It seems like everyone nowadays fixates on the attacking players, who are renowned for their technical skills and speed. Whilst defending is important, many do not realize how much technical and athletic ability is required to be a good defender in soccer.
In this article, we will explore the world of defending, and how you can improve your ability with some practical tips. Look out for the FAQ section where we will dive into some of the most asked questions about how to become a better defender in soccer.
Become A Better Defender With These Soccer Defending Tips
Regardless of what people say, defending is an art, especially in today’s game. In the past, a soccer defender just had to be big and aggressive to keep out the opposition.
But since then the game has evolved, and they now have to take on more responsibility and develop certain characteristics. Below we will explore some of the most important attributes to being a good defender in soccer.
Skill #1 - Tactical Awareness
The modern-day soccer defender will be the eyes of the entire pitch. Whilst their main job is to keep the ball out of their net, they must also be tactical rather than purely physical in their approach.
A defender must be able to understand and read situations before they actually happen and be prepared to deal with it. This does not always mean playing heroically, as sometimes tactical fouls are needed to break up dangerous plays from opponents (known as the dark arts of soccer).
A great example of a former defender who had this nailed down was Fabio Cannavaro, who played for the Italian National Team. He is one of the few defenders to have won the prestigious Ballon d’Or trophy, which is handed out to the best soccer player of each season.
The irony is that Fabio was only 5’7, yet his tactical awareness and discipline made him one of the standout defenders of the last century.
How can you improve your tactical awareness?
The main way is simply by building experience over lots and lots of games. You will need to be very observant of situations and be thinking two steps ahead of the forwards you are playing against. Over time this will become more natural, and you will be able to “feel out” certain situations.
Skill #2 - Physical Strength
This one needs no real explanation. Small and fragile defenders rarely make it to the top leagues, since they will get bullied and torn apart by stronger and more powerful forwards.
Whilst height is important to clear the ball and dominate your opposing players, the most important physical attribute is your strength. For a soccer defender to be effective, he needs to be physical and always letting his opponent know he is there.
If a striker feels his opposing defender is unsure of himself, he will do all he can to exploit this and give him a torrid 90 minutes.
A great modern-day example of a well-built defender is Virgil Van Dijk, the captain of the Netherlands Soccer Team. Whilst he is gifted in the height department, the reason he makes most of his defending look so flawless is due to his strength.
He can comfortably ease attackers off the ball, and rarely dives in as he can deter the opposing players with his closeness and physical play.
How can you improve your strength as a soccer defender?
Hit the gym and hit the gym again. This is purely a physical attribute, and the only way to improve this is to increase resistance week in and week out. Whilst on the field, it is always good to be playing against bigger forwards, even in training. This way you will be forced to improve to get ahead of them, and you will make progress a lot quicker too.
Skill #3 - Communication
Along with the captain, the defender should be one of the most vocal players on the pitch. They essentially make up the lower spine and foundation of the team. This is especially true in the modern game, where teams are more likely to play out through the back.
A defender must primarily be in good communication with the goalie and fellow defenders to keep opposing players within reach, as well as holding a strong line that can catch players offside.
The defender also must be looking forwards as well to his midfielders. As soon as he receives the ball, he should be looking forwards, not backwards.
Just about all top-level defenders are good at this, so it is hard to pick out a clear stand out example.
However, a good place to start is with Giorgio Chiellini, the captain of both Juventus and the Italian National Team. He is one of the best communicators on the pitch, and is always conversing with the goalkeeper, fellow defenders, and midfields to organize them. Its no wonder they are such a defensively astute team!
How can I improve my communication as a defender?
The key is to react quickly. If you see a striker making a run across your fellow team-mate, then give him a quick shout to let him know the danger.
If your goalie is receiving the ball, then you make sure you are giving him an option and voicing what he should do. The key is to relax the players around you, so they can focus on getting on with their role in the game.
Skill #4 - Aggressiveness
Defending by nature means to expel all threats. And rightly so, the best way to defend is by any means necessary. The idea is that you will want the opponents to see your goal as an impregnable fortress.
Whilst having big defenders is a good start, aggressiveness is the key to winning throughout the 90 minutes.
Right from the off go, defenders need to make their mark and not let the opposing players think they can bully you. A sliding tackle or a subtle knock are always great for reminding the opposition of your presence.
Carles Puyol was one of the most titanic defenders to gift the Spanish League. The former Barcelona Captain was an icon due to his “never say die” attitude and the fact that he was always giving forwards a difficult time – not the other way around.
How can you implement aggressiveness into your game?
Without taking the more extreme measures such as using extra testosterone, there are more surefire ways to improve this aspect.
Natural competition within a team can spark this, especially if there are lots of players competing for the same spot. The result? Soccer players wanting and doing whatever they can to nail that spot which means playing harder than the others.
Aggressiveness can also be in your mentality. Ask yourself these questions when you are on the pitch; Do I really want to win this game? Do I want to be an easy target for opposing players? Do I want to give the opposition a chance? If these do not spur you on to action, then I do not know what will.
Skill #5 - Heading and Passing Abilities
As already mentioned, the game has evolved in the last few decades, which sees the ball being played out from the back. This means there is extra pressure on defenders to make play, rather than simply tackling and clearing the ball.
A good defender will be comfortable technically, able to take a few touches and then pass the ball to another teammate. And not simple passes either. The best defenders can set up attacking play with cross-field passes and incisive passes through the pitch.
As well as this, a good defender is good with his head. He should have a good leap and able to challenge for most aerial duels, and to clear any danger out of the air.
Defenders can also offer more presence in attacking set pieces such as free kicks and corners, so being able to score with your head is an invaluable trait to any team.
A great example of a defender is Sergio Ramos, captain of Real Madrid. Whilst he can pick out passes with an almost laser focus, he also poses a real threat going forwards as he had a great ability to score with his head.
The fact he is also able to remain calm with the ball at the feet put his teammates at ease. The result? Despite being a defender, he spends a lot of time with the ball, getting involved in forward play and assisting as well as scoring.
So how can you improve your heading and passing abilities?
Get more involved in up-field play and get used to having the ball more at your feet. Over time, you will get more comfortable, and simply getting rid of the ball as soon as you can will not be your first impulse.
Instead, you can look up, try to spot a run or find space, and move your team forwards into a more dangerous area.
Frequently Asked Questions
I am 5ft 7. Surely there is no way I can compete as a defender?
Again, this is a massive misconception of being a good defender. Naturally, most defenders are taller, however height alone means nothing if you cannot control the ball or use your instincts to defend.
Remember, the modern game has changed, and the skills required for a defender are a lot more all-rounded rather than purely physical.
The example we looked at, Fabio Cannavaro, who was also 5ft7 is solid proof that you do not need to be the tallest to excel as a defender. Simply work harder on the rest of your game and you will be head and shoulders above your competition (pun intended!).
Do I need to copy these exact characteristics to be a good defender?
Having these exact characteristics will definitely help you and your defending abilities, and you will find that almost all top-level defenders have at least 3 or 4 of these nailed down to perfection.
To be a good defender in this era, it’s all about being more of an all-rounder. This means able to tackle and clear, good passing, vision, great communication and some aggressiveness.
Gone are the days where you need to be a complete psychopath who will maraud anyone in his way! Pick one or two of the attributes listed in this article and try to hone in on them. After a while you will feel more comfortable in your position, and other players will utilize you as they know you are confident on the ball.
Why would I even want to play as a defender? It looks difficult, and I am not sure I would be good in that position.
A defender actually has quite a versatile role. As well as the traditional center-backs, there are also the full-backs and wing-backs who are known for their tricky and direct forward play.
If you are not someone who wants to stay back most of the time, yet have a knack for defending, then consider one of these wide positions.
If playing in the traditional 4-4-2 formation, the fullback will have a lot more of the ball as they directly connect with both the defense and midfield. It will also provide opportunities to express yourself with the ball in an attacking sense.
As you can see, being a great defender is much more than simply clearing and tackling.
In this article we have discussed some of the characteristics that make a defender good at his role, which include aggressiveness, communication and passing abilities.
By using some modern day and past soccer players, we can better see how these traits have been used, and how you can start to utilize them in your own game. Finally, we have answered some of your most frequent questions to do with defending. Hopefully you will now have some more ideas on how to up your own game.