In soccer, the crowd’s excitement arises whenever an attacker threads their shot past the goalie. Yet, the same level of applause is never heard after countless defensive plays. Labeled as the “Unsung Heroes,” the defender’s role is as vital or even more important than that of the attacker. As a coach, it’s your job to ensure that your players learn to properly defend.
How do I defend in Soccer? In this guide, we’ll break down the many facets of defending in soccer. With this, you’ll make the appropriate judgment calls between prioritizing either zone or man-to-man defense.
When the team begins to lose momentum, it’s up to the defenders to take the helm and seize back control. While it’s easy to focus your training on scoring as much as possible if the opposing team can easily stop you then your chances of winning are zero.
Coaching your team to seamlessly transition between offense and defense will ensure that no role is left unfulfilled. With that said, let’s start focusing on the aspects needed to accomplish this goal.
The Different Types of Defense
In a nutshell, the defender’s goal is to ensure that the opposing team can’t score. The explanation is easy but the actual approach is nerve-racking. Not only do they need the physical stamina to match their mark but the ability to assess and control their movements. As a young soccer player, that’s a lot of pressure on their small shoulders. A thorough breakdown of how your players can exceed on defense will alleviate their stress.
As you teach your team the fundamentals of defense, you should focus on the two main forms of defense:
- Zone Defense
- Man-on-Man Defense
While a team’s defensive strategy will vary, these two forms are often the main staples relied upon. Since we’re constantly emphasizing the need for a balanced team, we’ll go over both forms. The club will naturally attempt to gravitate to one form over the other. In your case, you should teach them to effortlessly switch between both types. The flexibility of defensive strategies will ensure that each player can adapt to the pressure applied by the other team. With that in mind, let’s break down these two forms of defense.
In a zone defense, a player is assigned a specific zone to cover. If the attacker enters that zone, it’s the defender’s job to stop their movement. If that zone’s defender fails, the following defender will take in your stead. The purpose of this defense isn’t meant to steal possession, it’s more focused on not allowing your opponent to score.
As a result, this defensive strategy requires greater tactical awareness from each player. Each zone defender must move in unison with the rest of the defensive line. If communication is lacking, expect to see gaps within the zone: allowing the attacker to easily breach and score on your team. But if the team can react to this defensive strategy perfectly, then the defense will run like a well-oiled machine. Stealing possession is fruitless as the team can efficiently stop any attacker from scoring.
There are many advantages for implementing zone defense;
- Preserves Each Player’s Stamina: Defending against a single player requires a tremendous amount of stamina to constantly stay on them. This applies even more if forced to defend against a “key” player. In the assigned region, the defender can play with the confidence that if they fail, their teammate will follow up in their zone. This gives enough time for each defender to recompose themselves for the next time the ball re-enters their zone.
- Covers up any “Weak” Defender: Ideally, you will want every defender to demonstrate the same amount of finesse. Regardless of youth soccer standards, this is unrealistic. Every defender will perform differently. For those still finding their footing, zone defense will easily put them in a position to contribute. Instead of getting frustrated from being unable to defend a singular player, they can optimally cover their zone: exposing them to various attackers and the different ways to defend against them.
While there are many advantages of zone defense, we should also demonstrate some of the disadvantages:
- Heavy Emphasis on Communication: We stated earlier that zone defense requires a great amount of tactical awareness from each player. Teaching this notion to a youth soccer club will be incredibly taxing on them. If communication is not executed properly, then the entire zone perimeter will fall apart. As you train the club in their respected zones, make sure that each defender is fully aware of their role beforehand.
- The Zone may be Swarmed by Multiple Players: In an actual game setting, the chances of multiple attackers breaching your zone is incredibly high. The defender must make quick decisions on how to approach this scenario. Unfortunately, their decision can still be thwarted as there are too many players to effectively defend against them. If this continues towards the remaining zones, it may be best to switch to man-to-man coverage to counter the pressure.
When coaching for a youth soccer club, you may forego this strategy for the simplicity of man-to-man defense. We do agree that this is the easiest but it would also be detrimental not to establish the principles of zone defense while they’re still young.
As they practice this formation, they will only excel as they get older with better communication and defending skills. If neglected now, the learning curve will be that much harder once it’s time to implement it. Keep this in mind as you begin coaching defense.
As opposed to a zone defense, a man-to-man defense has each player assigned to defend and follow the movements of a single offense player A.K.A their mark. Usually, the defender would target their opposing counterpart (e.g. a center against another center). This tactic ensures that every potential attacker has some amount of pressure applied to them. There’s a rather strange simplicity focusing a defender’s attention and stamina on one particular player.
This simplicity is better when coaching a youth soccer league. When explaining the concept, no one will scratch their head in confusion. This defensive tactic will help each player refine the basics of soccer defense.
By focusing on a single mark, the defender trains themselves towards anticipating, approaching, and controlling the movements of an attacker. This allows for greater individual growth when exposed to the various attackers.
This simplicity leads to many of the advantages that we’ll list below:
- The Pressure is Applied to the Opposing Team’s “Key” Player: Every team has its “key” player: the one who’s expected to score the most point or to initiate power plays. A fundamental strategy is to apply the most pressure to this one player. If they’re allowed to move freely, expect to lose any type of momentum. By applying one or two defenders on them, you will either increase the odds of stealing the ball or force them to pass to a “weaker” attacker.
- Leaves No “Holes” on Defense: On the principles of zone defense, we stated that marking a specific zone gives the opposing attackers a wider range to maneuver around the zone. Half the time, the attacker can freely move around the zone until the defender approaches. Man-to-man coverage covers up this liberty by trailing the actions of the attacker.
While simplicity leads to a few advantages, it can lead to a fair share of disadvantages as well:
- A Player’s skills must Match their Mark: As we describe the tactics needed to defend against a “key’ player, the defender has to make sure that they can follow up on this role. A good tactical player can easily outmaneuver a defender on their skills alone or the assistance of their teammate. Once the defender is bypassed, it’s almost impossible to make up for that lost ground.
- Requires A Large Amount of Endurance: As the defender is assigned their mark, they are required to follow them at all times. Whenever they run, the defender must follow suit. This often requires trekking the entire length of the field multiple times, depending on the flow of the match. For the young defenders, they will have trouble conserving their stamina. This will lead to fatigue and eventually frustration as the game progresses.
Simplistic in nature, man-to-man coverage results in defense based on reflex and physical capabilities over tactical communication. While these are some tactics applied to pressure on one player, it will only take the defender so far if their skills aren’t equal or better than their mark.
This is why most soccer coaches should learn the fundamentals of both strategies and interchange the two when needed. Young soccer plays have unlimited potential for growth with the techniques and skills taught to them. That potential for growth diminishes as they get older. By establishing a defensive mixture of man-to-man and zone coverage, your players will only see progress as they continue practicing the sport.
Defensive Soccer Drills & Tactics
While discussing the fundamentals of defensive is vital, none of it matters if your players are lacking in their defending capabilities. A player doesn’t progress by studying sport’s theory, they progress out on the playing field. This statement is even more prevalent when applied to a youth soccer club. They signed on to play, not to study. As the coach, you need to teach these theories on the field in a multitude of fun and interesting ways.
In the rest of this guide, we’ll assist you by detailing a few tactics that will help each player progress in their soccer skills. Either focusing on man-to-man coverage or stealing possession with confidence: these drills will help your players easily applied the lessons onto an actual game setting. With that prospect in mind, let’s get started.
Mark Your Man
A young player can easily be caught ball watching, where their attention is solely focused on the ball, not their surrounding environment. This focus allows the attacker to control the defender’s attention, making it easier for them to maneuver past them. Therefore, this drill will help increase the player’s awareness while covering their mark.
To begin their development, place two cones within a marked square area. Here, two players (an attacker and defender) will stand in the middle. The attacker must shake off the defender with feints and quick movements to reach either cone. In response, the defender must stick to the attacker. The drill can be engaged without a ball to start. As both contestants grow more comfortable, a soccer ball can be introduced.
As each player on your team advances, these 1v1 duels can be implemented in a real game scenario. Each player is assigned their mark. For the next two minutes, each defender must stay on top of their mark. After the two minutes are up, the defenders are assigned a new mark. The team that scores the most goals wins.
This two-minute rule will greatly benefit a player’s defensive skills as the skill, speed, and size of the opponent will vary with each rotation. The variability will force the defender to switch their tactics at a moment’s notice. Sticking to one opponent will make a defender grow complacent with their playstyle, this rotation will throw muscle memory out of the equation. A defender that can handle any mark is a valuable asset for any team.
Tactics for Stealing the Ball
Throughout this guide, we’ve mostly demonstrated the merits of defensive formations regarding applying pressure to the attacker. Any opportunity must be seized to increase the attacker’s chances of making a mistake.
At times though, you must advocate for your kids to take a more aggressive stance on defense. If your players can steal the ball, they should feel confident in taking action.
Youth players aside, even the most seasoned defender faces their fair share of hesitation towards actively stealing the ball. They may run into the risk of injuring themselves or receiving a penalty: allowing the other team to potentially score a goal. By applying pressure on the attacker, they’re consequentially placing pressure on themselves as well.
Using a similar approach as the “Mark Your Man” drill, separate two players as either the attacker and defender. As the defender approaches his mark, ensure that they follow these three principles:
- Close the Distance Quickly: Instruct the defender to enter the attacker’s range. The defender should not rush in too headstrong though. If the defender aimlessly rushes in, the opponent can easily move through their rashness. Stop short of full-body contact. The defender should be close enough to lunge for the ball but far enough that they can’t blow past them.
- Remain Patient & Force their Movements: As stealing possession is a game of tactics; any careless movement will be punished by either player. The attacker will naturally move slower due to possessing the ball. They may attempt fakes or feints to deceive the defender. The defender must do the same by forcing the attacker towards their teammates, away from help, or towards the sidelines. Either option restricts the attacker’s options, opening up an opportunity to steal.
- Strike When the Attacker Makes A Mistake: As the attacker’s options decrease, they become more desperate, leading to any number of mistakes. The attacker may push the ball farther away from their range, the ball gets stuck between their feet, or they slow down to turn their backs towards the defender. Any of these scenarios are prime opportunities for the defender to assert themselves and steal possession.
By teaching your players the fundamentals of stealing, they will grow more confident towards taking riskier plays on defense. In a sport that requires a fair amount of deception, the coach should always place their defenders in a situation to “bait” their opponents. This is especially true where your team is down by a goal or two. A passive defense won’t help you regain momentum. In these dire scenarios, it’s best to show some eagerness towards reclaiming the lost lead.
As mentioned previously, there’s no better high than scoring on the opposing team. This confidence can easily propel the team throughout the game. But that same confidence can be taken away if your team’s defense falters. With no way around, the team will lose the confidence that you built up for them.
As a coach, your goal is to build your team to be a well-balanced unit. Each member should be able to flip the switch between taking offense and prioritizing defense. If these conditions are met, your team will be an unstoppable force on the field. With this, we recommend switching between both zone and man-to-man defense as the situation requires.
Of course, this is always easier said than done. Even as a team, each player will have their strengths and weakness that you must nurture. Some players will naturally excel at one skill over the other. That’s perfectly alright. With enough patience and due diligence, you can work on these quirks. You have pretty big shoes to live up to but from this guide, we trust that you will give it your all, just as your team will in response.
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