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Soccer Defender: A Complete Guide

Sports fans know that a strong defense is critical to have a fighting chance at winning any game or match-up, no matter what sport they watch or play.

In soccer, defensive and offensive players are on the pitch at the same time, moving fluidly together. Defensive players have defined roles and work closely with the goalkeeper and the midfielders in order to keep their opponent from scoring—hopefully.

What Is a Defender In Soccer?

A defender in soccer is a player who guards their own goal, working with the goalkeeper in order to prevent the other team from scoring.

Defending players may be more focused on either the area directly in front of the goal/penalty area or on the left/right side of the field to prevent opponents from scoring from the sidelines.

A Word on Formations

Those who play or watch soccer will likely be aware of the playing formations and how they’re notated. A common example of a formation is the 4-4-2, which means that there are four defenders, four midfielders, and two forwards.

However, it’s important to remember that while the goalkeeper is a crucial part of the defensive unit, those notations DO NOT include the goalkeeper.

Main Roles and Responsibilities

The 4 main responsibilities for soccer defenders are the following:

1. Keep The other Team From Scoring

This is the most pared-down job description for a defensive player. When the opposing team pushes forward with the ball, it’s up to the defensive players to push back, regain possession of the ball, and send it forward to their teammates once more.

2. Intercept, Attack, and Tackle

It’s key for defensive players to have field awareness and know when they can essentially get in the way. A good defensive player needs to be comfortable running forward and stealing passes, tackling the ball away from an attacking player, and putting pressure on an attacker player. 

Most defending players will be aggressive on the field. This pressure on attacking players can cut them off from their teammates or force them into a quicker pass than they would have liked.

While offensive players tend to focus on finding space on the field so they can use it to their advantage, so much a defensive player eliminate those spaces.

3. Create offside offenses

Playing defensively isn’t all about being in the opponent’s face. In fact, sometimes falling back and being aware of players’ positions on the field can create a great advantage. 

If a player receives a kick and is ruled offside, the defender’s team will be awarded an indirect free-kick, and their team will regain position of the ball. Therefore, communicating with the other defending players in order to create a situation where an attacking player is offside can be critical. 

This is known as the “offside trap,” and the defensive players are responsible for springing such a trap at the most opportune moments.

4. Manage the Sideline

Defensive players, especially those in the wing positions, should utilize the sideline to their advantage.

Defenders should use their body positioning to force the attacking player towards the outside of the field, which will result in either the opportunity for the defensive player to steal the ball or to regain possession after the ball goes out of bounds.

Additionally, the defensive players can also intentionally kick the ball out of bounds in order to stall the momentum of their opponents. Even though the attacking team will receive the ball back, clearing the ball out of the playable area will disrupt the attacking team’s tear away.

Occasional Responsibilities

  • Get in the goal (rare)

While it’s somewhat unusual, the goalkeeper may come out of the goal area. In this case, a defender may fall back into that area in order to prevent the goal from being completely open. 

If this happens, the defensive player is still bound by the normal rules of play, mainly meaning that they are only allowed to engage with the ball using their feet. On set pieces, defenders may also occupy the goal area with the goalie in order to prevent the other team from scoring.

  • Score

In soccer, there is no rule against defensive players scoring, and if a defender is skilled at taking direct free kicks, penalty kicks, or has opportunities on their team’s set pieces, they’re allowed and expected to score.

Tips to Become a Better Defender

1. Learn To Slow Down

Defensive players will rush towards the ball and attacking players, but an important part of being an effective defender is effective and strategic deceleration.

This means that as the defender gets closer to the attacking player, she or he must control their speed and use their body positioning to force the attacker towards the sideline. 

Defensive players need to be able to judge distance from an attacking player, have their bodyweight mostly on their front foot, and use their arm and upper body to make legal contact in order to make an attacking player go where they want them to.

2. Hit the Weights

Explosive power in the legs is an absolute necessity for defending players, but having strength in the core and upper body allows defenders to engage with attacking players in a physical manner without being overpowered.

In addition, using weight training as a way to strengthen the muscles in the legs will protect the ankle and knee joints, which are particularly vulnerable during the course of soccer games and training.

3. Slide Tackle Effectively

The slide tackle in soccer is a key tool for defenders, but it’s not applicable to every situation. Defenders need to know when to slide tackle. 

The slide tackle is effective when the attacker is fully sprinting and attempting to tear away. Their speed made them less able to avoid a sliding defender. In most cases, a well-timed slide will clear the ball out of the field of play or towards one of your own teammates.

Players who have a high level of skill can make a slide tackle and retain the ball for themselves, which looks amazing and is amazingly difficult. 

However, the most important thing to know about slide tackling is how to do it legally so that you don’t injure yourself, the opposing player, or receive a yellow or red card.

Learn to play the ball and manage your studs. Also, make sure you slide in a way that ensures that you can get back up quickly and return to a defensive position.

4. Communicate

All defensive players have to work together, and knowing how to speak quickly and effectively among the defensive unit is critical.

The goalkeeper is generally seen as the leader of the defense, and it’s up to the other defenders to listen to the goalie and be able to shout clear instructions to their teammates.

I listed 25 more tips for defenders in this post.

Top Defenders You Can Learn From

One of the most effective ways to improve as a defender is to learn from the best. Below are 4 examples of world-class defenders that every player should learn from.

Virgil van Dijk 

Van Dijk has lots of qualities that make him a great center-back, but he is able to judge his timing better than almost anyone else. This sense of being where he needs to be and when he can make his move means that attackers almost never get past him. 

Patience is a key component of being a great defender, and van Dijk is a great player to watch if you’re trying to learn to not rush in. Soccer is a game of strategy, and picking your moment can make the difference between winning the ball or not.

Jan Vertonghen 

This Tottenham Hotspur is a great example of a physical player who can use his whole body when defending. This Belgian superstar can also score on set pieces and bring the ball forward himself, rather than relying on just passing to a midfielder. 

Vertonghen is exceptional, but he isn’t known as the fastest defender on the field. That just goes to show that while speed is important, it’s not the be-all, end-all when it comes to being great at soccer.

Vincent Kompany 

Watch and listen to Vincent Kompany when he’s on the pitch for Manchester City. While his own play is informed by his time playing midfield, he is clearly a leader on the Man City side. 

He works hard to organize his teammates, letting them know what is going on around them and where they should go. He, of course, isn’t acting as a manager and does his own fair share of one-on-one defending, but he’s a great example for those looking to up their orchestrating and communicating skills.

Sven Botman 

If a person is blessed with a height advantage, they should certainly use it as an aspect of their game. This 6-foot-4 Dutch defender does just that, making use of his body in the air. 

As the tallest player around most of the time, he’s great at winning headers, but he can also use his long legs to make elegant slide tackles and sneak in to snag balls away from attacking players.

A team cannot function well without a strong defense, and while it may not be as glamorous as other positions in soccer, it is just as crucial.

Soccer players have a large goal to defend, and the goalkeeper relies on the defensive unit to read the field, be aggressive with attacking players, and understand how to work together to prevent the opposing team from scoring.

I listed the greatest defenders of all time in this post.

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