It’s important to emphasise to your players, no matter how young they are, that when the other team has the ball everyone on your team is a defender.
It follows that all your players (not just the “defenders”) need to be taught the principles of individual defence:
The player nearest the ball is called the “first defender”.
If possession is lost in your team’s attacking third (the third of the pitch closest to your opponent’s goal) the first defender – who will probably be one of your attackers or midfield players – has to try and win the ball back immediately and start another attack.
If your opponent has possession of the ball in midfield or in your defensive third (the third of the pitch nearest your goal) the first defender does NOT have to try to win the ball. Her job is to delay the attack, put pressure on the player with the ball and try to guide her into a safe area of the pitch, i.e. towards the touchline or back towards her own goal.
The first defender puts pressure on the ball carrier by approaching her quickly and getting close – but not so close that the attacker can simply push the ball past the defender and run onto it. About 4ft away is a good distance. Getting close quickly will force the attacker to keep her head down so she can concentrate on keeping control of the ball and will stop her looking for a pass.
The first defender’s stance is important. Her feet should be about a shoulder width apart, her legs should be slightly bent and she should stay on her toes so she can react to any sudden changes of direction by the attacker.
- Her eyes should be on the ball but she should also watch the spaces around the attacker with her peripheral vision.
- If the ball gets away from the attacker’s feet, the first defender can win the ball by quickly stepping between the attacker and the ball carrier.
- If the ball gets stuck between the attacker’s feet, the first defender should make a determined effort to win the ball or kick it into touch.
How to practise individual defending skills
The best way to practise individual defending skills is to play 1v1 games.
Warm up by pairing up your players and get them to stand a good defensive distance (three or four feet) apart.
On your command, they try to touch each other’s knees. The first player to make 10 touches is the winner. Players can use their hands to deflect their partners attempts.
Use this game to practise the defensive stance. Say: “knees bent”, “eye on the target”, “lean forward slightly”, “stay on your toes”.
Create some areas 20 yards long by five yards wide and divide them into three sections.
One player (the defender) stands at one end of a channel and passes a ball to a player at the other end (the attacker).
The attacker tries to dribble past the defender. The defender gets three points if she can hold up the attacker for 10 seconds in the first third of the channel, win the ball or kick the ball out.
If she can do it in the second section she gets two points and she gets one point for succeeding in the final third.
Play three or four rounds then switch roles.
Use the same set-up as above.
Place a small cone goal at one end of the channel.
The attacker’s job is now to score a goal by hitting the cone.
The defender gets a point if she can stop the attacker from scoring for 30 seconds.
Set up a number of 10-yard square areas with a small cone goal in the middle.
The defender starts the game by standing in the goal and passing the ball to the attacker who has 30 seconds to score. Again, award a point to defenders who can stop the attacker from scoring by stealing the ball, kicking it out or (ideally) holding up the attacker for the required time.
What to say to the defender:
- “Close the attacker down quickly”
- “Watch the ball”
- “Knees bent”
- “The touchline is your friend”
- “If you’re going for a tackle, you must be determined to win the ball”
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