Under 11 and 12 football in the UK is usually spent playing 9-a-side which is the closest format to a full sized game and borrows many of its tactical formations from its big brother.
9-a-side is a brilliant format for developing many of the skills for full sized football whilst also placing tactical demands onto all teams who must occupy space on the pitch, provide effective service to their strikers and score goals, so choosing the best way of playing 9 v 9 can be a challenge.
Players generally have more touches of the ball in 9 v 9 football than 11 v 11, and are able to develop their skills much more effectively. However, it is strikingly similar to full sized football compared to 7-a-side allowing for a number of important skills to be displayed that are not in evidence in the smaller formats. These can include long passing, set pieces and different patterns of play.
Here are a variety of 9 v 9 formations and ways of playing which may suit your 9 a side team:
This is often a great starting point for teams in 9 v 9 football. Teams that are slightly unsure of their strength in comparison to their opponents often favour this as it provides them with a solid defensive base whilst allowing for the scope and flexibility to break out and cause an attacking threat.
The central column of 2 central defenders, 2 central midfield players and 2 forwards provide a solid spine to the team meaning that your team will always be able to compete in central areas. This formation comes into its own when the 2 wide defenders are athletic and can cover a lot of ground.
An extension of this formation is to allow the 2 wide defenders to play as high as the ball, meaning you either defend with 4, play in midfield with 4 or attack with 4 depending on where the ball is in play at any given time. Again, this is highly reliant upon the ability of the 2 wide defenders to cover ground.
A further alternative is for the 2 wide defenders to pivot when the ball is in wide positions on the pitch. For instance, when the ball is on the left, the wide defender on that side of the pitch engages with the ball while the wide defender on the right tucks in to play as a third centre half and vice versa. It's important that when they do this the covering wide defender plays with their shoulders open i.e. with their back to their own goal so that they can have maximum field of vision and respond to quick switches in play.
Having the right defensive shape is essential for stopping the opponents from scoring. There is more strength in defending as a team than relying on the individual skills of your defenders to get you out of trouble. The value of a great defence is often lost in the modern game which rightly celebrates the most skilful strikers and goalscorers however, there has never been a successful team at any level of football that couldn’t defend!
Again a solid base of 4 provides a great defensive base on which to build.
As with any formation where there is only 1 striker there is the danger that they become isolated.
The two wide midfielders need to ensure they push forward to support whenever they can.
The single striker needs to be patient as they may go through periods of the game where they don’t see the ball.
The goalkeeper needs to dictate that the defence holds as high a line as they can and push the team higher up the pitch as a unit.
This formation looks to be the most balanced on the page and provides a natural spread through defence, midfield and attack. For this reason many consider it to be the best formation for 9 v 9 football.
Ironically, one of the ways teams often come unstuck with this formation is because the team is so well dispersed, players often become 'stuck' in their positions and are slow to react through transitions especially when the ball is turned over to the opposition.
Building from the three in defence, this offers the flexibility to play a diamond 4 in midfield with a defensive central midfield player 'holding' and providing stability in front of the defence. There is scope for an attacking central midfield player to drift behind the front two.
This formations benefits when there is pace in the front 2 and the opposition defence is likely to drop off and play deep.
The job of the front 2 is to stretch the opposition defence high up the pitch and create the pockets of space for the attacking midfield player to receive the ball.
An extension of this formation is to play a rotational diamond in midfield with interchanges between the players who can rotate clockwise, anti-clockwise and through opposite points in the diamond to create the space needed to get onto the ball and secure possession.
This 9 v 9 formation suits teams with players who are comfortable in possession and can look after the ball as it allows for lots of options for triangular interplay with the ball.
With the three defenders and three midfielders stretching the pitch as wide as possible in possession it really opens up the possibilities for playing through the lines and creating chances.
One downside to this formation and something the coach will need to be aware of is how open the team will be if the ball is turned over to the opposition. The transition into defence from attacking positions needs to be quick and precise to ensure a good defensive shape.
There is also the danger that teams will 'overplay' in this formation with the team becoming brainwashed into thinking that short intricate passing is the only method of playing. Longer passing into your front 3 strikers is also a dangerous tactic to use.
The ability to pass the ball accurately is essential in 9 v 9 football and also 11 v 11. It enables teams to stretch the play and switch the point of attack quickly. It is arguably one of the most difficult techniques to master and many of the top players spent years practising to improve their technique.
In this formation you must also ensure you have players who are comfortable receiving the ball. It is no good mastering long passing if you’re players are unable to control it and gift possession straight back to the other team. Your team will also have to look after the ball in tight positions too and have players who are confident playing in your own third of the pitch because this is what 3-2-3 requires.
It can also provide a mental test of the confidence of your players, it's interesting to watch how certain players respond to giving the ball away in their own third, some will keep wanting the ball and look to keep playing whereas others will go into their shell and stop showing for the ball. If your team has players who are likely to respond this way to mistakes it can make this formation difficult to execute.
With so many variations it can be difficult to decide on the best formation for the 9-a-side game. There are a range of factors which will affect your choice including the players you have to work with and the strength of the League you’re in.
If you want some help deciding, you could use an online Line-Up Builder which can really help you experiment with different formations and visualise your players in the positions.
If you’re still unsure then why not start with a 4-2-2 and give yourself a solid base from which to build. This is a great formation for helping you to find your feet in a game and there are endless alterations you can make to become gradually more adventurous as you get more confident.