Player Portrait: Defenders

Happy February! With the first of the month here, we are approaching the half way point of winter. Spring can’t come soon enough! Last week I wrote an email on what we look for in center midfielders. This week I want to focus on what we look for in our defenders.

Similar to the format of last week’s email, I want to start with general traits we want out of all of our defenders.

  1. 1 vs 1 Defending:  We train all of our field players in 1 vs 1 defending, but extra emphasis is placed on our backline. Good 1 vs 1 defending is constantly keeping the attacking player in front of you and moving your feet to try to get them on their non-dominant foot. When an attacking player has a ball and turns their back, we train our players to get touch-tight to them and make sure they have to go negative. If an attacking player is posting to try to receive a ball, we want defenders who will back off slightly, about the length of their arm, so that they can’t get turned.
  2. Zonal Defending: Although there are times that we need to man mark certain players, we need all of our defenders to be able to zonally defend. This begins with defending in groups of 2 and evolving into defending into lines of 4 and eventually as an entire group of 10 field players. Most high school and clubs zonally defend so the principles of pressure, cover, and balance are very familiar to most players. We train the same things at F&M. We want defenders who can force attacking players into pressure rather than simply wide space. This baits attacking players into playing the ball centrally and giving us an opportunity to win a ball and quickly counter.
  3. One Touch Transition: Defenders need to have the habit of one touching the ball forward, if possible, when the ball has been won from the opponent. Anyone can simply kick the ball, but one touch transition requires foresight on the part of the defender so that that one touch connects into a player further up the field and possession remains with us. By one touching the ball, a defender can immediately split the opponent’s first wave of pressure.
  4. Sprint Backwards: One of the biggest flaws we correct in defenders coming into our program is their tendency to backpedal. When the backline needs to drop, we want defenders who will turn their hips and run backwards, allowing them to get into position faster as well as keeping good athletic positioning. This is also important when ball swinging through the backline. When the ball is swung through the back, the next player to receive the ball should be sprinting backwards five to ten yards to create a new angle to pass into. If the ball is played to a keeper, defenders need to sprint back in wide positions and open up to receive the ball back facing forward.

As I previously mentioned in regard to center midfielders, we play different formations that change the roles of our defenders. However, the two most common types of defenders we play with are center backs and outside backs. In addition to the traits listed above, each of these positions requires a different type of player.

  1. Center Back: Center backs for us need to either be big enough to win balls in the air, or fast enough to close space on balls played behind the line. If they are both, they tend to be all-conference and all-american level players. Center backs can see the field and therefore need to be very vocal as the defensive leaders and communicators of the team, constantly instructing players to step, drop and and shift. Center backs should always be talking. Much of this communication is inaudible to fans and coaches and looks more like a conversation between players. Because of the leadership required of this position, many of our captains have been center backs. From a possession standpoint, center backs need to be able to connect with their holding midfielders consistently, as well as have the ability to hit accurate driven balls to wingers and target forwards.
  2. Outside Backs: Although not as vocal as center backs, outside backs need to be better 1 vs 1 defenders. Often times we find out outside backs isolated on pacey wingers. Keeping these players in front of them and forcing them into pressure is vital to the defensive shape of the entire team. These players also need to find the right time to get forward into the attack. This often happens when a winger checks centrally and opens space to get around them. When outside backs are successful at doing this, opposing teams get pinned in and have a hard time getting forward into the attacking third.