Defensive understanding through heading


Up to a full pitch


Balls, goals

No. of players

Up to 11v11

Session time

Practices and Progressions 10mins each, Game 20mins

This session is about encouraging understanding between the back five (four defenders and a keeper), and teaches them how to cope with long aerial deliveries, be they from the opposition keeper or outfield players. The aim here is to improve heading technique, and to highlight the importance of cover when defending.

It’s important to practise this because keepers deliver more balls into the opponents’ middle or final third than any other player, being in contact with the ball up to 60 times per game.

This practice is successful every time a goal isn’t scored or an opposition restart isn’t awarded.

What do I get the players to do?

Heading Clear

Setting up as shown, the server delivers a high ball for reds to defend under minimal pressure from blues (1). We encourage communication, cover and good technique – namely heading away using height, distance and aggression.

Players must react to where the headers go – so moving up, working as a group, squeezing and holding.

Re-run 10 times, then swap team roles.


• In Heading Clear, the ball is served in and one of the centre-backs makes a positive, powerful clearing header with a passive attacker present

Coming Short

Now attackers are active, and one drops deep to receive, so centre-backs must have the space behind them covered by the wing-backs (2). This prevents a gap appearing in the ‘primary danger’ area, where a striker could run onto a flicked header for a 1v1 with the keeper.


• In Coming Short, the attacker drops in and defenders move in to plug the gap, and with it the ‘primary danger’

Allowing ‘secondary danger’

With full-backs plugging the gap, they are of course exposing the wings to attacks. Although not ideal, we regard this as ‘secondary danger’, because the attacking team still has a lot to do to score from here, and that’s unlikely if we defend properly (3).


• Allowing ‘secondary danger’ means full-backs leaving attacking players out wide having come inside to protect against ‘primary danger’. This is allowed, as long as defenders regroup in expectation of the next phase of attack

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

Central defenders must adopt an aggressive attitude, with all five players working to remove the primary danger whilst staying in line as a group. Good communication (for instance, in staying high to allow the ball through to the keeper, or dropping deep to head) is essential (4).

Wing-backs must be brave enough to get around the back of the central defenders to cover, even if it means leaving space out wide.

Wide attackers must not come infield and affect the centre-forwards, whose job it is to attack every ball.


• It’s important for the back four to communicate well with each other, since a solid unit will know when to come forward and when to drop deep

How do I progress the session?

To progress, bring in two attacking midfielders. Two touch, they cannot go beyond the ball once it’s been served in, but can pick up second balls or knockdowns (5).


• In the progression, midfielders are brought in, though they cannot go beyond the ball. Instead, they can become active from team mate knockdowns, or second balls resulting from inadequate headed clearances

We can also bring in another line of strikers, therefore rotating back fours in attacking waves.

Finally, add an opposition keeper to deliver a variety of crosses into different areas (6).


• In another progression, a keeper fires high balls towards defending players, varying angle, height and speed

For a full-pitch game situation, play until the ball is dead then restart with either keeper.