Door 3: 3 variants of the 3-zone game

By Eduard Schmidt

Similar to the end zone game that we already discussed in the first article of the calendar, a training game with 3 zones is quite a common set-up to use for many coaches, especially when they want to work on building up from the back.

On the one hand it’s possible to not regulate the exact numerical occupation of the zones but to give certain objectives based on what to do with or within the zones. For example, the ball must be played through all zones before a goal can be scored or a ball win in the last third is rewarded in a special way.

On the other hand, its also possible to start with certain numbers in each zone. Certain actions can then break this kind of organization. For example, there are equal numbers in the middle third and each team has one player more in the third closer to its own goal. If a player dribbles from there to the middle third, this can change in favor of the attacking team and it can progress more effectively.

In the following examples I will focus on the latter of the two possibilities. Like in all of my articles for this calendar, I will additionally use videos to show a certain game situation. It may exactly fit the training game or will emphasize a certain aspect of it.

Variant 1: Coming between the lines

(Greetings to Mario Despotovic, Hajduk Split U19. That’s his team you see there)

The first variant is all about simulating playing between the opponent’s lines while maintaining pressure on the ball after the ball successfully enters those areas of the field. The possibility to dynamically attack certain spaces is maintained throughout the training game.


In a field that stretches from one penalty area to the other and is also as wide as the box, you mark out “new” penalty areas on each end. The actual field is located between both of them. It is divided into 3 zones that are separated through relatively short buffer areas. The newly set lines of the box are offside lines at the same time.

Those black areas shall be “jumped”. The team in possession is not allowed to enter. At first, the same goes for the defending team. In its own third, each team starts in a 3 versus 2 whilst there’s a 3 versus 3 in the center of the field.


One of the teams builds up in its own third, using the numerical advantage. The aim is to progress to one of the next two zones before eventually entering the penalty box at the other side of the field from where a goal can be scored (1 point). Progression is only possible through passes on the ground. After this happens one player can always move up to the next zone. Like that, a 4 versus 3 in the middle is created. In the final third, a 3 versus 3 emerges.

If the defending teams wins the ball, all restrictions stop and it becomes a free game. Until the ball goes out or one of the goalkeepers gets it, there’s an 8 versus 8. Afterwards the team that would normally continue the game with a throw-in, goal kick et cetera, gets the ball in their own third and all zonal restrictions are in place again.


– Direct pass from own third to last third = 1 extra point
– Players are allowed to enter the next zone oft he field before the pass is actually played (numerical equality in build-up for the benefit of numerical superiority in the center)
– Mark out further buffer areas at the lines of the penalty boxes and allow back passes to the keepers. Once the ball is played to one of them, everybody drops one zone closer: build up in the penalty box (4 versus 2), 3 versus 3 in what used to be the first third, 2 versus 3 in the former center of the. The game is still played in three zones, only. The final third is unoccupied or only covered by the opponent goalkeeper.
– Defenders are allowed to enter the buffer areas to passes more effectively. Alternatively, you can put dummies in those areas or assign additional players to only defend there.
– Numerical equality in all zones, goalkeepers can push up fort he build-up (goalkeeper chain) and can actively participate in the rest defence (2 versus 2) once a build-up player progresses to the next zone.
– On each sideline, there’s an additional neutral player who can move to support next to the ball area. The players inside the field are not allowed to change their respective zones.

Coaching points within the initial setup

Thanks to the numerical superiority, there’s a comfortable base for possession in the own third which should be used in a calm manner. Until a gap opens, the ball can be played from side to side. To eventually play the ball forward, the pre-orientation of the passer is key. Before he receives the ball, he needs to look into depth. An open body position is of advantage for this. The use of it can be shown apart from the mere mechanical execution.

Potential receivers probably face a more or less strict man-orientation by the opponent players due to the numerical equality in the central zone. Therefore, it’s rather important to use the different methods of dismarking – as well individually (e.g. double movement) as group tactically (positional changes, blocking etc.).

The players need to be aware of their timing in relation to the passer. Potential receivers need to react on his body position early on and be in a position by themselves from where they can progress the game. At the same time, another player from the own third (ideally the one positioned the furthest away) should be ready to progress exactly in the moment when the pass is played. He needs to get in a position from where he can receive potential lay-offs.

Therefore, the initial passer must be perceived and eye contact with the first receiver must be created. For this receiver the orientation can work like this: checking the shoulder – passer – option for lay-off (also perceive nearby team mates that cross the path) – passer/ball.

Ideally, the receiver can turn and doesn’t need to play a lay-off pass. This would only make sense, if the team mate is clearly in a better position/situation. Once the receiver actually turns, the player that progressed from his own third can even continue his run all the way to final third, based on the movement of the other players from the middle zone.

When passing to the final third, the timing and execution even become more important due to the numerical disadvantage, but the basic principles stay the same. This is similar to an actual situation in the final third in the game. Every time, you face the opponent’s goal and have a bit of space, the first touch needs to be taken aggressively. Finish as quickly as possible from decent positions within the box.

Variant 2: Quick combination through the center

In the following training game compared to the video it’s all about focusing on central play and finding creative solutions to involve the free player in the center and playing into depth. Additionally, the follow-up actions create diverse transition moments.


A field with the width of the box and the length of half the pitch is divided in 3 zones (basically three penalty boxes, one above another). Two big goals are put on the short sides of the field. In their own third, each team is in a 2 versus 1 situation, while there’s a 2 versus 2 with 1 neutral in the central zone.


From the build-up in a 2 versus 1 (goalkeeper not involved at first) the ball shall be passed to the middle third within 5 to 10 seconds after the game started. Both build-up players remain in their third. Together with the neutral a 3 versus 2 is played in the middle of the field. He must touch the ball at least once, before the team can progress to the final third.

Once the ball gets there, both players from the middle third are allowed to push up and create a 3 versus 2 again. The neutral remains in the center and is the main transition player for the defending team after they win the ball. Through him, they can counter immediately. Both players that remained in the middle third are allowed to directly run through to the last third and can create a 3 versus 2 by themselves-

The game continues until the ball goes out of bounds or a goal is scored. The team that scored is in possession of the ball for the restart. If no team scored, the possession changes compared to the previous round.


– Goalkeeper can actively involved in build-up. At latest with the third pass, the team needs to progress to the middle third.
– If the own team creates a 3 versus 2 in the final third, the two players from the own third are allowed to push into the middle. With the counter-attack, a free game starts. The remaining striker of the previously defending team cannot be offside. An additional focus on counterpressing is created.
– Time restriction for finishing on the counter.
– Counting the overall time that an attack takes from build-up to scoring: Which team can go all the way within the shortest amount of time? Each goal against on the counter equals a time penalty that is added to the fastest try. The same can be implemented the other way around for goals scored from counter-attacks by the team itself.

Coaching points within the initial setup

For the players in the first zone fast vertical play is of highest importance. But it shall still be executed as calm as possible. If a passing line towards the neutral is open, he shall be reached immediately. Because the opponents also know how important he is for the game, he probably won’t have time to turn.

Therefore, the two other players in the middle zone need to position themselves for follow-up actions immediately or need to get the ball from the build-up by themselves. If this happens, they should circulate the ball quickly between each other to keep the defenders moving. This allows for the neutral to re-position himself quickly. In doing so, he constantly needs to scan his surroundings and needs to react quickly to changing situations.

If the possession team successfully connected to him, they should, once again, play into depth as quickly as possible. For this, horizontal lay-offs off the striker towards players moving up from the middle third can be very effective. One-twos and third man actions are generally useful group tactical tools for this.

Close to the goal, the defenders need to permanently put pressure on the ball. For them it’s desirable to isolate one of the opponents next to the touchline. The first look after winning the ball goes towards the neutral player that remained in the center. Once the ball is played to him, the previous attackers can react quickly by themselves and stop the attack before the other team reaches the final third. Continuous intensity is guaranteed and enough rest is required to maintain it throughout the drill.

Variant 3: Back pass as first pass forward

In this variant the relation between players and field dimensions are noticeably lowered. From back passes situations are created, in which space further upfield is opened and can be used.


A field with the width of the box and the length of half the pitch is divided in 3 zones (basically three penalty boxes, one above another). Two big goals are put on the short sides of the field. In its own third each team is in a numerical superiority of 3 versus 1. In the center, a 4 versus 4 is played. Next to it, there are spare balls on either side of the field.


The game always starts with possession of one team in the middle zone, where the 4 versus 4 is maintained. The attacking team can either directly play to the final third, create a 4 versus 3 there and finish off the attack. A goal is rewarded with one point.

Or the possession team plays a back pass to its own third, where they can use the 3 versus 1 (plus goalkeeper). Opponents can press them in whatever way they like. All players from the middle third are allowed to push up. From the own third, the ball needs to brought into the final third, where again a 4 versus 3 can be created. A goal would now be rewarded with 3 points instead of 1.

If the defenders win the ball, they are allowed to play one counter-attack. A counter-counter will not be played at first. If the team scores on the counter, they get the ball in the middle third for the next round. If they fail to score, the other team starts again.


– The team in possession can push one player from their own third to the middle zone to create a numerical advantage (“switch center back“).
– Allow counter-counters, if the ball is lost in the final third and won back immediately.
– With the back pass to the own third, a completely free game emerges. The team in possession gets 3 points for scoring.
– Change the numerical relations in each zone before every round: When does it make sense to play a back pass? When should we play forward right away?

Coaching points within the initial setup

In this variant it’s especially important to attract the opponent in a flexible manner and to develop a feeling for their behavior. For example, it’s possible to be under pressure right from the start. The opponent forces a decision. In this situation a back pass makes sense right away. One of the three players in the own third should immediately drop off for this to be in a good position to receive.

When the opponent defends aggressively, they will probably follow a back pass and press the receiver without stopping. Through his positioning he should be able to pass the ball to the other side of the field without delay. There, a team mate will have a bit more time at his disposal to orient himself forward and to perceive the furthest possible passing option. If the pass can’t be played nonetheless and the opponent still pressures the ball, a team mate can be found on a closer layer in the center (logical continuation of the perception) or next to the sideline.

In case of doubt, there’s still the option to play back to the goalkeeper or to the central defender, if they switch to a supporting position right away. A back pass would be played against the shifting of the opponent. A central gap can be created through this.

If the initial pressing allows back passes to be played, but focuses more on a compact defending of the center afterwards, the ball can be circulated for a bit in the middle third until the opponent is stretched. Then, a back pass can be played or the striker receives the ball immediately.

The latter should always happen immediately, if the pressing team only cares about not allowing a back pass. Then you should straight go for goal. After the ball is played to the striker, similar aspects like in the previously discussed training games become important.

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