In this article we are going to analyse what the defender is in soccer and how it has developed over the years. We will break down the key qualities needed for the defender both in possession and most importantly out of possession.

“I don’t divide football into attacking and defending. In football, everything depends on everything” – Pep Guardiola

Many a trophy winning team has been built on the foundations of a strong and solid defence. Think of Arsenal’s consistent back four in the 1990’s of Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Martin Keown and Nigel Winterburn. The magnificent centre-back partnership of Italian pair Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini who steered Juventus to numerous domestic titles as well as the 2020 European Championship for the National team. In recent times, defenders have started to command escalating transfer fees that have almost begun to compare with attacking players as managers and coaches increasingly value their contributions to defensive solidity as well as a structure from which to build possession and base their teams’ attacking principles.

Considering Pep Guardiola’s quote above, football is forever evolving and the role of defenders in the modern era of football is becoming more and more about their qualities and proficiency to contribute in as well as out of possession. In this blog, we will delve into the world of defenders and consider what traditionally, players in these positions were responsible for, how the different roles have altered over time and modern trends that have become popularised in recent seasons.

The 5 Key Defensive Attributes

1. 1 v 1 Defending
• Ability to compete against direct opponent when applying pressure from multiple angles – front (facing opponent), back (preventing opponent from turning), side (pressing to force opponent one way), beside (moving alongside opponent and waiting for right moment to tackle).
• ‘Shut down’ – getting to the ball quickly to reduce distance that opponent has available to them.
• ‘Slow down’ – decelerating when near to avoid being eliminated with a quick touch to the side.
• ‘Sit down’ – adopting a low side on body carriage when bent knees and eyes on the ball, attempting to force attacker away from goal and passing options.

2. Reading The Game
• Referred to as game intelligence or game insight, defenders need to be proficient at reading triggers and cues to make effective informed decisions.
• When to press, when to drop – relates to identifying the right moment to close an opponent down or drop off and reduce space in behind the defensive line.
• Recognising when to intercept – similar to the above in that the defender selects to move into a passing lane to steal the ball en route to the opponent rather than wait until they’ve received it.

3. Positioning
• Marking in advance of the ball – adopting a position to cover space rather than directly marking an opponent. This is seen when the ball is located further away (e.g on the other side of the pitch) and the defender positions themselves in an area to see their nearest opponent but also block off space for them to move into.
• ‘Squeezing up’ – when the ball is in comfortable possession in the attacking third, defenders often push up the pitch to stay connected to the midfield unit and offer a passing option to recycle possession. This is also seen when there is aggressive pressure on the ball and no immediate threat to the defensive line from an attacker making a forward run.

4. Heading
• Heading and the ability to be brave in competitive congested areas are key component of a defender’s toolkit.
• Centre backs generally must be commanding up against strikers when in aerial duels from crosses into the penalty area and long, direct passes from the opponent’s defensive third.
• Full backs have to be assertive and time their headings in situations such as when stationed at the near or far post from attacking free kicks and corners. Here, the full back may have to clear the ball away from danger (when guarding the near post) or deflect it away to the opposite side of the penalty area (when based at the far post).
• A vital element of an effective header is the timing and co-ordination of the action itself. Possessing vertical lower body power is crucial to generate height and distance and efficient use of the upper body to fend off an opponent contribute overall to a successful header.

5. Clearances
• An often under-appreciated aspect of defending is the clearance.
• A clearance can be defined as the re-directing of the ball away from pressure (usually the penalty area or 6-yard box) and into space either with the team remaining out of possession or ideally gaining possession.
• Height, depth and distance are the 3 elements required for a clearance to be deemed effective.
• Examples of a clearance include: ground, volleys, half-volleys, headed, goalkeeper punch (single & double)

Read our blog around clearances in football here

Traditional Qualities and Attributes

The Centre-Back (examples include Tony Adams, John Terry, Nemanja Vidic)

• Physical Presence – the players listed above all possessed outstanding physical attributes, namely height and stature, strength and power. Often having to compete against tall and imposing centre-forwards, central defenders in a traditional sense, had to be able to compete physically when marking tightly and attempting to stop their opponents from finding space near to goal.

• Heading Ability – in the early days of the Premier League, there was a greater propensity for teams to value the importance of longer, more direct balls into attacking areas and crosses from wide areas into the penalty box. This meant that centre-back’s ability to rise high and head the ball away from danger was a highly important commodity. Timing their jumps and using their upper body strength to compete in crowded penalty areas was a vital component of the centre-back’s armoury.

• Bravery – think of the famous photo of John Terry throwing his body on the line for England in the 2010 World Cup against Slovenia. Putting their body on the line to block shots from close range remains an integral aspect of a defender’s tool kit but was perhaps even more of a regular occurrence in football from a different generation. Also consider the era-defining image of a bloodied Terry Butcher playing for England versus Sweden in 1989 after a clash of heads with striker Johnny Ekstrom.

The Full Back (examples include Lee Dixon, Stuart Pearce, Cesar Azpilicueta)

• Tackling Ability – full backs are generally less physically imposing than central defenders but have always had to possess the ability to track runners in wide areas and time their tackles correctly to dispossess them. Being extremely hard to beat in 1v1 situations and identifying the right time to execute tackles have traditionally been the ‘go-to’ attributes required of a full back.

• Positional Awareness – the game insight needed by a full back meant that when the opposition were developing an attack on the opposite side of the pitch, the full back would have to tuck across and maintain close compact distances with their nearest centre-back. Sometimes referred to as marking in advance of the ball, this defensive principle meant that the full back would leave their winger in more space allowing them to travel towards the opponent as the ball was crossed to either compete aerially to clear, or step in to complete an interception.

• Marking – Perhaps the most relevant display in recent memory was that of Ashley Cole competing against Cristiano Ronaldo in the quarter final of the 2004 European Championships, for England against Portugal. Throughout the match, Cole’s ability to tackle, intercept and generally deny Ronaldo space by marking him tightly, nullified the devastating threat that Ronaldo would certainly otherwise have been able to impose on the game.

Modern Day Qualities And Attributes

The Centre-Back (past examples include Rio Ferdinand with current examples including Virgil Van Dijk and John Stones)

• Ball Management – the ability to manage and deal with the ball (often under high pressure) effectively has become a hugely important attribute for the modern-day central defender to possess. Rio Ferdinand (and even going back to Bobby Moore) is one of the more relevant examples of this in recent history as the popularised principle of playing out from the back has become even more widely used in the modern era. Receiving the ball from the goalkeeper, being calm and composed with a secure first touch and possessing the confidence to carry the ball out from defence have become extremely valuable assets for the modern-day centre-back.

• Passing Range – with more and more teams advocating a possession-based style, centre-backs are now expected to be proficient with their range of passing. Whether these are short incisive passes into midfield areas or longer, more expansive cross-field switches, the central defender needs to be able to execute a wide and varied type of distribution to advance the ball forwards.

• Versatility – with defenders now being expected to contribute to the team in higher parts of the pitch, central defenders in the modern game need to be comfortable in possession in different situations. Whether this is receiving the ball in wide areas near the touchline, travelling with the ball into midfield and offloading a pass to a wide player or providing a threat from attacking set-pieces, the role of the centre back from a positional perspective has evolved greatly over time to move away from purely possessing just a set of defensive characteristics.

The Full Back (examples include Trent Alexander-Arnold, Phillipe Lahm, Alphonso Davies)

• 1 v 1 Attacking Threat – modern day full backs are no longer just expected to be able to defend effectively in 1v1 situations. Roberto Carlos of Brazil and Real Madrid was one of the forerunners of the attacking wing-back role in recent history and made a name for himself with his ability to over-lap, take on the opposition full-back and provide an attacking threat with angled shots and passes into advanced areas.

• Crossing Ability – full-backs generally position themselves in much higher and more advanced areas of the pitch in the current game. Receiving the ball in the opposition’s defensive third and being able to cross from a stationary position as well as on the move are vital attributes required as well as providing attacking overloads to exploit space and opponent’s weaknesses.

• 360 Awareness – as explained in greater detail in the next section, a widely used trend in modern day football is that of the inverted full-back. Here, the player moves infield to provide central overloads and more passing options for the team. Due to this, the full-back needs to be able to receive the ball from different angles and distances, be spatially aware by orientating their body efficiently, scan to see their nearest opponents and how much space and time they have, as well as being able to identify the options available to them to either progress the ball forwards or maintain possession for the team.

Modern Trends In Football

The ‘Over-Lapping’ Centre-Back 

This concept was perhaps first seen when Sheffield United began exploring it in the Championship under Chris Wilder around 2016-2021. Employed using either a GK-3-4-3 or GK-3-5-2 formation, United’s build up approach often involved the ball being worked into a wide area, where the wing-back would tuck inside allowing the centre-back on the same side to make an overlapping run (one that would normally be seen from the wing-back themselves) into an advanced area. This approach was often utilised when facing teams who defended deep in large numbers and set up with a defensive structure to be hard to play through. The overlapping centre-back was an effective way of disrupting this structure and opening up gaps to exploit.

The ’Inverted Full Back’

In recent years, this concept has become more and more prevalent in the topflight of leagues across the world. Popularised by Pep Guardiola when at Bayern Munich, this approach involves the full-back moving inside to a more central midfield position alongside the centre-defensive midfielder (the ‘#4’ or ‘#6’). Recent exponents of this include Phillipe Lahm, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Kyle Walker who have all become extremely valuable assets from a possession perspective, as well reducing central distances allowing for a more effective counter-press and regain of possession quickly if the ball becomes lost. The moving infield of the full-back in turn, allows the team’s attacking midfielders to push further forwards and pose more problems for the opponent’s back line. In addition, more space is created in the full-back’s vacated wide area meaning a team-mate can utilise this space, or if the full-back’s movement is tracked inside by the opponent’s winger, their full-back may be left exposed and isolated.

Summary

The role of defenders in the modern game has certainly evolved and changed over time. Whilst it is still imperative that players in these positions can defend effectively (namely tackle, mark, intercept, clear the ball), modern day defenders from both a central and wide perspective are now expected to be much more adept and skilled from an in-possession point of view. As tactics continue to develop and adapt, player’s level of situational insight will start to reflect these changes, with overall game intelligence and positional awareness becoming more and more important. The impact on player development and coaching is also worth considering as those in the youngest age groups at Professional clubs are now expected to manage the ball effectively in all areas of the pitch under high pressure and be able to advance it forwards, whichever part of the pitch they are playing in.

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