Coaching the 3-1-3-1 (9v9)

When deployed correctly, the 3-1-3-1 can be one of the most fluid, flexible and fantastic 9v9 formations. Like anything in the beautiful game, team tactics, style of play and intricacies can only evolve within the realms of a team’s own unique characteristics (including players involved, level of opposition, coaching preferences, and more). But if I had my pick of the litter within a squad, this is how I would deploy the 3-1-3-1 formation at the 9v9 level.

FORMATION BASICS

The 3-1-3-1 incorporates one goalkeeper, three defenders, one defensive midfielder, a trio of attacking midfielders, and a striker. The obvious spaces in the formation are therefore in the half-spaces between the defensive and central attacking midfielder, requiring both to put a shift in to cover those spaces out of possession. More positively, the formation is well set up to cover both wide and central channels if players hold positional discipline, and incorporates a natural pressing diamond up front. It therefore becomes easier to teach young players all about their specific role in a team within the 3-1-3-1, through clearly defined roles and positions. With that, here is how I would promote the skillsets of each of my players in a 3-1-3-1.

GOALKEEPER

Within my dream 3-1-3-1, the goalkeeper would hold an important role out of possession in sweeping in behind the back-line. The goalkeeper should do all of the most basic functions required of their position – from command, to strong leadership and communication, all the way to stopping shots from finding the back of the net. But in my version of the system, they would even be a capable progressor and ball-player, recognizing moments to go long as opposed to play short.

I typically tell players at the youth level to gamble after saving a shot, recognizing that the opposition have not had the proper time to set up their shape, having thrown numbers forward into the attack. This is then a good opportunity for the keeper to hit balls over the top, particularly if there is a speedy attacker on the wing or up front that can contest those longer passes and run the channels.

With that key role in possession in mind, my goalkeeper would also understand their role in supporting in behind the back-line. Through use of storytelling, video footage of some of the best modern day ‘Sweeper Keepers’, and automatisms done in training, I would instill a ‘Sweeperhood’ mindset within my keeper in the 3-1-3-1.

FULL-BACKS

Full-backs within my 3-1-3-1 would need to understand the attack-minded role that they hold for their team, in getting up and down the wing. They would need to hold high endurance and mobility, capable of recovering great distances after making lung-bursting runs forward. We would inspire this level of work ethic and attacking intensity in training through sessions like our Attack-Minded Fullbacks – Full Session Plan, rewarding behaviours that we want to see.

But full-backs still need to understand their role as a defensive one, and they must therefore be capable of winning their 1v1 battles. Strong, physical defenders would be prioritized in the positions, particularly if they possess enough ability on the ball to spray passes around and aid in progression going the other way.

That’s because full-backs would also be responsible for the initial stages of build-up, either as the first or second pass on goal kicks and recycles of play. As the ball is progressed into the attacking midfielder or striker dropping deep to receive, the full-backs could then see that as an opportunity to gallop up the field and support the attack. Generally, it would be best for rest-defense purposes for only one to go at a time. But against certain opposition teams, perhaps ones that don’t excel in attacking transitions, we can push both full-backs forward at the same time and allow more numbers to get forward in contributing to the attack.

CENTRE-BACK

The centre-back within the team must be a capable leader, tactically adept in seeing the picture as it unfolds and correctly responding. This may include covering for an out of position full-back as they shift out wide, sweeping in behind to meet a ball over the top, or kick-starting build-ups as the quarterback in the team.

The first pass in build-up phases from the goalkeeper can often come to the centre-back, who can immediately look for a progressive pass into the attacking midfielder or striker responsible for dropping deep. They must then be able to play forward passes at ease, including a range of long and short passes. In a high-possession team, we would even help them understand their role as a key dictator when changing the point of attack, working on their diagonal switching of play in training.

Then out of possession they should play more like a ‘Sweeper’ than ‘Stopper’, knowing there is a defensive midfielder in front of them that can shield the back-line and end attacks before situations turn dire.

DEFENSIVE MIDFIELDER

The defensive midfielder within the 3-1-3-1 must recognize their role in holding one of the most integral defensive roles in the team. Their ability to stay central and hold position must be met with an astute awareness of space in recognizing how and when to cover the half-spaces naturally exposed within the formation, and the spaces in behind the full-backs as they venture forward.

In a “one-at-a-time” approach, the defensive midfielder can even nicely slot into the role for the advanced full-back, or can stay ahead as the other two defenders compact central channels. If both go forward at the same time, it may be wise to position that defensive midfielder in behind the opposition’s furthest striker, allowing a ball over the top to be met with two players now rather than one (the centre-back alone). The defensive midfielder and centre-back would then work in tandem during defensive transitions to delay the attack, limit the opposition’s ability to progress toward goal, and allow the full-backs time to recover position.

In possession, they may be less of a dictator of switches and orchestrated moves. But with the right, tactically aware ‘Deep-Lying-Playmaker’, they can even hold a similarly important role in helping keep the team ticking from left to right. Both the defensive midfielder and attacking midfielder must be incredibly intelligent players, which would allow them the ability to swap in and out of both roles throughout the season – giving the team a different look depending on the moment.

ATTACKING MIDFIELDER

Similarly to the defensive midfielder, the attacking midfielder must also understand their integral role as an orchestrator for defensive intensity and resilience. But their role comes higher up the pitch, where they are responsible for helping funnel opposition builds toward the touch-line. They hold an important role as the bottom of the diamond quartet responsible for leading the press, and must therefore be comfortable covering ground laterally. If the defensive midfielder ever ventured forward into the attack, they may even be responsible for shifting into the defensive midfielder’s role, proactively covering their position.

Simultaneously, the attacking midfielder must be a capable creator of goals – comfortable playing passes in behind to the striker and wingers at the right moments. They should be comfortable on the ball in both driving and playing passes in between the lines, where they can support the goal-scorers around them. We would also have the attacking midfielder dropping in to support build-up phases, again requiring them to be tactically adept at exploiting perceptions of ball, opposition, teammates and space.

WINGERS

While we would use the term ‘winger’ to describe the role of our wide players, they would be treated more as ‘Inverted Wingers’, getting closer to the striker as the full-backs operate up and down the wings. They can invert one at a time as the other holds the width on the other side, particularly if only one full-back is to venture forward at a time. But their role is not only to hold a wide position, but to roam toward the striker, aiding link-up, hold-up, and combination play in the final third. This would support both the attacking midfielder’s role as one that drops deeper to pick up possession, and the ability of the full-backs to correctly perceive spaces to gallop on the overlap.

Out of possession, the wingers must then be responsible for covering the wide areas, narrowing only when the ball makes its way to the opposite side. We would facilitate more of a ball-oriented press, where the far-sided winger comes closer to the halfway-line, and the entire team shifts ever so slightly to that side to limit a route out for the opposition. Immediately upon regains, they may be immediately responsible for expanding the field, but their close proximity could also be useful in immediately kick-starting counter-attacks through quick combination play.

STRIKER

The final member of the squad would need to be more than just a goal-scorer, even if they may hold the brunt of the scoring responsibilities. The striker in our 3-1-3-1 system would be someone more comfortable holding up the ball, linking play with their teammates, and operating more like a ‘False 9’ or back-to-goal ‘Target-Man’ than an out-and-out goal-scorer.

Like the attacking midfielder, they would be responsible for dropping deep in certain phases of build-up to overload central channels, where they can then bounce the ball to the full-backs making their way up the pitch, or the wingers endeavouring to grow in proximity.

Going the other way, the striker becomes responsible for leading the press, and needs to be fully aware that their first instinct should be to pressure relentlessly whenever the opposition start their build-up. We would work tirelessly on pressing and playing out from the back to help the striker understand their role in this process, and the key steps for success, such as angle of approach.

BUILD-UP

There are two key ways that a 3-1-3-1 team could build out from the back to success. The first is in positioning the players in their normal starting positions, with the centre-back remaining a useful backwards options in case the full-back gets stuck after the first pass. Progression would then look to the wide areas, or to the striker/attacking midfielder working to drop toward the ball.

But the more interesting way of doing it would be to push one full-back higher into the attack, recognizing that to be where you want them to operate anyway. We would then build-up with an overloaded side down one of the wings, where a capable progressor can now have more options in a successful second pass.

Within this ideology, the attacking midfielder and striker could still work in tandem to drop deep and support builds, as soon as the ball travels from keeper to the first receiver, with now more options to bounce their pass.

The defensive midfielder is generally not to be used as an option in build-up phases, instead holding court to destroy play in case of any slip-ups.

PRESSING

When pressing from the front, the 3-1-3-1 provides a natural quartet. The attacking-midfielder, two wingers, and the striker can work in tandem to create that diamond shape, moving together toward the side of the ball. The defensive midfielder can cover in behind in case the ball finds its way through, as the back-three hold a withdrawn role. Again, opposition teams should recognize the half-spaces as a potential avenue to exploit in the 3-1-3-1’s shape. But if the striker and attacking midfielder angle their press and cover correctly, the opposition may not be able to adequately seek spaces into that area. They may be inspired to go wide instead, where we want to force them anyway, forcing the ball out of play as it reaches the touch-line. We would press for purposes of winning back possession and quickly advancing toward goal – turning our defense into a form of attack.

As a bonus, here’s a variation where the attacking midfielder starts high and in line with the striker, in more of a 3-3-2 press. The problem with this is that if you come up against a back-three, and the back-three smartly orient themselves in the way I describe in my Coaching 9v9 Soccer – Ebook, your front two will be outnumbered in that equation. If pressure is then applied to the first pass, your striker may be out of their depth and taken out of the equation if the second pass finds its way out wide.

In this example, the best approach is then to instead delay the pressure and hold position, where the striker/attacking midfielder can cut off several passing options at once. Then as the ball travels to the full-back, the striker/attacking midfielder can then pressure the ball, as the other shifts across to cut off central corridors. If the striker had initially pressured the centre-back in the image above instead, they would then leave their winger in a 2v1 situation, where confusion can occur about whether to stick or twist. By delaying the pressure instead, they cut off all of the centre-back’s first options in the pass, and can then respond to their desired second pass out wide more appropriately.

DEFENSIVE TRANSITIONS

Since our full-backs are to venture forward into the attack, we must always be thinking about our rest-defense and how we are shaping up to defend counter-attacks. The defensive midfielder’s role becomes particularly imperative to this process, and they must be climatized to a variety of different scenarios in training depending on ball, opposition, teammates and space. Generally speaking though, the ‘Sweeper’-‘Stopper’ relationship can be maintained between centre-back and defensive midfielder with each understanding their distinct role in who steps up to challenge and when. The goalkeeper may also become imperative to that process, through their own measures of sweeping in behind and holding a high position to stop quick attacks.

But defensive transitions must be collective process where the entire team buys into the process. The players closest to the situation should immediately counter-press after they lose possession, even in a pack of wolves. The full-backs must also carefully read one another’s positioning, taking turns in advancing into the attack against opposition clubs that excel on the break. This would ensure we always have an extra member of our rest-defense, helping the defensive midfielder to hold a truer position to their role and not necessarily need to provide cover out wide in certain circumstances.

ATTACKING TRANSITIONS

When transitioning to attack, we should look for verticality in immediately finding our danger players, whether that be our speedy wide players, our ‘target’ striker, or the tactically-adept attacking midfielder receiving in between the lines. Full-backs may have an immediate opportunity to roam forward in exploiting the opposition, as they may have just put their energies into formulating an attack of their own.

Quick attacking transitions can even be prioritized after the keeper makes a save, such as the wingers and striker remaining ready to chase down a goalkeeper’s long pass over the top, or knock one down to a teammate. Allowing the striker and wide players to hold a high role even in defensive phases would better support this process, giving the opposition little time to react in defending on the break. The out of possession shape could then adapt into a 3-2-3 depending on the moment, if attacking transitions were to be prioritized.

FLEXIBILITY

When changing formations, I would typically recommend sticking to one that does not disrupt the defensive unit. Changing from a back-three to a back-two and vice versa is one of the more difficult adjustments for players to make at the 9v9 level, as it takes a completely new set of principles needing to be worked on in training. So when it comes to a 3-1-3-1, there are only a few formations that may be worth adapting into depending on the moment and the coach’s perceptions of the evolution of the match. The 3-2-3 is the most obvious, as it positions a pairing of central midfielders that can adjust for one another, rather than a clearly-defined defensive-attacking pairing. But in other moments, different levels of flexibility may be required.

For example, if the 3-1-3-1 team are having a difficult time pressing from the front, a 3-3-2 may be a natural adaptation. The 3-3-2 would allow all positions to stay in-tact (the midfield three can even triangulate as a 3-1-2-2), except for the attacking midfielder who joins the striker in pressing. A 3-2-1-2 may also be a similarly stable adaptation, that still prioritizes attack-minded-fullbacks in exploiting wide areas, within a more narrow approach down the centre spine of the team. This kind of formation would be excellent in shutting up shop and limiting central penetration, but can become limited in build-up play if the strikers don’t understand their role in dropping to the side of the ball and supporting the process.

If wanting to adopt a back-two and push another number forward into the attack, I would recommend the 2-1-4-1, due to its natural ease in prioritizing a clear defensive-midfielder/attacking-midfielder discrepancy. The full-backs would be taken out of the equation here, which would mean the defensive midfielder and wide players must work together to close down and pressure the wide areas before the ball reaches the centre-backs. But again, I would prefer to maintain the back-three when adjusting shape, and stick to the 3-1-3-1 whenever possible for purposes of consistency and chemistry.

CONCLUSION

The 3-1-3-1 formation can be an awesome system to deploy at the 9v9 level, with clearly-defined roles and much in the way of tactical flexibility. A more defensive or attacking approach can be adopted depending on the team’s own unique style of play and players available, but this is how I would adapt the formation. The keys would be in unlocking attack-minded-fullbacks, and supporting the growth and development of each player in understanding their role toward facilitating that process. Through the details listed in this article, each player would understand their role to be one that requires them to be on their game in all phases, regardless of if their team have possession of the ball or not. With the right players, this adoption of the 3-1-3-1 would be an enjoyable experience for players, allowing each of them to feel personally valued and accomplished within the system.


So there it is! How I would coach the 3-1-3-1 at the 9v9 level with a dream set of players. Be sure to check out more of our 9v9 content, and follow on social media @desmondrhys and @coachingtms for more coaching content. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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