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9v9 2-5-1 in possession, middle third

In previous articles of this series (1 2 3 4 5), we introduced the 9v9 format and discussed a game model in the defending third in and out of possession. In this article, we discuss a game model in possession in the middle third. Before we go into detail, we need to define what we mean by “middle third”.


In the 11v11 game, we typically define thirds of the field by simply dividing the length of the field by 3. In a typical field size (100-120 yards in length), this yields “thirds” of approximately 35-40 yards. In other words, the length of a “third” is twice the distance from the goal line to the edge of the penalty area. In many moments of the game, we might expect to see 6-8 players from each team occupying the third located by the ball. Set pieces, end-game tactics, or conscious tactical situations (for example, a team deciding to bunker and play for counters) may change this equation – but we can use 35-40 yards as a starting point.

In the 9v9 format, the field dimensions are reduced to accommodate the number and age of the players (11v11 dimensions in brackets):

  • Field size : 70-80 yards long, 45-55 yards wide [100-120L, 55-80W]
  • Goal dimension: 7 feet high, 21 feet wide [8H, 24W]
  • Free kick clearance: 8 yards [10]
  • Penalty area: 14 yards long, 36 yards wide [18L, 44W]
  • Goal area: 5 yards long, 16 yards wide [6L, 20W]

Dividing the field length by 3, we would arrive at “thirds” of about 25 yards in length, with the edge of each third about 10 yards from the edge of each penalty area. For the purpose of this article, we’ll alter our definition of “middle third” as follows:

30 yards from goal line -> edge of opposing penalty area – distance of about 30 yards

This definition represents a reasonable scaling consistent with the overall field size scaling of the 9v9 format. Team tactics from the edge of the penalty area and in typically involve either looking to create shots on the ball, combinations of play to create shots, crosses, or a recycling of the ball from the wings.

Note that in this definition, there is overlap between what we previously described as the “defending third” and the “middle third” as described here.

A key difference in the execution of our definition versus a “traditional” (11v11) middle third is the opportunity to shoot for goal from distance. A large percentage of 9v9 players can put balls in the air and on the frame from 20+ yards. A smaller percentage of 9v9 goalkeepers can cover a 7 foot high goal – which implies that hitting a high ball from distance is a viable scoring strategy at 9v9 whereas it would not be in more advanced 11v11. For the purpose of our discussion, we will integrate developing shooting opportunities into our 9v9 middle third tactics.

Positional model

In our 2-5-1, we look for the wing backs to take the wide positions on the field, the two center backs and defensive midfielder to form a triangle, and the two attacking mids and forward to form triangles and interchange as appropriate. This picture illustrates an “ideal” shape.



In this model, the wing backs are providing width, the forward is providing the height, and the center backs are providing depth. Within our Principles of Play, we can directly relate these points to possession in the middle third. We’ll discuss each of these below:

  • Create and close space
  • Organize defense on offense
  • Pressure quickly on transition
  • Attack 1, 2, 3
  • Receive with intent
  • Pass with purpose
  • Keep and move the ball
  • Advance the ball

A primary challenge in working with younger players is a tendency to move to the ball in bunches. Developing an understanding of space through continued observation of the environment, and the abilities (cognitive, technical, tactical) to manipulate opponents through movement (self, ball, teammates) is a foundation of our style of play.

The organization of defense on offense is an important component of our game model. Turning the ball over in the middle third can result in an immediate counterattack and scoring opportunity (opponents 30 yards from our goal, players able to shoot from distance over goalkeepers). Because we are asking our wide players to take an attacking role and to move up and down the channels, our two center backs and our defensive midfielder must be positioned to delay possible counterattacks on loss of possession. In the same way that players will gravitate to the ball, it’s important for our central players to maintain a “cover” position during the run of play in possession. If we lose possession, our team should be trained to immediately pressure the ball to prevent a quick pass behind our defensive line resulting in a race to goal.

Developing attacking combinations with numbers is an outgrowth of a training methodology that utilizes rondos and positional play activities. In general, we look for opportunities in the game to create 3v1s, 4v1s, 4v2s, 5v2s, etc. In these situations, we look for our players to recognize the opportunity through movement of themselves and the ball, create the shape, move in support of the ball, draw and/or off-balance opponents, and advance the ball into a “better” position when available. Our system of play and spacing are intended to lend themselves to creating these situations.

The remaining four principles (receive with intent, pass with purpose, keep and move the ball, and advance the ball) are embedded into the details of how we attack 1, 2, 3.

Creating scoring opportunities

From the middle third, there are two options to create scoring opportunities

  • Creating central channel options to shoot
  • Entering  into the “final third” – the space starting at the top of the opponent’s penalty area

We’ll discuss each in turn.

Central channel shooting

We will note upfront that – from a development standpoint – we are looking to execute shooting opportunities that will “map” to the eventual 11v11 game, rather than simply take advantage of a lack of height from the opposing goalkeeper. Given that the 9v9 penalty area is 14 yards from goal, shots from within 5 yards of the penalty area would put our players right around the edge of the 11v11 penalty area – a reasonable shooting distance for 11v11 U13.

It is the case that we may have players who can successfully shoot from longer distances and from distance from the wide channels. We do not want to discourage these players but we also do not want to base our game model on scoring on long shots from the touch lines.

A reasonable combination play might be a diagonal ball into a half-space with either a midfielder or forward receiving, taking a touch, and then looking to drive a shot. The picture below illustrates this combination.


Another combination might involve a layoff from a player (perhaps the forward) to a teammate in the middle third who can step in to shoot. The picture below illustrates this combination.

Entering into the final third

Entry into the final third means we are less than 15 yards from goal. In these situations, our entry should be structured to create a shooting opportunity as quickly as possible – ideally within 2-3 passes. The reason is that when the ball enters the final third, many teams will rush to defend – possibly with 6 or 7 players – leaving very limited room to craft combinations of play. A decision to recycle the ball back out to the middle third may draw players back out of the immediate spaces in front of goal and create new options to penetrate and score.

We will consider two choices – enter the final third in the wide channel and enter the final third from the central channel.

Wide channel

A strength of the 2-5-1 is that we have dedicated players in the wide positions as passing options. In addition, we have a forward and an attacking midfielder positioned to provide support and create an immediate 3v1. One possible entry may look like this:


An important part of the entry process is to determine what we want to have happen next. From the wide channel, we can consider three likely options:

  1. Player on ball beats defender, gets to end line and drives to goal
  2. Player on ball lays ball back to teammate in half-space or up the touch line in middle third who can either shoot, cross, recycle deeper, or swing ball
  3. Player on ball hits a cross into the box

Each option is illustrated below:


While each option can have a tactical value and application in scoring goals, we least prefer the “cross into the box” option due to the likely number of defenders, small spaces, and requirement to either successfully redirect a header or otherwise control the ball out of the air.

With the player driving to the end line, we would look for our midfielders to find supporting angles for a negative pass of the ball and (possibly) immediate shot.

In order for the ball to be laid back or dropped back, teammates in the middle third will need to take supporting positions with a body shape to support the next action – shoot, cross, recycle, swing.

Central channel

Our entry into central channel will look to set up a 1v1, 2v1, or 2v2 to goal. Our pass should be designed to either allow our teammate to turn or to lay a ball back that we can either use to set up a shot or another entry. In general, we would look for a diagonal ball into the central channel.

The other option would be an early cross from a wing position designed to beat the opposing back line.

Because of the tendency of teams to sit players in front of the goal when facing a team in possession, it is important that decisions and combinations are executed quickly.
How to decide central vs wide

A consideration for coaches when training final third entry is to identify cues for players to decide when to enter centrally or wide. Many players in the 9v9 age groups operate with the sole objective of getting to goal as quickly as possible, regardless of the number of obstacles in the way.

Within our principles, we are asking our players to manipulate opponents’ positioning through movements of themselves and the ball.

  • If the opposition is bunkering in front of goal, we will ask our players to enter from wide positions – to force opponents to engage, potentially opening gaps.
  • If there are spaces in central positions – with 1v1/2v2 matchups or with spaces behind the opponents accessible with diagonal passes – then we will ask our players to enter from the center channel.
Playing over the top

Within our game model, we will ask our players to be selective about when and how to put the ball in the air. We want to avoid a situation in which our team (and the opponent) are hoofing the ball up and looking for a defensive mistake to create a goal scoring opportunity.

A more ideal situation is the use of diagonal flighted and driven balls to switch point of attack. In this scenario, our player is working against a purpose, which is to put the ball in a position where our team has a numerical advantage.


In this article we have outlined some ideas regarding play in possession in the middle third in the 9v9 format. We have specifically referred to the 2-5-1 system of play which includes a positioning of players across the width of the field.

Our objective in this scenario is to create goal scoring opportunities while minimizing the threat posed by a turnover and opposition counterattack. The use of wide positions to enter the final third, combinations of play to enter through the central channel, and the recognition of shooting opportunities at the edge of the final third are elements of our principles in the middle third.

The foundation of our middle third game model is expressed in these elements of our Principles of Play:

  • Create and close space
  • Organize defense on offense
  • Pressure quickly on transition
  • Attack 1, 2, 3
  • Receive with intent
  • Pass with purpose
  • Keep and move the ball
  • Advance the ball

The use of rondos and positional play activities are recommended to develop the requisite technical, tactical, and cognitive abilities required to implement the game model.