How to Defend in Soccer

Unlike scoring a goal, which provides instant gratification, defending is a process that extends throughout the full 90+ minutes of a game. Although defense is less glamorous than attacking, shutting down an opposing offense can be equally satisfying.

The ultimate objective of defending is containment, the ability to prevent opposing players from attacking your goal. There are varying ways of defending an opposing player that can be used depending on your skill set and athletic ability. Below are the basic concepts and strategies you need to know in order to succeed as a defender.


Most defenses are made up of four players in varying formations. Defenses are sometimes reduced to three men, but this is usually when a team is playing from behind and desperate for goals. The four primary defensive positions are right back, left back, center back, and sweeper. Sometimes the defenders are lined up four across with two center backs, but when one plays behind the other the position is generally referred to as a sweeper.

Stay Goal Side

When you are defending an opposing attacker, always be aware of where they are positioned on the field relative to your goal. You always want to put yourself between the attacker and your goal in order to obstruct their direct route. You also want to corral them away from the goal towards the sideline whenever possible. The farther away the attacker is from your goal, the less likely they are to score. This may sound sophomoric, but you would be surprised how many defenders forget this simple fact.

Close the Space

When an opposing player is attacking you, ideally you want to close the space between you to about a yard (3ft). This is the optimal distance to maximize your ability to contain the opponent, and react to their movement once they attack. If you are a significant distance from the attacking player when they are attacking, close the space quickly in a sprint, but slow your pace as you approach in order to avoid overrunning the player and the ball.

Keep your Eye on the Ball

The best way for an opposing player to beat you is to deceive you with their body. This is called a feint or fake, and in order to avoid falling for one you must always keep your eyes on the ball rather than the opposing player.

Don’t Commit

The best way to avoid being deceived by an attacking player is to avoid committing to a ball unnecessarily. The objective of the defender is containment. Winning the ball is not always a necessary objective, especially when the number of players involved in the play is in the attacking team’s favor. Sometimes just stopping the attacking player from advancing towards your goal is good enough while you wait for reinforcements. However, you can’t do this if you make a silly mistake and commit too early on defense. You always want to wait for the attacking player to make a mistake, and then take advantage of their misjudgment.

Stay on Your Toes

By staying on your toes you will be able to react to the attacking player’s movement significantly faster than if you are flat footed or on your heels. You will also minimize the attacker’s ability to exploit your uneven weight distribution, thereby passing you by.

Man-to-Man Defense

Man-to-Man defense is the strategy whereby each defender has an opposing player that they are responsible for guarding. Generally speaking a player guards the mirror of their position in the opponent’s formation. For instance, the right defender on the defensive team would guard the left winger on the opposing team, and so forth. Man defense is good for teams who don’t have a firm grasp on the offensive capabilities of the opposing team, and want to minimize potential risk.

Amazingly True Story

Franz Beckenbauer is widely considered to be one of the greatest defenders, if not one of the greatest players, in the history of soccer. His nickname, “Der Kaiser,” means “The Emperor” and was bestowed upon him for his complete and utter dominance on the pitch. He is widely credited as the inventor of the modern sweeper position, which is still commonly employed in today’s game.

Beckenbauer was twice selected as the European Player of the Year, captained West Germany’s 1974 World Cup winning side, and won three European Cups while captaining his club Bayern Munich.

Zone Defense

Zone defense is the strategy whereby defenders are responsible for patrolling certain areas on the field for opposing attackers. This strategy only works if you and your teammates have a deep understanding of the formation and tactics of the opposing attackers. Zone defense can be extremely dangerous because it is difficult to keep track of all the opposing players simultaneously. If you do not have a mastery of your opponents’ tactics it is not advisable to stray away from man defense.

The Offside Trap

Unless you have a firm grasp on the offside rule, you should disregard this section. However, if you feel you are ready to add the dynamic of the offside trap to your defense, read on. The offside trap is the concept of pushing the defensive line forward in order to draw opposing attackers offside. This is generally done by pushing up the field quickly in anticipation of an opposing through ball to an opposing attacker. The offside trap is difficult to run effectively, because it requires all of the defenders to be aware of all the attackers at all time.

Unless your entire defense is on board with the strategy of the offside trap, you may find yourself disastrously beaten by opposing players. When running the offside trap, ensure that the central defender or sweeper is constantly directing the defense in order to maximize the effectiveness of the trap. Communication is the key.

Slide Tackling

Coaches often shun the use of the slide tackle, despite the fact that it is a very effective way of shutting down the opposing player. The reason for this is that slide tackling is what would be referred to as a “high risk” maneuver. Slide tackling is considered high risk for a number of reasons. First of all, if you slide tackle an opposing player and miss, you will find yourself lying on the ground without any means of recovery. Secondly, if your tackle is mistimed you run the risk of missing the ball and striking the opposing player, which will almost always result in a yellow card, and sometimes with a direct red card if the tackle is from behind. While the slide tackling should certainly not be removed from your arsenal of defensive tools, it should be used sparingly and with an extreme measure of caution.

Defensive Heading

Defensive heading is a very important element of the game because it gives you the opportunity to clear the ball before attackers even have a chance to strike it with their feet. When attempting a defensive header, remember to remain on your toes to maximize your jumping ability, strike the ball with your forehead, and direct the ball away from opposing players.

Corner Kicks

The organization of the defense during a corner kick is the responsibility of the goalkeeper. He must tell his defenders where he wants them situated in order to minimize the chance of the opponent scoring a goal. The keeper may also direct defenders to mark up on a post to decrease the chance of a ball slipping past him. Defenses can employ either a man-defense or zone-defense on corner kicks depending on what the manager determines to be the most effective.

Free Kicks

Not unlike on a corner kick, the goalkeeper is responsible for organizing the defense during a free kick as well. However, when defending a free kick the keeper will usually instruct several of his defenders to form a defensive wall 10 yards from the spot of the foul. This wall is generally used to cut off the angle of the shot towards the post nearest the spot of the kick. The keeper must ensure that this angle is not available to the shooter by directing the placement of the wall. The keeper is also responsible for determining how many defenders will compose the wall, and how many will mark opposing attackers in the open field. There is offside on free kicks, meaning that defenders can play the offside trap in this situation.

Clearing the Ball

Very often you will find yourself in a prickly situation on defense and your only alternative to giving up the ball will be a blind clearance. That’s ok. Getting the ball away from your goal is a necessity, getting it to a teammate is an added bonus. Ideally you want to direct your clearance whenever possible, but if booting the ball means you will clear the defensive zone then it often becomes a necessary evil.

Outlet Passes

An outlet pass is a pass sent from the defense to the midfielders or forwards, whereby the ball clears the defensive zone. Outlet passes are the primary tool used to initiate a counterattack against your opponent. Once you have won the ball on defense, look for your teammates up the field who are already thinking ahead towards attacking the opposing goal. Quickly send them an outlet pass and you may be fortunate enough to get a numerical mismatch against the opposing defense.


Counter-attacking is an essential part of the defenders role on the team. Though the defender’s primary job is to stop the opponent from scoring, one should remember that a good soccer player is a two-way player, capable of both shutting down the opposition, as well as initiating the attack when the time is right. Not all defenders have an attacking mindset, but all should strive to make outlet passes whenever possible rather than simply clearing the ball aimlessly. By doing this your attacking teammates will have a better opportunity to score, and your defense will have more time to recover while your team maintains possession of the ball.

Tracking Back

Once you have initiated the counter-attack you are free to take part in the offensive campaign, just remember that your first and most important duty is defense. Leading a counter-attack is admirable, but if you can’t track back on the ensuing play, you have no business leaving your position in the first place. At the very least, communicate with your midfielders and ensure that someone covers your position while you overlap into the attacking half of the pitch. If you are able to do this you will have become the best kind of defender, one who plays a two-way game, both attacking and defending.

Ready to Defend

Hopefully this guide has provided you with the necessary tools to perfect the basic elements defending. Once you have mastered these tactics, feel free to continue to the Advanced Defending Guide for further instruction.

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