Defenders are an underrated – yet crucial – part of the soccer team. Their primary role is to stop attacks during the game and prevent the opposing team from scoring goals.
This means hanging back and protecting the goalkeeper from breakaways, and preventing the attacker from either passing forward, dribbling toward the goal, or shooting, which is achieved mainly through applying pressure, and strategic positioning.
The best defenders will be equipped with the tactical skills and knowledge, but will also have specific physical attributes – such as strength and speed – as well as the personality traits required to keep their composure on the field.
So, what are the main priorities and traits of a defender, and how can you be a better one? In this article, I’ll be explaining the characteristics of a good defender, so you can up your game and apply pressure in all the right ways.
Defender Priorities – How to Pressurize
Intercept balls passed to the attacker
One of your main priorities should be cutting off passes before they’re passed to the attacker.
This way, you can quickly decrease the offensive threat by intercepting the attacker before the individual duel occurs.
The defender must be positioned on the goal-side of the attacker so they can see the ball and their attacker in full view.
Tackle the ball as the attacker makes their turn.
This is your fallback option if interception failed or wasn’t possible, and you should try to tackle the ball before a confrontation with the offensive player.
Force the attacker to screen the ball with their first touch.
You need to act quickly so that the attacker doesn’t have an opportunity to turn with the ball and face the goal – which puts them at a clear advantage.
A negative first touch means the attacker is moving away from the defender and the goal while protecting the ball from the defender.
Tackle the attacker halfway through their turn as they attempt to face the defender.
A good defender is able to recognize when the attacker has committed to turning and takes the opportunity to win the ball as the attacker exposes it. However, to do so, they need to be within tackling range.
While the attacker is shielding the ball and attempting to turn with it, the defender should be careful not to lose sight of the ball, and not to lean on the attacker, as the attacker may use this over-commitment to their advantage, and could simply spin the ball into the space the defender has left wide open.
Steer the attacker into the least dangerous space
Once the offensive player has turned, the defender should channel them towards a supporting defender or into an area where they will do the least damage – such as the sideline.
Now it’s time to set a trap: judging the speed of your approach is vital here. Attempt to shut down the attacker’s space too quickly and the offensive player can use the defender’s speed and aggressiveness to their advantage, playing the ball behind the defender.
However, if you’re too slow, the attacker has time to gain advantage, so timing is crucial here.
If the attacker gains advantage, the defender needs to perform a recovery run toward the near post in an attempt to get goal-side of the attacker. The priority here is to get between the goal and the ball as quickly as possible.
Defender Skills – Traits the Best Defenders Possess
It’s obvious, but a good defender will know how to defend – this means having a good knowledge of defensive tactics, as well as the skills required to carry these out – tackling, sticking with your man off the ball, double teaming, delaying, and winning headers are crucial.
Defenders need to be able to read the game, anticipate the play, and constantly maintain awareness of other players – and of themselves. If they’re out of position, it puts pressure on their teammates and enables the opposition to exploit gaps in the defense, so they’ve got to constantly be tuned into the game and can’t afford to lose focus.
You need speed to keep up with fast forwards and midfielders.
While a center back with good positioning and strength can still be effective, speed allows you to take your defensive skills to the next level. Wingbacks also require speed to avoid domination by a fast winger.
Defenders, particularly center backs, need strength to keep offensive players off the ball, win headers, and shield the ball well. Good strength also prevents them from being pushed around by physically imposing strikers.
It’s not all about physical attributes, as good defenders need excellent communication skills so that they’re able to organize their teammates by regularly shouting instructions.
The best defenders are solid communicators who will lead by example and look to keep the defense working as one cohesive unit rather than several separate players.
The best defenders will stay composed and calm under an onslaught from the opposition and they will generally help steady the team’s nerves and provide reassurance.
Tips for Defending – How to be a Good Defender
While defenders aren’t characterized by their attacks, they still need to be aggressive, and shouldn’t be afraid to make strong tackles and use their strength when the game demands it.
You want to make the opposition fear you, and the best defenders are aggressive and fearless yet still composed. If you let your aggression manifest into bad behavior or lose your temper, you could cost your team the game.
Don’t let the other team shoot
As a defender, your main priority is to prevent the opposition from shooting, and this means doing whatever you can to prevent a shot from being set up.
Even if the attacker does manage to shoot, if you’re applying enough defensive pressure, the player should be off-balanced and rushed, which will decrease their chances of scoring.
In order to be an effective defensive player, you need to work with your fellow defenders and midfielders.
This means having strong communication skills to coordinate to mark players, double team, and execute a successful offside trap.
When a defender is beaten, someone else needs to be ready to cover for him. Defenders need to constantly be working with other defenders and midfielders and telling them who to mark.
Clear the ball
A good defender needs to clear the ball in high-pressure situations. Your first choice will be kicking it on the field, then out for a throw-in (the farther away from your goal the better), then out for a corner. A strong clear provides your team with the opportunity to regroup and prevent the opposition from scoring.
Stop the dribble early
Strong dribblers can create holes in the defense, so you need to prevent this from happening. If this happens, you should sprint as hard as you can to catch up with the player and use your body to steal the ball or stop their dribble in its tracks.
Like we said previously, teamwork is important, prepare for a defender or midfielder on your team getting beat, and if that happens, be ready to pounce on the player.
Delay great dribblers
If you’ve identified those deadly dribblers on the opposition, you need to delay them. When you delay an attacker, it provides your teammates with vital time to get back and mark their man. This will limit the attacker’s options, and more often than not they’ll end up making a bad pass.
Defenders are the backbone of the soccer team, and their role should not be underestimated. The best defenders are strong and fast, are constantly analyzing the opposition, and are good communicators to ensure their team has a cohesive defensive unit.
Defenders need to be good tacklers and should be aggressive in order to prevent the ball penetrating the defense. That said, it’s equally important that defenders maintain their anger and frustration on the field.
Let your composure slip and it could cost you and your teammates the game. The best defenders are intimidating and aggressive while remaining effortlessly calm and cool on the surface.