9v9 Football has been the maximum format for U12 (Year 7) Football in England since the FA’s Youth development review in 2012. Currently the U13 (Year 8) age group is when players can play the 11v11 adult format of the game. Although 9v9 Football is accessible to club players at U11 (year 6) & U12, 7v7 is the maximum format in schools for U11’s and 9v9 is the maximum for U12’s.
The 9v9 game isn’t a ‘new’ format of the game. Some European countries including Germany and Holland have been using the format as a bridge between the 7v7 and 11v11 game for several years. I personally played 9v9 as a child growing up in Germany in the early 1990’s as an U12. Portable goals were placed on the edge of the penalty area on a 11 a-side pitch and the width was reduced by being marked out by cones.
In the Independent sector there is some disparity between schools who separate the U12 and U13 age groups and schools who combine their U12 & U13 year groups for their Games programme across Sports. Whilst individual schools have their own rationale for doing this, there is certainly no right or wrong way to ‘group’ pupils as there are advantages and disadvantages for both. There is a strong argument to not band pupils by year groups but the constraints of how schools operate often restrict flexibility.
Currently exceptional U12 pupils are able to play an age group up with U13’s and therefore participate in the 11v11 format. It must be stressed however that this is for exceptional pupils only and teachers are encouraged to make an informed decision about each individual pupil regarding their Technical, Physical, Psychological and Social attributes and whether doing so is in the best interest of each pupil. An issue has arisen whereby U12 pupils who would not be deemed exceptional are regularly playing in 11v11 matches as often their age group is combined with the U13’s. Schools who combine these age groups and potentially field A,B,C,D,E etc 11v11 teams against other schools or even internally in house matches etc are going against the FA’s recommended guidelines for schools football.
Why Play 9v9
The main theme throughout 9v9 is to meet the needs of children and eleven-a-side football does not meet those needs. Children need a modified game that fits their age and stage of learning and too often it’s the children that are modified to meet the requirements of a game. The 9v9 (and 7v7 & 5v5) modified version of football maintains the integrity of the game without losing the essence of the game, which is important for children. All available research and observations show that children will have more fun and learn more playing a game with smaller teams and modified rules.
9v9 is a game that supports progression of their learning, not taking them from a child’s experience in Mini-Soccer (7v7) at U11 straight into an adult’s version of the game at U12.
• 9v9 aims to set realistic expectations that meet the needs of young people, not those of adults.
• It focuses on the development of children rather than the result of the match. For their future lives, children need to learn that co-operation is vital but also the joys that being part of a team can bring and football is a fantastic and exciting game that can teach those skills.
• Therefore, this format is a phased development for their learning, starting to teach them about the roles and responsibilities of different positions on a football pitch, without shattering their self-confidence trying to defend an adult-sized goal or running them into the ground on an over-sized pitch!
• Additionally, 9V9 offers, a ‘real’ football experience which includes an introduction to additional roles and responsibilities of being a player.
• It offers an environment that supports the development of ‘game understanding’, more practice time to develop skills appropriate to the modern game and the development of shooting and finishing skills in a challenging goal size.
• Goalkeeper’s are afforded a realistic chance of saving shots and importantly, 9V9 offers a football experience not based on requiring bigger, stronger, faster players for success.
Age appropriate Formats
It must be highlighted that whilst the U12 age group can play a maximum format of 9v9 and the U13 age group 11v11, it certainly does not mean that these should be the only formats which pupils experience.
The FA DNA for the Youth Development Phase (12-16) highlights the needs for pupils to experience a range of formats of the game to support their ‘Football Diet’. These meaningful experiences of the game across this age phase could be flexible formats of the game from 1v1 or 3v3 to 11v11. It could include indoor formats, outdoor on both astroturf and grass and with pupils of mixed ages, physical size, social group or gender.
• The key message here is that competition needs to meet the demands of the child and teachers should use their professional judgement to create appropriate competition in order to ensure that pupils fall, or remain in love with the game and therefore leads pupils to continue to engage in physical activity for the rest of their lives.
Age Appropriate Case Study (Bede’s Prep School, Eastbourne)
A perfect example of this that I experienced took place on an U13 football tour to Barcelona with 40 pupils from my previous school where I was head of Football in the October half term of 2015. Several pupils had some experience of the 11v11 game in school and for those that played with a local club. All pupils had experienced 9v9 at the school at U12 and many would have experienced the 7v7 and smaller sided formats in their primary aged schooling.
On arriving to our first fixture, many pupils expressed their dissatisfaction as we would be playing four 7v7 matches against a local Spanish club side as opposed to two 11v11 matches. This was also the case in our two other fixtures against local opposition during the rest of the tour, however the expression of frustration from the pupils had evolved into delight when they were informed that they would be playing 7v7 and not 11v11.
Why did the pupils attitude switch from not wanting to play 7v7 to pleading to play 7v7 on that tour? The answer lay with the pupils’ responses. Effectively the environment these pupils played in was more appropriate to their needs than the adult 11v11 game. The pupils remarked that they enjoyed the game more because they had more time on the ball, the matches were more inclusive as they felt they were more involved in the game.
More goals were scored, yet more goals were conceded and the distance that each pupil had to travel during the game was perceived (by the pupils) to be less which led to an increase in intensity of the game. The goals were appropriately sized for the U13 age group, enabling goalkeepers to have a realistic chance of saving the ball yet allowing players the appropriate challenge to score. Regardless of their ability, all 40 pupils played in three age appropriate and suitably competitive matches which catered for their needs.
The key learning experience from this tour was how we could cater for more pupils to play at the same time. By playing two 7v7 matches across one 11v11 pitch meant that 14 players could be participating in a game at any one time compared to only 11 if we had been playing the larger format and consequently less pupils were waiting on the touchline.
Invariably switching from 11v11 to 9v9 in some schools will have its difficulties, however there are some very easy solutions.
• The recommended goal size for 9v9 football is 7ft by 16ft, although 7ft by 21ft goals are also accepted for competition as per FA guidelines. These goals are age appropriate and are far better than having pupils of this age play in full sized 8ft by 24ft goals.
• There may be an initial outlay to purchase new goals, however they will get lots of use and will be a sound investment.
• If you have an existing full size 11v11 pitch, could you mark out a 9v9 pitch in a different colour or failing that use cones to mark out the pitch.
• For schools who are fortunate to have a full sized 11v11 pitch, could you have two 9v9 pitches going across the 11v11 pitch, meaning more pupils will be able to utilise the space in competition
Mixed U12’s & U13’s
• Many schools who combine their U12 & U13 pupils will often field one 11v11 team and then other 9v9 or 7v7 teams to cater for all their pupils by affording them appropriate competition related to their current ability.
• Traditionally in the independent sector there has often been a race to the full-sized adult game across sports. The RFU, ECB and England Hockey have all recently adjusted their playing formats to meet the needs of children at different ages which initially have caused adults to panic, however from the children they have been widely received.
• Can we think differently about what a traditional block football fixture looks like? Does it have to look like what it did 50 years ago? Is this the most beneficial format for the pupils or is it to uphold adult traditions?
• Could we not have a mini tournament instead of one 11v11 game? Would having two 7v7 or 9v9 teams from one school and two from another school in a round robin tournament not be more beneficial for the pupils?
• Why don’t we mix the teams up from schools? Why does it always have to be our school against another school? At Prep school level, invariably a lot of the pupils will end up at the same senior school and there would be countless social and psychological benefits of getting pupils to mix from different schools at a younger age.
• Why do we always group the pupils in teams ranging from A to E,F,G etc. Would it really be an issue if they were mixed up? Maybe this is too much for you? You may then want to still keep an A team, however, mix up the rest of the pupils so they are playing in roughly equal teams which may lead to more appropriate competition.
• Do we only have to play block fixtures against one school at any one time? Could you not invite two or three schools to play at the same time e.g. Four schools play a shorter round robin format best utilising the space and time available?
• Are your pupils getting a round diet of football experiences? The ISFA u13 cup caters for those pupils who are more able and having children experience 11v11 is certainly no bad thing. The problem arises if that is the only format of the game that children of this age experience. You may want to change how competition looks in your school environment as you control these parameters, knowing that when you play away fixtures you may be playing a larger format. Your pupils will be getting a much better experience though as they are sampling different formats and experiences.
• Could you cater for novice boys and girls by playing formats of the game which are best suited as an introduction to the game. 5v5 and 7v7 are great introductions to the game even for older pupils before they transition to the 9v9 or 11v11 game.
• My final question though is around who the current playing formats benefit. Teachers must ask themselves if the environment and playing format truly have the pupil’s best interests at heart or if it’s the teachers or school’s ego by ‘beating’ the local opposition which is driving the competition
The FA are currently starting the process of another Youth Development Review (version 2) which will look at the Youth Development Phase (12-16). It may be the case that in a couple of seasons time 9v9 is the maximum format permissible for Year 7, Year 8 and maybe even Year 9 pupils as the research is suggesting that pupils of these age groups prefer smaller formats. Could your school be a pioneer, thinking differently about the ‘football diet’ that your pupils experience and influencing change in your local area?
How can we as teachers support the development of football and other sports for our pupils by keeping:
• As many as possible,
• As long as possible
• In the best environment possible