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Backline coordination
Drill created with Tactics Manager

Defensive drill – Backline coordination

Your team objective should be making the field as small as possible for your rival. To achieve this, defenders must stay together and hold their positions. The drill in this post will help your team to improve their backline coordination.

Backline general principles

There are different approaches on how to organise your defenders: man to man marking, a sweeper that sits behind the other defenders, a crescent line formation, a flat backline (not recommended) or a combination of all of them. In this blog we focus on helping amateur teams, while any of these tactics when done properly are useful, some are more difficult to implement when you barely train one or two days a week. Therefore, our preferred approach is to use a crescent line formation and stick to it.

You may think that our approach doesn’t make sense because man-to-man marking feels easier to implement. It is actually quite the opposite. In an amateur team, if you ask your players to man-mark, you are at risk of having players running all over the place. Man-marking can create unwanted gaps in the defence and leave opposition players onside in dangerous areas of the field. You also need to know very well your opposition to be able to assign a personal mark, and this is unlikely in amateur football. Therefore, zonal marking tactics are more effective.

Although some teams use a very flat backline, it is a risky proposition. With every player in the same line, if an opposition player beats one defender, there is no plan B and your goal is exposed to a direct attack. Our preferred approach is to position players in a crescent formation or nominate a sweeper. In a crescent formation, the furthest player away from the ball sits in the deepest position on the field, while the closest player to the ball is in the highest position. The deepest player has to be careful not to be too deep leaving vertical gaps and opposition players onside. A simple tip for defenders is to look towards the side where the ball is and move one or two steps back from their closest teammate.

When playing zonal defending, the defence should shift as a single block towards the side of the pitch where the opposition is running with the ball. It does not matter if on the opposite side of the field a player is unmarked. If the ball is successfully crossed to the other side, defenders will have time to adjust their position. On the other hand, if the defence spreads too much because you are concerned about the free player, you are at risk of leaving an easy gap right in the middle of the field.

The drill below will help your team to understand and practice this style of defending. As said, while in surface more difficult than man-marking, it is more effective and not as difficult as it sounds.

Setup

You will need half of a football pitch, cones or tape to mark zones and a ball. Use the cones to set evenly distributed zones/channels as shown in the picture. For this post, we assume a defensive line of 4 players, and therefore we use 6 channels. Whatever numbers you use in your backline, add two channels to that number (3 defenders – 5 channels, 4 defenders – 6 channels, etc.).

This drill is designed to involve all your starting players. You will need at least 11 players. If you have 20+ players available, you can have two groups and use a full field, a group in each half.

Instructions

This drill is similar to a defence vs attack game but focusing on defence. Follow these instructions:

  • Only one defender per channel.
  • The drill finishes either on a set time (e.g.: 15 minutes) or when a team reaches a target score.
  • Attacking players are only allowed 2 touches: control and pass.
  • Defenders can only touch the ball 3 times: interception, control and passing.
  • Sliding tackles are not allowed.
  • When the ball is in a channel, the defender in that channel must press up and the other defenders stay one or two steps behind.
  • If no defender is in the channel where the ball is, the nearest defender should shift into the channel and move up to press for the ball. The other defenders shift in block to the channel that has been left empty and stay deeper in the field. For example, in the first figure below the ball is coming from the right-wing with no defender in that channel. The right-back (RB) moves to this channel and up, leaving a gap in his channel that must be filled by the centre-back and so on. If the ball comes through one of the channels in the centre, the outer channels must be left empty.
  • Defenders not pressing for the ball must stay one or two steps back from their closest teammate in the direction of the ball.
  • Defenders can score in the small goals and each goal is worth 2 points.
  • Scoring on the big goal is worth 1 point.
  • The attacking team can score 1 point by calling out these defence mistakes if not corrected between 3 seconds: “flatline” or “empty channel”.

Feel free to add variations or remove some rules if your players struggle following these instructions. You can also have a second round in where the drill becomes a simple attack vs defence game without channels nor calling out mistakes for points.

Backline starting position
Defence starting position
Backline shifts to the right
Defence shifting to the right

Takeaways

This drill teaches to press, closing down passing lanes and reading the intentions of the player on the ball. In addition, this exercise provides these benefits:

  • Positioning. Defenders must move to press the ball, cover gaps and support their teammates.
  • Teamwork.  Individual efforts are not enough in defence, the backline must move as a single block. This drill requires defenders to work as a team.
  • Passing. The only way of moving through the field in this exercise is to pass the ball accurately. Players will improve their passing technique and positioning.
  • First touch. Because the number of allowed touches is restricted, players must improve their first touch to control and pass the ball.
  • Football IQ – Awareness. Both attacking and defending players have to be aware of the defenders’ position on the field. Calling out defence errors will help offensive players to identify gaps where they can quickly move into during real games. On the other hand, defenders will identify gaps that they need to fill.

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