This is an excerpt from Skills & Strategies for Coaching Soccer - 2nd Edition by Alan Hargreaves & Richard Bate.
Teams need to understand how they can defend successfully in a variety of circumstances. Some teams, as a mainstay of their defensive tactics, defend early (i.e., as soon as they concede possession to their opponents). Others may choose to recover, regroup, and prepare themselves to defend later. In this section we examine the basic principles of these two approaches.
Team Defensive Tactics
Initially we look at the tactics involved in defending late and then counterattacking. We then examine how teams can initially defend deep to concentrate their resources.
Late Team Defending
Defensive team tactics may be as straightforward as deciding where to first engage and pressure the opponents' buildup play. If you decide that your opponents are highly skillful in possession of the ball and can play cleverly and quickly through a team that lacks compactness, you may decide to defend deeper with the first serious defense against the player on the ball taking place around the halfway line and with your strikers exerting that pressure. The midfield line will organize itself behind this first pressing line, and the back line will likely be positioned on or around the edge of the penalty area, as shown in figure 15.1. This would give your team 11 players between the ball and its goal and would, providing your team is defending well, produce a problem for the attacking team in penetrating your defense. The teams that use this tactic often employ a counterattacking play upon gaining possession of the ball as space is available behind the opponents' defense. In addition, space is often created between the defensive back players through which attacking passes and runs can be made.
Early Team Defending
Alternatively, a team may decide to pressure the opponents as early and consistently as possible when they are in possession of the ball (see figure 15.2). The attacking team has possession in its own defending third of the field and is immediately pressured by your forward players. With the midfield and defending lines pushing forward onto opponents to support the forwards who are pressing, your team retains defensive compactness, but in a higher position on the field of play. You may choose to employ this tactic if your team is losing the game and needs to regain possession of the ball, or if you believe the opponents will surrender possession if your players sustain pressure for long periods of the game.
Group Defensive Tactics
Although teams may adopt different defending strategies and tactics, within the team organization, units may operate differently, yet still achieve a successful result and defend effectively. In the following sections we give some examples of how this may function.
A group or unit in the team may use specific tactics to gain or take away an advantage. For instance, players in the central midfield unit may mark their immediate opponents on a man- to-man basis. Opposing midfield players find receiving possession of the ball and operating when in possession of the ball difficult under the tight marking circumstances. By applying this tactic, a team may reduce the number of times a very skillful opposition “creator” in midfield both receives the ball and creates problems. First, because other players are reluctant to pass to a teammate who is tightly marked for fear of losing possession, and second, because if the teammate does receive the ball, he is immediately restricted in his options because of the man-to-man marking. Some teams that play with a sweeper and man-to-man defense also mark on a man-to-man basis ahead of the rear defenders and sweeper and so mark midfield opponents individually.
Alternatively, a central midfield unit may be organized to defend on a zonal basis. This means that, largely, players in this unit defend against opponents that come into their personal zones in the midfield areas of the field and pass on opponents who move their position across the field of play to the next midfield player in the zone. They may still be required to run with opponents who make forward runs toward their goal, but generally they attempt to defend in the left, center, and right midfield areas of the field.
Although it seems that a zone defense may give opponents more time and space in which to receive and distribute the ball, if employed correctly, the receiver of the ball will be under immediate and intense pressure by the midfield player defending in that zone. The other midfield players in the unit will slide across the field according to the movement and location of the ball and will not mark as tightly on their immediate midfield opponents (see figure 15.3).
Individual Defensive Tactics
Individual defensive tactics are based on players' skills in reading the game, positioning, marking, and challenging for the ball. For example, if a very quick and left-footed opponent operates on the left flank, a right fullback may, by his positioning, prevent the winger from progressing with the ball between the defender and the touchline. He directs the winger infield to prevent him from immediately using his left foot to cross the ball. The positioning of the fullback's feet and body when the winger receives the ball will largely influence the direction in which the winger moves. With a right-footed winger on the left flank, the same principles apply, but the intention of the fullback is now to prevent the opponent from coming infield and perhaps attacking the central areas of the defense. The fullback will push the winger outside so he has to operate near to the touchline in a reduced space. This simple individual defending tactic can reduce the winger's effectiveness. The negation of the winger's contribution can constitute part of an overall team defending tactic of reducing the number of crosses delivered into the defending team's penalty box.
Central defenders can also use individual tactics against the strikers. If a central defender learns, or already knows, that the striker tends to spin very late and quickly, then, when that striker attempts to run behind the defense to receive a pass, the center back will mark behind the striker at a distance (perhaps 2 to 3 yards) from which he will not be beaten to a ball passed behind him toward the goal. If the ball is played to the striker's feet, the center back can, of course, move as the pass is in transit to a tight marking position and attempt to intercept or prevent the striker from turning with the ball. However, if the striker has very little pace and consistently requires that the ball be played into his feet or chest area, the central defender can mark tight and so increase his chances of intercepting the ball or challenging for it knowing that he is unlikely to be exposed with a pass behind the defense.
This is an excerpt from Skills & Strategies for Coaching Soccer, Second Edition.