So you want to improve your defending skills? Like with most things in life, practice makes perfect, and by following the tips below you too could become a world-class defender.
Being a defender can be a poisoned chalice at times, the smallest mistakes can be punished mercilessly. And because defenders usually work as part of a team, you could be having the perfect game, but if your fellow defenders are having a nightmare, you look bad too.
Here are the 25 most effective tips to be a better soccer defender
1. Strength Training
While the days of a central defender being a hulking brute, only fit to kick lumps out of opponents is thankfully a thing of the past, being strong on the ball counts.
Weights, toning up, and bulking up through the right foods can improve your game massively. From getting the ball back with a strong shoulder charge to being an immovable object in defense, build those muscles. Defenders take a lot of knocks, getting your body prepared is a huge advantage.
2. Managing Your Defenders
Soccer is a team game, and as such, each player relies on the others to succeed. Being a leader on the field, managing your teammates, can turn a decent defender into a great one.
It’s no secret many top club captains are defenders, and the reason for that is they marshal their defense and can see the whole pitch, getting a feel of the ebb and flow of a game. Manage your team, and the opposition will follow.
3. Know Your Opposition
Does the opposition winger like to cut inside for a shot? Is their striker easily subdued with a rough tackle early on? Is their attacker a pacy runner, or does he like to get stuck in?
Knowing what to expect, and preparing for it, can turn defeat into victory. Plan by being aware of your opponents’ strengths and weaknesses. Your own teams’ confidence will benefit here too, you can go into a game with a plan of action.
4. Eat Healthy
This should be a no-brainer, but you would be amazed at how many players don’t watch their diet. Fresh food, pasta, chicken, water, a healthy body promotes a healthy mind.
Maintaining a healthy diet keeps you focussed, reduces injury risks, and can keep the teams’ engine running for the full 90 minutes. Neglect what you put into your body at your own risk.
5. Control Your Emotions
The red mist descends, you fly into a tackle in anger, mistimed and reckless, it’s a straight red card. Your team has lost its best defender, and all due to your inability to stay in control.
Keeping your cool and staying on the pitch is vital to a defender. Don’t listen to the striker trying to goad you, he wants one thing, an angry defender to do something foolish. Keep calm, keep smiling, and keep the clean sheet you wanted.
6. Passing To The Wing
While passing inside is sometimes the only option, unless you are a world-class defender already, it’s not advisable. Avoid danger zones with your passing.
Minimize the risks by moving the ball to your wingers or wing-backs. Losing the ball with a mad pass into the center of the park invites disaster. Keep the ball, keep momentum in your favor, and restrict your opponents’ opportunities.
7. Increase Your Reaction Times
Timing is everything, get to the ball first and that’s half the battle. Anticipate where the opposition striker is heading and you can beat them there.
Build up your reaction times, beep tests, short sprints from cone to cone, from a standing start to a sprint, all increase reaction times. Being known as a mind reader is no bad thing, intimidate your opponent by making it look like you know what they are going to do before they do.
8. Tactical Awareness
Playing a back three is completely different from a back four. Having the tactical nous to be able to adapt and survive is key to your success. In a back three, you have space on the wings that you now must control, without leaving the center open.
Learn your role in a tactic, understand it, and your restrictions within it. Once you do, make sure you know every other defensive role too, make the defense your own.
Tactical awareness comes into its own when we start discussing the offside trap, which we do later on in our list.
9. Speed Training
The modern defender is an ultra-mobile athlete. Speed and agility are prerequisites for your role. With fewer target men playing as a center forward, speed is king.
And if you don’t keep up, you’ll be left behind, so build up that pace and acceleration. Sprint training builds up your movement speed, accelerating you to the ball before anyone else. Think Rio Ferdinand in his prime, he rarely made a tackle because he always got to the ball first.
10. Positioning Skills
If you don’t have speed in your legs, make sure your brain is the quickest on the field. Position yourself for maximum coverage, ensure you block lines of sight, be in the key area before it becomes a key area.
A defender with excellent positioning skills rarely has to chase a ball, making the ball come to them. If you can’t outrun them, outthink them.
11. Be Vocal
The best defenders in world soccer all make themselves heard. Teammates know where they are, what they expect, and where the dangers are coming from.
Be loud, ensure everyone is aware of what you expect, build their confidence, and your own, by making sure everyone has seen the player making a late break into the box.
12. If In Doubt, Kick It Out
As a defender, your sole role is to keep your goal safe. Fancy passing is great, and so is popping up with the odd goal. Ultimately though, you have one job, keep a clean sheet.
If you find yourself under pressure on the ball, get the ball out of play and into the stands, give yourself and your team time to recover position and focus.
On a soccer pitch, there is a time for heroics and a time for pragmatism. And a defender who knows when to get rid of the ball is the most pragmatic of all. You aren’t there to make 60-yard runs, or 50-yard passes, clear the ball to safety.
13. Drawing a Foul
Similar to getting the ball into the stands, drawing a foul is another excellent way of recovering the ball or getting everyone back into position. Place yourself between the opponent and the ball and encourage them to foul you.
If jumping for the ball, back into your opposition to get them climbing onto your back. A tactical foul is a vital skill to learn, both getting a foul, or taking a player out when things look dangerous can be the best way to stop play in its tracks.
14. Showing a Striker The Door
Shepherding a player away from the goal to narrow the angles they have to shoot from reduces risk. And risk avoidance is the sole target for defenses.
Key attributes for doing this successfully are positioning, awareness, speed, and strength, keeping yourself between the striker and your own goal, moving them out wide to reduce their target, and making it as hard as possible for a goal to go in.
15. Build Stamina
Tired players make mistakes, and as a defender, your mistakes are the ones people remember. A striker can miss a shot and all is forgiven, a defender missing an interception that leads to a goal is sacrificed to the soccer gods.
The longer you can run, the longer you can maintain performance. Keeping that extra yard of pace could allow a last-ditch tackle, having the energy to chase down and the strength to get a player off the ball can be the difference between winning and losing.
Gym work, diet, endurance training are key, but so is desire, the best players find that extra stamina through willpower as well as muscle power.
16. Ball Distribution
Modern soccer players are all comfortable on the ball. And that includes defenders. Your role may be to control your area and keep opponents at bay, but the modern role of a ball-playing defender means that your range of passing is comparable to anyone on the field.
Long and short passing, tiki-taka, having the skill to be able to distribute the ball to wherever you choose is a great skill to have. Not only will it make you vital to the team going forward, but being a good passer makes you better equipped to clear your lines accurately.
Kicking the ball upfield only for it to come straight back at you puts pressure on the defense. Playing that 50-yard crossfield ball to your winger can set your team on the offensive as well as simply remove the threat from your own goal.
17. Body Position
Often underrated, but getting yourself in the right body position is crucial for a defender’s success. Being caught flat-footed because your body is not in the correct position can make getting to an opponent impossible.
Learning how to position yourself, the correct angle to hold your body at in order to make quick interceptions is key.
Always stand at an angle to your target, if a player is running at you with the ball you are able to move quicker, guide them where you want them to go, and avoid having to turn around and get up to speed from a standing start.
18. Keep a Clean Sheet At All Costs
Winning breeds confidence, and the only way to win is to score more than your opponent. Sounds simple? It is, but what if your attackers are not scoring?
As a defender, you must ensure you do not concede, the rest of the team takes confidence from knowing they have a solid defense behind them. All successful teams are built from the back.
Strikers know they have less pressure on them, which helps them score more as they have more freedom. And this stems from you being able to keep a clean sheet.
19. Watch How The Professionals Do It
Learn from the best players in the world, watch how they use the ball, how they move opponents around like chess pieces. Rarely flustered, and always in control of their teammates’ positioning, world-class defenders stand out a mile.
Watch the best teams play, make notes on how they handle specific situations, and use what you have learned in games.
Sometimes, just knowing what the right thing to do in a given situation gives the confidence to go and do it, so watch and learn.
20. Play To Your Strengths & Work On Your Weaknesses
If you have no pace, ensure you use someone who has to chase down that pacy winger. If you aren’t the tallest player, don’t mark the tallest opponent at set-pieces.
Know your strengths and adapt accordingly, knowing your weaknesses, you can work on them to eliminate them from your game. It could be gym work to build your muscle mass, or tactical work to improve positioning, but knowing where you need work will help round out your overall game.
21. Spatial Awareness
While spatial awareness is hard to learn, it is possible to improve your vision of what is going on in a fast-paced environment. Playing in defense allows you to see the whole pitch, giving an understanding of where each player is, or should be.
Having the awareness to use this information only comes with time and experience, however. But the more you are aware of your surroundings, the better chance you have of being in the right place at the right time.
Passing becomes easier, as you instinctively know where your teammates are, tackling becomes cleaner as you know just where that striker is heading. It feels like some players are born with eyes in the back of their heads, but for the rest of us, it takes practice and patience.
22. Always Be On The Move
Standing still will be the death of a defender, they have to constantly be moving, tracking opponent and ball alike.
As with body positioning, showing a striker the door, and many others on our list, constant movement is vital to your ability to defend correctly.
Don’t get caught ball watching, or you will likely be watching it going into the back of your net. Move within your zone, track your player, and be aware of the danger areas.
23. Mastering The Offside Trap
Reliance on the offside trap is fraught with risk, but the rewards are incredible.
A well-drilled defense stepping out to leave a striker marooned in an offside position is a thing of beauty, but should you be the one daydreaming, not moving out with your team, and playing the striker onside…
Suffice it to say, don’t be that player. Correctly used, the offside trap is unplayable, but your whole defense has to have spatial awareness, team cohesion, positioning, and pace, to handle it.
It isn’t hard to learn how to play it, but without the attributes listed above, can be like tying four kittens together and asking them to line-dance.
The positives do outweigh the negatives, but given that your only real negative is that a striker is through on goal with a clear chance, only utilize the offside trap if you are confident everyone has the ability to do it correctly.
24. Staying On Your Feet
Staying on your feet is as much about being able to recover and try again as it is not being sent off. A rash, mistimed tackle can easily get you a red card, leaving your team in serious trouble.
But the major reason for staying on your feet is mobility. If you close down a player and miss a tackle, or the ball breaks favorably for them and they retain possession, your chance of trying again is negligible if you are on the ground.
Stay on your feet, narrow the angles, and slow your opponent down. Everyone loves to see a last-ditch tackle save the day, but get it wrong and you can’t recover quickly enough.
25. Keep It Simple Stupid
Soccer really is a simple game, and that is one of the best things about it. Played well, it can be glorious to behold. And a defender that keeps it simple and plays to their strengths and wears their shirt with pride is one of the greatest sights in soccer.
Your job is clear. Defend your goal like your life depends on it. Get the ball, keep the ball, pass the ball. It really is that simple, so why complicate things? Learn your role inside out, play with the freedom that comes from knowing your job, and enjoy the game.
More mistakes are made through fear or panic than anything else, so keep it simple, clear your lines, track your player and keep the ball as far away from your net as possible.
Your goalkeeper, and your fans, will love you for it.
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