As a goalie, it helps to understand what lacrosse offenses are trying to do. Then we can recognize where potential scoring threats could arise and be prepared to stop them.
Like the sport of basketball, offenses in lacrosse can run a number of different formations each coming with its set of pros and cons.
Here are 7 of the most common lacrosse offensive sets that I’ve seen in my playing and coaching days.
Quick note for those unfamiliar with lacrosse, the set names count the number of players starting from behind the goal and moving towards the midfield line. So a 2-3-1 has 2 players behind the goal and 1 up top.
I’ve seen coaches call it reversed where the “2-3-1” has 1 player behind the goal and 2 up top but I was always taught to count players starting from behind the goal. So that’s my nomenclature with these different lacrosse offensive formations.
You can click here to jump right to a particular set:
Out of each offensive formation, teams can run any number of plays so this is just a high-level post outlining each formation and their pros and cons. While some of these formations may apply to the female game, this post really concentrates on the formations in the male game.
1-4-1 Offensive Set
In the 1-4-1 set, the offense will have the following:
1 middie up top
4 players across the middle
1 attackman behind the goal
Benefits of the 1-4-1
The 1-4-1 formation gives the middie up top a lot of room to dodge and initiate.
If the players across the middle are closer to the goal this means the defense’s slide must travel a long way to arrive and that usually spells trouble for the defense as the dodger has plenty of time to make the right feed.
If the 4 players execute good movement and picks this 1-4-1 set can be tricky for defenses to plan the right slide packages because the 2nd slide doesn’t know which middie or attackman to pickup with all the movement.
The 1-4-1 is often used against the zone defense as it tends to overload specific zones and also spread out the defense to create dodging and scoring opportunities for the wing players.
Since the 1-4-1 set puts two players on the crease, this can open up space on the perimeter as the defense must sluff in on the backside to help guard this crease overload.
Here is LaxFilmRoom’s breakdown of a play out of a 1-4-1 set:
Cons of the 1-4-1
Since the 1-4-1 is an ideal set for a lacrosse offense with a strong dodger up top, the contrary is also true. If the defense owns that matchup, the 1-4-1 presents problems.
First, if a takeaway check happens there is nobody there to stop the fastbreak. Second, it is pretty easy for the defense to shut off the wings of the 1-4-1 leaving the top middie with no outlet, or maybe a very long outlet pass.
Since the 1-4-1 puts two offensive players on the crease, if the O does not execute good movement it makes sliding and recovering very easy. The middle stays clogged and defenses will have no trouble sliding to a driving attackman.
In the 2-2-2 set the offense will have the following:
2 middies across the top
2 players (middie and attackman) across the middle
2 attack behind the goal
Benefits of the 2-2-2
The 2-2-2 gives the middie dodgers from up top room to sweep towards the goal or dodge down the alley.
With four players on the outside and two in the crease, it can open up passing lanes that lead to more shots on goal.
The 2-2-2 sets up very natural “2-man games” where a player can pick and re-pick with a partner. Instead of working with 5 other players on offense, a player can focus on working with a single teammate to get open and create opportunity.
For these reasons the 2-2-2 is a common formation used in the youth game. Getting 6 players on the same page is a tougher challenge with youth.
Because of the ability to run 2 man games, this offensive set has the advantage of being able to “hide” weaker offensive players who don’t have to be involved in the play.
The 2-2-2 set, due to its multiple players on the crease, also shares the same advantages of the 1-4-1 in that with good inside movement the defense’s second slide can often get confused as to who he should be covering.
Cons of the 2-2-2
With the middle crease players close to the goal, the offense may have trouble passing the ball around the perimeter as the other 4 players form a square that results in long passes.
Like the 1-4-1 set, if the middle crease players are not active, they simply clog up the middle. This makes it difficult for dodgers to get to the goal.
The ball carriers on the outer square of the 2-2-2 can get isolated pretty easily by a strong defense who takes away adjacent passes.
By putting 2 players behind the goal this set only puts 4 players in a position to score. The players behind the goal will need to dodge or cut to get into a position to score.
Here’s LaxCoachMike discussing the 2-2-2 offensive set:
2-3-1 Offensive Set
In the 2-3-1 set, the offense sets up with:
2 attackmen behind the goal
3 players across the middle
1 middie up top
Benefits of the 2-3-1 Set
The 2-3-1 formation spreads out the offense, allowing a team room to run motion plays.
With more open space available, middies and attackmen have more opportunities to beat their man 1×1.
The 2-3-1 set, which features an attackman in the crease and one behind the cage, puts teams in position to rebound, screen and back-up shots.
This offensive set typically works better against man-to-man defenses, but still can be effective against a zone.
This is a good set for teams with strong attackman as they can play a “2-man game” behind the goal to create good opportunities.
You’ll often see an offense invert with this set, sending the middies behind the goal and putting defensive middies in a position they’re not accustomed to defending.
Like the 1-3-2 this set also allows for great motion offense.
Cons of the 2-3-1 Set
The 2-3-1 is pretty balanced. With a single attackman behind the goal the offense is at risk of losing possession after an errant shot if the wing attackman don’t rotate to fill in the space behind the goal when the X attackman dodges.
This offensive set is very common. Since most teams have this in their arsenal, defenses are usually pretty adapt at knowing how to defend. That is, where the 1st and 2nd slides will come from.
A con of this set is that if the defense shuts off the X attackman adjacent to the wing middie ball carrier, he doesn’t have a lot of passing options. With the crease and X attackman locked off, the only outlet is the middie up top.
Like the 1-4-1 with only a single middie up top, the offense is vulnerable to fast breaks.
Here is LaxFilmRoom breaking down a play out of the 2-3-1 set:
1-3-2 Offensive Set
In this set, the offense set up as such:
1 attackmen behind the goal
3 players across the middle
2 middies up top
Pros of the 2-3-1 Set
This set comes with many of the same pros as the previous (1-3-2) set.
Namely, it’s very easy to run a great motion offense and keep very good spacing to give each offensive player room to operate.
In this set 5 players are a threat to score without a dodge or cut and that puts additional pressure on the defense. Because of this you’ll also see this set used in man-up situations.
Both the 1-3-2 and 2-3-1 set are good ball possession offensive sets because they provide the ball carrier with 2 adjacent outlets. If those are shutoff, a dodge and a skip pass is usually there so no player is left stranded 1×1 like in other sets.
Cons of the 1-3-2
Like the 1-4-1 set, this 1-3-2 puts only one offensive player behind the goal. If they initiate to the goal, the offense has little backup for a shot that misses the cage.
Like the 2-3-1 set, this set is also very common. So defenses have gone up against plenty of times before. Thus they should be pretty comfortable in knowing where slides are coming from and how to properly defend.
3-3 Offensive Set
In the 3-3 set we have:
3 players up top
3 players across the middle
No players behind the goal
Benefits of the 3-3
The primary benefit of the 3-3 set is that every single player is a threat to score.
We often see the 3-3 formation used in man-up situation because of that.
The defense must respect every single player because they’re all in a position to get a good shot.
The 3-3-3 sets up very nice spacing so the offense can hit a nice skip pass that sets up a great goal scoring opportunity.
Another pro of this set is that it’s very easy to transition into any other set mentioned in this post. As a result, coaches will often setup their EMO units in the 3-3 regardless of which set they ultimately end up using in order to confuse the defense.
Cons of the 3-3
This balanced set is a way to spread the field, but it leaves the area behind the net unmanned. As a result, it can be harder to back-up a missed shot resulting in lost possessions.
So as a goalie or defense, understand that shots that miss the cage can result in a quick turnover with a little hustle.
When not in man up, the 3-3 set doesn’t give a dominant offensive stud a lot of room to operate.
Here is an offense out of the 3-3-3 from Trilogy lacrosse:
Open Set Lacrosse Offense
The next offensive formation we’ll look at in this post is the “open set” – sometimes called the wheel or the cirlce offense. This set has:
1 player up top.
2 players across the high middle
2 players across the low middle
1 player behind the goal
I’ve also seen a version with a rotated circle such that two players are behind the goal and two middies are up top.
Advantages of the Open Set
In the open set or circle offense, the offense can pass the ball around the perimeter very easy. If the offense is looking to get everyone a touch, this is a great formation to start in before transitioning into another.
In the wheel set, while typically no player is a threat without a dodge or cut, the circle formation helps the offense get into the flow by getting the ball into and out of every player’s stick.
Another advantage of this offense set, is that with nobody on the crease, the defense must slide adjacent and rotate as the 2nd slide.
Anyone who has read my defense strategy post will understand the adjacent slide package, however many teams do not practice this and when its time to execute in the games, they fail.
The open set gives the offense good spacing and opens up a huge area for cutters from the back-side of the offense, especially through the middle, and forcing the adjacent slides also opens up large areas for good outside shooters to take advantage of.
Like other sets, out of the open set the offense can quickly transition in any other formation even while a ballcarrier is dodging.
Cons of the Open Set
Against a good zone defense, the open set doesn’t do much to create scoring opportunities.
In this open set, like other sets mentioned in this post. there is only one player in optimum position to back up shots at X. Again, if they drive to the goal the offense might not have anyone in position in chase out errant shots.
Something to keep in mind for athletic goalies who like to win their team a possession with hustle.
With the addition of the shot clock, it will be interesting to see offenses continue to use the open set because getting everyone a touch or two before starting to attack can eat up 30 of your allotted 60 seconds very quickly.
Here is Coach Corrigan explaining some benefits of the open set:
2-1-3 Offensive Set
Similar to the open set, our final lacrosse offensive formation is the 2-1-3, sometimes called the “umbrella set”. This set features;
3 middies up top.
1 crease attack
2 attack behind the goal
Advantages of the 2-1-3
This set shares a lot of advantages as the open set in that the offense has a lot of room to work.
Unlike the open set where the defense knows that they must slide adjacent, in the 2-1-3 set there is a crease attackman so the offense can trick the D by clearing out the crease as the ballcarrier drives. Thereby making the slide extremely long and opening up opportunities.
If you have a talented crease attackman he’s going to get a lot of good looks in this set.
The other benefit of this set is that it enables really good two-man games from behind. Because the middies are high it leaves a lot of room to maneuver and create great scoring opportunities.
Cons of the 2-1-3
Couple cons of this set. If the attackmen behind are not talented players, they’re a bit isolated and will have trouble finding an outlet if the defense shuts off adjacents.
This set requires a good crease attackman. Not only in their stick skills but also in their lacrosse IQ of knowing when to clear space, when to screen, when to pop.
An inexperienced crease attackman is only going to clog up the middle and create an easier slide for the defense.
Here is Coach Miller discussing plays out of the umbrella set:
There quite a few different lacrosse offensive formations that teams can use to attack the goal.
Each one comes with its set of pros and cons and as a goalie or defense, you should be aware of what they are.
Understanding what a lacrosse offense is trying to do means you have a high lacrosse IQ and that’s part of being an elite lacrosse goalie.
This post is just an introduction to all the offensive sets I know. Different plays and strategies from each go a lot deeper and could be the subject of 2000 word posts all on their own.
If you want to learn more about the particulars of an offensive set, try searching the internets and most likely you’ll find a good source.
Until next time! Coach Damon
What’s your least favorite offensive set to go up against? Would love to hear about it in the comments.
Lacrosse is my passion! The game has given me so much and this blog is my way of giving back to the lax community. Specifically the most bad a$$ part of that community - the goalies! After learning to play goalie from scratch, I wanted to create a site where I could share what I learned with others so they too can become champions in the crease and in life. Learn more about Coach Damon.
Want virtual goalie coaching sessions from the best coaches in the game? Look no further...
The Lacrosse Goalie Summit replays give you access to best goalie coaching out there. Coaches like Ted Bergman, John Galloway, Matt Deluca, Brian Phipps, Kyle Bernlohr, Liz Hogan, Caylee Waters, Lyndsey Munoz, Chris Buck, Taylor Moreno, Sean Quirk, Goaliesmith, Meg Taylor, Drake Porter, Emily Sterling, Brett Dobson, and so many more. These sessions give your youth the confidence and the tools to be amazing in the crease!
Click an event to learn more about the goalie coaching sessions included!
Lax Goalie Rat Online Camp
Full Goalie Education
The only lacrosse goalie training that covers ALL of the areas necessary to be dominant: technical, physical, and mental.
Over 80 Videos Yours For Life
Revisit the drills and mental inspiration every season! Plus new videos added to the camp are yours for free.
Access to private forums to interact with other goalies, coaches, and Coach Damon on a personal basis.
15 thoughts on “Quick Guide to Understanding Lacrosse Offensive Formations”
Great read for the parents of a goalie, gave me better insight.
Thanks Dlax! That’s the idea 😀
This post is really helpful for players and coaches. I’d love to see you do something similar for the women’s game.
Me too – I’m not familiar enough with women’s lacrosse to write that post.
My question is what player shoots in these setups
Any player can shoot, really out of any formation so I don’t think you can say in this formation, this player is always going to shoot.
Yet again. Great content coach. You make a lot of great points. Young keepers read this a couple times.
Thanks Jonathan. I appreciate that!
My team commonly runs the open, but we also run a 3-1-2 would this be similar to a 3-3 from the goalies viewpoint.
3-1-2 meaning 3 middies up top 1 attack on crease and 2 attack under the goal
Hey Jase! Yeah the 3-1-2 set definitely has a lot of the same attributes as the open set. Gives a lot of space to the offense. Gonna add the 3-1-2 set to this post. Thanks for calling that out.
Your 1-3-2 doesn’t match the video. The video has the MD area (and correct 😉 ) formation of the 1 at the top if you call it a 1-3-2. Based on your explanation you have it in the reverse.
thanks for letting me know