All defensive training should begin with training of defensive skills in a 1v1 setting, and then progress to 2v1 training (numbers down and numbers up), 2v2 training, and 3v3 training. In this way, players will learn improve their own individual defensive skills and learn the proper techniques for working as a team to prevent the opponents from scoring, by learning to prevent them from taking the ball to dangerous parts of the field; or from passing balls into dangerous parts of the field to other teammates; or from allowing target receivers to collect any errant passes which might slip through; or from allowing such receivers who might get a ball in dangerous territory from getting off a shot. The essence of team defense is to use the available manpower to close down as many of the dangerous attacking options as possible, while patiently waiting for mistakes to occur or sufficient backup to arrive that efforts can be made to win the ball back.
In team defense, the closest person to the ball (whether a forward, midfielder or defender) automatically should step in to put delaying pressure on the ball. In soccer terminology, this person is called the First Defender or the Pressure player. The importance of immediate pressure on the ball cannot be overstated. Tell your players that you want somebody on the ball by the count of 2, then shout "2" - to get the point across that you want this pressure to occur instantly.
Why is Pressure so important? The longer time that you give any attacker to make decisions, the better decisions he will make. And, the less time that you give your teammates to get back to cover your own goal, the worse are your chances of successfully stopping the attack. So, immediate Pressure is applied to force errors by the attackers; slow down their attack; give your own teammates time to provide support; and, hopefully, to give your team the opportunity to try to regain the ball in a favorable part of the field. Just as in individual defense, the Pressure player's first job is to get into position to slow down the attacker and to remain in his way until a good opportunity arises to try to regain possession. The difference is that, once backup support has arrived, the Pressure player usually can stop being patient and can move to aggressively win the ball back, because his backup player can move in to take over if he is beaten. Thus, the availability of backup support often allows the team to get the ball back in better field position and at a time when the opponents are moving in the wrong direction to handle their own defense well.
So, who is the teammate who is supposed to provide this immediate backup. Usually, the teammate who is the nearest player goalside of the ball - or the player who can most quickly get into this supporting position - is responsible for getting into a position behind the Pressure defender, so that he can provide a safety valve if the Pressure defender is beaten. This person is called the Cover player (or Second Defender). Finally, the remaining teammates who are available for backup along the direct route of the ball towards goal provide additional support for the two primary defenders, and are called the Balance players or Third Defenders. The jobs of the Balance players involve many of the same basic skills and decisions as those made by the two primary defenders, so it is important to provide solid background in the Pressure and Cover roles before moving to substantial training on Balance.
The Cover player is the player who is the nearest teammate who is in the proper position goalside of the ball, or who can make the easiest run to get into this position. Proper positioning depends on the position of the ball on the field, as well as the position of any supporting attacker and the speed of the attacking group. Positioning is covered in more detail below.
The Cover player has the following duties:
The positioning of the Cover player depends upon where the ball is located on the field. If the attacker is relatively close to one touchline, the defense will want to bottle the attacker up on the touchline (and use the touchline as an extra defender), just as in individual defending. Thus, the Pressure player 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 player typically will move to close off the end of the funnel. However, the Cover player often will take an intermediate step and provide backup along a line from the goal to the far post until the attacker has been moved fairly close to the touchline. The Cover player must carefully gauge when to close the funnel and how distance can safely be left between him and the Pressure player, as the last thing which he wants to have happen is for the attacker to be able to cut in towards goal between him and the Pressure player (a tactic known as "splitting the defenders").
If the attacker has his back towards your goal, and is being heavily pressured from the rear by the Pressure player, then the Cover player has two choices. One is to provide fairly close support from the rear, to enable the Pressure player to move around towards the front to try to win the ball. The other is to become the Pressure player himself by coming in from the front, and allowing the rear player to provide Cover.
Finally, if the attacker has managed to turn towards your goal and is not near any touchline, then the Cover player typically will take a position about 2-3 yards to the rear and to the side (trying to add his body as extra coverage for the goal). The closer that the attacker is to goal, the closer the Cover player usually will position himself to the Pressure player, so as to be able to provide near-instant Pressure if his teammate is beaten.
When providing defensive backup, the Cover player must make an assessment of the relative speed and skill of the attacker. In general, where the attacker is considerably faster or more skilled than the defenders involved, the Cover player must drop off farther, so that he will not be beaten by the on-ball attacker or by a speedy runner to whom the ball is passed. The relative distance between the ball and the last backup defender is called "depth" of the defense. A defense which has a lot of depth defensively is often safer. However, the amount of depth to provide in any defense is a product of multiple factors (and, obviously, there are times when defensive support may be so far away that it is not useful). All defenses tend to compress in depth as the ball comes into scoring range, both because the defenders have run out of field and because the proximity of the attackers to goal requires that the defenders get closer so that they can react more quickly.
Once the Cover player is at the correct depth, where should he stand in relation to the Pressure defender? If the ball is located toward the sides of the field, a good rule of thumb on support angle can be reached by drawing a line from the far post to the ball. The support defender moves up or back along this line. The reason for adopting this angle is that the body of the Cover player fills up any passing and shooting lanes to the far post, while the body of the Pressure player fills up passes/shots to the near post. In essence, even though the defenders are separated by several yards, they will appear to be almost shoulder-to-shoulder from the attacker's viewpoint (as if they were making a wall across the goal).
In the center of the field, there really is no "far post", because the ball may be equally distant from either post. What then? In this case, the supporting defender may wish to pull up within a couple of yards back and to the side of the Pressure defender, in order to create the illusion of a horizontal wall which is blocking the ball. If in scoring range, he may pull up even closer. In general, the Cover player will pull up to the side which blocks a shot by the favored foot of the attacker (unless other factors, such as another attacker, make it more sensible to position to the other side).
What if there is also a supporting attacker to worry about? This will be covered in 2v2 attacking. First, we will address the situation where there is a free defender who can provide fulltime backup support (i.e., he doesn't have another attacker whom he also has to mark).
The first thing that the Cover player needs to do is to get into position. If he already is goalside of the ball, then it is a simple matter to shift up and over to establish the correct position. However, if he is upfield from the ball, then he must make an angled or looping run as he comes back to get into position. Why? He wants to keep his eye on the ball at all times, and he wants to be able to provide backup in the event that the Pressure player is beaten. As a result, he needs to estimate where along the path towards goal he would have to be to intersect the attacker if the attacker quickly got past the Pressure player, and then start heading for that spot. Then, as he sees that the Pressure player is managing to contain the attacker (so the risk of a break-through has gone down), he starts to angle around towards his ultimate Cover position.
Once in place, the Cover player becomes the "boss" of the defense - and it is his job to instruct the Pressure player on what to do next. Why? Because the Cover player can look around, while the Pressure player should have his eyes glued to the ball.
While positioning is important, the real work in training the Cover player involves training in communication skills. The Cover player provides the same type of support for the Pressure player that the 2nd attacker provides for the on-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 "Cover" when he is in place. Normally, his first instruction will be to start trying to steer the opponent towards one touchline ("Take him left" or "Take him right"). If possible, a right-footed attacker should be steered towards the right side of the defense (i.e., towards the attacker's left), in order to force the attacker to use his non-favored foot. Then, the Cover player starts to give instructions to the Pressure player on ball-winning ("Not Yet" or "Now"). or "Not Yet"). Normally, the Pressure player should wait for a signal from the Cover player before moving in to tackle the ball - so that he can be sure that the Cover player is ready to spring forward to provide instant Pressure if the tackle doesn't work.
Of course, the Cover player must be especially alert when the attacker is within scoring distance of the goal and will have a decent scoring chance if he manages to beat the Pressure player. This is especially true when the attacker is coming in centrally, so that the attacker has the full goal to shoot on. The Cover player knows that, once the attacker gets the ball within easy passing range of goal, it can be a simple matter to slip the ball between the legs of the defenders and into the net. As a result, if the attacker hasn't made a mistake which can be capitalized upon (such as putting the ball too far out in front) by the time that he has entered the PA, the Cover player will need to consider orchestrating a double-team rush on the attacker. When should this be done? Usually 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). The decisions involved at the same as in making the rush in individual defending. The only real difference is that the two defenders combine as they are going in, so that they can overwhelm and bottle up the attacker and/or put so much pressure upon him that his shot is easily saved by the keeper.a
When 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 player will try to steer the attacker towards the endline, while the Cover player 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 player generally can kick the ball out, the real interest of the Cover player is to keep the attacker from coming between him and the Pressure player - which will leave a big hole. Thus, he will want to close 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 over the top of them towards the central goal area 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 player must drop down to cover the near post (so that the keeper can move more centrally) and the Cover player 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.
In addition to training the players on how to set the proper angles in these situations, it is important to train them on recovery runs. When the Pressure player is beaten, the Cover player immediately steps up to provide Pressure. At the same moment, the Pressure player must INSTANTLY make a recovery run to get into a position to intercept the attacker if he beats the former Cover player. The most dangerous instance in 2v1 defending is during this transition time. If the former Cover player does not close quickly and carefully, both defenders will be beaten - unless the former Pressure player gets into an immediate backup position. Usually, the best option for the recovering defender is to make a sprint at top speed to an interception point on the line towards goal, while turning his head to see if further adjustments are in order. In general, the depth of the interception point should be set as deep as possible, while still permitting the defender to reach the attacker before he is likely to shoot. Once again, if the recovering defender sees that the new Pressuring defender has contained the attacker, he can flatten his run and come back to set up a Cover position. But, his first thought must be to get into a position where he could stop a shot (or intercept a cross, if a supporting attacker is in the picture).
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 most of these principles on their own 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.
The next step is to train players in 2v2 defensive coverage. The role of the Cover player 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 Group Attacking, 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 player to devote most of his attention to the ball (instead of this attacker) until about the time when the ball is approaching scoring range. He accomplishes this by stationing himself goalside of the Pressure player, 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 player is beaten.
As a general rule of thumb, when there is another attacker in the vicinity, the Cover player will first determine how close this attacker is to the ball and to the goal. In general, the wider the attacker is laterally and the closer this attacker is horizontally to the ball, the wider the Cover player may want to play away from the ball (so that he can intercept any long passes which may be sent in behind him or get to the supporting attacker more quickly if the ball gets through). In other words, the wide attacker is sufficiently worrisome that he is forced to pull away from his Cover job somewhat, so that he can get to the wide receiver quickly. On the other hand, as long as the supporting attacker remains well behind the dribbler and well away from the ball, the Cover player can devote his main attention to the ball.
As a general rule of thumb, a distance halfway between the two attackers is a good starting point if the attackers are square (i.e., on the same line horizontally) and outside of scoring range. If the second attacker is forward or if the ball is coming into scoring range, the defender must move closer to this potential receiver - even at the risk of abandoning his Cover duties.
In deciding whether to stay with his mark, or remain as in a Cover role, the defender must consider whether the dribbler or the mark is the more dangerous player. If the dribbler is in a clearly better position to score, the Cover player usually will want to stick with the covering role. If the receiver is clearly in the better position to score (i.e., the dribbler is at a sharp angle to goal, while the receiver is stationed or moving centrally), the Cover player must move ballside/goalside of this receiver and get 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 teammate's ability, the ability of the opponents, the ability of his keeper, and a host of other factors which may give him clues that 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 dribbler to the Pressure player and the keeper.
The defender is obligated to continue to mark an attacker who is moving forward until one of several things occur:
So, what must the Cover player do when the ball is passed to the receiver?
The most important part of his job is what is called "closing down" the attacker. The "close down" starts when a ball is passed to an attacker. When the ball is in flight, the defender uses this time to sprint towards the receiving attacker. If the defender is relatively close to the attacker, he should turn with the attacker (taking his eyes off the ball), try to beat the attacker to space he is going and turn back to find the ball. An extended forearm touching the attacker can help the defender know where the attacker is. The defender must not slow down his turn with the attacker, as he may obstruct the attacker. The beauty of this defensive reaction is that it takes the defender automatically into a supportive position.
If the defender is relatively far away from the attacker, it is critical that he use the time that the ball is in flight to gobble up as much ground as possible. All too often, the defender does not react soon enough, and gives the attacker too much space to receive and decide what the next play will be. Just before the receiver is to touch the ball, however, the defender must stop the sprint and go into a balanced state, being ready to react in any direction. The closer to the attacker, the more critical it is to get balanced. It is when the defender is in motion that the attacker can use the defender's momentum to beat him. The defender must first stop, then change directions. Often ,in a directional change, the player is again off balance and can be beat again. A balanced player can react quickly while remaining balanced for the next reaction. To get balanced requires the player to suspend movement, with feet a comfortable distance apart. The body may be turned slightly facing the ball and the direction the player wants the attacker to go.
Each time that the attacker makes a touch on the ball, the defender uses the time before the next touch to close down more space. If the touch stays close to the attacker, the defender should go into a sideways-on (or side-on) stance and take short steps or hops to get closer to the attacker. The defender should stay as balanced as possible with any leanings away from attacker back towards the defended goal. The defender must not allow the attacker to get past or behind him, and that is why the defender should be ready to react quickly going backwards as he shuffles forward towards the ball. The reason he needs to be side-on is to be in a better position to go back.
In general, defenders who are beaten by the attacker on the first or second touch are not on balance. Likewise, defenders that are not tight enough initially may not be working hard enough on the initial pass. Furthermore, defenders that stay well off the attacker after reception are not closing down properly. Thus, if a coach sees these errors, corrections are in order before bad habits become engrained.
While the former Cover player is busy worrying about the current dribbler, the former Pressure player must decide what to do next. In general, if his mark does not go forward immediately or makes a wide run away from the ball, he should drop back into the basic Cover position. Why? Because this player is now the Cover player! This switching of roles is often the hardest thing for young players to remember. As a result, it is necessary to practice 2v2 situations over and over until the switching off of roles, as well as the rules of Pressure and Cover, become so engrained that they are instinctive.
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 in game situations (even if just for a few seconds until backup arrives), so players need to be trained on how to approach numbers-down defending with confidence. The basic positioning of the solo defender is essentially the same as if he were a Cover player in a 2v2 setting.
In general, until the ball comes within shooting range, a solo defender will try to position himself so that he can remain in the path of the on-ball attacker and slow him down - but he will want to drop off towards goal sufficiently to also keep an eye on the off-ball attacker. As a general rule, most off-ball attackers will remain to one side and slightly behind the on-ball attacker until the ball is entering scoring range. At this point, the off-ball attacker will start to try to move to the far side of the defender in order to prevent the defender from staying enough to provide any pressure on the ball and still keep an eye on the off-ball attacker.
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 if the pass gets through. To minimize the possibility of a pass, the solo defender may slightly angle his run to put his body in the easiest passing lanes to the receiver (unless covering the dominant foot appears to be the better option).
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 - but his off-ball receiver is stationed centrally around the top of the box (as he should be)- the most 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). Normally, he will stand around the top of the goal area, in the hopes of intercepting any horizontal pass to the receiver (which is the most dangerous pass to him) and helping the keeper by blocking a low far post shot by the dribbler. Essentially, at this point, the solo defender is leaving the dribbler to the keeper, and simply trying to provide backup to prevent passes to the receiver. He knows that, if the receiver gets the ball, he is sunk - because the whole net is wide open, so he simply does the best that he can to cut off the easy options - and hopes that the attackers cannot convert on the more difficult options.
When there are more than two teammates available to assist in defense, the concept of marking becomes very important. If a player has consistently marked his man out for the whole game, and prevented any service to his mark by making the mark appear not to be 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. As the coach moves into teaching team defense, the first rule of team defense to be taught is that everyone on the team becomes a defender when the team does not have the ball. Thus, all players must understand the 4 basic jobs of team defense, which are: No Get, No Turn, No Pass/No Shoot.
"No Get" means to prevent the player whom they are guarding from ever getting the ball. There is a detailed practice plan on marking in the Plans section of the Manual, so the methods to be used to prevent an opponent from getting the ball will not be discussed in detail here.
Of course, it is not always possible to keep an opposing player from getting the ball - especially when serving as a midfielder, because there will be times when he 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 Turn" (i.e., trying to keep the attacker from turning in the direction 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 or the risk of allowing the turn is relatively high.
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 initial defender on the scene 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 keeper's job a lot easier). Thus, at this point, the marking defender will work to insure No Pass/No Shoot, with his emphasis normally on preventing the shot (unless the pass is considerably more dangerous). These concepts will continue to be applied in 3v3 defense, as well as in any other situation where more than 2 defenders are available.
Most teams which play 3v3 will leave one player back as a pivot player and supporting defender. Thus, defending in 3v3 can be 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).
The defensive group has 3 basic choices in how to position this extra defender, ranging from fairly risky to fairly conservative. Which positioning to choose depends in large part upon the skill of the opposing team.
The most risky choice is to have the spare defender station himself as an outlet player - staying between the defense and the sole defender of the opposing team. This choice is somewhat risky, because the attackers are now 2v2 against the defenders (so the advantage of extra defensive numbers is lost). However, it is somewhat better offensively because it provides an immediate outlet for a counterattack if possession is won (with your team needing to beat only 1 opponent to score). It also has the advantage of preventing the opponents from putting all 3 players into their attack, as this will leave their goal undefended if the ball comes to the outlet player.
The most conservative choice to use the extra defender in a sweeper-type role, which frees up the other defender to closely mark the supporting attacker. However, because there is no outlet player available when possession is regained, this approach will reduce scoring chances unless your team plays good possession-style soccer (or has a high-endurance player who can sprint forward to become the outlet player when possession is regained).
The third choice is a hybrid of these two approaches, in which the extra defender becomes a floating Cover player who plays in any part of the field in order to quickly provide double-team opportunities on the ball (this type of player is also called a "libero", meaning a unrestricted player). If the Libero has developed the ability to read the field well, and is able to accurately anticipate when he will be needed, this option can work very nicely. However, if the Libero is relatively unskilled, the only thing that he may end up accomplishing is exhausting himself (especially if the opponents have a good short-passing game).
Usually, in a 3v3 contest, players 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, and mistakes 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 their own 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 two spare 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, while the remaining player may be utilized the best by creating double-team options or assisting in marking a particularly dangerous opponent.
If a player has never been allowed to play in small groups, or has never been rotated through defense, he will have no idea how to approach this golden opportunity. Often, he will just stand around aimlessly, or go stand by his mark upfield (where he is doing no good at all). However, once he understands the basic principles involved in small group play, he is more likely to move automatically to provide defensive support when needed - and to automatically present himself as an outlet player when not needed on defense. Thus, even if technically serving as a defender, a player trained in solid 3v3 skills will realize that, if the opponent only has sent up one attacker who is easily handled by the 2 defenders already back, his best bet is to become an outlet player for them - and to bring the ball upfield until he is challenged; or until he can see that other teammates are better positioned to take the ball forward; or until other circumstances make it more important that he return to the back.
Many youth coaches refuse to label their primary defensive players as "defenders", because they wish to impress upon all of their players that defense is everybody's job when the team does not have the ball. So, they choose to refer to these primary defenders as "backs". This may be helpful with young players. However, the coach probably will want to introduce the more common definition of their role at some point in training so that the players are not confused when they go to camps or play for other coaches. In either event, the coach certainly will want to impress upon all players that they have defensive jobs, and teach all players how to perform those defensive duties in a competent manner in a small group setting.
Updated 12 March 1999