Defending principles of play

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Defending principles

Defending principles of play are about denying the team in possession space. The defending team attempts to get all its players back behind the ball, applying pressure to the player in possession both individually and as a team. The following points are crucial to good defending:

  • denying the opposition space;
  • applying pressure;
  • applying pressure, cover and balance.

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„If you’ve got pace, height, strength and can see danger then you’re all-round centre-back”. (Steve McClaren)

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Denying the opposition space

Two principles at the heart of good defensive play are compactness and quantity. In order to prevent the opposition from scoring, the defence has to be organized compactly, blocking the opposition’s direct path to goal.

Getting players back behind the ball and being compact as a unit makes it harder for the attackers to develop goal-scoring opportunities and generally forces them out to the wings. It is also important for the defending team to get as many players back behind the ball as possible, to outnumber the offensive players. This is why strikers and midfield players need to drop behind the ball when their team loses possession and for full-backs and other defenders to try to delay the attack by „jockeying” so these players have time to run back.

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Applying pressure

Pressurizing the ball is the first principle of defensive play, making it harder for the team in possession to develop their attacking play. Pressurizing the ball is most important when play is close to your own team’s goal, to reduce the scoring opportunities.

Successfully applying pressure, particularly as a team, often leads to regaining possession. The level of pressure is a decision that needs to be made by a defender in each situation. It may be that the defender needs to „jockey” the player, delaying and slowing the player down until there are enough defenders to support and cover them. If the player is running with the ball in front of them it may be appropriate to carry out a well-timed tackle.

Applying pressure in whatever form is a team responsibility. Without your team being able to shut or close down the outlet pass, there can be little point in individuals pressurizing the ball. An element of applying pressure involves „marking” the attacking team players. This could mean staying very close to a specific player, or holding a formation so that if the ball comes into your area you get to the ball before an attacking player. Correct and thoughtful marking of players puts pressure on attacking players and denies them space to play.

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Applying pressure, cover and balance

Pressure, cover and balance are the responsibilities of the first, second and third defenders.

The first defender is the defender who is close enough to the ball to put pressure on the ball, possibly to tackle or to delay the attacker, denying them the opportunity to play the ball forward to their team-mates. This first defender may be a striker in your team. It will all depend on where the ball is at the time.

The second defender is any defender who is close enough to cover space behind the first defender, who can step in and defend against the attacker if the first defender is beaten.

All other players are third defenders. These are defenders who are not close enough to pressure the ball or to cover the space behind the first defender. Third defenders provide „balance” so that, while other defenders apply pressure to try to win the ball, third defenders cover space on areas of the pitch away from the ball. Third defenders also track runners who run at space behind the defence.


[] Broadbent, P., Allen, A., (2008), The player’s essential guide to success on and off the pitch – Defender, UK, Hodder Education

[] Fairclough, P., (2007), Skills: Soccer – Defending (Know the Game), New York, Westline Publishing


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