“Who stole the defenders?”

Top defenders are crucial to any successful team.

But – are we doing enough to develop the next generation of elite defenders? and do we value the skills that defenders possess?

Tackling, shielding, intercepting, pressing, blocking, heading, clearing, tracking etc……. are skills that can be developed via coaching.

Are they seen as skills? and how often do we expose our players to them in order to develop and improve?



In modern day football, we often hear an assessment of a central defender on their ability to pass or bring the ball out of defence to instigate the teams attack.

Its a fact – that these qualities are important to developing a possession based style.

But, its my opinion that these qualities are an added bonus to a “top” defender and not an excuse of  – “he can play” – to give to a mediocre defender.

The balance is important and ideally we would want a outstanding defender, who in possession is able to play as a midfielder. But – the balance must always lean towards being a top defender first.

Therefore, as coaches, its important that we don’t neglect to develop defensive techniques.

“Often, we see defending as a boring subject to coach.

This is maybe a reason for coaches not investing adequate time to develop these techniques in there players.

However, being creative in your coaching of defending can change your players mentality towards defending. This is key to improvement”

Assess your players

When beginning with a new team or group of players, I always look and ask myself the following questions.

  • How many of the players are good defenders?
  • How many of the players like to defend?
  • How competitive is the group? (what do the training games look like)

The reason for this assessment is simple – to play elite football – all players must take part in the process of attacking and defending.

But defending, like attacking, is different for each player and for each position on the field.

For example, defending for a winger is different to defending for a central defender. The skills required for each position are different. This is similar to when the team is in possession, players need to develop the skills required for the situations they will experience in the game.

Improve each players defending

From analysing the group and answering the questions above, I can then begin to  improve each players defensive qualities.

To do this, you need to improve the awareness/understanding of each player and begin to make defending specific to the individual roles in the team.

Improving each player by 10 to 20% in the defensive side of the game will have have a big impact on the team as a whole.

Defending is a skill

10 or 20% for some players might seem like a high percentage to increase, but in practice, its actually quite easy to improve a players defensive skills and understanding.

The following areas can have a huge impact on a player

  • Specific defending for your role in the team
  • Awareness of how to block space
  • Awareness of how and when to press
  • Make each 1 v 1 personal (in training and games)
  • Ability to use your arms and body to protect your “personal” space
  • A commitment to never leaving a team mate isolated or 1v1 (the rule of 2v1).

The areas above can be developed by the environment you create in your training sessions.

“Step 1 – Improve your players awareness and mentality to defending”

Link to each players role in the team

Below is one of my favourite quotes for defending – It has references for other areas of player development – but i specifically try to use it for the development of attacking players and there application to defensive responsibilities.

“Defend from the front and attack from the back” – Arsene Wenger

Creating a link to each players specific role in the team will help to break down defending and give clarity to each player.

Examples of this include

Teaching a number 9 how to force play to one side of the pitch – or how to drop back and compact the team when under pressure.

Teaching a wide player how to block the passing line to the opponents wide player – or how to press the opponents full back and lock play to the line or force play inside.

Teaching a number 10 how to work with the number 9 to press central defenders or how to block the opponents deep lying midfielder.

Teaching central midfielders when and how to press or how to block space and then pressure the opponents as the ball is travelling.

Teaching full backs how to block crosses, to play against different types of wide player or how to positioning themselves when the ball is on the opposite side of the pitch.

Teaching central defenders how to intercept, stop attackers turning or how to cover their defensive partner.

Teaching goalkeepers how to adjust position with the movement of the ball and how to command their penalty area.

The different aspects of defending are vast – but – giving each player 1 or 2 things to remember is a good starting point.

Link to team work

A key to improving defending, is to link everything back to team work and helping your “friends“.

“Previously, I have spoken about developing players who can outplay 1v1 (in all aspects of the game) but, who are always thinking in 2v1. This is very important when developing defensive qualities”

“Emphasising team work is key”

Try to get your players thinking about helping each other on the pitch and never allowing a team mate to be isolated 1v1 without someone arriving to help.

As individuals (example of wide player helping their full back).

In units (midfielders blocking passes into the opponents attacking players).

As a team (learning how to compact space or force play to certain areas of the pitch).

Defending is about the work you put it………. – Pep Guardiola

Link to controlling space on the pitch

Defending is about space.

A team that understands how to control space on the pitch will be successful in limiting the opponents attacking threats.

Space can be controlled in a number of ways. You can defend as a low, medium or high block in terms of your starting “defensive” organisation.

You can also apply certain “pressing” triggers in relation to the position of the ball or the player in possession of the ball.


Make 1v1s personal

Improving your players mentality to defend and creating a strong winning mentality can be developed over time.

Make 1v1s personal in training and games

Each group of players includes people with different physical shapes and sizes. It also includes players with different “natural” skill sets (playing personalities). Therefore, in each group you can expose players to different types of opponent in 1v1 situations.

“Making 1v1 duels more personal – both in games and training – is to light a fuse to a players competitive edge”

Creating this mentality of making 1v1s personal and not wanting to lose to your opponent (in any area of the game) is something that you can build on over time.

In training – the practice does not need to be 1v1 – you can “fire” competition in small game scenarios by challenging two players to compete in the game for superiority (can be in any aspect of the game you wish).

This challenge will get the players looking into each others eyes and immediately the competition will rise in all areas of the games (technically, tactically, physically) but especially in the mental aspect of wanting to win…….

Creating this “grit” and winning mentality is essential to improving defensive attributes.

Create the “training environment”

So creating a training environment is very important.

  • How much competition do you use in training?
  • Do you make the competition specific?
  • Do you keep the score?
  • Do you pitch players up against each other?

To improve defending, its important that you speak about organisation and work ethic.  “The way a player moves and reacts when the team is defending, represents the amount that the players wants to win” is a quote that you can use to inspire greater focus in your players.

No player likes to lose. This is important to remember and to use to your advantage.

Having some clear “buzz” words or behaviours in your group can also make a big impact on the group without actually coaching defending as a topic.

An example of this is to simply talk about “light switch” transitions when losing the ball and making sure that the nearest player(s) counter press immediately when possession is lost.

These types of rules will create a training environment based on winning and competition. This in turn will lead to greater focus and mentality to defending.

Praise and encourage

Defending does not come natural to all players – especially if they haven’t been coached or exposed to defensive techniques.

But – if you see your players reacting and trying harder to defend, its important that you recognise this effort and improved mentality. Giving encouragement and praise for a players work ethic or focus is to reward this behaviour and give emphasis for the player to continue more often.

Making work ethic a daily habit – has huge benefits for the player and is often contagious through the group – as other players also want the positive praise.

Make defending fun

So making defending fun or hiding the defending within competition, team work or the focus on 1v1 duels is a clever way to improve each players level.

Whats important is that you have an awareness of how much time or how little time you spend on each area of the game in your training.

“Hide defending – if you need too – but don’t neglect it”

Try to look back over some old training sessions and write down the messages or themes for each session. Did you coach enough on defending??

Link to ball mastery and “personal space”


Improving each players ability to  – use their arms and body to protect the ball or to challenge for the ball – are important skills to develop.

This protection of your “personal” space on the pitch can be taught in line with ball mastery exercises and is something that is essential to developing a players “grit” and determination to retain possession.


Defensive skills are as important to develop as attacking skills – accepting this and being creative in your coaching is very important to developing top defenders.

  1. Assess your group
  2. Improve each players defending
  3. Make it position specific
  4. Link to team work – think in 2v1.
  5. Link to controlling space
  6. Make 1v1s personal
  7. Develop the training environment
  8. Praise and encourage
  9. Make it fun
  10. Improve use of arms and body – “personal space”

“Strong at the back, Strong as a team” – Sir Alex Ferguson

TIP – A simple understanding (1) How to control space and (2) a mentality of not being outplayed in 1v1 situations will have a huge impact on the players defensive qualities.

Catch up soon


1 Comment

  1. Hi!
    Do you think the absence of good 1st defenders in certain cultures is partly caused by the amount of isolated drills? The reasoning behind these are often that the players need to master 1v1 situations, however they only develop the attacking part of it. How was your experience in Brazil different to England in this aspect?

    Great article!


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