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.
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. For more on the 3-2-3 formation and its strengths, weaknesses and coaching opportunities, check out our complete guide on Coaching the 3-2-3 (9v9) and Best Formations for 9v9. Let’s get right into it – Positions, Roles and Responsibilities in the 3-2-3 (9v9).
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. Due to their massive importance in the formation, the central midfielders in the 3-2-3 will be the first to be examined more closely.
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.
The two fullbacks/right and left defender in the 3-2-3 are essential components to the success of the formation. If they can shut down space out wide and win their 1v1 battles, the opposition will have a very tough time breaking the team down. But on the flip side if they struggle to cope with the opposition wingers and can’t get the ball out of danger, a 3-2-3 may be subject to a lot of goals conceded. As such the fullbacks need to be capable defending in 1v1 situations and assets such as speed, strength and aggression are not necessarily requirements, but will help a lot in these positions. If they lose a 1v1 battle, the central defender may be required to close down the player, thus leaving their position. This can cause a lot of problems if the opposing winger intelligently plays the ball into what should be a wide open strike, especially if the opposite fullback can’t get there in time to cover. So whenever they can, the fullbacks should look to force opposing wingers to the outside – away from goal. The only time when this is not the case is when the central midfielder has recovered and been able to close the middle into a 2v1 down the line. If the fullback then forces the player inside, the central midfielder will hopefully be there to scoop up the ball.
When attacking, the fullbacks can join the attack, particularly if the team is just completely dominating the share of the possession. If this is the case, overlapping fullbacks will cause overwhelming overloads for the opposition. They can look to provide crosses or perhaps even shots from deep if they are able to lose their markers and they can also be key providers from throw-in’s and corner kicks. I personally prefer the fullbacks to join attacks on only rare occasions and to come to around the half-way line and mark when we have the ball in the opposition’s half. In quick transitions where we lose possession, we would be looking for the fullbacks to be well-positioned to stop counter-attacks and keep the possession in the other team’s half. The vast majority of goals that I have experienced in 9v9 soccer either come from or are assisted from wingers down the line or play that takes place in wide areas. As a result, fullbacks are absolutely essential to any team in this age group. They are particularly important in the 3-2-3 when you consider the potential gap that exists between the front three and back three.
As one of just a few players in the 3-2-3 formation that does not have a partner playing in the same position as them, the centre back has a massive job to do. The number ‘4’ in the formation should hold their position centrally in the vast majority of cases. But they may need to shift left and right if their fullbacks get beat down the wing. If they can close that space out wide and stop the cross, the centre back can act as the last resort in stopping what could be a sure goal. Although they need to maintain their central position, the ‘4’ also needs to be careful not to get caught too high or too low. If they get caught too high in attempting to close down a run from midfield, no one else other than the goalkeeper will be there to clean up the mess should they fail. If they get caught too low and allow pressure to advance, the central midfielders may not be able to cover the gap in between. Getting caught too low may also lead to keeping players on-side, which begins to become an issue at the introduction of off-sides in 9v9 soccer at U11 and U12. Simultaneously, centre backs also need to be careful not to come too far over to one side when the ball is at the feet of an opposing winger. If they do, a massive gap will be left in the middle of the field where the striker will be wide open, waiting to finish.
Centre backs in the 3-2-3 should be positionally aware and tactically disciplined. They need to be careful not to dive in and should delay the opposition further away from goal, while closer to goal they need to force the player away from goal and may be required to make a tackle or interception in dire circumstances. They need to be strong in the tackle and can also have a degree of play-making responsibilities after regaining possession. My central defenders are some of the best passers in the team and one of them is capable of spreading controlled passes into our wingers and striker with ease. They don’t necessarily need to be this way; what they need to be is positionally aware and sound defenders. But having an on-the-ball presence can completely calm everything down and allow the number ‘4’ to control the game from deep.
Like any formation, wingers in the 3-2-3 need to be dynamic, maintain their width and move up down the line. What is different about the 3-2-3 as opposed to a 3-4-1 or 3-3-2 is that the wingers share much less of the defensive responsibility and can stay high. Of course when the ball is on one side, they may be required to track back and help. This is particularly the case when the opposition fullback or wing-back makes a run forward. But their main role in the team is to be key creators in attack, creating chances for each other and for their striker, primarily down the wing. Due to their attacking responsibility, I actually avoid the term “wingers” when working with youth players as I think “right/left attacking midfield” paints a much better of what I want the players to do and where I want them to situate on the pitch. Wingers in this formation typically need to have an on the ball-presence, should be capable of both playing one-two passes and taking players on and should have good scoring instincts. Due to the natural triangles created in the formation, the ‘7’ and ’11’ will be heavily involved in almost all attacks.
When attacking, wingers need to maintain their width so that a quick switch of play is always a possibility. They need to be able to win 1v1 situations and the ones who are less capable in 1v1’s should be strong passers and have the ability to create through their link-up play with the opposite winger, striker and central midfielders. When defending, these attacking midfielders should stay high for the most part, although they may be required to help track runs from opposition fullbacks or potentially help cover wide areas instead of the central midfielders and fullbacks shouldering all of the responsibility. If the formation is done right, the wingers will be absolutely essential to a 3-2-3 team’s success, regardless of the talent level of the players involved.
Strikers in the 3-2-3 system need to be mobile, quick and of course, capable of scoring goals. They don’t need to be target players or even natural goal-scoring finishers, but they need to be capable of accelerating away from defenders, chasing down loose balls and creating something out of nothing for themselves. The number 9’s I have in my roster are all extremely quick and capable of doing exactly that, creating something out of nothing. Most of the goals they score are from intricate link up between them and the wingers or from through ball passes that usually come from the wingers or central midfielders. In both cases, they are able to use their speed in behind to unlock the opposition defense. They should also be good at holding up possession, playing with their back to goal, and interchanging/linking up with the ‘7’ and ’11’ of the team. The best strikers aren’t just goal scorers, but all around football geniuses capable of doing far more, including always bringing others into play.
When defending, the striker should almost always stay high. Whenever the team is able to regain possession, they need an outlet and what better than to send in a speedy striker up against an opposition defender for a counter attack? When attacking, the striker should also stay high and in most cases should stay central, as the wings are already occupied by the ‘7’ and ’11’ and potentially a central midfielder as well. They should avoid being in behind their marking defenders, to avoid being caught offside or failing to win the ball first. Instead, they should play on the shoulder or in front of the defender and look to create space in behind following a pass or dribble, rather than waiting in behind before a player is able to find them with a penetrating move.
If we think about the 3-2-3 as a transition into the 4-2-3-1 formation, the striker can almost act simultaneously as the striker and central attacking midfielder, dropping in to come and collect loose balls and link up with their wingers and central midfielders lower on the field. If we look at the 3-2-3 as a transition into 4-3-3 or 3-4-3, this can also be the case as many teams play these days with strikers who drop deep and act more as play-makers than they perhaps once might have. If this is the case, the wingers would look to push higher up the field, and the striker would take on a more important role in creating chances and defending.
The goalkeeper is an essential component to playing out from the back and integral to the 3-2-3 system. On top of needing to make smart saves and act as the very last line of defense for a team, they can also be the first attacker for the team. Ideally, goalkeepers should have excellent distribution and should be capable of spreading passes wide and high for their teammates to run onto or for their defenders to go on and be able to build out from the back. When through balls are played in behind the back three, they need to be dauntless and have the killer instinct to step out and clear the ball out of danger. Due to their ability to see the whole field, keepers should also be vocal and not afraid to speak up when they see something that is wrong. Goalkeepers are so much more than just goal-stoppers in today’s game and they need to be capable of not only being one of the very best on the team with their distribution and vision, but also so good with their feet that they should be capable of playing out of net too.
When the ball is in the goalkeeper’s half, they should be helping to organize the defense and telling them when to shift, step, pressure, squeeze or hold. They also need to keep an eye on their posts and make sure they are always well positioned for an impending shot. When the ball is in the opposition’s half, the goalkeeper can come out of their net in between the eighteen yard box and halfway line. If a breakaway were to occur, the goalkeeper again can be key in stopping the player from scoring by challenging the player in a 1v1 and not letting the attacker have the opportunity to make the first move. But most importantly, if they can stop goals from going in the back of the net, a 3-2-3 team will never lose. Simple as that.
So there it is! A comprehensive guide to all the Positions, Roles and Responsibilities of the 3-2-3 Formation for 9v9 soccer. I hope you enjoyed this article and be sure to check out more like this in our Coaching section right here. Also be sure to follow The Mastermind Coaching on Twitter, to never miss an update.
For more on the 3-2-3 see -> Coaching the 3-2-3 (9v9)
For more on the 9v9 Formations see -> Best Formations for 9v9