Balancing the back four

This session is about the back four working as a unit. It looks for them to clear the ball past a target when dealing with a range of deliveries from different areas of the pitch.

It’s important to practise this because in the last 10-15 minutes of close games, opposition teams looking for a goal will launch the ball into the box. A strong defensive unit needs to be able to deal with this threat.

Defenders are often tired by this point too, so practising good technique is essential in clearing the danger properly, particularly as bad clearances often instigate further waves of attack.

In one of my first games in charge at Coventry City we conceded a late 94th-minute goal to Preston North End. That goal cost us a vital point. In response, we practised the principles outlined in this session, and went on to record clean sheets against Watford, Portsmouth and Reading.



Half pitch


Balls, bibs, cones, goal

Number of Players

10 plus keeper

Session time

One hour

What do I get the players to do?

Using a half pitch, we construct the back four, with six servers (number 1 to 6) scattered around the outside of the box in a horseshoe pattern. Each server stands in a 7×7-yard square. A line of mannequins is placed 10 yards outside the penalty box. (1a)


• The centre-back calls and attacks the ball

Each server, in turn, delivers a ball into the box, with variation between lofted balls, whipped balls and fizzed centres. The objective for defenders is to head the ball clear over the line of mannequins, achieving height and distance. They then quickly squeeze out before retreating back to their starting positions. We run through 12 sets in quick succession before resting. (1b)


• Upon clearing, the defensive line squeezes out before retreating back to their original positions

What are the key things to look for technically/tactically?

Each defensive tactic is held together by one important element – communication.

As for specific instructions, the only player allowed to backpedal to head the ball is the full-back.

If a cross is delivered over the first centre-half, we are looking for his fellow centre-half to judge the flight, offer a shout, and attack it.(2) This ensures the ball is always attacked on the front foot, which means clearances have power, direction and control.


• Here, the second centre-back calls for the ball and makes a confident clearance

When a ball is delivered from wide positions, defenders should be starting in line with it. Assuming a block isn’t made by him, the cross will often clear the first full-back because he has gone to press the ball. The other three defenders must therefore deal with the cross. Again, no-one should backpedal. If the ball goes over the first centre-back’s head, he requires a shout from the second defender or opposite full-back. (3a)


• Defenders are in line with the cross from out wide and the full-back calls for it

And clearing headers should not be downwards because in matches this invites opposition players to attack a low bouncing loose ball. (3b)


• With no communication defenders have squeezed out even though the full-back’s clearance is poor

How do I progress the session?

We instruct crosses out of sequence so that defenders have to regroup quickly. Replace the mannequins with attackers so that any misplaced clearances can be fired back at goal.

As a final progression, we allow the attackers to challenge for crosses so as to make the practice as game-realistic as possible. (4)


• Here the practice is progressed and the cross is fully opposed

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