Defense wins championships. It’s one of sport’s oldest clichés, but it’s also one of sport’s verifiable truths. We remember and talk about great soccer teams with great forward players. However, those teams could not have accomplished great things without a great defense. Individual defenders with skill may not accomplish anything without a sound defensive strategy. There are basics concepts to understand and then to learn how to apply those concepts to game situations and within various soccer formations.
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Basic Defensive Concepts in Soccer
No matter what formation you employ in soccer, there are two main defensive principles to keep in mind:
- Pressure, Cover, Balance
- Force the opponent into poor attacking positions
Out of these two concepts, possible defensive strategies arise
- Zonal marking
- Man marking
Pressure Cover Balance
This refers to the approach the team takes to defending as a unit. As a player with the ball moves towards the opponent’s goal, the defending team moves to stop them. The first defender (a defender closest to the person with the ball) will attempt to slow or stop their progress. The defender applies “pressure” to the player with the ball.
A second defender near the first defender watches for another offensive player making a run towards goal or in a position to receive a pass. The second defender will try to help prevent this from happening. This is called “covering.”
A third defender will maintain their position as the events unfold near them. They will keep an eye out for any late runs by an offensive player. This is called keeping “balance.”
Defenders will have to be aware of the situation they are in and be able to read the defense to make “pressure, cover, balance” concept work. They have to be very aware of what is happening around them. If the first defender is beaten, the second defender starts pressing and the third defender becomes the cover defender. Another defender or player in a defensive position will have to step in to maintain balance.
Forcing the Opponent into Poor Attacking Positions
Another basic key to a solid defensive strategy sounds very obvious and simple; keep the offense from getting a shot off. Strategically, this means defenders will endeavor to keep their opponents from getting inside the 18-yard box. A team may crowd the box with four or more players, staying compact and preventing dribbles down the middle.
Through positioning and individual defensive style, the defense as a unit may attempt to force the opposing offensive players wide of the 18-yard box or outside the box using pressure and cover. Organization and spacing between the back line of defenders will be important. Outside backs may pressure an attacker coming from outside, leaving some room behind him or her and inside the box. It will be important for defenders to cover and maintain balance inside the box. This could mean the defender on the other side of the field must shift their position to play inside the box.
In this scheme, one defender will have a section of the pitch to defend. He must approach any defender that enters that section. He can press or shade the defender depending on the tactics employed by the manager. A positive of this strategy is that, if all on the pitch are focused, every inch of grass will be accounted for. If a player switches from left wing to right, zonal marking allows a defender to pick up that player.
A negative of this strategy is that it weakens the “pressure, cover, balance” form of defending. Defender A moves to cover Forward X in his zone. Defender B may be focused on Forward Y in his zone, and may not see Forward Z moving from Defender A’s zone into B’s zone. Defender B is now facing an overload and will need help from another defender, which may arrive too late.
Zonal marking requires of its participants a high level of focus, knowledge of the game and being able to “read the game,” knowing what players often do and seeing them prepare to do it.
A positive of zonal marking is that it allows players who are prepared and able to read the game to sit back and watch it unfold. They will not engage in rash tackles, get themselves out of position and allow overloads into their area. They will attack when the time is right.
Very simply, this is one-on-one defending. Each player will be assigned a person to watch for the entirety of the time they are on the pitch. Players can also agree among themselves who they will mark. This means tracking their runs whenever they go. Usually, there is a combination of zonal marking and man marking employed. A center back who agrees to man mark a forward will not be running up the pitch if the forward drops to receive a pass in his own half. The defender will pick up the player usually in the last 1/3 of the pitch.
Pressing High vs Sitting Back
Some managers will ask their midfielders and forwards to accept defensive duties. This can include asking them to drop back and help defend, but can also include pressuring the ball high up the pitch to create turnovers. To be effective, high pressure must be done as a team, following the pressure/cover/balance concept. The midfielders must join in. This style consumes a lot of a player’s energy, so it must be employed judiciously.
In most occasions, the defense will settle into their positions on the field and watch for the offense to develop, to show their intentions before attacking.
Some may call formations part of the tactical element of soccer. However, certain formations reveal certain strategic concepts about the way a manager would like to play, and the choice of a formation may reveal a team’s overall strategy. Are they defensive minded? Balanced? Risk-takers?
The classic English formation is considered balanced in the way it has been played over the years, but for the Italians in Serie A, the teams in their league were considered to emphasize defense. In this formation, there are four designated defenders, two central backs and two fullbacks, or outside backs. The midfielders play in a straight line and sit in their own half when the opposing team has the ball. So then, there are to always be at least 8 field players inside their half when the opposing team has the ball. The back four can clog the middle, with defensive midfielders dropping inside to cover if a defender has to go outside the box.
One of the popular modern favorites in professional football, one could say this is now the classic English formation, with an eye on the modern game. The midfielders play an important role as defenders as many coaches who employ the formation ask the midfielders to apply pressure to the ball high up the pitch to create turnovers, and the turnovers then create opportunities for offense. Zonal marking is important to this formation.
If the 4-4-2 is the traditional favorite, the 4-2-3-1 is the intellectual’s choice of a defensive minded strategist looking for some balance and flexibility. The two defensive midfielders protect the back four, and if they drop in, the outside backs can join in on the offense. You’ll still have 8 in your own half when defending. Like the 4-3-3, pressing the ball high up the pitch can create turnovers.
Many more teams are now employing this offensive minded formation. The three center backs anchor the defense. The central center back is more like a defensive midfielder. The other two center backs are responsible for each side of the pitch. The outside backs are now wingbacks and spend more time getting forward than they would in a 4-3-3. The wings may be the most important position because they must help the center backs when offensive players attempt to cross from the outside. The formation becomes a 3-2-5 on offense and a 5-2-3 in defending.
One might consider the 5-3-2 a cousin to the 3-4-3. It emphasizes a stifling defense that is designed to spring counterattacks. There are the three center backs, wingbacks focused on defending (but who can also get forward) and two defensive midfielders who play either side of an offensive midfielder.
With nine in your own half most times, you would think this is the formation for the manager whose strategy emphasizes defense. However, midfielder configuration in this formation can change the emphasis from defense to offense depending on the tactics employed. The formation clogs up the midfield as much as it clogs the 18-yard box, trying to stop attacks before they can develop.
Defending Set Pieces
When there is a corner kick or free kick given, the team defending these potential scoring opportunities choose to either man mark or use a zonal defense. Teams that use man marking rely on the players on the pitch to decide who to cover, and so they must match up well.
Tying it all together
Basic defending, marking style and formation choice are all a part of a manager’s overall defensive strategy. At a higher level in the game, the experienced defenders pressure/cover almost by instinct. It’s the engine that makes any strategy go.
Some formations may be better for zonal marking, like the formations that use a back four since there is rarely license for players go get out of position. In formations with 8 or 9 in the defensive half, man marking may be utilized to help avoid situations where one player becomes overloaded by late runs or offensive players switching positions. However, you most often hear about man marking being utilized if facing a very strong or skilled striker who needs to be shadowed at all times. Most of all, coaches and managers will want a defensive strategy that suits the players available to them, one that can put those players in position to win the ball and start their offense.