Improving the defence

This session was created in collaboration with Julian Darby. Julian made nearly 350 appearances for Bolton as a player and is currently the club’s first-team coach. He has also served as first-team coach at Preston, Nottingham Forest and Leeds United.


We use this session fairly regularly at Bolton as we find it works well. It’s quite an intensive session that deals with all manner of defensive situations.

It begins with simple 1v1 and 2v2 defending exercises in order to rehearse players in the basics. It then progresses through practices designed to show defenders how to deal with attacking wide players and how to prevent crosses.

It also teaches individual defenders to play their part in a compact defensive unit, and it shows them how to work with their midfield team mates to ruthlessly close down goal scoring opportunities.

 

SET-UP
Area
Up to half pitch
Equipment
Balls, bibs, cones, 1 full size goal,
3 small target goals
Number of Players
Up to 13 players + 1 goalkeeper
Session time
Simple defending 1v1: 10mins
Simple defending 2v2: 10mins
Defending centrally: 15mins
Defending centrally & wide: 15mins
Defending full width: 15mins

What do I get the players to do?

Simple defending 1v1

We set up a playing area of 11×11 yards with a cone at the midway point of each of the four sides. We’re using four players, with two defenders and two strikers each starting on a different cone, as shown [1].

The coach starts play with a pass out from one corner to Striker A at the top of the square. As soon as the ball is played, Defender A quickly enters the playing area from the opposite side and closes down the striker. The striker dribbles into the area and goes up against the defender in a 1v1. The striker attempts to score by hitting the defender’s cone with the ball. If the defender wins the ball, he can counter-attack the striker’s cone. Both players must defend their respective cones.

When the ball is dead, repeat the drill but this time the coach plays the starting ball to Striker B who is opposed by Defender B.

We can use more than four players if necessary, with fresh strikers and defenders at each cone waiting to take a turn.

1

1. Striker A receives a ball from the coach and attacks the opposite defender in a 1v1
2. As soon as the ball is played, Defender A closes down the striker
3. The striker scores if he hits Defender A’s cone
4. If the defender wins possession, he can counter-attack the striker’s cone
5. Once the ball is dead, the drill is repeated with the coach playing a starting pass to Striker B, who attacks Defender B in a 1v1


What are the key things to look out for?

We want to see defenders making the initial approach with speed but they must know when to slow down and inch forwards. They should always carefully watch the ball and approach from the correct angle, dictating the play by showing the striker the way they want them to go.

When the time is right to make the initial contact, they must be sure that it is firm and aggressive. However, if the striker has his back to the defender, they must be careful that the striker doesn’t turn them.

What do I get the players to do next?

Simple defending 2v2

We set up an area of 20×14 yards with two cones on each side. We’re using four players, split evenly into defenders and strikers. The two defenders start on the cones on one side of the area and the two strikers start on the cones on the opposite side, as shown [2].

The coach starts play by passing to one of the strikers. As soon as the ball is played both defenders close down the strikers, who attack in a 2v2.

The strikers score by hitting either of the defenders’ cones and the defenders counter-attack if they win possession of the ball. The strikers must defend their cones if they lose possession.

When the ball goes dead, reset and repeat, varying the starting pass.

2

1. The strikers receive a pass from the coach and attack the opposite cones in a 2v2, scoring if they hit a cone with the ball
2. As soon as the ball is played, both defenders close down the strikers
3. Here Defender B wins possession and sets up Defender A to knock over an opponent’s cone to score


What are the key things to look out for?

The key things we look for are the same as in the previous activity. In addition, as this is a 2v2, when one defender presses we want to see the other cover, so that both cones are protected. We also want to see good communication between the defenders.

What do I get the players to do next?

Defending centrally

We set up in an area of 44×40 yards with a full size goal and goalkeeper at one end and three small target goals at the other. We’re using nine outfield players, split into four defenders and five attackers, but other waiting players can roll on and roll off if necessary.

The defenders are protecting the full size goal, while the attackers are set up with a deep lying midfield player who acts as a pivot to play the ball through, as shown [3]. He starts and restarts play.

The two teams play a 5v4 with the attackers trying to score in the main goal. If the defenders win possession they are allowed a maximum of four passes to play the ball into one of the target goals.

The offside rule applies. We encourage the attackers to cause problems with their movement and passing.

3

1. Play starts and restarts from the deep lying midfielder, who acts as a pivot for the red attackers to play the ball through
2. The five reds are attackers. They must try to score in the main goal but they should be alert as the offside rule applies
3. If the four blue defenders win possession, they have up to four passes to shoot into one of the small goals to score


What are the key things to look out for?

We want to see good communication between the four defenders and the goalkeeper. The initial press must be fast, using the correct angle of approach to dictate which way the attacker goes. We also want to see good covering and balance from the other defenders and the keeper. Defenders must be firm and aggressive in the tackle and show a strong mental attitude.

How do I progress the activity?

Defending centrally & wide

We use the same set-up as in diagram 3, but start by opening up one of the wide areas. We also add two midfielders to the defending team and a midfielder to the attacking team, making it a 6v6 game, as shown [4].

As before, the attackers must try to score past the goalkeeper in the main goal but we make sure we work on the positioning of the full backs and their ability to prevent crosses from the wide channel. We also work on the positioning and responsibilities of the other defenders so they can deal with the cross when it comes.

On winning possession, the defending team should try to pass the ball into one of the small goals in four passes or less.

We can progress this activity by opening up the other wide channel to use the full width of the pitch.

4

1. In this progression we open up one of the wide channels
2. We add two midfielders to the blue defending team
3. We also add a midfielder to the red attacking team, making it a 6v6 practice
4. The blues are defending the main goal but if they win possession, as here, they have up to four passes to score in one of the target goals


What are the key things to look out for?

The distances between the defenders and the midfielders are important. Also, we want to see the full back closing down on the winger using the correct speed and angle of approach, dictating the direction of play when possible. If the ball does get crossed, we want to see good positioning and body shapes, with players defending the full width of the goal.

We also want to see defending midfielders tracking runners to deal with dangerous pull-back crosses.

How do I progress the activity further?

Defending full width

We set up on half a pitch with a goal and goalkeeper at one end and with three small target goals at the other. We’re using 13 outfield players divided into a defending team of six and an attacking team of seven, as shown [5].

Play starts and restarts from the deep lying midfield player for the red attacking team and he acts as a pivot to pass the ball through. As before, the attacking team tries to score in the main goal and the blue defending team tries to win possession. If the defending team regains the ball, they attempt to score in one of the small goals in four passes or less.

Play with throw-ins and corners.

5

1. This progression is on half a pitch and the red attacking team tries to find an opening to attack the main goal, with play starting from the deep lying midfield player
2. The blue back four remain compact and move as a unit to protect the main goal
3. Here the blue defenders give the red winger no option but to recycle the ball
4. If the blue defending team wins possession, they have up to four passes to play the ball into one of the small goals


What are the key things to look out for?

We want to see the defending team displaying high levels of concentration and a ruthless determination not to concede.

The defenders should keep compact, both between individual players and between the different units. Additionally, we want to see the back four managing the space between themselves and the midfield pair.

The defenders must work the attackers, pushing up and dropping off accordingly.

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