Do you ever come off the pitch thinking that you’ve lost a game you should have won – just because of your tactics, or lack of them?
The best 9-a-side tactics can be the difference between your team playing to their potential or floundering badly. The difference between winning and losing. Even just the difference between the team having fun or becoming hopelessly disillusioned.
9-a-side is played widely by kids as they progress through to full 11-a-side soccer. By the time they’re beginning to play 9-a-side, they tend to be developing a reasonable tactical understanding of their own. So it’s important that you provide them with clear ideas, and options for them to explore.
As with all forms of football, having good individual players is only part of the formula for success. The other key ingredient is having a clear idea about the way you’re playing; a framework to get the absolute most out of the team as a whole. Let’s look at how you can do that with your 9-a-side tactics.
The Video Guide
If you want to see this guide in a video format, see the following. Otherwise, just carry on reading below.
The basic principles – whatever your formation
There’s not one single 9-a-side strategy that guarantees the best performance. It’s more complicated than that, and there are a huge number of different ways of playing. Yet the best teams will use tactics that take into account the following two key factors:
Things work best when there is a natural balance to the team. If your 8 outfield players all think they are attackers then you’re going to have major difficulty beating any decent opposition. It’s the same if all 8 of your players are doing nothing but defending. Your aim should be to achieve enough balance between attack and defense, as well as between the left and right sides of your chosen formation.
2. Play to the player’s strengths
I wish I could give you one single formation that will work for every team. Sadly, that doesn’t exist because each team is made up of different individuals and you need to find a way of playing that showcases their unique talents.
Maybe your side has a couple of players who possess a lot of pace – you might consider a formation that utilises them as wingers. Maybe you’ve got two excellent strikers that can form an effective partnership – your challenge might be to arrange a team to best support them.
There’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to formations. In a lot of cases it will be worth trying a couple of different systems before landing on the one or two that work best for your group.
Just remember, whether you’re a group of adults or coaching this to a bunch of kids, systems take time and patience to develop. So don’t necessarily expect instant success.
Here are the most popular 9-a-side formations:
3-2-3: “Attack Oriented and Flexible”
If you ask any experienced group of coaches which 9-a-side formation to play, there’s a strong chance that this will be among their suggestions. It’s a classic, which has a lot of benefits:
+ Attack oriented and flexible
+ Has good balance between defense and attack, and provides width going forward.
+ Provides a solid three-player defensive base
– Will require the attacking players to have the discipline to track-back to help defend.
– Possibility of being overrun in central midfield if the two central midfielders are weak, or do not receive enough support (although this can easily be adapted to a 3-1-3-1 in that case)
Here’s what a group of youth coaches thought about the 3-2-3:
There are a couple of ways you can choose to play it, but the use of your front 3 is critical. The wingers need to help defensively as well as provide the width when you’re attacking:
2-3-2-1: “Making Use of the full-backs”
In this formation the width comes from the full-backs who are crucial to the success of this strategy. It’s hard work for the two of them, but allows lots of players to get forward when attacking.
+ Full-backs can easily drop in to form a unit of 4 at the back to help cover opposition wingers.
+ Suits fast full-backs who can quickly turn defense into attack
+ Two attacking midfielders can combine with the striker centrally, with width coming from the full-backs. Lots of options when going forward.
– If the full-backs do not attack, this could be too defensive.
– Defensive midfielder needs to be tactically aware to cover when teammates go forward.
And here’s what the youth coaches think:
Having 4 in midfield could be either a masterstroke, or a burden. One thing is for sure, this allows a great deal of flexibility, and if your players are tactically aware, this could be a great option for you.
+ Provides a lot of flexibility – midfield 4 can arrange in a number of ways to support either defense or attack
+ Provides natural width from 2 wide players.
+ Allows partnerships to develop (especially between the two attackers)
– Midfield players need to be tactically aware of when and how to support the defense
– Requires two strong defenders who can organise support from the midfield when needed.
Here’s the view from the youth coaches:
3-4-1: “A Good Defensive Base”
A more defensive alternative to the 2-4-2. With three at the back this provides a solid foundation to build forward from. Although you might view this as more of a defensive solution, it can easily be adapted into a more attacking 3-2-3 by pushing the wingers forward.
+ A more defensive version of the 3-2-3, but allows the midfield 4 to transition forward quickly – benefits a strong midfield that likes to attack.
+ Less reliance on the wide midfielders to drop back into the defensive unit, therefore tactically simpler.
+ A strong midfield unit that is not likely to be overrun.
– Forward could become isolated up front if there is not enough support.
Here’s what the youth coaches said:
2-1-3-1-1: “A strong spine”
Granted, this one is quite different, but it was still suggested by several youth coaches.
+ Strong spine to the team throughout midfield
+ Packed midfield makes them difficult to play through.
+ Attacking midfielder can be given a free-role, taking up spaces that the opposition struggle to deal with.
– Requires tactically disciplined wide midfielders and defensive midfield to provide defensive cover
– Possible lack of width
Here’s what one youth coach said:
Other Mentions: 3-3-2 & 4-3-1
A balanced formation that allows an attacking pairing to develop, and the defenders and midfielders have the flexibility to also join the attack, when appropriate:
The 4-3-1 is also popular, especially with those who have an eye on developing a team for the 11-a-side game:
Advanced Tactics – Adapting for Defense & Attack
The chances are that your 9 players are not going to move around the pitch the whole time in the above set formations. Players will get dragged out of position, need to help cover other areas of the pitch, and may find it useful to adopt different positions when attacking to add the element of surprise. So don’t make your formations too inflexible.
In a small-sided formation, it’s often more sensible to talk about using at least two different tactics. Don’t over complicate this, especially if you’re working with kids (no 13 year old is going to want a vast playbook of tactics). Try to limit yourself to talking about two simple shapes: one that you use when defending and another for attacking.
This can be helpful for the players and, unless unrealistic expectations are placed on them, it should allow them to picture their defensive and attacking positions more effectively. One example of this is as follows:
This illustrates how a team might use a more defensive formation in defense (in this case a 4-3-1) and adapt it to be more attacking when it is going forward. Here, when a team is defending, they play 4 at the back with 3 midfielders sitting in fairly central positions. However, when defense turns into attack, two of the midfielders look to provide width in attacking positions, making a front three, whilst the full-backs step up into midfield to provide support from behind.
If you have the time to be able to get strategies like this across, it can be a more effective way of playing than just setting one particular formation to use throughout the whole match.
A couple of other things to bear in mind when working in youth football:
Don’t lose sight of the fact that you’re working with kids, and they’re still learning the game. So consider the following:
- Try a couple of different formations so that they can find out which one they like best, and most importantly learn valuable lessons from different ways of playing.
- Don’t get too hung up on formations and don’t restrict kids imaginations.
- Don’t just think about your formations, think about your players. It should be about how you can best cater your tactics to them.
- Consider rotating players between positions throughout the season. Players can gain valuable experience by learning to play across a number of different positions.
Share your own ideas
9-a-side has a lot of possibilities over how to set up your formation and tactics. There’s no one single solution. Each team is likely to have their own specific needs depending on the abilities and understanding of the players. Getting things exactly right is going to take a lot of trial and error, as well as patience, but the benefits should quickly show when your team finally understand the system.
Now it’s over to you. We’d love to hear from you on any of the following:
- What formation works for you and your team?
- Which formation is most difficult for your team to play against?
- What extra tips and tactics help you and your team get a winning edge?