Defending as a zonal back four

In this session, we try to give players an understanding of their roles and responsibilities in defensive zones in and around the box – this includes defending individually and as a back four unit. We also look at covering, team balance, and the ability to support.

It’s important to practise this because, more than anywhere else on the pitch, defensive players need to have a complete understanding of roles. When on the attack, opposition teams may play an array of systems, but the principles of zonal defending do not change, so being able to solve problems and identify different scenarios is important.

We practise this session at least twice a week, for up to 45 minutes at a time, and rotating players frequently.



Half pitch


Balls, cones, goal

Number of Players

9 (4 attackers, 4 defenders and a keeper)

Session time

Session 15mins, development 30mins

What do I get the players to do?

We create four 15-yard channels. In each is a defender, starting just outside the penalty area. He must stay in his zone.

On the coach’s whistle, a server plays the ball to one of the four attackers, who have all moved forward from the halfway line. The attacker must advance into the zone and take on his opposite number (1). If blocked, he can pass sideways.


• The centre-back thwarts the attacker’s progress by making a tackle

If an attacker makes it to the penalty area, restrictions are lifted, meaning all players can work for position. But should the ball come back out of the box, players have to return to their allotted zones.

How do I progress the session?

At first, we remove the middle line to encourage more movement from attackers (2). In the next phase, all internal lines are removed so that that the full width is used (3/4).


• Now with the middle line removed, the centre-back pushes out. His fellow defenders close in behind him to cover


• Quick interplay results in a ball through the middle, but the full-back and centre-back recover well


• In this instance a wing attack develops, and the defensive line shifts across to cover

Next, we add two extra attacking players in central midfield (5).


• In the 6v4 progression, defenders and the keeper must be aware of areas into which through-passes might be made

This creates a 6v4 scenario, increasing the pressure on the defensive line, and the likelihood of balls being played through the defence. The keeper must also be reactive to this danger.

We progress further to an 8v4 overload, adding two attacking full-backs (6).


• Now as an 8v4, concentration must be high from defenders to counter key overload areas such as on the wing

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

We’re looking for the defender’s angle of approach – can he close down quickly, tackle or intercept a pass? The aim is to make the attacker play backwards or sideways because protecting the goal, rather than gaining possession, is the number one priority. Defenders must decide quickly whether they need to hold the line or not – therefore communication and the awareness of team mates’ positions is vital for good covering positions and balance. Defenders must be able to see the ball and the man, and should be in line with the goal. They cannot get too tight as there is the threat of the server playing in behind for the attackers to run on to.

If attackers’ runs are too early can defenders catch them offside? And if the ball is played back, can defenders push out?

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