Being a great defender takes time, experience, and a willingness to put the team before yourself. All the greatest defenders in history have one thing in common; a selfless determination to work for the team rather than seek the glory for themselves.
A talented young defender might have three or four of the key attributes to become a great defender, and over time they’ll work on the other vital skills they need. The harder players work on their weaknesses, the greater their strengths appear.
Being a world-class defender is an art form, especially in the modern game; being a burly defender willing to smash through opposing attackers isn’t enough any longer. A defender has to have passing ability, tactical awareness, and start attacks from the back.
Today, we’ll look at nine of the critical skills needed to become a great defender; if you’re a center-back or wing-back that’s learning their game, identifying your strengths, and working on your weaknesses, it will take your game to the next level.
One of the most important skills a defender can have is anticipation. It’s one of the most challenging skills to learn; you can only learn anticipation through training and in actual games.
Being able to anticipate where the opponent is going to go or when play has gone against your team is vital to your success.
If a defender knows where their opponent is going to run or has a feel for when a dangerous attack is imminent, they’ll be able to be one step ahead of the game.
The defender that sets off a split second early because they’ve anticipated a problem will get to the ball first every time.
Anticipation is as much an offensive weapon as it is defensive; a defender moving forwards for an attacking corner can anticipate when to move into the box and have a feel for where their teammate may pass the ball.
Being in the right place at the right time is a hallmark of great players, but it’s not a coincidence; great players anticipate opportunity and take it.
Modern soccer is all about pace and speed. From a lightning-fast attack to a sudden reversal where the ball is heading at speed toward your own goalkeeper, a defender has to have the pace to keep up with the game.
Quick attackers will pull a slow defender apart, and even the best positional sense won’t help you when a pacy striker flies past for a through ball.
Pace and acceleration can both be worked on, so ensuring you focus on building up your pace and training for short, rapid bursts of speed will massively help your game.
Pace can cover for several defensive frailties. If your anticipation sucks, but you’re like greased lightning, you can often recover through sheer speed of movement.
Younger players will often have pace, and as their careers progress, they’ll slowly lose a yard or two of pace.
What usually happens here is that as a player ages, they slow down physically, but their years of experience mean their anticipation and speed of thought increase, allowing them to make up for that yard of pace by being in the right place before they need to be.
Another excellent way to boost your chances as a top defender is to increase your strength, which will allow you to retain or retake the ball from opponents.
Training plays a big part in strength development, and while there’s a fine line between a strong player and a player who can’t turn their neck, it’s an important attribute to develop.
A strong player won’t suffer as many injuries, and a defender who can shield the ball with their body can be a tremendous asset to the team.
Having the bulk to be able to shoulder charge an opponent off the ball or being able to shepherd them out of danger, a player who has bulked up enough can make life really difficult for opponents.
There is such as thing as too much strength, though; a pacy defender needs to be supple enough to be able to put on a burst of speed.
Too much weight training can impact a player’s movement and agility, so a medical and physio team will need to monitor a player’s body mass.
Unlike a center forward or a winger, who can often single-handedly impact a game, being a defender is a team game—working alongside another central defender, or as one of the full-backs, a defender has to be able to rely on their teammates to cover the goal.
Working on teamwork is a considerable skill and can take months, if not years, to perfect. It is key to know where your teammate will be, how they’ll react to a situation, and how best to work together.
A defender with excellent teamwork will be able to play in several positions, rarely get caught out of position, and be a valuable squad member.
Team bonding sessions, practice games, and learning defensive movement all help a defender work on their teamwork.
A back four that can’t work as a team will soon be found out; the offside trap needs players to work together. If one player isn’t playing for the team, strikers will quickly take advantage and carve a defense to ribbons.
It sounds like an obvious skill to have as a defender, and it is. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t practice it every day though. A defender who can’t head a ball isn’t as unusual as you’d think, so when one comes along who is great at just sticking their head in, it stands out.
Being brave enough to dive into a header, risking a boot to the face or a clash of heads, a defender needs to be able to clear their lines with a solid header.
Dealing with a corner can be tricky; players are on the move, and strikers are determined to get a header in on goal; it’s up to the defense to get to the ball first and head the ball to safety.
Practicing your heading skills is vital to be a great defender, and having someone cross a ball into the penalty area so you can refine your movement and clear the ball is a great way to become better at heading. Like most things in soccer, repetition is vital; the more you practice, the better you’ll become.
A defender that can’t, or won’t, head the ball is a liability. Even a wing-back or full-back must become a good header of the ball. It might only happen once in a game, but that one chance could be the difference between winning and losing.
What do you call a defender that can’t tackle? A midfielder. As a part of the defense, you have to know how to tackle a player to prevent a goalscoring opportunity. Like most soccer skills, Tackling must be learned the hard way. Repetition, practice, and more practice is the only way to become a good tackler.
Timing is everything when it comes to tackling; get it right, and it lifts the crowd and your team; get it wrong, and it’s a red card and an early bath.
Tackling can be a last-ditch effort to regain the ball from an opponent, though it shouldn’t be tried constantly. Herding a player into a poor position so they have to pass, is a preferable way to stop an attack.
Once a player goes to ground, they lose all mobility, so if you’re going into a tackle, you have to be sure you’re going to win it. Once on the floor, you’re exposed to an opposing player getting past the tackle and heading toward the goal.
Because of the risk involved, it’s always preferable to stay on your feet and force an error from your opponent.
Some players just can’t get to grips with tackling, although, as a defender, you have to become as proficient as possible at this skill.
A defender has to have a final option, and a superbly timed sliding tackle will stop an attack dead in its tracks.
Defending your own half of the pitch against an attack-minded team can be 90 minutes of hell, especially against a superior team.
One way for a team to defend is to use the man-marking system to try and nullify a team’s attacking threat. Having defenders mark attacking players individually restricts movement and can stop a team from scoring.
There are drawbacks to man-marking; it nullifies not only the opponent but also your own players, but it can be a great way to see out a game against superior players. Practicing man-marking will help a defender understand their position on the field.
Get too close to the opponent, and you risk being turned inside out; too far away, and the opponent has time to move the ball onto a teammate before you can respond.
The art of man-marking takes time to perfect, and you need to know when to stick close and when to move back. It’s a skill that can be learned over time, and with experience can be a great way to defend.
8. Zonal Marking
A more common method of defense is zonal marking, where each defender has their own portion of the pitch to defend. While zonal marking is certainly more widespread, it is also a skill that you’ll have to master if you want to become a great defender.
Each part of the pitch is broken up into zones, and should another player enter your zone, it’s your responsibility to take on that player and defend your goal area. Zonal marking is a great defensive tool, but there are issues with it that you’ll need to master before it can be relied upon entirely.
If an opposing player moves into your zone with the ball, followed by one of your teammates who has been marking their area of the pitch, should you move in and help?
It seems like an easy answer, but what if, by moving in, you leave a space open behind you? Leaving wide-open gaps for strikers to move into should be the last thing you want to do.
A zonal marking system can cover a lot of space and make it easier for defenders to last 90 minutes. Having to cover every blade of grass can be exhausting, so zonal marking allows you to focus on one area.
The trick is knowing when to move in to stop an opponent and when to leave them to someone else.
9. Passing ability
A modern defender is nothing like a defender from the 1970s; their technical ability has to be as high as every player on the soccer field.
The days of simply hoofing a ball out of the danger zone are long gone, which is great for the fans, as defenders are now expected to start attacks from the back.
Your passing ability has to be perfect as a modern defender, and it’s what set apart the great defenders of the 1970s and 1980s. The Baresi’s, Maldini’s, and the Beckenabuers of the game all stood head and shoulders above their rivals because they were elegant, ball-playing defenders.
If you’ve any ambitions of becoming a great defender, you will be expected to be an excellent ball passer. The Manchester City team, under the guidance of Pep Guardiola, has transformed how a defender should act.
From a sweeper-keeper through a defense that’s as much a part of the attack as the striker, you’ll be expected to be superb with the ball at your feet.
Being big, strong, and fast certainly helps, but what’s the point if you can’t produce an end product when you’ve won the ball back?
The nine skills mentioned above are all vital to becoming a great defender, and a player that has all of the attributes and skills we’ve discussed will become a truly world-class player. Very few of us are blessed with all the skills; some we can learn, and some will simply elude us.
If you’re a defender hoping to take your game to the next level, then the key points to take from this article are practice, practice, practice. Many of the skills you’ll develop as a defender only come with experience.
You can bulk up in training, and you can increase your speed and acceleration by doing sprints and timed runs. The more cerebral skills, such as being a great team player, or having the ability to mark a player out of the game, will only come with game time and experience.
There’s a reason most of the greatest defenders in history played until their late 30s and early 40s; they had the advantage of youth and enthusiasm for the first half of their careers and the benefit of experience and guile for the latter.
If you want to become a better defender, I listed 25 tips for soccer defenders in this post.