Defending – individual, unit and team

What I love about this session is that it’s a straight competition between defenders and attackers. It takes the principles of defending as individuals, in units and as a team, whilst also encouraging forwards and midfielders to engage, thus making it as realistic as possible for defenders.

We encourage and coach defenders to keep clean sheets – that’s not just the job of the keeper – and the best way to do this is to limit the number of shots and crosses to be defended. We also want to coach the attackers to use their individual skills to find ways to beat opponents in 1v1 and 2v2 situations, as well as bringing in combination and link-up play to create opportunities to shoot and score goals. This makes for realistic situations to practice, even more so if the tempo and intensity we play at ensures each practice is performed at match pace.

The full session will be run three to four times within the pre-season training programme and then broken up for use in training during the season as a reminder of principles of play, and as match preparation for forthcoming games.

Up to a full pitch
Balls, cones, goals
Number of Players
Up to 11v11
Session time
Attack v defence sequences 30mins
8v8 plus 2v2 30mins
11v11 30mins

What do I get the players to do?

Attack v defence variations

As shown ((1) through to (6)), we set up a variety of different attack versus defence sequences with increases in player numbers building from 1v1s right the way through to a 6v4. A slow build-up of player numbers combined with the removal of some pitch restrictions means players will grow in both knowledge and confidence as the practice progresses.

Unless stated, each of these separate practices will feature three repetitions before a rotation is made with the player or players waiting behind the goal.


1. Player 1 plays in to the left-sided waiting attacker
2. The attacker advances with the ball
3. He must negotiate a route past player 3, the defender, in a 1v1
4. His aim is to get past him and despatch a shot on goal
5. In the next phase player 2 plays in to the right-sided waiting attacker and the move repeats


1. Player 1 starts by playing into a left-sided attacker…
2. …but now there is an advanced attacker in place with his back to goal
3. The attacker must receive and try to turn
4. If he gets past he can despatch a shot on goal
5. Once the phase ends the right-sided attackers will start


1. Again the move starts with a ball into a left-sided attacker
2. Now both attackers advance for a 2v2
3. Defenders move down the pitch to close up space and prevent attackers from getting near to the danger area
4. The move plays to a finish


1. In the progression the two attackers receive and pass…
2. …but now there are two further attackers playing a high line
3. The right-sided attacker receives with his back to goal
4. He looks to combine with the high attackers working 2v2 to create a route through to goal, using turns and combination play


1. Four defenders defend the width of the penalty box
2. One deep attacker receives
3. Three attackers play a high line and must look to receive with their backs to goal
4. These three attackers initially must combine and try to play through the middle
5. Defenders successfully defend the space and the ball is sent to the flank for the winger
6. He can use no more three touches in sending a ball into the centre
7. In the next phase a cross is made and the three attackers will move into the box in trying to score against four defenders


1. Attackers are without restriction, free to move across all areas of the pitch
2. They drag defenders out of position and combine to set up a chance on goal

8v8 and 2v2s

Now using a half-pitch as shown (7), this is a practice that sees attackers try to score in a set-up that links an 8v8 with a 2v2. In one half of the pitch a team is operating as individuals and in team shape as an 8v8. When in possession they try to pass into their two strikers who look to negotiate a route past the two defenders and score. After 10 minutes teams change over with the other team attacking into the two front men.


1. Attackers use individual skill to work a route through a tight defensive unit
2. The ball is played into one of the two strikers
3. He receives with his back to goal then feeds his striker partner
4. Quick interplay sees a chance on goal created

When the ball goes dead the game restarts either from the keeper, or the servers located on each side of the pitch.


We conclude by moving this into a full match practice using a designated offside line to give attackers and defenders definitive thirds to break beyond. We want to see players adopt the approach play they have been practising in the earlier exercises and will also insist that the ball remains below head height unless it’s a cross or a shot.

What are the key things to look out for?

Firstly we demand a good attitude and approach to defending, with defenders adopting smart positions when being attacked 1v1. They must be insistent on limiting shots and crosses, need to show support and awareness of covering positions, and should always be working together as units. Talking and communication is vital for both defenders and attackers, who must use a combination of individual skill and team movement in looking to cause problems for those at the back.

As for mistakes, defenders crossing over in 2v2 situations can often present attackers with goalscoring chances. We also find players sometimes marking zones or space in the box and not the attacking players’ runs and movement into the danger area.

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