Overview | Principles | Resources | Guidelines | Practices | Game Day | Very Young | More Reading

Understanding Individual Defensive Principles

All defensive systems depend on the individual defensive skills of the each player. Simply put, unless a player has solid individual defensive skills, the player is unlikely to be able to understand or apply group defensive principles very well.

The following individual defensive skills should be learned by all players, regardless of the playing position:

The most important beginning skills to teach a defender are placement, positioning and footwork in a 1v1 setting. Why are these skills so important? Defense by definition is a reactive state, where the attacker causes the defender to take steps to stop some action. Because of this, the defender be able to move quickly in all directions. The player must be able to stop and restart his movement in reaction to actions by the attacker. To do this, the player must be in a balanced position as often as possible, and the feet must be trained to move in the quickest and most efficient manner possible. The defender also must maintain the optimal distance from the attacker to give himself time to react before the attacker had gotten around him and is heading for goal.

Once properly placed in relation to the attacker, the defender must learn to position his body/legs in a manner which will block the attacker's best scoring options while also allowing quick reactions on his part. Next, the defender must learn to use his body to channel the attacker into less favorable areas of the field while patiently waiting for an opportunity to steal the ball. Of course, he also will need to learn techniques for winning the ball when the chance arises, and learn how to recover in the event that he is beaten by the attacker.

  1. Placement in relation to the attacker

What is the correct placement of a defender who is guarding an attacker who has the ball? Normally, the defender will place himself a bit ahead of the attacker, at an angle so that he is between the attacker and the goal. This is called getting goalside of the ball.

If at all possible, the defender wants to place himself so that he is turned to face the attacker, because this placement allows him to keep a closer eye on the attacker and make more rapid adjustments so that he can stay in the way of the attacker.

The optimal distance of the defender from the attacker is determined by the attacker's current pace and potential speed. Usually, the defender will want to move within about 2 strides of the attacker or closer - and then maintain this distance by retreating using short quick steps.

Of course, occasions will arise when the attacker already has gotten up to speed, and the defender is not fast enough to get ahead of the attacker, so the defender has no choice but to simply run alongside of the attacker. Training on the ways to handle these situations will come after training on basic placement, positioning and footwork, so this will be discussed later.

  • Learning Defensive Stances and Footwork
  • Once in place, the position of the body itself, along with the footwork used to maintain this position, become vital. Because the defender is moving backward, it is essential that the center of gravity be lowered so that the defender does not lose his balance and fall over. Likewise, it is essential that the defender use his body/legs to create obstacles in the way of the attacker, so as to lure the attacker to head into the channels which the defender has chosen to leave open.

    There are two basic defensive stances. The first (and most used) stance is similar to that used by boxers or fencers, and is called the "sideways-on" stance. This stance is used near the boundary lines, or in situations where it makes sense to try to steer the attacker in a certain direction. The knees are bent; center of gravity is lowered; rear foot is turned sideways; weight is balanced over both feet. Movement is made backwards or forwards by very quick shuffle steps. Movement to the sides is made with a galloping motion. Correct instruction in this basic defensive footwork is essential, so the coach should spend the necessary time to be sure that all players can move properly.

    The second stance is the closed or blocking stance, which is used when the ball is in the middle section of the field or in the final defensive third where the primary object is to prevent a successful shot/cross from being made. In this stance, the feet are kept fairly close together (with the heels often angled inward), and the torso bent forward with the knees bent so as to allow most of the weight on the toes. In this stance, the defender usually will get fairly close to the attacker, and move backwards with small quick steps.

    Especially with younger players, the coach likely will teach these different stances in different sessions, and will start with teaching the footwork for a sideways-on stance. After spending some time on the basic footwork involved, the coach will begin to teach the player how to apply these skills in order to close down an attacker who had just received the ball.

    The defender usually wants to come in quickly and hard in order to try to fluster the attacker and force an error. If the attacker is flustered and turns his back on the defender to try to protect the ball, then the defender must learn how to close the attacker down from the back and try to win the ball. But, the defender first needs to know how to handle an attacker who is confident on the ball and who is going to try to beat him. As a result, when the defender comes pouncing in - and does not manage to fluster the attacker- the defender must put on the brakes while a few yards away and go into the defensive stance (more experienced defenders often will get even closer and then quickly retreat back - but it is so easy to misjudge the timing of such a move, or the speed of the attacker, that coaches should not introduce this until much later in training).

    On the field, the first thing a defender must decide when he is closing down the attacker is where he will want to try to steer the attacker. In general, the defender will want to steer the attacker towards the nearest touchline. Why? Because what the defender wants to do is to try to trap the attacker against the touchline. In essence, the defender wants to use the touchline as an extra defender to help to bottle up and contain the attacker in a place where the attacker cannot score.

    To accomplish this, the defender will come in at an angle which blocks off the central part of the field, while leaving space towards the touchline. The attacker naturally will want to try to escape into space away from the defender, and will tend to move towards the touchline. However, if the defender leaves too much space along the touchline, the attacker will try to move underneath the attacker and go down the line to get away from the defender. And, if the defender shuts down too much of the space along the touchline, the attacker may try to come over the top of the attacker and move into the central part of the field. As a result, the defender will need to experiment a bit to see the optimal angle and distance from the attacker which will keep the attacker moving towards the touchline, but which also will keep the attacker from being able to beat the defender.

    Factors which will influence the distance and angle used will include the relative speed/quickness of the attacker as compared to the defender; the relative skill of the attacker compared to the defender; and the "footedness" of the attacker (whether the attacker is particularly weak in using one particular foot). Another big factor is the available support. For example, a forward who is near the goal of an opponent can afford to be beaten, because all of the rest of his team (as well as most of the field) is between his goal and an opposing defender with the ball. Thus, there is little risk in going for the ball, so this player can afford to be much more aggressive in trying to win the ball than an unsupported defender could be. Finally, the choices which the defender will make may depend on the area of the field in which the ball is (particularly when support is available).

    Before learning how to defend when support is available, however, the new player must learn how to defend as if there is no support is available. In general, if an attacker is fast compared to the defender, the defender will need to get farther away from the attacker. Likewise, if the attacker is very quick, the defender must stay fairly far away in order to keep from being beaten. If the attacker is along the touchline, the angle to be set runs from a point about 2 yards inside the near post thru the defender to the attacker. Basically, what the defender is trying to do is to move inside and back at an angle which will allow him to traverse the shortest distance possible and still remain between the attacker and the goal.

    As the illustration shows, a line drawn from inside the near post will go through the defender (d) and the attacker (a). Where the defender is slow, he will move farther in along the line toward the goal, as this positioning will permit him to run less distance than the attacker, which compensates for the speed differential and allows him to still remain in the way of the attacker. Because he is forced to fall off of the defender to keep from being beaten, he has weighed the risks of being beaten against the potential reward of getting close enough to steal the ball, and has opted for safety. When unsupported, or when close to your own goal (even if support may be available), "Safety First" is the number one rule for defenders.

    |   a
    |   -    d
    |   a      D   
    |          d 
    |                D
    |                     |____|

    As can be seen from the positioning of the defender, the attacker would have to make an arc over the top of the defender to be able to get around him. However, a right-footed attacker typically will prefer taking the ball down the touchline to trying to carry it around the top of the defender on the unfavored foot. By the same token, a left-footed attacker may be completely unable to go down the touchline, and will be forced to try to escape by going around the top of the defender. Thus, the defender can use this information to predict the movements of the attacker, and allow more space on the side which the attacker will refuse to use because of his footedness problem. Of course, this fact will illustrate to the intelligent coach why it is so important to train players to dribble, pass and shoot with both feet.

  • When Field Position May Influence Positioning
  • As noted above, the defender wants to try to force the attacker into an area of the field which will help his team. Much of his decision-making depends on which part of the field the attacker is in.

    If the attacker is in his own defensive third of the field, the defender usually should try to force the attacker towards the middle. Why? Because, if the defender gains the ball right in front of the attacker's goal, the chances of scoring go up dramatically. Even in 1v1 situations, the defender may want to apply heavy pressure in front of the opponent's net, because of the potential rewards involved.

    If the attacker has the ball in the middle third of the field towards one touchline, the defender would do well to force the attacker towards the touch, thereby restricting his options. Note that some upper-level teams tend to try to force attackers inside, into the path of their own defenders and mids, because the space is more congested and they believe that this reduces the chances that any attack will be successful. This strategy is probably too risky to use with beginners.

    In the defensive third, most teams will try to take the attacker as wide as possible, or keep him as wide as possible (because it is harder to score a goal from narrow angles than if looking right into the mouth of the goal from the center). If a defender is deep in the defender's territory with an attacker close to the touchlines, the defender should not over-commit and allow the attacker to beat him along the goal line because the attacker is almost guaranteed to get to the goal before he can recover.

    If the attacker is in the central area in front of the goal, the defender should try to stay between the attacker and the goal, and try to keep the attacker moving laterally. If possible, the defender should take the attacker towards his weaker side (if he has one), but not give up a shooting angle by getting to one side of the attacker to force him in a direction. However, once it becomes clear that the attacker is going to get off a shot, the defender may be forced to take the risk of a tackle. This is often the case in 1v1 games (and is one of the reasons to give players plenty of work in such games). As the defenders will learn from 1v1 exercises (where no support will ever be forthcoming), they often have better luck when they choose the time to close down the attacker instead of letting the attacker select the moment for the shot. As will be learned below, when they decide to go in for the ball, they must go in with everything which they have - and leave no stone unturned (short of committing a major foul) in their push to get the ball.

  • Learning When & How To Steal The Ball
  • In soccer, any type of ball-stealing is usually called "tackling". This can be confusing to Americans because tackling in American-style football involves an attempt to knock the opponent down (which is a major foul in soccer). The mechanics of basic standing soccer tackles are covered in the Practice Plans, and will not be repeated here. We will focus here on when to use those skills - and, more importantly, when not to use them. The first thing to teach defenders is the importance of PATIENCE in the timing of any tackle. The defender will want to try to steer the attacker into the safest space, with the greatest support available, before considering a tackle (unless the attacker makes a major mistake which allows the defender to take the ball back with little risk). Usually, if the defender can delay things long enough, the attacker almost always will make a mistake and allow an opening to an alert defender to steal the ball - or support will arrive which will allow a double team.

    It usually is not the time to attempt a tackle when:

    Good opportunities to make a tackle attempt are when:

    When any tackle attempt is made, the defender should commit totally to the ball. If the defender is able to get his support foot beside the ball on the tackle, then the defender in is an great position for making the tackle. If the defender must reach for the ball, then the chances of success are less, and the best the defender often can do is to knock the ball away. This does not necessarily mean that this is a bad choice. There are many times when a defender may wish to knock a ball over the touchline for a throw-in, as this will give time to other teammates to get back to help. And, even in 1v1 games, this may allow the defender some extra time to catch his breath. So, while the coach will want to teach ball-winning skills, players also need to be taught when it can be useful to simply knock the ball out. Often, coaches will cover these ideas in basic sessions in defense, with the general rule to get the ball if you can do it safely and to knock it out if you cannot.

    Once the defender is in control of the attacker, forcing him in the defender's direction of preference, it is important that the defender continue to maintain a high level of pressure on the attacker. The defender often does not need to confront the attacker with a tackle attempt, until the defensive support is in place and the defender is ready. When in doubt, the best course is usually to delay; use patience; and wait for support and/or an opportunity to arise.

    The feint tackle is one way to keep the attacker off-balanced. The defender feints a reach for the ball, yet maintains excellent balance and position. The defender should not actually get caught with the body weight going forward, only the feinting foot.

    The attacker will have to react (if there is a reaction) in one of two ways. First, he may protect the ball by pulling it back or stepping in with a shielding motion. Or secondly, he may attempt to push the ball past the defender, assuming that the defender has dived in and is off balance. As a result, in the first case, the defender is forcing the attacker to focus totally on the ball, which cuts down on the attacker's ability to give the ball to a teammate and increases the chances that he can win the ball with heavy pressure. In the second case, the defender has tricked the attacker, and should be in good position to cut-off the attempted pass and may even be able to step between the attacker and the ball.

  • Learning What To Do If Beaten
  • In the course of any game, there will be times when the defender "bites" on a feint by the attacker, and dives in toward the direction in which he expected the ball to be, while the attacker merrily goes around him and heads towards goal. This is always upsetting to the defender, but is going to happen from time to time.

    So, what does the defender do next? Usually, if there is a teammate available, the teammate will have slipped into a support position behind him. In such a situation, he simply swaps places with his teammate, and drops into a position as the supporting defender (this is called "recovering into a supporting position"). But, what if he was the only or last defender?

    While the situation is not good, all is not lost. If the defender is faster than the attacker, he may be able to pursue the attacker and use his shoulder to push/steer the attacker away from the goal. This is entirely legal, and is called a "shoulder charge".

    Even if the attacker is much faster, or has a head start, the defender must never give up - and should set an immediate course for the inside of the near goalpost. This action is called a "recovery run" - and what the defender is doing is called "recovering". Often, because of the angle originally set by the defender, the attacker must make a looping run to get into an area of the field where the angles are right for a shot on goal. As a result, the defender often has less distance to cover than the attacker, and can get into a position where he can cut off the easy angles for a shot - even if he cannot entirely block the shot.

    Furthermore, many attackers are not very good at shooting at a dead run, so they will tend to slow up in order to set up their shots. As a result, a defender often will be able to catch up to them - and knock the ball away just as they were getting ready to take a shot. This is particularly true when the attacker allows the ball to get too far ahead of him.

    In addition, new attackers often will get nervous when they hear the pounding of feet right beside or behind them, and will rush their shots. Likewise, they may take their eyes off the ball, and mis-hit the shot. Finally, of course, strange things can happen. The ball may hit a clod of dirt, or the attacker may trip, or the attacker may even run over the ball. Therefore, defenders must be taught always to recover towards goal at top speed, and never to give up until a goal has actually been scored.

    Learning the full range of individual defensive skills takes time, and lots of actual experience with all different sizes/shapes and skill levels of opponents. While new defenders often will be taught initially by pairing them with another player of similar size and skill, the coach must be careful to expand the horizons of the defender as quickly as his confidence level will permit. Even a very small player, or one who may be chunky/slow, can learn to do a good job against an opponent who is considerably faster if exposed to these situations regularly. Likewise, even if a player has such outstanding dribbling skills that he seems destined to become a striker in later years, the coach is well-advised to force this player to spend considerable time in learning basic defense. After all, this player may have the luck to get on a team which already has Ronaldo and Baggio (or their twins). If so, the player can end up in the midfield with solid defensive skills. Otherwise, this promising player may well end up on the bench.

    Updated 16 March 1999

    Overview | Principles | Resources | Guidelines | Practices | Game Day | Very Young | More Reading