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An overview of 9v9 systems of play

In the first article of this series, we analyzed the 3-2-3 formation. In this article, we take a step back and discuss the considerations in the selection of a system of play and provide some possibilities for the 9v9 format.

US Soccer has prescribed 4 formats based on age group boundaries – 4v4 for U7/8, 7v7 for U9/10, 9v9 for U11/12, and 11v11 for U13 and older. There are a variety of systems of play that are utilized in 11v11. Commonly used systems in the modern game include 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 3-5-2, 3-4-3 – with a range of variations.

When considering which system of play to utilize, the coach must reflect on objectives, principles, and the abilities of the players. The system of play must be considered in the larger context of a game model which dictates roles, responsibilities, and behaviors in different parts of the field, moments of the game (in/out possession, transitional phases), and opponent responses. At the professional/elite level, getting a result is often the highest priority. The coach will base the system of play (and game model) on what is most likely to get the desired outcome. Priorities and personnel may shift within the game, which can alter the system of play and game model employed by a team.

In youth soccer, in particular the younger age groups, the game result is less important than a broader objective of player development. For exmaple, a system of play and game model that prioritizes direct over-the-top play to a lone forward capable of scoring goals while otherwise sitting in a defensive posture would not generally be considered as supportive of overall player development.

There may be situations in which a result is desirable – for morale, in key matches within a competitive framework (league, cup), and for mental skills development (for example, closing out a win, fighting back from a losing position). In general though, the benefits of basing the system of play and game model around a long-term player development project outweigh the short-term results. A common statement that we make to parents is that “no one wins the World Cup at U11”. Recognizing that we are developing players for the long-haul is an important ingredient in the makeup of youth coaches.

In order to introduce a system of play, we must first identify our principles of play. We have adopted the principles of play from the TOVO methodology, shown below:

We use these points to help ground our training and our approach to the game. Our player development standard is based on Intelligence, Competence, Courage, Character (IC3). The IC3 model is described in more detail here.

In our ideal game model, we look for expansive play with conscious use of risk-taking. IC3 dictates that we support the development of the perception-action ability in our players – being able to analyze the environment, determine possible choices, and the selection and execution of a “best” choice.

With younger players, we generally want to avoid positional specialization – the firm assignment of a player to a specific spot on the field during a season. It is often the case that players change in their abilities throughout their development years. For example, players may have late growth spurts, dramatically change in physical abilities, or may “suddenly” sort out technical abilities such as small-space ball control.  Assigning a player to only one positon limits the mental growth of the player over their soccer career.

So, a priority in younger age groups when determining systems of play and game models is to utilize ideas that are a match to the intellectual ability of the players. An overly complex system, with “too much” decision making, can result in confusion and hold back the technical and tactical development of the players. Sometimes, simpler is better.

For this reason, we only consider 9v9 systems of play with 3 lines of players. We note that there are several 11v11 (and 9v9) systems that include 4 lines of players (e.g., 4-2-3-1, 3-2-3-2, etc). In 9v9, we look to focus on small-group tactical development (e.g, 3v1, 4v2, 5v2) and build into the larger game.

We should note that there are game situations in which we need to make adjustments to our system of play – for example, our standard “Plan A” simply doesn’t work against a team. As a coach, we have a choice – continue with Plan A and do a post-mortem afterward with the team to understand what could have been different or we can have a Plan B (or Plan C) that we can shift to when Plan A isn’t working.

We favor having more than one plan – because in the “real” (older age group) game, we look for the players to make adjustments based on the opponent’s responses. However, we believe that the alternate plans should involve “tweaks” to Plan A – perhaps pushing wingbacks forward or deeper, sitting a midfielder directly behind the striker as a link player, or asking players to make earlier crosses/switches.

There are 3 systems of play that we consider here: 3-3-2, 3-2-3, and 2-5-1/4-3-1. Each has strengths and drawbacks. We attempt to discuss each system in the context of U11/12 player development.



In the 3-3-2, the lines are organized with 3 backs, 3 mids, and 2 forwards. The 3-3-2 is a transition to 11v11 4-4-2.


  • Simple to teach and explain
  • Clearly defined roles for each player
  • Difficult to beat with direct play


  • Limited tactical flexibility and mobility
  • Central midfielder can be outnumbered
  • Lack of “natural” triangles

The 3-3-2 has the attraction of being the easiest system-of-play to put on the field. The positions can be clearly explained to the players and the responsibilities are well-defined. When viewed from the lens of player development, the 3-3-2 is limiting. In the U11/12 age groups, we are looking to develop players’ tactical awareness and provide decision making challenges. The 3-3-2 is fairly rigid in its structure.

In the 3-3-2, the center of the field is held by only one player and the center channel has only 3 field players. Many opponents will recognize this and attempt to control the midfield with numbers.

The value of transitioning to 4-4-2 is limited – most youth teams play either 4-3-3 (or a variant), 3-5-2, or 3-4-3 as a primary system.



In the 3-2-3, the lines are organized with 3 backs, 2 mids, and 3 forwards. A variant of the system is a 3-4-1 with the 2 outside forwards in a more withdrawn role. The central midfielders could play side-by-side or staggered. The 3-2-3 is a transition to 11v11 4-3-3 (or variant) and 3-4-3.


  • Shape results in natural triangles
  • Tactical flexibility and mobility in roles of wing players
  • Simpler transition to 11v11


  • Relies on discipline of center mids
  • Center forward can get disconnected
  • Opponents can attack center back with 2 forwards

The 3-2-3 has been promoted by US Soccer as an ideal system for transition from 7v7 to 11v11. The roles of the outside forwards and the 2 midfielders can be adjusted based on personnel and game situation. In the defending third, we might expect to see the forwards pull back forming a 3-4-1 (or 4-3-1 if one of the central mids drop into the back line). As we might expect in a 4-3-3, the outside backs and forwards will need to defend in the wide gap between the two lines. The center mids can be deployed side-by-side (a “double six”) or attacking/defending. In a double-six, we would look for one of the mids to support the wings by sliding outside with the other mid holding the center channel. In an attacking/defending scheme, one mid would be the traditional 6 with the partner being an 8/10 – linking with the forwards and specifically supporting the 9.



In the 2-5-1, the lines are organized with 2 center backs, 2 outside mids, a central triangle of midfielders, and a single forward. The formation can shift into a 4-3-1 when the outside mids drop into the back line or into a 2-3-3 if the outside mids push high in the attack.


  • Presence of midfield traingle supports transition to 11v11 systems
  • Will typically outnumber opponents in midfield and central channel
  • Supports flexibility of shape in each third of the field


  • When pressed, backs will sit deep – limiting use of width to break out
  • Central forward can get disconnected
  • Vulnerable to direct counterattacks, especially on wings

The 2-5-1 is an alternative to the 3-2-3 and supports transitions to 4-3-3 and 3-5-2 systems of play. Ideally, the 2-5-1 will integrate the goalkeeper as a field player, in order to provide numbers when an opponent is pressing or is playing direct. In the defending third, the 2 outside mids should provide support, resulting in a 4-3-1. If the midfield triangle is organized into traditional 6/8/10 roles, the 6 would provide front-cover for the center backs and be ready to drop in as a third center back on counterattacks when the outside mids may be higher up the field. In order to be successful, the outside mids (7/11) must be connected to the game, prepared to define width through their positioning, and be able to move up and down the field as the game requires.

We will explore the details of the 2-5-1 in continuing articles in this series.