What Makes a Good Soccer Defender ?

The ratio between defending to attacking in soccer is unevenly split. More often times than not, players are defending more than they are attackin

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The ratio between defending to attacking in soccer is unevenly split. More often times than not, players are defending more than they are attacking. As the game continues to mature, players in non-traditional defensive roles, such as strikers and attacking midfielders, are now taking on more active defensive roles. Thus, it is crucial to be able to defend regardless of your position. This will help you to be an adaptive player who can transition from an attacking role to a defensive role in an intelligent and effective manner. This includes positioning yourself correctly on the field, leading/dictating your opponents, and mastering one versus one defending.    

The greatest defenders of all time don’t allow the attacker to see a way through. That’s what you’ll learn in this post.

There are three phases to defending in a game. The first phase occurs when the other team first wins the ball. The second phase occurs when the attacking team is trying to make their play forward. The third phase happens when the attacking team decides to try to penetrate through your defense.

Phase 1: When the other team first wins the ball

When the attacking team first wins the ball, it is very important that everyone on the defensive team knows exactly what the team strategy is. Everyone has to know exactly where they should be. For example, every team has a pre-set line of confrontation.

The line of confrontation is basically a point at which you confront the other team. Meaning, your team has come up with a specific distance on the field in which you wait for the other team to approach that “line” before you start to pressure them. This could be anywhere on the field, but teams usually establish their line of confrontation around the half line. Once the opposition have met your line of confrontation, this is when you’d start to pressure, or “confront” them, to stop them from progressing forward.

It is really important that you know what the rest of the team is doing so that you are not just trying to run up and defend on your own, without the support of the team behind you. If players are all doing their own thing, this leaves space for exploitation. The whole point of the line of confrontation is to defend as a whole unit, and to eliminate the space in between the midfield and defensive lines for the attackers to exploit (if midfielders are running up but defenders are holding back, there are channels where the attacking team could exploit).

The Italian national team is known for being one of the best teams in the world at defending. Watch the clip below to see how Italy uses the line of confrontation. Notice how organized they are, and how they move as a single unit.

This phase of defending is the phase where you’ll be the least active. In spite of this being the least physical aspect of defending, it requires a lot of awareness and your full attention.  Here, you’re goal is to contain not to confront. This means you are positioning yourself well to support your teammates and to ensure the attacker you’re responsible for will not receive the ball, but you are not jumping into any tackles yet.

High Line or Low Line of Confrontation?

Some teams like to high press. This allows for a quick counter attack, or at least, limits the ability of the other team to build up play. In order for this strategy to work, players have to be very fit and strong in order to win tackles. You would not use this strategy if you are the weaker of two teams, because you will likely not win the ball and the other team will be able to break through your lines, which could even result in frequent breakaways.

Even if your team is not the weaker one on the field, this is very demanding aerobically, which is why a lot of teams opt for a lower line of confrontation. It reduces the amount of energy expenditure from all players, and is less exhausting than high press.

To clarify, a high press means you are applying pressure to the other team very quickly, and very high up the field. Usually, in a high press, the forwards will be challenging the other team’s defenders as soon as those defenders get the ball. Compare this compilation of Liverpool defending to the video of the Italians defending up above. Liverpool uses a high press style rather than a low press line of confrontation.

Whereas a low press, gives time for the opposing team to move up the field with the ball, but it allows the defensive team to protect the most vital areas of the field: the space in their own defensive half.

In this video it shows the line of confrontation being 30 meters from the attacking team’s net.  Here you will see how the team contains and holds off while the attacking teams defensemen are shuttling the ball from left to right.  By containing the team long enough, they eventually force a mistake and can win the ball back.  The same rules apply for a lower line of confrontation.

Now you know about line of confrontation. So what is your role ?

Your role as a player is very simple: coverage. Anyone that comes into your zone, you should be aware of them and keep yourself in a position to run up to them if they get the ball. This does not mean you have to stand next to them and track them wherever they go.

The whole point of the line of confrontation is to reduce the possibility of the other team breaking through your defense. In order to do this, you reduce field space that blocks off open pockets to play into; and you become tighter as a team. You do not go crazy chasing after balls all on your own. You fall in line with the team’s line of confrontation. The tighter you are as a team, the less options they have to get out of their zone, and the higher chance you have to re-gain possession.

Two things you must be aware of:

  1. The Player you have to cover
    You must know who is your player you’re covering at all times. If you do not, and you’re confused, the whole process will fail, and will leave room for the other team to penetrate.  Also you must track back to the zone your covering right away, and then become aware of the person your supposed to cover.
  2. Closing Off space
    When you are covering your zone, do not make the mistake of being glued right on to the closest player to you. What zone coverage means is being aware of where your player is and blocking the space between you and the player you are covering, while also staying in line with your team. If you’re covering a player and you’re directly next to them, you’re leaving a huge pocket of space for the defender to send a ball right through to the next player behind you. That is why it is very important for you to be aware of what’s going on around you. You must think of your teammates and where they are positioned in relation to you.

The most important thing to do when the other team first wins the ball is to remember your teams defensive strategy and to execute that quickly. Don’t go off and try to do things on your own. This is the first phase of defending.

Phase 2: They start to play forward

As the attacking team starts to play forward, you are going to want to dictate where they play. You are not going to be able to take away all the options that a player has to move forward. But, you can strategically take away a few of their options by positioning yourself right. This allows you to control where they are going to play, so you can force them to play into areas that are less dangerous. This is called dictating the play.

What to understand before you dictate your opponent

First thing you must understand before dictating your opponent is awareness of the play. You should be asking yourself: Where is the player with the ball in relation to the field? If the player you want to defend is still in their defending third, the level of danger is low. Therefore, you might want to lead them to the center of the field. This is because there should be a lot of your own defenders covering that area.  The centre of the field is a high traffic area where the opposing team would have a low probability of breaking through. So, if the attacker is led in this direction, the possibility of intercepting the ball, re-gaining possession, and having a counter-attack is high.

In contrast, if the attacker is in your defending third then the danger is very high. The smart decision in this case would be to lead them to the outsides of the field, towards the line.  If you lead them to the center of the field where there is a lot of traffic, then you risk the other team having a scoring opportunity from a dangerous area of the field.

This is an example of being aware of where you are on the field, your teams structure, and thinking ahead. In this phase, you are the dictator. This comes with a lot power, as you’re deciding where you want your attacker to go. Dictating is important to understand and master, because there are a lot of layers to this, and if you tell your player to go a direction where it’s not safe, then you’re putting your team at risk. This requires you to be thinking critically by analyzing the field first and knowing where all the traffic is. Where you are on the field at that moment will determine where you send your player.

How to dictate your opponent

You know when and where you should dictate your player, now you need to know how to physically lead your player.

Fast, Slow, Side on Low

  1. FAST: Start of by  running fast up to your player ( you want to get to the player before the player gets to you, or else the player will deek you out/get by you first – essentially leading. You dont want that)
  2. SLOW: Once you get about 5 feet away from your opponent, start slowing down  ( this allows you to start getting in the athletic position you need in order to determine the direction of your opponent)
  3. SIDE ON LOW:  Here you will  get in athletic stance, and by now you know which side you want your player to go to.  At this point you will be blocking off the space and angle for your opponent to penetrate.  This means blocking one side with your body. Your job is to be patient, letting the player make the next move. Chances are if you jockey, and don’t challenge for the ball, your opponent will go in the direction you want them to go.

In this video the fast, slow, side on low principles are demonstrated. He is always patient, dictates the side he wants his opponent to go, jockeys him, and then when he feels he can counter, he steps.

Phase 3: When they try to break through

When the attacking team is trying to break down your defence you need to be able to stop them. This means being able to win challenges. The way you win challenges is by taking a similar approach to dictating. You should still take the fast, slow, side on low approach. This time, you wait for the player to make a move in which they leave a little bit of space between their body and the ball. Your job is to wedge your body into that space and block them from the ball.

The video shows how to win challenges.

The other team may also try to play balls up into the air or slip them in between your lines. If you got into a good position in phase 1, you will be in a great position to make an interception. But you have to be brave, almost reckless. Jump up, protect yourself, and get your head on the end of it. Or get down, and slide in with confidence. Make sure you read the play as best as you can, and time your challenge for when you anticipate a gap between the player and the ball. This is a skill that will only come with lots of practice.

The best defenders  of all time are composed, patient, and are extremely aware of the game; they’re constantly 5 steps head.  Look up some great matches in the English premier league, The Serie A, The Spanish La Liga, pick a defender and study their  movements; you now understand how to defend critically so you know what to look for.
This will take you to the next level, and you’ll win more battles.

Please leave a comment below if you have any questions or want further clarification.