PDP Co-Founder Dave Wright & PDP Technical Advisor Dan Wright discuss 9v9 formations in youth soccer

In many countries, 9v9 soccer represents the final step on the way to 11-a-side games. But while this game format is an opportunity to prepare players for larger-sided matches on bigger pitches, we should be careful not to neglect our players’ individual development for the sake of playing a specific formation. Instead of seeking the “best” 9v9 soccer formations, we might be better off thinking about the best formation for our team at a particular point in time. This will depend upon a variety of factors, such as our individual players and their developmental goals, our team philosophy, and any specific team outcomes we’re working on. Considering all of these elements is key to choosing a formation that will suit our players and support their development.

In this article

When do we play 9v9 soccer?

How to choose the best soccer formations for your team

Focus on the needs of your players

Think about your team’s philosophy

Prepare your players for 11v11

Should we play multiple formations?

The key points: Choosing the best 9v9 formation

When do we play 9v9 soccer?

In many countries, children play 9v9 soccer between the ages of 11 and 13, with the game format providing a valuable progression between smaller-sided games and 11v11 matches. Besides giving coaches additional opportunities to prepare kids for 11-a-side games, 9v9 soccer makes the transition more gradual for players, enabling them to advance to a bigger game format without being propelled into 11v11 soccer before they’re physically ready.

Historically, children in many countries have made the step-up to 11-a-side games at younger ages than they do now, often forcing them to play on pitches that are too big. “In recent years, governing bodies have looked at this and said ‘we have to make the game look more realistic for the age and stage of the player,’” says PDP Co-Founder Dave Wright, explaining how the need for players to cover distances that are huge relative to their size can make the game too physically challenging, shift too much focus from technical skill to physical ability, and even make the game less enjoyable for some players. 

“If we’re trying to expose players or get players more touches or more repetitions, we’re more likely to do that in small-sided games,” adds PDP Technical Advisor Dan Wright, talking about the value of smaller-sided games for both younger and older players. “When you look at an 11-a-side game, it’s very rare that all 11 players are involved.” This is a mentality also evident in the Belgian Model of player development, in which children start playing 2v2 games at U6s before making a very gradual progression to 11v11 at U14s.

9v9 Soccer can be a useful part of this approach, giving children a more appropriate challenge as they progress towards 11-a-side games and helping to prepare them for the eventual step up.

How to choose the best soccer formations for your team

Focus on the needs of your players

As coaches, we should always focus on the needs of our players and strive to take an individual approach to player development, even when choosing a formation for the entire team. According to Colchester United Performance Director Jon de Souza, “the ideal development environment should focus on a balance between the individual and the team,” and, with the right formation, we can meet our players’ needs while also teaching them about team principles.

As Dan Wright explains, the best formation “depends on how you want to play football, what the individual needs of the players are, and what types of players you have…  and then, maybe where they’re at in their journey: if you have individual learning plans and individual targets for them, then different shapes might stress them a bit more.” 

An example of this approach would be to help a player working on 1v1 defending by choosing a formation with only two at the back, thereby putting them in situations where they’ll do the most defending 1v1. Similarly, two center-backs in a 2-5-1 formation may find themselves overloaded when facing a team with a front three, giving them opportunities to practice defending out of balance. Different team shapes will lead to different learning outcomes for our players, and, with careful consideration, we can choose a formation that will help each of them work on their areas of individual development.

“The biggest focus has to be what those players need at that point in the season or at that point on their journey,” says Dave Wright. “We want to start developing environments which are focused on the individual — this is what happens in the best environments; where you’re looking at your players as a collective group of individuals. Then, how they tie together on game day and what their targets are is another challenge for coaches.”

As we gain a better understanding of the individuals within our team, it will become easier to identify formations that reflect our players and ensure that their technical needs are met. For example, in a group where we have two players working on central midfield targets — perhaps they’re practicing receiving the ball on the half-turn, or playing longer-range passes — a 3-2-3 formation works because we only have two players who need those midfield roles. But if we have three players developing those skills, we might opt for a 2-5-1, with the extra two midfielders playing as wing-backs or wingers. Ultimately, it’s a case of identifying our players’ individual needs and then looking for shapes that tie them together.

Think about your team’s philosophy

When choosing a formation for our team, we might also consider the philosophy that we’re trying to embed within our club. Whether we’re trying to play a certain style or develop a certain type of player, it could help to ask ourselves what our aims are, consider what this looks like at 11v11, and then think about how we can work backward from this point.

Dave Wright gives the example of a team working on counter-attacking and fast transitions: “3-2-3 would be a really good shape because you’ve got the opportunity to leave three players high at defensive set pieces and create the opportunity to counter quickly from that moment; you’ve got the opportunity to have three players up front in general play; and the two in the middle are going to be able to look at their range of passing if you’ve got two players high and wide. There are lots of outcomes within that individually.”

Likewise, from the back three’s perspective, if your team is counter-attacking and the full-backs are making forward runs, the center-back will probably find themself isolated at certain points, once again giving them opportunities to practice defending out of balance in game situations. In this way, a certain playing style or philosophy can feed into specific topics of learning, which can in turn be used to give your individual players an array of different learning outcomes.

As Wright summarizes, “it’s about looking at the individuals in the team, what the outcomes are, what the theme is, and tying that into your style of play.”

Prepare your players for 11v11

Given that 9v9 soccer is a valuable opportunity to prepare our players for 11-a-side matches, we may also consider linking our team’s formation to certain shapes or units within the 11v11 game.

“If your team plays three at the back at 11-a-side, or if it plays two central midfielders in a 4-4-2, it’s about trying to replicate those pictures,” explains Dan Wright. “A lot of my experience is with a 3-4-1, which is meant to replicate a 4-4-2 diamond; the four across the middle are two central midfielders who have to understand how to be a 4, an 8, and a 10 at the same time, with the [other] two playing as wingers, and then at times coming back and being wing-backs.” 

Some soccer positions in a 9v9 formation won’t necessarily replicate their equivalent role in an 11-a-side team, but that’s okay provided we’re still using those positions to help our players meet specific developmental goals. Wright acknowledges that, in the example above, the forward’s role is probably least similar to their role when playing in a 4-4-2 because they’re on their own, but this could instead give them valuable opportunities to practice individual possession in game situations and experience attacking when outnumbered.

By using our shape to work on certain relationships and smaller units within the team, we can also replicate some of the conditions that players will face when they progress to 11v11 in order to make the transition easier. “When discussing unit training we are considering a unit that’s position-specific within the team, for example, ‘defenders’ can be a unit, ‘wingers’ can be a unit, and so on,” explains PDP Coaching Advisor James Coutts. “[This] helps younger players with their game understanding. For instance, at a young age, defenders are taught 1v1 and 2v2 defending, however, are they taught defensive positional shape within a back three or a back four?” 

If we employ unit training in our sessions, we can also manipulate our team shape to give players more opportunities to practice in those units. “2-5-1 Is a formation I used a lot recently because part of the club philosophy was having a 4, 8, and a 10; we wanted that midfield-three and the players around it,” says Dave Wright. “The benefit was that you had that rotation of the three midfield players all the time… And when they were pushed into an 11v11 environment, that midfield three combination was quite natural to them.”

Should we play multiple formations?

It’s possible that, in identifying formations that support each of our players’ developmental goals, prepare them for the progression to 11v11 games, and complement our team’s philosophy, we find multiple formations that could be effective. There can be advantages to both playing the same shape so that our players really come to understand it and playing different ones in order to give them a variety of challenges and experiences. But if we play multiple formations, we must remember to be patient and give plenty of time to learn each new shape. Most children playing 9v9 soccer will fall in the 10-13 age bracket, and things that are tactically clear to us may be harder for a child to understand. “I would advocate giving it time for different shapes,” advises Dave Wright, “whether it’s a month of the same shape or a couple of months of the same shape, to let players understand how it works.”

It’s also worth remembering that we can adapt our team’s shape within a single formation. For example, in games that are less challenging, our team may take more risks, with players in certain positions pressing higher up the pitch and playing further from one another; in a 3-4-1, this might mean the full-backs playing higher and pushing the wingers closer to the forward, leaving a shape almost resembling a 1-4-3 when in possession. 

Likewise, when playing against stronger opposition, the team might have to be more compact, with the midfield-four reducing the distances between themselves. In this way, it’s possible to give our players a variety of learning experiences throughout the season, all within the same formation. “It’s just about keeping your shape and doing it slightly differently,” advises Dan Wright, who suggests that the learning focus is perhaps less about shape than it is about distances between players and relationships on the pitch.

We should also remember that 9v9 soccer isn’t the place for tactical masterclasses by coaches and that we shouldn’t reactively adjust our formations based on the opposition, or because we’ve lost or played badly in a game. Depending on our games program, we might decide to use one formation throughout the regular season and then experiment with new ones when playing in tournaments. But the priority should remain the individual learning outcomes of our players.

“It’s easy, as adults, to overcomplicate it,” concludes Dave Wright. “[But] we don’t want to overload all the time in terms of information.” There’s room to change things, but we must always remember why we’re coaching. Essentially, the formation we choose is simply another tool to facilitate our players’ development.

The key points: Choosing the best 9v9 formation

  • Our players’ individual development is key, and our team shape should enable each player to work on their own individual learning outcomes.
  • It helps to have a team philosophy. Think about how you would like your team to play or what kind of players you would like to develop, picture what that looks like at 11v11, and work backward from there. A good formation should tie our players’ individual goals and our team philosophy together.
  • 9v9 Soccer is a valuable opportunity to prepare our players for the 11-a-side game. We can use certain formations to replicate specific positions or units and help our players get used to on-pitch relationships that they’ll experience when playing 11v11.
  • If a player’s position doesn’t replicate the role we’re trying to prepare them for at 11v11, we can still use their position to help them achieve certain technical or tactical outcomes. For example, we cannot give a lone forward the experience of playing in a front two, but we can help them practice individual possession and attacking when outnumbered.
  • Youth soccer is not the place for a tactical masterclass. We’re not choosing a formation to beat an opposing coach or team, but to facilitate the development of our players.
  • We can give our players different learning experiences within the same formation; by encouraging kids to play certain positions differently depending upon the challenge they face in a game, we can give them a variety of learning opportunities over the course of a season.
  • It’s easy for adults to overcomplicate things. We should remember that an idea that’s tactically clear to us might be less simple for a child. We should give them time to understand new changes and resist the urge to alter our shape too often.

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