Coaching the 3-2-3 (9v9)

3-2-3 Formation 9v9 Soccer

INTRODUCTION

Over the past year of coaching 9v9 soccer, the 3-2-3 has become my favourite formation to use. I am a firm believer that the formation of any team should not be based around a club identity or a coach’s personal style of play, but rather based around the team’s style of play and the personnel of the team. However, I have found that the 3-2-3 is fantastic in suiting nearly every type of player and the simple and easy variations that can be created using the formation such as shifting into a 3-1-3-1, allow coaches to tweak and change their style of play to fit the needs of the vast majority of youth soccer players.

9v9 is a game format used around the world in primarily the under-11 and under-12 age groups. In the United States, it has largely fazed out the outdated 8v8 game format, while in Canada has been a staple of the transition between small-sided soccer and full-field since the introduction of Canada Soccer’s LTPD plan. In a world where formations are ever-changing and evolving, much attention in recent years has gone into scrutinizing over 11v11 formations such as the 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1. But very few have analyzed the essential building blocks before players get into the 11v11 game and the utilization of popular 9v9 formations as a stepping stone into learning those commonplace 11v11 formations. This article will teach coaches everything they need to know about playing in the 3-2-3 formation, based primarily on my first-hand experiences playing the formation over the past two years with a talented group of now under-12 players. The lessons learned in this article can not only be applied to playing the 3-2-3 but to many other coaching facets and situations, allowing each coach to personalize the outcomes they gain from this article. Let’s get right into it – Coaching the 3-2-3 for 9v9 soccer.

SET-UP

3-2-3 Numbered Positions

The 3-2-3 system includes 3 defenders, 2 central midfielders and 3 attackers. The 3 defenders include two fullbacks (right and left sided defenders) and a central defender. The midfield duo consist oftwo central midfielders (usually different types of players such as a ‘6’ and ‘8’), and the front three includes a right and left winger with a centre forward up top. The formation is most commonly played without a natural number ’10’ (attacking midfielder) or ‘number 5’ (second centre back), making it very easy to use the formation as a stepping stone and building block into the 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3. Although every player has an important job to do in the system, the two central midfielders are the ones who undoubtedly have the most crucial role as they are the link between defense and attack and responsible for so many key aspects to the game. Their job becomes even more crucial considering the massive space in between the outside defenders and wingers. In shutting down that space, central midfielders are often asked to create 2v1’s in defense by helping out the near sided fullback. If they fail in that task, other teams may be able to effectively use their wingers to destroy a team playing the 3-2-3. Teams capable of keeping a large percentage of possession may choose to use the right and left defenders as key cogs in eliminating that gap as they push forward to create overloads in attack and the central midfielders stay in the middle of the field. But this can leave teams exposed on the counter attack. On the flip side, teams who have trouble keeping a large percentage of possession, may choose to use their near-sided winger as a method of shutting down that space. But this causes the player, who is likely very gifted going forward, to have to do more than their fair share of defending and not be able to use their strengths to their advantage. This again emphasizes the crucial role of the central midfielders in the 3-2-3 as a link between defense and attack.

  SHIFTING INTO THE 3-1-3-1

3-2-3 Central Midfield Movement

In helping to clarify the roles of the central midfielders, many using this formation may choose to create a 3-1-3-1 in attack. Players can either be told explicitly, “I want you to play more like a defensive midfielder and I want you to play more like an attacking midfielder.” or my personal preference in “If one of you goes up to join the attack, the other one has to cover in behind in central areas. The one covering can still go up with the play too, but they need to be mindful of where the other team’s central midfielders are.” The reason why I like the second option better is that it allows players to have more autonomy in their decisions and allows for both players to experience the attacking and defending side of the game. However, the first option is still valuable as it can erase ambiguity and may be beneficial to players who constantly need reassurance of where to be and what to do on the field. In the example shown above, the ‘8’ is slightly higher than the ‘6’, taking on a more advanced role in attack. If the team loses possession, they will look to win it back if they are the closest to the ball, but if not, they will rejoin the more traditional 3-2-3 shape and will prepare to potentially close down space in a wide area. A more natural 3-1-3-1 will always be more beneficial to teams who keep a lot of possession, as the gap in wide areas becomes even greater with the ‘8’ now playing more like a ’10’. Out of possession, this leaves a lot more of the responsibility on the defensive midfielder to cover ground in wide areas. But as soon as they leave their position, the middle may be exposed. This is why I personally prefer the 3-2-3 over the 3-1-3-1 as it helps players define their own roles and responsibilities while simultaneously restricting them to never get caught too high like a drifting ‘number 10’ might do.

3-1-3-1 variation on the 3-2-3

Of course in teams who keep a lot of possession, the wingers may be able to track back and help cover in wide areas when out of possession. For teams with no natural midfield maestro ‘number 8’, the 3-1-3-1 may also be the preferable option, as it can allow for creative players to do their business in central areas, closer to the goal. But it has to be remembered that this still puts a lot of onus on the defensive midfielder to take up the right positions and cover more ground than any other player on the field. If for example, the number 10 has joined the attack and the number 6 has collapsed on top of the centre back, a massive gap will be left in the middle of the field that would not be there in a traditional 3-2-3.

Movement of the Defensive Midfielder 3-1-3-1

In particular, they will need to be capable of shifting left to right more frequently than up and down. But for 11 and 12 year old players just learning their trade, this may not come naturally to them after being told to play either as a “central” or “defensive midfielder”. They may fear that if they step out of the middle of the field, no one else will be there to replace them. In a 3-1-3-1, that instinct of theirs is absolutely correct, especially if the ‘number 10’ gets caught too high or is just generally unwilling to do any defensive work. At least in the 3-2-3 when one central midfielder closes down a wide area, the other one is still ready to pounce in the middle of the field. In a 3-1-3-1 the onus is almost entirely on the defensive midfielder to cover the ground in what are probably the most dangerous areas on the field.

Since much of the discussion so far has been about the importance of the central midfielders in the 3-2-3, they will be the first to be examined more closely.

CENTRAL MIDFIELDERS

3-2-3 Central Midfielders

As previously mentioned, the central midfielders are essential in the 3-2-3 formation as a link between attack and defense. Players in this position need to be tactically aware and positionally disciplined. They need to understand when the right time is to join attacks and try to create, versus when the right time is to defend, stay back and cover. Although in theory these players have to be capable of covering a lot of ground, I have actually found that as long as they are positionally aware and have a basic understanding of when to make runs versus when to hold their position, they don’t need to be the fittest players on the team. Typically, my most athletic, lung-bursting runners are used in wide areas as fullbacks or wingers, while the central midfielders are more of the ones who can dictate the tempo either through their positional awareness, distribution or defensive aptitude. I personally prefer to play the 3-2-3 formation with a ‘number 6’-esque midfield destroyer, and a ‘number 8’-esque pass master. The two ‘number 6’s’ I have at my disposal are very good at breaking up play and covering in defensive areas. One of them is fantastic in covering in the right areas to be able to regain possession for us and kick-start counter-attacks. The other is capable of winning a tackle, turning around and bulldozing through the opposition all the way up the field. In both cases, when out of possession they are looking to anticipate and intercept, and then immediately go on to try and break a line to help us go on the front foot right away. My two natural ‘number 8’s’ on the other hand love to play one-two passes and are fantastic at spreading the ball wide for our ‘attacking midfielders’ or wingers to then be able to go on and create chaos for the opposition. They are often the ones more commonly used in build-up play and playing out from the back. You’ll notice that very few of the player characteristics mentioned included much in the way of a description of a box-to-box player. Even the one who can carry the ball up the field with ease, makes a lot more lateral movements than vertical ones. This does not mean by any stretch of the imagination that a box-to-box type of player cannot succeed in the 3-2-3 system, but rather that the idea of the central midfielders needing to go from box-to-box and cover a lot of ground is not necessarily true. Instead, they need to cover ground in the right areas: shutting down the gap in between winger and outside defender, and shutting down/creating space in central areas. They need to work as a tandem team to take up the right positions and they need to communicate when one of them decides to join the attack or create a 2v1 in defense down the line. They should never get caught too far apart. This includes not getting caught too far over to their respective sides, especially if the other one hasn’t shifted inside in response, and not getting caught too high or too low at the same time.

In addition to their positional importance, central midfielders are also essential in playing out from the back in the 3-2-3. Their role in all stages of the game will also be examined over the course of this article.

To read more on the different positions, roles and responsibilities of the players in the 3-2-3 formation check out-> Positions, Roles and Responsibilities in the 3-2-3 (9v9).

PLAYING OUT FROM THE BACK

Playing out from the back is far from a new concept, but the importance it has taken on in the last decade has grown immensely in the modern game. Nearly every team strives to play out from the back and teams playing in a 3-2-3 formation will naturally have no issue doing so, due to the natural triangles created all over the field. The central midfielder as a link between attack and defense extends to playing out from the back, as they are often required to be responsible for the critical pass in breaking lines in behind the opposition’s defense and freeing up the attacking trio. Multiple combinations of playing out from the back can be created using the 3-2-3, most of which heavily involve the movement or position of one or both of the central midfielders.

CM as Third Pass

Central Midfielder Playing out from the Back 9v9.JPG

As the pass goes out to the right defender, all players shift over to the right, including both central midfielders. The one nearest to the ball will take up a potential passing lane, while the other one will cover in the middle in case the ball is lost. After receiving the ball, the central midfielder can look to spring forward their right winger, striker or if they have time and space, carry the ball and potentially switch play to the left. If they are closed down, a wall pass with the right defender followed by an immediate movement backwards to create space again may be the best option. After the ball goes into the central midfielder, the right winger can make a movement in a number of different directions, including toward the ball carrier, toward the middle, or down the line behind their marker. Each will provide different outcomes, but as long as the ball isn’t intercepted, the potential outcomes are all positive. Note that the starting positions of the central midfielders, wingers and striker of the team in possession are all goal-side and ball-side in case something were to go horribly wrong.

CM as Fourth Pass

Playing out from the back central midfielder and right winger link up

As the ball goes out to the right, all players shift over to the right, including both central midfielders. The nearest to the ball will take up a potential passing lane, while the other one will cover in the middle in the case the ball is lost. As the ball then goes out to the right winger, the near sided central midfielder can be used in order for the winger to lose their marker. The pass can be a wall-pass (give and go) as the right winger moves into space, or the central midfielder can look to play in the striker, who has also darted toward the side of the ball. Again, note that the starting positions of the central midfielders, wingers and striker of the team in possession are all goal-side and ball-side in case something were to go wrong.

CM’s as Decoys

Playing out from the back central midfielder as decoy

In this final set-up, the right winger is in the opposition’s half or as high as the defending team allows them to be. As a result, the near-side central midfielder will move into the space that normally might be occupied by the right-winger. This should pull the marking player with them, creating space for a long pass into the striker. If this option looks too daring, the movement of the central midfielder into space can be used as a second passing option where they can then go on to link up with the near-sided winger or striker. The movement of the far-side central midfielder can also go a few different ways. They can act as a second decoy by curving a run up field, they can run in the opposite direction of the ball carrier, hoping to pull their marker with them and thus creating even more space for a pass into the striker; or they can move in field to cut off any potential danger should the blue team regain possession. In the case that the far-side central midfielder curves a run up the field, the striker can hold it up and have another close option with the midfielder running into space.

In this final set-up, the right winger is in the opposition’s half or as high as the defending team allows them to be. As a result, the near-side central midfielder will move into the space that normally might be occupied by the right-winger. This should pull the marking player with them, creating space for a long pass into the striker. If this option looks too daring, the movement of the central midfielder into space can be used as a second passing option where they can then go on to link up with the near-sided winger or striker. The movement of the far-side central midfielder can also go a few different ways. They can act as a second decoy by curving a run up field, they can run in the opposite direction of the ball carrier, hoping to pull their marker with them and thus creating even more space for a pass into the striker; or they can move in field to cut off any potential danger should the blue team regain possession. In the case that the far-side central midfielder curves a run up the field, the striker can hold it up and have another close option with the midfielder running into space.

For more on Playing out from the Back in the 3-2-3 check out -> Playing out from the Back (9v9). 

PRESSING FROM THE FRONT

Pressing From the Front 3-2-3

The 3-2-3 is a fantastic formation for pressing the opposition. When pressing in the 3-2-3, the striker or winger closest to the ball are the two best options to be the first to apply pressure. My personal preference is to have the striker pressure the ball, the far sided winger to close space in the middle and the near sided winger to cover the space in behind our striker. The two central midfielders should not come too far, unless the opposition central midfielders drop very, very deep toward their own goal. Instead they should hold their positions, cover in behind and not share much of the responsibilities in pressing from the front. In youth soccer, where a retreat line is in place, it is very easy for players to understand which player needs to be the first to apply pressure, as players are practically waiting to have the chance to go on and press.

For more information on pressing see – How To Coach Pressing.

PLAYING UNDER PRESSURE

Like playing out from the back, pressing from the front is one of the hottest coaching topics in the modern game. As a result teams playing in a 3-2-3 can expect to be pressed. When playing under pressure in the 3-2-3, if the outside defender’s ability to make a forward pass is cut off, the players should not be afraid to go backwards to their goalkeeper and look to switch play to the other side. However, players need to understand that sideways passes in their own half, particularly closer to goal are much more dangerous than backwards passes. A sideways pass to the central defender is almost never a good option as the opposition striker will be able to pounce on the opportunity and potentially score a goal. In contrast, if the pass is played in quickly but controlled to the goalkeeper, the opposing striker won’t get there in time. When being pressed closer to the half-way line, the central defender can drop off to create a backwards passing option or the ball can again be played all the way back to the goalkeeper to restart.

Another method of breaking the press is simply to not even attempt to play out from the back and instead play directly into the central midfielders, wingers or centre forward.

SWITCHING PLAY / PLAYING WIDE

With five players in central areas (including the goalkeeper) and four in wide areas, the 3-2-3 can allow teams to create attacking overloads anywhere on the field. Playing wide and maintaining width on both the right and left side are essential elements to the success of a good 3-2-3 system. Fullbacks can make overlapping runs around wingers and wingers can link up and interchange with the striker very easily. There are many ways to use the width of the wingers and fullbacks to the advantage of a 3-2-3 team when in possession. One of these ways again involves the central midfielders and this time, the striker too, as critical elements in attacking down the wings. If one side becomes full and penetrating passes or runs down that side no longer become possible, the winger can turn and play in the central midfielder or striker as a method of then switching play to the other side. If that winger can maintain the width on that side and a switch of play can occur quickly, the space in behind on that side can quickly be exploited.

Switching Play 3-2-3 Playing Wide

Here we can see that the space down the right hand side has quickly become closed down. The right winger will turn away from pressure, play in the near-sided central midfielder who will then switch play to the left winger and immediately allow us to have a 1v1 or 1v0 against their right fullback.

Beyond this tactic, playing with width is simply just a tried and tested way of stretching an opposition’s defense and creating chances. In a 3-2-3, the wingers typically stay high and as a result are almost always involved in the attacking play.

TRIANGLE PASSING 

Like its natural successor (4-3-3), the 3-2-3 is naturally conducive to triangle passing. Within the best 3-2-3 systems, fullbacks can link up with central midfielders, central midfielders can link up with wingers and wingers can link up with strikers. Switching play is one such method of this triangle passing but there are many others. Although I like my strikers to always stay high, the striker can drop deep to create one-two’s with the central midfielder and then spray passes in behind for the wingers. Unlike many other formations, the striker can do this and the team will still have two attacking players in advantageous positions if the wingers stay high. Triangle passing in central areas, like maintaining width, can also be a very natural remedy to help a team unlock any opposition defense, put them off-balance and create chances for goals.

For more on triangle passing, check out -> Playing in a Midfield Three.

DEFENSIVE TRANSITIONS 

dEFENSIVE tRANSITIONS 3-2-3

In defensive transitions, we again see the importance of the central midfielders. As already mentioned, the near-sided central midfielder is always essential in closing down gaps in wide areas and helping the fullbacks defend, effectively creating a 2v1 against an opposition’s winger. They may also have a degree of responsibility in covering the opposing team’s ‘number 10’ or central midfielder if they are making a run into the box. Central midfielders must be quick in the transition and their ability to hold their position will become even more imperative if their centre back or fullback ever gets caught out of position.

Here we see the central midfielder dropping in behind to cover for an out of position central defender. The other central midfielder is quickly going to become outnumbered if the ball is not cleared out of danger and so if the covering central midfielder is able to recover possession, they should look to clear high and wide, away from danger.

The wingers may also be required to drop and help out in defense, especially if the ball is closer to one side. If the opposing team’s left back is bombing down the wing, the right winger will be required to drop back and help ease the defensive transition. The same is true of the other side. However, in the example above, there is minimal danger for the left winger to also need to drop should the right fullback make a forward run too. If possession is regained, I know my team will have an automatic open outlet down that wing if that winger stays high. If possession is not regained, the danger of a quick switch of play to that side is still very small.

ATTACKING TRANSITIONS

In attacking transitions, all players should look for cues on what the best method of breaking a line and going on the counter attack is: pass or dribble.

Players should pass when:

  • They are being closed down/pressure is being applied.
  • They have players in advantageous positions. 
  • They can eliminate all or several defenders with a pass. 

Players should dribble when:

  • They have space/no pressure is being applied.
  • They have no players in advantageous positions. 
  • Defenders are backing off/more concerned about the potential passing options. 

Again key to the attacking transitions will be the central midfielders who in this case may be responsible for the first decision between a pass or a dribble. They may be responsible for setting the wingers and striker free and after they do, they should always follow their pass to continue on with the attacking transition. But it is important to note again that should one of the central midfielders join the attack and follow the transition, the other one needs to cover in behind appropriately. That does not mean they should stay level with the back-line, but instead to follow the play, stay in behind their midfield partner and keep a close eye on the movement of the opposing players. If for whatever reason the opposition regains possession, their position will be vital in helping stop a counter attack the other way. For more on attacking transitions, check out -> Attacking Transitions – Full Session Plan and Key Coaching Points.

PRACTICE ACTIVITIES 

Individual Marking & Defensive Awareness - Analytical Activity

Although the 3-2-3 is a fairly technical and tactical formation, basic session topics will suit the players’ needs and be easily applicable to game-realistic encounters for the players. These topic could range from the broad, such as support play and individual marking, to the complex and specific, such as defensive transitions and triangle passing. The following links may be useful in designing activities for the 3-2-3 system:

How To Coach Pressing

Individual Marking – Analytical Activity

Attacking Transitions – Full Session Plan and Key Coaching Points

Playing Through The Central Midfielder – Conditioned Game

4 Reasons Your Practice Session Isn’t Working

The Importance of Receiving the Ball on the Half Turn

Maintaining Width & Switching Play in Small-Sided Games

More links to follow as our next set of articles continue to come in!

CONCLUSION 

So there it is! A complete guide to coaching one of the very best 9v9 formations: 3-2-3. The lessons learned in this article can be transferred over to any formation, but are also very useful when considering how to defend, attack, transition and keep possession in the 3-2-3. Thanks for reading and be sure to check out more Coaching articles right here.

See you next time!

You might also enjoy -> Positions, Roles and Responsibilities in the 3-2-3 (9v9).

4 thoughts on “Coaching the 3-2-3 (9v9)

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