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9v9 2-5-1 in possession, defending third – part 2

In part 2 of this article, we go into details of our 9v9 Game Model when we are in possession in our defending third.


Our system of play is a 2-5-1/4-3-1. We describe it this way as the positioning of the wingbacks will dictate how the system looks at a given moment. In order for us to move the ball out of our end, we need to present a picture for our players – who provides width, who provides depth, and who provides height. In our system, when in possession in our defending third, the wingbacks provide width, the goalkeeper will provide depth, and the forward provides height.

When we transition from defending to attacking – and have clear possession – we look for these four players (wingbacks, goalkeeper, forward) to recognize their responsibility to define our shape, scan the environment, and achieve a positioning and body shape in support of our objectives. Note that we qualify with the phrase “clear possession” – if our team moves too early to expand, and we lose possession, we are vulnerable to a quick scoring opportunity by the opponent.

We will consider two situations: the goal kick restart and the change of possession in our defensive third.

Goal kick

For many teams (and coaches), the goal kick is one of the scariest parts of a match – a mistake by our team in our end can lead to an immediate goal scoring opportunity by the opponent. Furthermore, because of the nature of the restart, the opponent has time to position their players to provide maximum advantage to winning the ball.

The response of some teams is to simply boot the ball as far upfield as possible hoping to win the ball there or at least prevent an immediate shot on goal. The disadvantages with this as a first choice are (1) we are giving the ball back to the opponent after working to gain possession and (2) from a developmental standpoint we are taking away an opportunity for our players to learn problem solving under pressure.

Although the opponent has time to position their players, as an attacking team we also have time to position our players. We recommend the following shape:


With the recent changes to the Laws of the Game, players are allowed to receive the ball inside the penalty area directly off a goal kick. For these players, “the first pass is free” – if we choose that decision. By pushing our wingbacks wide, our forward up the pitch, our defending midfielder in a central position, and our two other midfielders at angles, we are creating problems for the opponent. There will often be at least 1 (if not more) players unmarked in addition to our center backs. The use of space between our players will prevent one opponent from marking two of our players.

In possession in our defending third, we are looking for decisions with high probability of success. Situations in which we are numbers-up should result in maintaining possession. We expect that with 5 midfielders, we should be able to create and support numerical advantage within our half of the field. The implication is that our training sessions should include the types of possession challenges (rondo, positional play) that translate into the game environment.

The goalkeeper has a key role – they must be available as a supporting option when there is pressure going forward and must be able to swing the ball or play the ball through the middle to a midfielder if that choice is available. The implication is that the goalkeeper must be able to operate as a field player – capable of passing the ball successfully over a 15-20 yard distance consistently, making and executing quality first-touch decisions, and aware of their environment. These are all elements in the modern game and extend the requirements of the goalkeeper beyond simply a “stopper of shots”.

Change of possession in our defensive third

When we win the ball in our third of the field, our first priority is not to immediately give the ball back to the opponent. Many opponents when losing possession will attempt to press the player on the ball, take away choices, and get the ball back. It is likely that when we win the ball, our player will be under almost-immediate pressure.

Ideally, we would want to see our team calmly secure possession through a series of passes and movements, find some open space, then advance the ball. In reality, the situation can be messy. If we win the ball close to our goal and our player is under a lot of pressure (multiple opponents) with no obvious choice, we might hope to see our player work their way out of trouble but be satisfied if they play it wide to a touch line or diagonally upfield along the touch line. If our team has been stuck in our end for a period of time and simply needs to relieve pressure, getting the ball out of our end and regrouping might also be a good choice.

We also need to consider the situation in which the opponent has overcommitted players on the attack and has left our forward (or one of our other advanced players) unmarked or 1v1. In this situation, if we win the ball, we would like to see our player find the best (highest/open) option and play that choice.

Let’s consider these scenarios – (1) in high risk area under pressure, (2) after a period of sustained pressure where we need to get out of our end, and (3) opponent has overcommitted leaving us with a quick counter option – as “special cases”.

In the normal situation, we want to train our team as we described ideally above – calmly secure possession, find open forward space, and advance the ball. When we clearly have possession, we will want our team to create width/height/depth as we do in our goal kick restart. Our goalkeeper, center backs, wing backs, and defensive midfielder form a group of 5 players. We expect that we can possess against an opponent with those 5 – as most opponents are unlikely to commit more than 3 players against those 5. An opponent that chooses to commit more than 3 players to press our 5 will leave us open teammates upfield to play to.  We want our central midfielders to provide supporting options as we move forward. We relate the situation to our players as a series of rondos – 3v1s, 4v1s, 4v2s, 5v2s – where our objective is maintain possession and advance into new rondos farther up the pitch. Our training sessions should reflect this model.

Moving to the middle third

Once we have secured possession, we are looking to move the ball – and our team – into the middle third. As we noted earlier, if our advanced players are unable to retain possession upfield, our team is unlikely to push out – recognizing that by moving forward, we are vulnerable to a counter. In our ideal world, with the ball played to an advanced player, we want the nearest midfielders to move forward in support.

The use of the rondo as a fundemental playing objective within the game helps develop a sense within the players of the need for moving in numbers with the ball.

Problem solving

As coaches, it is often simple for us to see a picture and come up with a solution. The physical perspective – away from the action, no responsibility to the ball, able to see threats and opportunities – is an advantage that our players lack. Our challenge is to develop tools and abilities for our players that allow them to solve problems from their perspective in the match. In the defending third while in possession, these tools and abilities take on a greater importance.


The introduction of basic patterns and concepts, training in the physical and technical abilities, and an awareness of environment flowing into decision making and reflection provide a foundation for our 9v9 players regardless of field position or possession. In our principles “Perceive and Conceive” form a basis for our players’ actions on the field. Developing environmental awareness within our rondos and positional play and being able to relate visual cues (problems) to potential actions (solutions) forms a fundamental element of our 9v9 player development philosophy.