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 formation, 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.
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 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 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.