of def-mid-att in this formation are further up the pitch. This means that defensive duties are carried out by pressing higher up the pitch and retaining possession. The goal becomes to limit the opponent to their defensive half as much as possible, and run riot when in possession. With 6/9 players in the attacking half, this formation sets itself up for a barrage of attacks.
The central midfielder may have to cover a lot of ground, both in defense and attack due to the advanced positions of the rest of the midfield and the forward line. So you need a player with lots of stamina and the ability to read and intercept opposition play.
- Great formation if you’re coming up against a weak opposition. My recommendation is to adopt the formation for the first hour of the game to get an upper hand. If a comfortable lead is established, you can revert back to a more balanced formation.
- Allows for high pressing forcing opposition to turn over possession quickly, if the pressing is done consistently. The team can dominate possession.
- Combination of pressing and number of attackers can throw the opponent off and put them under immense pressure.
THE WHY NOTs
- Against quality or compact opposition, this formation is extremely vulnerable defensively. If the high-pressing is not done effectively, opposition can attack the spaces behind the halfway line without needing too much possession.
- Places high defensive demands on the central midfielder and the two defenders behind him in counter-attacking or transitory situations. You need lots of legs in those three players to cover ground.
- Tough formation to sustain over the full length of a game, and even over a season as it involves quick and constant movement of players. Hence the recommendation to only use this for specific games, and even just for specific parts of games to gain an advantage, before reverting to a more balanced formation.
The Well-Balanced (3-4-1)
While I would use many of the above 9v9 formations, the 3-4-1 tends to be my default go-to option when I either don’t know the best combination of my team or in the case that I have a good balance of attacking and defensive players. I like a team that’s balanced going forward, and in defending, and I believe this formation provides just that.
In defence, the back line of three can be well covered by the two central midfielders if excessive demands are placed on them. If you have dynamic wide players, they may also help out with defending and cover the wide threats. However, given the two central midfielders defensive cover, the two wide-men can also be a bit more liberal with attacking.
Up front, you can either have a target man, or a more mobile striker, or someone who’s got a bit of both (like a Harry Kane). If you have a pure target man, you can easily play route-1 football with this formation while keeping your defensive shape. If you have someone more mobile, they can interchange with the midfield dragging the opposition defence out of position, and creating space for the attackers.
What I like about this formation is that it’s balanced, but it is versatile. Given a weaker opponent, you can give your wide-men license to pounce forward, alongside the more attacking central midfield player, while leaving behind the other one for defensive cover (it becomes a 3-1-3-1). When you come up against a better team, you can stay compact and maintain your midfield and defensive lines, making it hard to concede many chances. Yes, there is a risk of isolating the front-man in this case, but you can always prepare the team to be alert for the attacking opportunities, even if they are rare.
- Well balanced formation allowing both defensive and offensive duties to be performed without stretching any one player.
- Versatile formation, allowing for simple tweaks to pivot into an offensive or defensive set up, depending on the opponent, and the period of the game.
- Four players in midfield enable the team to control possession as well, if they are comfortable with the ball.
THE WHY NOTs
- Can become a “boring” formation if players get comfortable in their lines. In order to attack, midfielders must look for spaces and run into them, rather than just maintaining their lines.
- Similarly, if attacking routes aren’t sought, the striker can become incredibly isolated, especially if they are more of the target-man mould, resulting into the effective loss of one player.
- May suppress talent that is expressive on the attack. While there is licence to roam about in this formation, the point of the line of 4 midfielders is to maintain a defensive shape that is hard to break down. For natural attackers, this may represent a hindrance to their individual talents and abilities.
The 9v9 formations in this version of the game present an opportunity for coaches to inculcate the importance of positional and team play in youth players. Soccer is a team sport at the end of the day; individual progress doesn’t always equate to team progress.
The end goal of a soccer match should be to win the game for the team, as opposed to individual goals and accomplishments. In some instances, players may have to sacrifice individual glory for the sake of the team, and that is OK. The converse however, is not. There is no point to sacrificing the good of the team for individual glory, as that never leads to any sustained success.
It is therefore essential, to introduce youth players to formations and tactics, albeit gradually, in the 9 v 9 game. There should be education on the variety of different set ups a team can play with, depending on the opponent, or the period in the game, or the squad available to the coach. Some circumstances may require teams to go all out, in which case you can adopt the “all guns blazing” formation. Other situations may require teams to shut up shop, in which case “the lone frontman” 4-3-1 may be the option to go with.