We are living in an era of football where the headlines are dominated by the ones scoring and creating goals. France, the rightful winners of the 2018 World Cup, has seen stars like Griezmann, Pogba and Mbappé become the poster boys. They have earned the plaudits and there’s no doubt about that but one cannot ignore the contribution from their backline consisting of Hernandez, Varane, Umtiti and Pavard.
Every single game of the tournament, they have been crucial in preventing many high profile opponents from scoring. They also ended up scoring a few crucial goals themselves. But unfortunately, they will not remain in the limelight for long or at least as much as their attacking counterparts.
This has been the case for a while now as the last defender to win the Ballon d’Or was Cannavaro back in 2006 when Italy lifted the World Cup. The Ballon d’Or might not mean much to football purists and fans who have followed the game for a while. But it definitely has an effect on the younger generation of footballers and viewers alike.
Defending has changed a lot since 2006 and the emphasis now is more on the ball playing ability and building through the back. And it has yielded extremely positive results for many teams in the recent memory(Spain, Barcelona, Dutch League). But luckily for us defending is a skill that can be coached unlike attacking in the final third which requires more guidance than coaching.
These are a few qualities that you need to develop in order to become a better defender and hopefully fall in love with the fading art.
Speed of Press
The first thing to keep in mind as a defender is to prevent the opponent from coming towards your goal. And by pressing quickly, no matter where you lose the ball, you will stifle the opponent and disrupt their attack forcing them to make mistakes or send the ball back to their defence for safety.
Jurgen Klopp’s teams have mastered this art and if you watch their games, you can see at least three players going for pressing the opponent with the ball and forcing them to make a mistake more often than not.
Rules of pressing:
- Close Down: When you are about 6-7 yards away from the opponent, start pressing by accelerating quickly towards the opponent.
- Slow Down: Start slowing down when getting close to the opponent. This is important because if you are still at speed, the opponent can beat you with a small sideways touch and get behind you.
- Show Down: You need to bend your knees slightly, stand on the balls of your feet and at an angle to your opponent instead of standing flat on your heels. This is to be able to turn back and run fast if the opponent beats you with a skill or pace.
- Take Down: After doing all the above things, the final aim is to get the ball back. Try to pull it back under your control or tackle the ball towards a teammate to regain possession. Keep in mind that you can only do this if the player is holding on to the ball too much or if you have enough teammates behind you to protect you even if you are beaten.
Angle of Press:
Once you’ve mastered the speed of press, the next step is to know from where to press. For this, we need to understand two things.
An opponent with the ball always has 3 options prioritized exactly in this order: SHOOT, DRIBBLE, PASS.
And the defender’s job is to eliminate the options exactly in that order.
- Block the shooting line: Press at an angle that blocks the attackers shooting space. And block that space quickly.
- Block the dribbling line: Attackers will always dribble forward when they have space and when they cannot shoot yet. And if you see a free space that the opponent can dribble, close it down fast.
- Block the passing line: When an attacker can’t do the above two things, they pass it to a teammate who is in a position to do those things. As a defender, you need to assess that better option yourself first and stand right in between both of them.
Awareness on the pitch:
Now that you know what to do and how to do, it’s imperative to know when to do it. And for this, you need to know where the opponents are on the pitch and where your teammates are to help you. Positional awareness is a complex topic to coach as it involves many variables and hence requires a separate discussion.
But there is one golden rule that can be followed to reach there. If you have ever seen Barcelona or Ajax play, you would see each and every one of their players doing one thing always: SCAN THE PITCH BY LOOKING AROUND IN ALL DIRECTIONS.
This is what makes excellent defenders, to look around and find spaces, dribbling lines, passing lines, shooting lines. To find where the danger is and which part of the pitch is safe for making a pass or getting into a challenge. To know when to support a teammate under risk and how to do it. To execute all the things above, you need to scan the whole pitch all the time by simply looking around every second. This will automatically make you a better defender by leaps and bounds.
Transition into attack and clearing the lines:
The best defenders turn defence into goals for their teams with just one pass or clearance. Once you block a shot and get possession of the ball, you need to start an attack of your own and for this, you need to know where your teammates are by scanning around either before or after receiving the ball.
Assess the pressure on your team. If more than half of the opponent team is in your defensive third, it is probably better to clear the ball high and wide away from the goal while still trying to reach your winger or striker with that clearance.
If the opponents are not pressing high or in numbers, you can pass it to a midfielder or winger in front of you to start a counter attack.
And if you follow the first tactic of pressing quick, you can even win the ball high up the pitch with your strikers and midfielders and start an attack in the final third too.
Remember that defending is a team effort and only when each individual gives his/her best can the opponent attack be disrupted. The first line of defense always has to be your striker, the second line your midfielders and the last line are your defenders. And no matter which position you play on the pitch, these 4 rules are as simple and essential as defending can get for an individual player:
- Press Quick
- Press at an angle(preferential pressing)
- Awareness by looking around always
- Transition into attack
Use these in your game to bring back the swagger of the days of Puyol, Cannavaro and Maldini.
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