Defensive team shape

This session is about the reorganisation of defensive shape from a dismantled starting point. The key is to teach defenders when to mark the man and when to mark space, with the philosophy of ‘being in position when out of possession’.

There are instances in every match when the defence finds itself out of formation shape, so it’s important for players to be reminded of their roles and positions. We’ll always practise this session on a Thursday ahead of the weekend game.


Half pitch
Ball, goal
Number of Players
18 – 7 defenders (a back four plus 3 midfielders)
10 attackers
1 goalkeeper

What do I get the players to do?

The coach, standing on the halfway line, serves the ball to one of his 10 attacking players, who are lined up in a 3-2-5 formation. In opposition are seven defensive players – three acting as midfielders, plus a back four that is positioned in an unorthodox way, with central defenders pushing in opposite directions and full-backs wide on the flanks.

Depending on the position of the attacking player who receives the ball, each defender or defensive-minded midfielder must react accordingly, either in making a recovery run, marking his man, delaying play, or regrouping into a unit with other defenders.

When the ball is served short

If the attacking player in possession of the ball can be pressed, defenders should try to force him either sideways or backwards. When an individual cannot press, the whole defence retreats by dropping a defensive midfielder in front of the back four to act as a screen, preventing or delaying strikers receiving a pass (1a/1b/1c).


• The ball is served short for attackers to build against a misaligned back four.


• Defensive midfielders delay progress as the backline move up to compress play.


• Having recovered space, the defender tracks his man and clears the danger.

When the ball is served long

If the ball is played in behind, defenders must make a quick decision – mark the man or mark the space. If, for example, the ball is played into the left-hand corner and the right-back cannot get across to press the ball, he must cover the space to defend the near post. The central defenders then retreat to the middle area and the left-back covers the space at the far post. Adopt this principle on both flanks (2a/2b/2c).


• The ball is served long, putting attacking players in behind the defence.


• Defenders either mark space or, if they can get to one, an opponent.


• While one defender tackles, others organise themselves to press opponents and cover both posts.

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

This is an overload situation, so communication between defenders and awareness of each others’ roles is essential. The decision of when an individual should press the ball or when the defence as a whole should retreat needs to be made quickly, but every decision should be purposeful and aggressive.

No matter what the defence does, it must always look to regain shape quickly, delaying the progress of attacking players. Each recovery run is vital, because the whole defence is put under threat if one player fails to recover effectively.

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