Soccer — The 5 Principles of Defense

In the last Desert Island post, we looked at the five attacking principles of soccer and common terminology used in that context. This is the continuation and deals with the flip side of the coin, i.e. the five principles of defense. The format is the same as before: Descriptions, recap and bibliography. The five principles we’ll be looking at are pressure, delay, depth, balance and discipline.

1. Pressure

Pressure is the exactly what it sounds like, and perhaps that’s why it isn’t always listed as a principle because it’s an obvious fact of the game. To force the opposing team to lose possession of the ball, you have to apply pressure. That means defenders need to rush attacking players and challenge for the ball and take it or induce the attacker into losing it by making a bad pass or dribbling poorly. Terms you see might in this context are press up or go to the ball (go to). Alternatively, if a defense doesn’t press enough, it’s said they are allowing too much space or giving too much time, i.e. the opponent is moving the ball around without any trouble. Pressure also includes marking attacking players that don’t have the ball. If they are well marked this makes it hard for the player with the ball to pass it to a teammate. Defensive players will typically say man to indicate to a teammate that an opponent needs to be marked, or covered.

2. Delay

This is the tactic of slowing down your opponents when they attack. This typically occurs when a team loses possession of the ball and has to transition to defense. At this precise moment the team now on attack may attempt a counterattack, and delay is essential to preventing it. Many times you will hear defensive players yell get back or recover to teammates so that they return where they should be positioned, i.e. back behind the ball and in front of the attacking players. If a team scores on a counterattack, part of the reason is usually a poor recovery. Delaying properly means not immediately challenging for the ball. Instead, it means containing the attackers and slowing their advance. How do you contain them? You get in their way. But you don’t get too close, you give a bit of space. This is necessary because if you challenge or press too closely when your opponent is countering (counterattack), your team will be vulnerable. That’s because the players are out of position.  Delaying usually occurs in the middle third of the field and doing so helps make the opponents’ play more predictable. If the defense can predict play, then it has a better chance of preventing opponents from scoring.

3. Depth

Also called support, this refers to the positioning of players behind the first defender. In my post about the 5 attacking principles, I mentioned that there was a 1st attacker, 2nd attacker, etc., the first attacker being the player with the ball. As you might guess, the 1st defender is the player who challenges the 1st attacker, or perhaps put a better way, the most proximate player who actively engages the 1st attacker. I say this because the 1st defender may choose to delay the 1st attacker. The depth, then, is the support from other defenders. The positioning of the 2nd defender, 3rd defender, etc. is meant to aid the 1st defender. They close off space, i.e. passing lanes, which, in theory, allow the 1st defender to challenge for the ball. In addition, should the 1st defender challenge for the ball, in other words attempt a tackle and fail to steal the ball, other supporting players can then challenge for it because if the first attacker overcomes the 1st defender the 2nd, 3rd et al. defenders will be in a good position to challenge. All this requires reading the play of the game and anticipating your opponents’ actions. As mentioned above, the 1st defender may delay a 1st attacker until proper depth is established because a failed challenge without proper support leaves holes in your defense. Once proper depth is in place, supporting players will communicate to the 1st defender that it’s okay to challenge for the ball by saying ball, challenge or step up.

4. Balance

If an offensive objective is to unbalance the defense by getting the defenders out of position, then a defensive concern is to maintain balance. This mostly concerns players that are off the ball, i.e. away from it. This may involve a switch of duties, in other words, if a defender is marking a certain opponent or zone, a trade with a teammate may be necessary to maintain balance; otherwise, if a defender follows an attacker making a run, it could leave space open, which might be exploited. A prime example of imbalance occurs when play becomes concentrated on one side of the field. The longer the offense keeps possession of the ball, the more impatient defenders may get. Such impatience may cause them to get out of position, such as neglecting the weak side of the field, where an attacking player could receive a cross. Another important aspect is what some resources refer to as compactness, i.e. keeping a tight formation in order to reduce space. If defenders are spread out too far apart, that leaves open space between them to be exploited. However, if a team is too compact, that can also create danger because it leaves outer space open. Thus, the right amount of compactness, the right balance as it were, is key to solid defense.

5. Discipline

Known by a good many other names such as composure, control, restraint and patience, this refers to a defense’s ability to stay calm and collected while their opponents have possession of the ball. It can be very hard, especially against an opposing team that retains possession of the ball well. And it can be frustrating and tiring if they circulate the ball fast! Part of good discipline is knowing when to challenge for the ball and when not to. You may hear don’t chase when a coach or player warns a teammate to not challenge for the ball. In this situation, you might also hear easy or hold. Again, the idea is to maintain order and make wise challenges. Rash, ill-timed challenges create imbalance and make your team vulnerable. Plus, a violent or aggressive tackle may cause the referee to book a defender, that is caution him, showing him a yellow card, or expel him, showing him a red card. Cards don’t help your teammates. If a player is sent off, i.e. shown a red card, that leaves your team a man down, i.e. with one less player. If a defender receives a yellow card, that also weakens the defense because it means he has to be careful when challenging during the rest of the match. If he gets a second yellow card, that’s the equivalent of a red. As you might expect, when a player is shown a card, it’s said that he’s been disciplined by the referee

These are the 5 principals of defense in soccer. As with my last post on the 5 attacking principles what follows is a list summarizing the key soccer terms that appeared in this post:

Pressure: Press up, challenge, go to, too much space, possession, too much time, man, marked, covered.

Delay: Transition, recover, recovery, get back, containing, space, counterattack, countering, middle third.

Depth: Support, passing lane, tackle, steal, anticipate, read, ball, challenge, step up, delay.

Balance: Out of position, off the ball, switch, weak side, compactness.

Discipline: Composure, control, restraint, patience, don’t chase, easy, hold, book, caution, yellow card, red card, sent off, man down.

Defending Principles of Play

Principles of Play, Systems of Play, Styles of Play

Principles of Play Stand the Test of Time

Principles of Play in the Modern Game

The Five Principles of Attacking and Defending in Soccer