The Art of Soccer Defense
They are the poor men of the pitch. They earn less, they cost fewer millions to buy, they rarely win the Ballon D’Or or are graced with man of the match awards. But there is no doubt that a team will not be successful unless it has good soccer defense. In the thrills and spills of modern soccer, many experts feel that the art of defending is dying. These days, center halves need to be comfortable on the ball, able to pass from the back or dribble into midfield. They are expected to be a danger from set pieces, and not just with a towering header but in reacting quickly when the ball drops to their feet.
No longer is it enough for a defender to be six feet four tall, and able to kick the ball over the stands, launching his opponent as well if they are foolish enough to be in the way. A player who seeks to perform like that will be red carded on a regular basis, and rightly so.
But good defending can still be drilled. Usually, with our video clips, we like to show examples of top play, or drills for practice. This time, however, a little thrill with a famous clip of the Battle of Santiago – a World Cup match where defending fell to new lows of violence and assault. It’s fun, though – enjoy the despairing ref, and note the point at which the army is forced to intervene.
Soccer Defensive Drill One – One v One
There is an apocryphal story from the days of the English club, Arsenal’s, glory days under Arsene Wenger. The tale goes that team captain Toni Adams had a strop during training, refusing to take part in a session. Wenger had decided to practice one v one defending, and Adams was paired with the great striker, Thierry Henry.
‘I’ve spent the whole of my career making sure this doesn’t happen,’ said the Englishman, before heading for an early shower.
However, while defending is very much a team matter, there are times when one v one contests emerge.
In this situation, there are a number of guidelines to follow:
- Defend on the half turn, presenting a chest on defense allows the striker to go past either way.
- Try to shepherd the attacker on to their weaker foot. Do this by allowing them more space on this side.
- If the above is not possible, for any reason, try to shepherd the player away from goal. This adds an extra stage for the offense, increasing the opportunity for extra cover to get back.
- Stay on feet, we go to ground only as an absolutely last resort, if we sense that the striker is going to shoot, or go past. If we go to ground, and miss the tackle, we are out of the game. We also risk a yellow card if we mis-time the tackle.
For the drill, divide the players into two groups. The ball is played for the attacker and the defender chases, attempting to follow the guidelines above.
Defenders can start from various places: level with the attacker, in front of the attacker and behind him. This allows the defender to practice for different situations.
After each turn, the players swap roles for their next run.
Soccer Defensive Drill Two – Whole Team Defending
The best way to work on whole team defending is in a match play situation; set up the game with controls to manufacture the circumstances under which the defending can be practiced.
There are fundamentals we try to instil into our players.
These are: Communication, positioning and recovery.
Communication: Soccer is extremely fluid; spotting and identifying runs, instructing where cover needs to be provided; encouraging others – these are all vital aspects of the game. In the defensive situation, the keeper becomes the key communicator because he or she is the player who can see the game unfold. A quiet keeper might still be a great shot stopper, but will contribute little to the overall team defensive performance.
Positioning: There are four possible jobs a player may be undertaking when defending as part of a team. These are:
- Closing and tackling: The nearest player presses the ball.
- Supporting: A deeper player moves to offer support, should the initial player be beaten.
- Marking: Defenders and midfielders pick up opponents, remaining close and goal side of them.
- Covering: If not employed in any of the job above, a player covers a space, and looks for deep runs from the opposition to track.
For the drill, we are working with an attacking 4-3-3 formation. Coaches encourage the front three to press the ball out of their opponent’s defence. Encourage the midfield three to hold a central line, with full backs pushing on to make a five. As the opponents move down the pitch, two of the attacking players drop in to make the five, allowing the full backs to drop back into a four.
The midfield and defensive line squeeze to limit space between them. This will usually force their opponents either backwards or into a long ball which, if every player is doing their job, will be easily dealt with. As with any aspect of the game, if there is to be space left, then it should be wide. Space in the centre of the park offers greater offensive threat. Opponents will often try to switch the direction of play, having drawn wide defenders infield while the ball is on one wing, creating space on the opposite wing.
However, the switch is a risky manoeuvre, easily intercepted to transition defense into attack.
Soccer Defensive Drill Three – Defending Set Plays
There are two fundamental methods of covering free kicks and corners. Zonal marking, and man to man marking. Statistics suggest that the former is very marginally more successful. Many teams now look to crowd the box to limit space, and operate a mixture of the two systems.
The zonal defenders cover the near post, far post and three points along the six yard box. The biggest player usually covers the near post, allowing them to cut out crosses. The opposition’s best one or two headers of the ball are then man marked, with the remaining couple of defenders made responsible for cutting out short corners, marking the post on the line or charging down balls pulled to the edge of the box.
The drill is simple. Set up defensively to deal with a variety of corners. The keeper, or other leader, must push his team forwards when the ball is cleared to cover space and leave opponents offside.
(The zonal defenders are marked in grey)
Defensive work is not the most glamorous aspect of soccer. But, many top managers would say, it is the most important!
Teaching young players the importance of team soccer defense can be especially useful. Most young players find it boring, but a little motivation can make a big difference. The above drills can also be used as u12 soccer defensive drills or soccer defensive drills for high school.
If you liked this blog, you might want to check out our book on Soccer Defense.