How To Play The Center Back Position In Soccer?

Wondering how to play center back in soccer? These are the eight ultimate skills you need to master in order to become a world-class, modern center back.

#1 Communication

When we watch professional soccer matches on TV or in the stadium, we tend to completely miss one of the most important aspects of the game – communication.

There are a number of reasons why constant communication with teammates is of the utmost importance for any aspiring professional CB.

Firstly, you will be working in a partnership with one or two other center backs, and you need to make sure everyone is on the same page and knows their role at any given moment.

Nothing worse than two teammates going for the same ball and getting in each other’s way, only for the opposition striker to be presented with a clear opportunity at goal.

Secondly, as a center back, you have the perfect view of the entire field of players in front of you; this includes both your team and the opposition.

For example, if one of your teammates hasn’t noticed a player running in behind them, it is your job to communicate this to them.

Likewise, if your teammate is drifting out of position, it is once again your responsibility to let them know to get back in line. This leads to better organization and concentration in defense and prevents costly mistakes.

#2 Anticipation

Anticipation or “reading the game” is another critical aspect for CBs to understand but cannot be easily spotted when watching live soccer. It is closely tied to positioning.

Soccer is a game of repetition. We practice the same drills over and over again in order to master them.

As a CBs you need to take note of attackers attempting the same dribbling, passing, shooting or running patterns.

This helps you to better predict what will happen next in any given situation so that you can position yourself to prevent danger to your goal.

#3 Positioning

Sliding tackles should only be made when you are 100% certain that you will get the ball or in emergency situations such as blocking a shot at goal or preventing a near certain goal opportunity.

Staying on your feet is always the better option as you are able to make a quicker recovery if you are dribbled or if they pass the ball around you.

The where: Always be goalside. To be goalside is to be between your goal with the ball and attacker in front of you. If the attacker is behind you with the ball, you’re in trouble.

The how: you want to position your body sideways facing one of the opposing teams corner flags (whichever side of the pitch the ball is nearest). If the ball is kicked over you, then your body is positioned to run back without having to make a full 180 degree turn.

#4 Concentration

A lack of concentration leads to mistakes. This can be on a team (organizational) level or on an individual level. In the CB position, switching off for only a second can lead to conceding a goal that loses you the match.

To gain an edge, some attackers will do everything they can to throw you off your game. You must not fall for any “dark arts” mind games. This includes taunting, discreet physical and/or verbal abuse. Make sure to never retaliate as you run the risk of getting a red card.

Depending on your style, you may engage in the same dirty tactics against your opponent. Italian center Marco Materazzi helped Italy win the 2006 World Cup by getting one of the world’s best players sent off in the final.

Materazzi had dished out some nasty words to Zidane who angrily reacted and headbutted Materazzi in the chest.

#5 Bravery

“When I think of him as a footballer, Nemanja puts his head where other players are scared to put their feet. That’s Nemanja.”

Robin Van Persie

Playing in the CB position requires bravery. It requires you to do anything you must to prevent a goal, quite often that means putting your body where it hurts.

When there is a 50-50 situation in a dangerous position near your goal, the attacker can always opt out from the challenge with the consequence of maybe not scoring a goal. For them, there is always another opportunity to score later.

Whereas you must always go for that ball to prevent the goal. As a CB, you cannot undo a goal that has been conceded and there won’t be another opportunity to prevent that goal later.

It is the same idea for blocking shots at goal. You are expected to dive in front of the ball as if taking a bullet for your goalkeeper. Shying away as the attacker is about to shoot is one of the biggest sins you can do as a CB.

My coach always used to tell us, ‘nobody has ever died from getting hit with a ball’ and that is still true to this day.

#6 Ball control

In previous years, you could get away playing as a CB without having great ball control. All you were instructed to do was to kick the ball long down the field and away from danger.

However, coaches have realized that kicking the ball away every time means the opposition will begin a new wave of attack almost immediately and put your team further under pressure.

Modern center backs are expected to have exceptional ball control as they are encouraged to keep possession of the ball. Simply put, when you have command of the ball, the opposition cannot score.

Having a good touch will help you keep calm and focused when an attacker is closing you down. This is important in order to make the correct decision when passing the ball to a teammate.

An erratic pass close to your own goal can go directly into the feet of an opponent and you will almost certainly concede a goal.

#7 Passing

For center backs, passing is a skill that underwent a similar evolution as ball control. Simply kicking the ball out is no longer tolerated by coaches. Nowadays, you are expected to keep possession by passing to a teammate.

It was previously discouraged to pass the ball in dangerous areas because it was too risky. One bad pass equals one goal down. 

In fact, it is still risky today. But, with improved ball control and passing, modern CBs are now more confident in making the correct pass and with precision, minimizing errors leading to goals conceded. 

The position has evolved from losing possession to becoming the creator of offensive actions. 

Also, when your team is on the offense, the CB is seen as an outlet when your attackers cannot find a way through. They will pass back to you, and your job is to shuffle the ball across to the other side and start the attack again from a different angle.

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#8 Heading

Heading was always the bread-and-butter skill of the CB position. It remains true to this day. It is commonly understood that you will need to make aerial challenges every time the opposition crosses the ball from a wide position or when they kick it long from the back.

However, just getting your head to the ball first is not enough. Elite level CBs will look to head the ball to a teammate where possible or away from danger if a pass is not possible or too risky.

In order to do this, anticipate the high ball before it happens and assess the situation around you:
– Are your teammates in a safe position to receive the ball?
– Are you confident that a misplaced headed pass won’t lead to conceding?

If the answer is YES to both, then run onto the ball and attempt to head it with your forehead in the direction of your teammate.

If the answer is NO to at least one question from above, then look to clear the danger by heading the ball as far away from the goal as possible.

Possessing good heading skills is also useful in offense. The CBs are often found in the opposing goal area using their aerial prowess to score goals from corner kicks.

The Extra-Time

So, as a center back, it is imperative to be in constant communication with your teammates(s), both next to you and in front of you. Make sure to always be organizing the team shape and letting your teammates know when they are blindsided.

Take note of repeating patterns in the game, they will help you to anticipate the opponent’s next move. This will literally help you to be one-step ahead of your opponent and you can position yourself to easily prevent any threat to your goal.

In the CB position, concentration is crucial. If you switch off for even just a moment, it is long enough to allow the opposition to score. Staying focused on your task and not what the opponent tells you will go a long way in helping your team win.

By the very nature of your role in preventing goals, bravery is a must. There are no second chances to prevent a goal so be prepared to put your body on the line.

Ball control and passing skills have become a huge improvement for the modern CB. They are not only required to dispossess the attacker, but to also retain possession and pass the ball to a teammate. This forms the beginning of an offensive play.

Lastly, heading has always been a staple of a good CB. Working on your heading accuracy can help retain possession as well as lead to many goals for your team from offensive set pieces.

When you master all these skills, you will be well on your way to becoming a world-class center back

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James Cunningham
James Cunningham
James lives in Chicago with his wife and three daughters. Originally from the UK, soccer has allowed him to travel the world. Now a youth coach, he fully enjoys teaching others about the game that he loves so much. His favorite team is Manchester United.