Defending the box

By: Tony Mowbray


My defenders tend to panic when winning the ball in defence and punt the ball out, only for it to come straight back. How can I get them to be more controlled when clearing their lines?

Question asked by Geoff Evans, a youth soccer coach from Gorron, France


It’s important for defenders to practise dealing with quick play in and around the box. This is one of the key sessions we run because its usefulness can be seen in any training or match day situations – after all, quick play is a key skill in any area of the pitch. The session promotes something I like to term ‘good habits’ – these are universal for any player in any position but can be practised in a set way.



Final third


Balls, cones, goal

Number of Players

Full squad

Session time

Session 15mins, Development 15mins, Game situation 15mins

Defending the box set-up

To set up we cone down the sides of the six-yard box to the 18-yard line, forming three small boxes. Extending the box outwards to 21 yards in length gives us more room to play in, and an additional 6×4-yard box offers a set start position where balls are served in from.

It’s 2v2 – red defenders versus blue attackers – in the box, with free play. Blues on the outside are one-touch and the offside rule applies. Defenders must track play, reacting quickly to passing movement and blocking shots on goal.

Red defenders score a point for winning possession and passing it back to the serving blue. Blue attackers get a point for scoring in the goal.

Left and right sides

Attackers must use left and right ‘outer’ players in sequence, so if the first attack is on the right, the second must come from the left. Outer players can also pass between each other, but as before, must do this one-touch.

Extending the challenge

To progress, you can increase the complexity by increasing the size of the box, playing 5v5 (with the defending team comprised of a back four and defensive midfielder).

Crossed delivery

We can also allow ‘outer’ players to cross the ball in the air rather than insisting on it staying grounded.

Coaching considerations

Defenders must readjust depending on whether the ball is inside or outside the box, assessing angles and distances (from the ball and opponents). They also need to be able to see the man and the ball at all times, so that means keeping shoulders open and anticipating the next movement.

Why this works

The practice works by creating situations where defenders can take control despite a number of challenges and distractions. In a real game they will have fewer elements to deal with, so the relative ease of that situation in comparison, combined with growing confidence to be gained through repetition of this practice, should lead to defenders making decisions that are more measured and controlled.

[diagram 1] Blues use an outer player, one-touch, as red defenders come across to cover

[diagram 2] One red defender presses the ball while the other marshals his opponent in the 2v2

[diagram 3] With blue attackers running from a deeper start position, red defenders must be aware of the space left ‘in behind’

[diagram 4] The red defender gets near post to deal with a flighted centre from the left flank