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Understanding Basic Individual and Team Defensive Principles

In training defenders, it is a good idea to use keepers (except in early drills where you are working primarily on learning defensive techniques, like how to do a shoulder charge). Why? For two reasons. First, a keeper is rarely unavailable in actual games. Secondly, the positioning of field players with no keeper is somewhat different than the positioning with a keeper, so a certain amount of relearning will be needed if no keeper was used in early training. Whileit is possible to compensate somewhat for the lack of a keeper by making the goal smaller, this is not realistic training for players who are developmentally ready for a keeper.

Of course, very young children (below age 7 or 8) often do not have the physical maturity to catch balls well, or the courage to charge in for balls, or the mental development needed to calculate angles. As a result, at these ages, many clubs do not use keepers in their games (playing 3v3 or 4v4 with no keeper). Because the main focus at these young ages is on learning basic ball skills, and just some rudimentary defensive skills, this is age-appropriate. By the same token, by around age 8-9, it is time to use keepers in games - and to regularly use them in defensive practices.

All defensive training should begin with training of defensive skills in a 1v1 setting, and then progress to 1v2 training (numbers-down training), and then move to 2v1 (numbers up), 2v2 training, and 3v3 training. Many coaches do not understand the importance of training players in 1v2 situations. However, as illustrated below, this is a crucial step in training so that the players fully grasp the reasons for their positioning in 2v2 and 2v1 situations.

In a 1v1 setting, a player learns the beginning principles of defense. These include standard techniques used for ball winning when in front of the ball (standing tackle); when beside the attacker (shoulder charge/knock-out); and behind the attacker (crouch). In addition to learning these techniques, the player also learn when to do them, where to do them, and what position to adopt when trying these techniques. One of the first things which he will learn is the concept of patience, which means merely getting in the way of the attacker while waiting for the attacker to make a mistake (then pouncing quickly to capitalize on the error). As he progresses in learning defensive skills, he also will learn to make choices/decisions about which is the best option under the circumstances. For example, when guarding an attacker who receives the ball near the touchline, the defender often will have the choice of using a shoulder charge to try to force the attacker out ofbounds; using a combination of a shoulder charge and side tackle to knock the ball out of bounds; or sprinting ahead so that he can face the attacker and get between the attacker and the goal. Which option is selected will depend on multiple factors, including relative size/speed, relative skill, relative fitness (energy level), and how close the ball is to his own goal.

Initially, of course, a coach will want to pair players of relatively equal size/skill, so that one player is not overly-intimidated by the other. However, as the players progress, the coach will want to set up deliberatesize/speed/skill mismatches (even if only for 5 minutes at a time), so that the player gains experience in how to handle this common game situation. For example, in 1v1 defending, players need to learn that they must fall off the opponent (drop back anadditional yard or two) if the opponent is significantly faster (and then continue dropping back quickly to maintain this space so as to avoid being beaten). While the coach can assist the player in making these discoveries, it is essential that the player has the actual experience of seeing what works and does not work (because lessons learned in this type of self-discovery tend to stick better).

After learning the key elements of 1v1 defense, the player is ready to start acquiring team defensive skills. The first thing which he will need to learn is that everyone on the team becomes a defender when his team does not have the ball. Thus, in team defending, all players must understand the 4 duties of defenders, which are: No Get, No Turn, No Pass/No Shoot.

„No Get¾ means to prevent the player whom they are guarding from ever getting the ball. This is accomplished by proper marking . Indeed, if a player has consistently marked his man out for the whole game, sothat his man has never been served the ball because he did not appear open, the player has done an excellent defensive job without having come anywhere near the ball. This can be a hard concept for young players to accept unless the coach makes a big deal out of excellent marking - and praises them despite the fact that they are not seeing much action.

Of course, it is not always possible to keep an opposing player from getting the ball - especially if the player is a midfielder who cannot get back into proper marking position in time because of an unexpected loss of possession (or because his mark is a bit quicker and/or checked back to get the ball). If his mark manages to successfully receive the ball, then the job of the defender becomes one of „No Turn¾ (i.e., trying to keep the attacker from turning in thedirection of his goal, if this can be done safely).

When is it a good idea to apply heavy pressure to prevent the turn? It is a good idea to do this when you have backup support behind you (which is why midfielders normally will apply very heavy pressure to stop the turn).It also can be a good idea to try to do this when additional support will be available quickly and the risk of allowing the turn is relatively high (such as when an attacker receives a long ball played to the corner flag, immediate backup is not available, and the best option is to bottle him up in the corner to allow backup support to arrive - as a cross into the box with little backup support is very high risk).

Of course, occasions will arise in a game where the attacker may be able to collect the ball and turn in the direction of the goal before anyone on the team can get to him. Once the attacker has turned and is heading towards goal, the primary object of the on-ball defender is to prevent the attacker from getting off a shot on goal from decent scoring range/position. This is accomplished by getting in his way; trying to slow him down until reinforcements can arrive; and trying to steer him to the outside (which cuts down his shooting angle and makes the keeper¼s job a lot easier). The secondary object is to prevent the on-ball attacker from making a penetrating pass (meaning a pass behind all or most of the defenders) to another attacker who will be able to get off a good shot or a good cross.

1v2 Defense

Ideally, no player ever would end up in a game where he has to defend against 2 attackers without any backup support. However, realistically, this happens frequently in game situations (even if just for a few secondsuntil backup arrives), so players need to be trained on how to approach numbers-down defending with confidence. In defending 1v2, the decisions made by the defender will depend on whether the ball is in shooting range, what the shooting angle will be,and where the off-ball attacker is positioned.

In general, up until the ball comes within shooting range, this sole defender will try to position himself so that he can remain in the path of the on-ball attacker and slow him down - but will want to back off sufficientlyto keep an eye on the off-ball attacker. Of course, especially when getting close to scoring range, a smart off-ball attacker will try to get to the far side of the defender, in order to try to prevent him from seeing both attackers at the same time -or to try to force him to have to fall back so far that he cannot apply effective pressure on the on-ball attacker.

Usually, the off-ball attacker will remain to one side and slightly behind the on-ball attacker until the pair reaches about the 30-35, and then will start to make his move to the far side of the defender. When this move starts to happen, the defender has two basic choices (which depend on which of the two attackers is considered more dangerous):

If the two attackers are coming directly in on goal (attacking centrally), then the most dangerous attacker is probably the on-ball attacker, because the goal is relatively open for a shot. In this situation, the best choice is likely to be to make a sudden hard sprint at the on-ball attacker in order to force him to make a rapid shot or pass before he planned to do so (because forced shots/passes often are screwed up - and a hard charge may leave the intended receiver offside). Of course, when the defender makes this decision to come out hard, he must do everything possible to win the ball or knock it away, leaving the keeper to worry about handling the off-ball attacker.

On the other hand, if the on-ball attacker has a very poor shooting angle because he is coming in from the side of the goal while his off-ball receiver is stationed centrally around the top of the box (as he should be), themost dangerous attacker usually is the receiver. As a result, in this situation, the defender will try to position himself more centrally than the keeper (who will be standing close to the near post), and will get out to around the top of the goal area so his body helps to block the goal if the on-ball attacker decides to shoot - but his main focus is on staying roughly parallel with the receiver in order to be ready to sprint hard at the receiver in the instant that a pass is made. As a result, the defender basically is leaving the on-ball attacker for the keeper to worry about, while he tries to cover the receiver.

It is critical that all players be exposed to numbers-down defending, so that they learn to make these important decisions. Until they understand the role of the sole defender in a 2v1 situation, and know why he is positioned as he is, they will not have the background to fully grasp the duties and positioning of the off-ball defender when he becomes available.

Once the players have been trained in individual defending in 1v1 and 1v2 situations, they are ready to learn the role of the off-ball defender. From a team defensive standpoint, there are 3 basic defensive roles which players must learn. They are the role of the closest person to the ball (called the First Defender or Pressure guy); the role of the nearest goalside backup person (called the Second Defender or Cover guy); and the role of the remaining support people (everyone who is not a First or Second Defender - called the Balance guys). Young players easily can be taught the ideas of Pressure and Cover (and introduced to the idea of Balance, although this is a more advanced concept). Usually, it is better to usethe terms of Pressure and Cover (rather than the terminology of First Defender, etc. - because these roles can change quickly as the ball moves from one attacker to another, leaving the kids with no idea if they are #1 or #2).

The role of the First Defender (Pressure) is comparable to that of the solo defender as long as no backup support is available (although his job changes when backup arrives). Initially, the job of the Pressure guy is to slow down the attack by applying immediate pressure on the ball. This is done by getting between the attacker and the goal, and getting in his way so that he is forced to divide his attention between you, the goal, and his potential receivers. Tell your players that you want somebody on this person by the count of 2, then shout „2¾ - to get the point across that you want this pressure to occur instantly. The longer time that you give any attacker to make decisions, the better decisions he will make. So, immediate pressure is critical.

Assuming that backup can be available in time (i.e., before the attacker is within scoring range), the objective of the Pressure guy is to delay, delay and delay until backup arrives, while also trying to steer the attackerto a less dangerous area of the field (usually towards the nearest touchline). Once backup becomes available, however, his role normally will switch to that of ball-stealer (because he becomes free to apply heavier pressure when backup is available).Kids enjoy the idea that the Pressure guy is the Barracuda, while the Cover guy is the Shark. Once the Shark is behind him and providing cover, the Barracuda can go in for the kill (quietly humming the theme from Jaws while he does so).

The primary backup person (Cover guy) normally is the person who is the nearest player to the First Defender who is goalside of the ball (or the player who can get to this position the most quickly). Ideally, the backup person will not have any other defenders to mark, and can devote his exclusive attention to providing backup support. In game situations, the Second Defender often is the Sweeper. However, anyone on the field can become the Second Defender (for instance, one forward may become the 2nd D for another forward - or may drop back to become 2nd D for a Mid who has come up).

The Third Defender(s) are the other players who are goalside of the ball, who can provide additional cover for the first two defenders. They usually have other defensive responsibilities, including marking off-ball targetplayers. The training of the 3rd D is an advanced topic, which is beyond the scope of this discussion.

Before being ready to learn the complete job of the Cover guy (which often may include juggling the dual responsibilities of providing backup and also marking another dangerous attacker), the next step is to introduce the players to 2v1 Defending (where the job of the Cover guy is focused solely on providing backup support).

2v1 Defense

Where the ball is ahead of the Cover guy (as often happens), he make a looping run around to the back of the Pressure guy, and will station himself about 3 yards to the rear at an angle which is best designed to foreclose options for the attacker to carry the ball forward. There are 3 basic scenarios which commonly arise defensively.

If the attacker is relatively close to one touchline, the usual objective will be to bottle the attacker up on the touchline (and use the touchline as an extra defender). Thus, the Pressure guy will try to steer the attacker close to one touchline by positioning himself sideways on so as to make a funnel towards the touchline, and the Cover guy typically will station himself to close off the end of the funnel (i.e., at or near the touchline). However, the Cover guy wants to be close enough to prevent the attacker from cutting in towards goal between him and the Pressure guy (a tactic known as „splitting the defenders¾), so smaller players may need to be within 2 yards or less to prevent this - while bigger players may be able to drop back more.

If the attacker has his back towards your goal, and is being heavily pressured from the rear by the Pressure guy, then the Cover guy has two choices. One is to provide fairly close support from the rear, to enable the Pressure guy to move around towards the front to try to win the ball. The other is to become the Pressure guy himself by coming in from the front, and allowing the rear player to provide Cover.

If the attacker has managed to turn towards your goal and is not near any touchline, then the Cover guy typically will take a position about 3 yards to the rear and to the side (trying to add his body as extra coverage forthe goal). Once in place, he becomes the „boss¾ of the defense - and it is his job to instruct the Pressure guy on what to do next. Why? Because the Cover guy can look around, while the Pressure guy should have his eyes glued to the ball.

While positioning is important, the real work in training the Cover guy involves training in communication skills. The Cover guy provides the same type of support for the Pressure guy that the 2nd attacker provides for theon-ball attacker. His job is to serve at the eyes/ears of the on-ball defender - and to provide clear communication about the best way to defend. Of course, his first obligation is to announce his arrival by shouting „Cover¾ when he is in place. Normally, his first instruction will be to start trying to steer the opponent towards one touchline („Take him left¾ or „Take him right¾). In general, a right-footed attacker should be steered towards the right side of the defense (i.e.,towards the attacker¼s left), because this will tend to leave the ball more exposed. His next job is to decide when it is safe to close in (shouting instructions such as „Take him¾ or „Now¾ or „Not Yet¾). See to Second Defender practice plan.

Of course, the Cover guy must be especially alert when the opponent is within shooting distance of the goal and will have a decent scoring angle if he manages to beat the Pressure guy. If the ball is coming in centrally (as in a breakaway), the Cover guy will try to position himself about 1-2 steps behind and to the side of the Pressure guy (so that his body will help to fill up the goal (especially the „far corner¾ - which is the corner opposite the foot which isbeing used to dribble the ball in). Passes are more quick and more accurate than shots - so the Cover guy typically wants to be positioned to prevent a hard push pass - and force a shot. The Pressure guy will be positioned in front of the attacker, and trying to fill the space into which he would prefer to shoot at the near corner, while the keeper will be positioned centrally. As the attacker gets nearer to the goal, however, he needs very little space to slip a shot into the net. As a result, ifthe attacker fails to make a mistake which can be capitalized upon (such as putting the ball too far out in front), the Cover guy ultimately will need to orchestrate a rush on the attacker. When should this be done? At the time when the attacker is approaching the penalty mark, and has just stepped on his shooting foot (so he only can get off a hurried shot/pass with his non-favored foot before the two defenders converge on him).

If the attacker is coming in from an acute angle to the side of the goal, then the defensive job is much easier (particularly until the attacker gets close enough to the goal to have a near post shot). The Pressure guy will try to steer the attacker towards the endline, while the Cover guy shuts off the funnel by positioning himself somewhere in front of the near goal post. This leaves the keeper free to take the middle of the goal (to be able to push high far post shots over the bar). In this situation, because the Pressure guy generally can kick the ball out, the real interest of the Cover guy is to keep the attacker from coming between him and the Pressure guy - which will leave a big hole. Thus, he will want toclose in a bit, and simply use patience to wait for a mistake.

When the attacker is coming in at an angle of 40-60 degrees, the defenders have a difficult choice to make. If they over-commit in trying to steer him to the endline, he may be able to spin around towards the central goalarea and have an unobstructed shot on goal. On the other hand, if they over-protect the central area, they leave the wing area open for an attack. As a result, they usually will want to position themselves directly along the angle of his path. If they cannot close on the attacker before he clears the near post, then the Pressure guy must drop down to cover the near post and the Cover guy will need to slide in to block shots on the central or far post areas. This is a tricky time for the defenders,because failure to move together will create a momentary gap which can allow a shot (or hard near post pass) or allow the defender to slip through altogether.

As can be seen, even 2v1 defense is not particularly simple - and it can take a number of seasons for players to fully grasp how to handle the various options (and how to communicate well). However, smart players end up discovering the bulk of these principles on their own, without significant coaching, simply by being placed in these situations frequently. Hence, a smart coach will try to find time in practices for small group games or drills where the players can experiment with their own solutions - and learn from their mistakes.

2v2 Defense

The next step is to train players in 2v2 defensive coverage. The role of the Cover guy in 2v2 is more complex, because he has two jobs - to provide Cover and to provide marking for his off-ball attacker. As was discussed in Basic Attacking Principles, the 2nd attacker (off-ball close support) will be trying to help maintain possession when outside of scoring range. Therefore, it usually is possible for the Cover guy to devote most of his attention to the ball (instead of his man) until about the time when the ball is starting to approach scoring range. He accomplishes this by stationing himself goalside of the Pressure guy, at an angle and distance which allows him to keep an eye on his mark, while still being able to move to provide quick pressure if the Pressure guy is beaten.

Once the ball is entering scoring range, however, the off-ball attacker will start to make a move towards the farside (back) of the defense, in order to distract the keeper and Cover guy (as well as to provide an alternatepoint of the attack).

When this happens, the Cover guy has to chose whether to stay with his mark, or stay with his covering role. The decisions made by the Cover guy depend on the same factors discussed in 1v2 defending. If the on-ball attacker is in a clearly better position to score, he usually will want to stick with the covering role. If the off-ball attacker is clearly in the better position to score, he must move ballside/goalside of this receiver by getting into the likely passing lanes for the ball. When the situation is unclear, then he will need to make a choice based upon what he knows about his teammate¼s ability, the ability of the opponents, the ability of his keeper, and a host of other factors which may give him cluesthat one option is better than the other. When in doubt, the best decision normally is to mark any central receiver out of play, and leave the on-ball attacker to the Pressure guy and the keeper.

3v3 Defense

Most teams which play 3v3 will leave one player back as a pivot player and supporting defender. Thus, defending in 3v3 usually is easier than in 2v2, because most attacks end up being 2v3 (with the spare defender free to move in to provide extra cover or pressure to win possession).

Of course, the defensive team has 3 basic choices. One choice is to have the spare defender station himself some distance from the back player, at an angle to intercept any passes to him. This choice is somewhat risky,in that the attackers are now 2v2 against the defenders (so the advantage of extra numbers if lost) - but it is somewhat better offensively because it provides an immediate outlet for a counterattack if possession is won (with your team needing to beatonly 1 opponent to score).

The opposite end of the spectrum is to use the extra defender as a Cover person, which allows the other attacker to be closely marked. This is a conservative approach, but can be very effective defensively against a somewhat stronger opponent. Because there is no outlet player available when possession is regained, this approach will reduce your scoring chances unless your team plays good possession-style soccer (or has a high-endurance player who can sprint forward tobecome the outlet player when possession is regained).

The final choice is a hybrid of these two approaches, in which the extra defender plays a quasi-zonal defensive role (stationing himself towards the central area of the goal - where he can assist with Cover if needed; try to stand in passing lanes to the off-ball attacker; and, at the same time, remains alert and ready to sprint upfield or move over to provide backup if possession is regained). This option can work quite well in situations where the person serving as theextra defender has developed the ability to read the field well, and is able to accurately anticipate when he will be needed.

Usually, most teams will start with the conservative approach while they assess the strength of their opponents, and will then start taking some risks if this appears to be appropriate. However, it will take several seasons before players can be trained to recognize the proper balance between defensive risk and offensive reward. There are multiple variables which must be weighed in a short amount of time, andmistakes are bound to happen. However, if the coach constantly exposes the players to 3v3 games with varying team composition (so players have to contend with individual opponents who may be weaker or stronger), the players will learn to assess theirown capabilities, the capabilities of their teammates, and the capabilities of their opponents. As they learn to make these assessments, they will become increasingly skilled in making the small-group tactical decisions which are required to be successful at playing soccer at all levels.


This is a very basic outline of the types of decisions which are involved defensively in small group play. Once players are familiar with these basic decisions, they will be prepared to make better use of additional players on the field. Why? Because teams which have 11 players per side on the field usually will not have more than 5-6 players who are playing offense or defense at any given time. The roles of the players immediately around the ball (Pressure & Cover) do not change. If anything, their roles are easier when playing in a larger group, because the extra players cut down on the amount of running/work and provide extra coverage. For instance, if the team is defending 6v4, this means that it has twospare defenders available. How should it use these two extra defenders. Well, common sense (and 2v1 and 3v2 experience) tells you that the first one should be assigned to dedicated Cover. And, from experience gained when an attacker is bottled up in acorner by both a Pressure guy and a close Cover guy, it is also obvious that the other extra defender needs to act like a close Cover/Pressure guy to aid your team in regaining possession.

Of course, if a player has never been allowed to play in small groups, or has never been rotated through defense, he will have no idea what to do in Numbers-Up defense. Often, he will just stand around aimlessly, or go stand by his mark upfield (where he is doing no good at all). It is precisely because of these players that modern coaches push so strongly for small-sided games, and for consistent rotation of players through all areas of the field. Updated 12 December 1998

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