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Soccer School with Coach Kyle: Defending

Boxy Defending Like Freaking Champ

Nope, your eyes do not deceive you; you are, in fact, reading another edition of Coach Kyle’s soccer school for gifted Loons. We’re already two lessons in, and I’ve dared to plan out a few more. You must have sent the last one around like I asked, because my name tag was still at my desk when I came in this morning. Despite the alleged success of this series, though, I still find myself needing to defend my job. Such is the burden most writer’s bear, especially if they moonlight as a youth soccer coach. 

So, for this week’s lesson, we’re going to get defensive together. How should I approach a one-on-one situation? How do I work with my teammates to stop an attack? Why does a soccer club need a full-time writer, part-time coach? These are the kinds of questions on the tips of everyone's tongues, and I’ve got the answers that you and my immediate superiors are demanding.

But Defending is Boring

No it’s not, take that back. Just because it doesn’t make all the highlight reels doesn’t mean defending “isn’t fun.” You’ve got to do it if you want to win, so you might as well decide to enjoy it, right? 

Defending boils down to any action you take when you don’t have possession of the ball to try and stop the other team from moving freely. This is done both individually and as a team, forcing us to work with others and learn sound fundamentals. It’s super cliche, but a team is only ever as good as its worst defender. At some point, even the most creative attacking players have to be ready to join in on the defensive effort.

The main goal of every defending team is to first neutralize any attack that the opposition tries to start, then win the ball so they can start one of their own. It’s all about containing, then seizing control. Various technical skills help get this done, but it’s largely a player's understanding of the game that dictates their effectiveness while defending.

Everyone’s Gotta Do It

When you find yourself defending a player one-on-one, the first thing you’ll want to do is close down the space between the two of you. Get to within a few steps of them, leaving enough space to adjust when they attempt to get past you on either side. You should be able to reach out and touch them without too much stretching.

Face your opponent sideways on. That means your body is positioned perpendicular to theirs, while your head is turned to watch the ball, not the player. Bend your knees and stand on the balls of your feet, ready to take off in any direction. You’ll want to jockey alongside them, forcing them onto their weak foot if you can and guiding them away from positions they could create chances from.

It can be hard to stay level-headed in the heat of the moment, but patience really is the key to good defending. Focus on containing and staying vigilant while you wait for the right opportunity to make a tackle and win possession. If you put enough pressure on them for long enough, they may simply lose control of the ball, giving you an easy takeaway and setting up a chance to counter.

A quick note on slide tackles: they have their place in the game, but anytime a player has to go to the ground to win the ball, they’ve already failed as a defender. We aren’t perfect, so we have to slide every now and then. But it’s a last-ditch effort. If poorly timed or executed, you’re left helpless, unable to keep up with the ball, and at risk of committing a foul. Everybody thinks a successful slide tackle looks cool, but it shouldn’t be your go-to method of winning the ball.

All Together Now

Whether you’re part of the back line or not, you will have to help your team defend in some way. The shape of your team will inherently dictate the movement of the opposition, as we tend to avoid getting too close to our opponents in order to keep possession. Soccer is largely about understanding how to manipulate space to your advantage, and that’s easiest to do when your whole team is on the same page.

There are essentially two schools of thought when defending as a unit. Either you’re going to pack it in and take away the space in your defensive half, or you’re pressing up and putting pressure on the ball. The latter strategy allows you to win the ball further up the pitch, but leaves a lot of space for your opponent to take advantage of if you don’t press properly as a team.

For teams that are sitting in—parking the bus as it were—it’s not uncommon to see nine or 10 players behind the ball, sitting in a tight formation within their own half. You’re basically daring the other team to break you down if you set up this way, betting on your discipline and defensive acumen to come out on top. With little to no space for your opposition to pass in the middle, they’re forced to pass around the outside of your block until they find some daylight.

If your team is pressing, you’re going to be running a lot. My favorite! Every player on the opposing team needs to be accounted for, as your team will be trying to cut off every passing lane and force a mistake. Once you force them to cough up the ball, it’s typical for pressing teams to spring into a counterattack, punishing their opposition quickly and efficiently. Then do it again. And again. No mercy! Or something like that.

Alright, that’s enough for today. I’ve got to leave some juice so I can squeeze a few more articles out of this series. Besides, I’m hopeful that my U11 team is warming up to the idea of listening to me. Maybe they’ll read these articles and show me some mercy. Now that the domes are up across the cities, it’s only a matter of time before they decide to start showing up to practice again.