I remember first learning the Principles of Defense when I was 14 years old. When my coach taught us these concepts, soccer started to make more sense – my connection to the game grew deeper. Suddenly, I was aware of the chess match playing out on the field and I was excited about the increased connection my team had as we began to think about defending and communicating more as a group.
I survey each parent who joins MySoccerParenting.com and when I ask about their soccer knowledge I often receive “I understand the game but am sometimes confused.” Having a general idea of the basic Principles of Defense will hopefully open up the game to you, make you feel a bit more connected to it – just as it did for me as a young player.
Of course, different countries have different terminology for these defensive principles, but the general ideas remain the same:
When your team is defending, you want to take away the options and space from the other team. Simply put, when your team is defending, you want to make the field small and the options of the other team limited.
There are five principles of defending:
This is the role of the first defender. The first defender is generally the person who is closest to the ball. Their primary role is to deny and control the penetration of the other team (they don’t want the ball to get behind them). The role of the first defender is further broken down into four steps: approach, delay, control and tackle.
- Approach– The first defender must engage with the attacker quickly – running towards them with pace, but then slowing down as to not allow the ball to get in behind them. Once they engage with the attacker, they need to get into an athletic position, legs bent, body balanced, feet ready to move.
- Delay– In a good athletic position, the first defender slows down the attacker by moving with the attacker, oftentimes sort of shuffling side to side backwards. It’s important not to let the attacker get too close while delaying, because then it will be too easy for them to dribble past you. A general rule is to keep the attacker just over an arms length in front of you.
- Control– Once the first defender has slowed down the attacker (delayed them) then they can start to control them, and channel them into one direction. Maybe that means force them to their non-dominant foot, maybe that means to force them to the sideline where there is less space, maybe that means to force them to the middle where there are defending teammates to cover. It’s important to understand there is not necessarily a right and wrong here. Don’t think your child is doing something wrong if they are forcing the attacker centrally, maybe that is what the coach wants them to do because the attacking team’s strength is flank play (crosses).
- Tackle– We regain the ball from the attacking team by tackling or intercepting. The tackle is risky because once you go to the ground as a defender, it is difficult to recover. There are different forms of tackling – sometimes it’s a simple poke of the ball where you don’t necessarily go to the ground but are able to win the ball from the attacker, sometimes it’s a full on slide tackle (which is completely legal unless you go in with your cleats up or hit the player before the ball) and then other times a tackle is a last minute block of the ball before a penetrating pass or shot.
Most often, the first defender does not tackle. Instead, they approach, delay and control to the point where the second defender is able to intercept the passed ball.
This is the role of the second defender. The second defender is generally behind the first defender, providing depth. The distance the second defender is from the first defender and the angle they are playing off the ball are key decisions. The second defender should be communicating to the first defender, encouraging them and telling them how to channel the attacker.
The second defender needs to be ready to pressure the ball (and therefore become the first defender) if the ball moves. They also need to be aware of the position of the other attackers. This is where the angle and distance of their position especially comes in to play. If there is not yet a third defender, they need to be close enough to support the first defender while not being too far away from the second attacker in case the ball is played to them.
This is the role of the third defender. The third defender needs to be constantly evaluating the position of the ball and the unmarked opponents on the field. The third defender must have good soccer knowledge and field awareness to understand how close they need to be to the first and second defender while simultaneously making sure the space the other team is trying to attack into is limited.
It is very important that the balancing defender (the third defender) is compact with their teammates, but still able to deny space for the attacking team. If the ball is played across the field then maybe the third defender must step to the ball, becoming the first defender and their teammates must shift and slide into second and third defender positions (and mentalities).
When a team is defending their objective is to take away the space the other team is trying to penetrate into by proper positioning. A compact team will reduce the MOST dangerous space a team can exploit.
In order for a team to be compact, there must be collective movement and communication. When I was watching the U.S. Men’s team play most recently the broadcasters made a point of mentioning that the back line of the U.S. had not played together. A team moving and shifting collectively requires familiarity, this is why the broadcasters made mention of this.
In the youth game, this is why we especially work with our younger team to communicate. We tell the first defender to say: “I’ve got ball” making it clear to their teammates that they are the first defender. We tell the second defender to say: “I’ve got cover” making it clear to their teammates (and themselves) what their role will be in that moment.
- CONTROL & RESTRAINT
In more advanced teams, their Line of Confrontation will be a tactical decision that is considered. You may realize when you watch games that some teams pressure immediately all over the field while other teams don’t pressure really hard until the ball approaches mid-field. This is a tactical decision on the part of the coach. Parents need to understand this because there is is frustrating when coaching and instructing players, for instance, to confront at midfield and then hearing parents yell at their players because they think they should be working harder!
Other factors to consider with the concepts of Control & Restraint are the score in the game, if the team is down a player, how many minutes are left in the half or game, etc.
As I mentioned, I was 14 when I first learned these defensive concepts.
From that day forward I have said in my mind, almost in the form of a rhyme – “Pressure, Cover, Balance – Approach, Delay, Control, Tackle.”
For me, this deeper understanding proved to be a connection point to the game. Hopefully, as a parent, this understanding will do the same for you and you’ll gain a deeper appreciation for the nuances of the game – resulting in a more enjoyable experience!