Part II: The Defending Phases

By Tom Turner

(If you missed them, you can read the introduction to this series and Part One)

Defending Against the Counter-Attack.
Knowing that the counter-attack is a pivotal tactic, good teams will look to develop transition skills that slow or stop an opponent’s immediate forward progress. This is achieved by immediately pressuring the ball to force sideways or backwards passes; and by keeping the midfield and defensive lines well balanced positionally and numerically. Importantly, this continual defensive organization takes place during the building-up or attack. Teams that wait to defend until after the turnover are much more likely to be punished for their ball watching by good counter-attacking teams.

At the moment of transition, players in attacking positions are often on the wrong side of their immediate opponent and out of position to cover their own teammates. This is why immediate pressure on the ball can be so critical. However, where the turnover occurs on the field and whether the risk of counter-attack is high or low, will, in part, dictate how a team should react to a loss of possession.

The Pressing Dilemma
In addition to factors such as weather, fitness, field conditions, and technical range, the time remaining, the score, and the importance of the match situation to any competition impact where teams start to defend. Counter-attacking situations aside, if, for example, a team is losing, or needs an additional goal, the onus is on that side to increase their defensive tempo and chase the ball. This results in pressuring the ball closer to the opponent’s goal.

When a defending team chooses the right tactical cues, pressing can be a very effective tactic; however, it does bring risks. Pressing can be perilous because the defensive block must move forward and towards the ball. If this movement does not happen at the right moment and with the players reacting together, there will be attacking spaces left open within the block, or behind the block, or on the flanks. With defensive players committed forward without being organized, a quick build-up may produce dangerous attacking opportunities and break-a-way situations for the opponent. The defensive application of offside tactics also becomes important, as pressing teams can’t also effectively protect the space behind their back line. This is one reason why goalkeepers must play out of their goal in pressing situations.

Defending From Behind a Line of Confrontation
Pressing makes sense when the ball can’t easily be played over or through the defensive block. When pressing doesn’t make sense, teams can either force the issue by pushing players forward and taking greater risks, or they can drop back a little and start to defend closer to their own goal. When this strategy is employed, the team may still press when the right moment presents itself, but will otherwise drop back behind a pre-determined “height”– such as 25-30 yards from the opponent’s goal, or to the top of the circle on the opponent’s side, or behind the half-way line — before attempting to regain possession.

When a line of confrontation is established during the match preparation, the basic strategic approach is for the team to drop back in transition and begin defending when the ball reaches the confrontation line. However, the moment of transition creates a few more tactical dilemmas for players to assess. What if the closest defender doesn’t pressure the ball and a counter-attack results? Or, if the closest defender correctly pressures the ball, should his/her teammates still drop back to the line of confrontation? Or, what if two defenders are in the vicinity of the ball and both are needed to eliminate a counter-attack or a quick forward pass. And, how do these decisions affect the reorganization of the defensive block?

At the extreme, a team may simply defend “en masse” behind the ball in their own half and attempt to score goals with as few passes and as a minimal number of players committed to any attacking foray. This strategy of “bunkering and counter-attacking” is often chosen when one team is significantly overmatched by their opponent; are playing numbers down because of a red card, fitness, or injury; are playing to protect a lead; or attempting to keep a clean sheet. Ironically, this strategy can also work well for a good team playing against a tactically naive opponent, or a counter-attacking team that must secure a result.

Next: Restarts

Tom Turner is a U.S. Soccer National Staff Coach, Region II Boys ODP Coach, Ohio North State Director of Coaching. He can be reached at

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