Single-Digit Soccer: Flunk the 2-3-1?

After a long day on the field, I came home and found this video on possible 7v7 or 8v8 formations:

So basically, anything other than a 2-3-1.

In the U.S. Soccer curriculum handed down a couple of years ago, the recommended 7v7 formation (see p. 31 of the PDF) is … a 2-3-1.

Uh oh.

When I started with U9s this season, I went with the curriculum. Even showed my team a little photo gallery explaining how to make it work.

The curriculum, on the other hand, does not explain how to make it work.

And that raises the question of whether can make it work. Or whether I should try to shift gears midseason.

I get Mr. Video’s complaints about the 2-3-1. The defenders and wing midfielders have a lot of space to cover. The center midfielder has a complex role.

On my team, though, coverage isn’t a problem. The center mid is everywhere. I take the players with uncontainable energy and play them there.

The other issue, less specific to my team’s idiosyncrasies: Do we really want to take four players (three defenders and a goalkeeper) and tell them they’re not playing offense?

Yeah, yeah, I know — the outside backs can move up the field. Some kids will get that, some won’t.

So what would you do?

2015 update: This post remains popular to this day. If you enjoyed it, please check out my book, Single-Digit Soccerwhich you can get for roughly the price of a latte and a tip. (You DO tip your baristas, right?)




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Beau Dure

The guy who wrote a bunch of soccer books and now runs a Gen X-themed podcast while substitute teaching and continuing to write freelance stuff.

5 thoughts on “Single-Digit Soccer: Flunk the 2-3-1?”

  1. I’d go 3-1-2 and rotate players between the back 3 and front 2 while keeping your middle player reserved for the extra hyper ones. I think we all know why US Soccer likes the 2-3-1 for this age group but IMO the U9’s should focus on developing a love for the game first as well as some 1v1 skills rather than forming nice neat passing triangles and have great tactics.

  2. The question a youth coach needs to ask himself thinking about formations like that is whether they’re really being advocated because it teaches the players the greatest amount about the game–for eventual use down the road. Because it seems to me that the coach in the vid is advocating tactics only based on present-time considerations. (Which is a fancy way of saying, to win games.) This is a real contrast to his logic when he gets to explaining the midfield, where it’s about learning something that may be used in future 11-on-11 games.

  3. I’m new to the soccer coaching but have assisted many coaches in soccer with various ages of players. I find as coach you first need to recognize your player’s baseline ability. If you have very technically talented player but lack tactical awareness this can jam up play progression. I have used 2-2-2, 3-3 4 2 and 141. I find if working with gifted youth in academy level with good fitness the 231 allows great technical and tactical opportunities. I don’t just tell them set plays to run but rather using guided discovery in a board game ( chess) like model we see what can work in building up plays.

    I guess the key is like positions trying different formations in scrimmaging and showing the youth how this changes the roles and game can allow for raising soccer IQ if taught correctly.

  4. I think that is Larry Paul is the video — highly respected proponent of ssgs. But I disagree with him here. No question 2-3-1 is the way to go. Remember that this should be a long term project that we are undertaking with the players’ development. The roles of the players in the 2-3-1 teach them to work together and be aware of each other rather than just perform a singular task that playing in a simpler formation would create. For example, the two backs are not expected to cover the entire width of the field. Rather the weak sided midfielder must drop back and stay connected with the defender on his side and share defensive responsibilities. The 2-3-1 puts players in positions where they have to read the game and make decisions rather than having everything laid out in front of them.

  5. Landon Moore is 100% correct here. This video imho is fairly weak. From what I’ve observed (at all levels including the top academies), teams that use 3 backs in 7v7 regularly fall into a “kick and run” counterattacking strategy. 312 and 321 often become 3-3 (which he advocates for as a formation!) with one line kicking up to the other to chase after (or the GK directly punting the ball to the top 3). They win games at the young ages this way but it does not last, and winning should not be the objective at this age level anyway. He is basically advocating for kick and run in the video (eg suggesting 4 backs playing long balls into 2 strikers). Even defensively, pedagogically, kids need to learn pendulum defending (in pairs) before they can advance to reshaping properly as 3 backs. Defenders in a straight horizontal line (square) are easy to beat.

    Imho, we should be teaching the kids to play possession based attacking soccer (tika-taka), which is fundamentally based around seeing triangles and diamonds. This is the modern game, and the structure should enable the developmental concepts like playing out of the back, switching the field, up back throughs, positional interchange, etc. Though this is all possible with a 3 back system, it requires a sophisticated understanding of space and position (eg to avoid a midfield hole, loss of width, etc) whether it is through the CB stepping up, use of WB’s in attacking roles etc. Beyond that, “the 7th man” – the GK – was only mentioned once in this video as if they are unimportant! The modern GK is instrumental in the 231 attack, forming a triangle with the 2 defenders moving up field with the play, switching the point of attack, and acting as a sweeper to clean up long balls (eg Manuel Neuer or Hugo Lloris).

    In my experience, there is a steeper initial learning curve with 231, especially when we rotate all kids through all positions. It is also somewhat physically demanding as the midfield players do need to get behind the ball when they lose possession and the defenders need to move also (mine frequently run overlaps with the wingers). However, once they get it, they are able to make better decisions and play more creatively using more triangles with better spatial distribution (and still lots of 1v1 and counterattacking options), so the winning happens as a consequence of learning, as it should. Beyond that, it is beautiful to watch and fun to play! It would be a shame to discard 231 for the trivial reasons he suggests vs the overwhelming pedagogical benefits.

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