Defending – The Foundation of Competitive Success

By John Cartwright

Quote:  “Winning does not really matter as long as you win.”  Vinnie Jones

Coach  (A)  “ We played some really great football today.”

Coach  (B)  “Oh, how did you get on?”

Coach  (A)  “We lost 3-4.”

Coach  (B)  “Oh you lost!”

Let’s not beat about the bush and be honest; competitive football at all levels is about winning! It may not mean so much at junior levels to lose but it still should hurt.


The attempt to take the issues of winning and losing from the playing equation has proved unsuccessful for both the sport and for the youngsters playing it—how can you tell players not to want to win?

Don’t think I am one of those people who regard winning as the pinnacle of performance, no, in my opinion winning should occur through quality play. The problem we face in this country is the amount of competition without a quality teaching and learning structure to support it. Winning here is more about exiting successfully from a fierce battle than overcoming the opposition with a combination of skill, athleticism and game understanding.

As described in the conversation between the two coaches, it means little to play well and lose. We all should want to play attractive, free-flowing football but to be able to play it and win requires quality coaching throughout the whole development process or all that you get is honest effort as the result.

Winning creates confidence, losing brings anxiety. You lose football matches if the opposition score more goals than you do. Therefore, you must make sure they don’t score goals against you; in a nutshell, you’ve got to defend well.

I don’t intend to cover all aspects of defending but simply address some areas concerning defending that I feel are in need of attention.


As the title states, ‘defending is the foundation of competitive success’. In all competitive sports it is necessary to overcome the opposition, achieve attacking initiative and finish positively. Good defending leading to repossession of the ball is the start of attacking play—unless the ball is regained from the opposition you can’t begin to attack and score to win!

Solidity, when defending is an absolute necessity; gaps that occur in a team creates the likelihood of goals against!  From the front of a team to the goalkeeper, all players must possess defensive qualities and know the defensive structure of their team and their role in it. The ‘temperamental star’ player who switches off once he is required to defend is often more of a liability than an asset; there is no reason why playing quality should not include a responsible defensive attitude as well.

All successful teams are capable of defending from the front. This initial ‘first defensive barrier’ is formed by players usually more associated with attacking situations, not defending. However, if these forward players apply themselves properly to their defensive duties they can create a formidable ‘barrier’ to the opposition a considerable distance from their own goal. In so doing, by regaining the ball close to the opponents goal they may have an opportunity to score, otherwise, they are able to supply their own team-mates in deeper playing roles with visual information and time to make decisions on marking and covering positions. ‘Guiding’ opposing attacking players into less dangerous areas often begins at the front of the defending team and supported by colleagues in deeper positions. The question of which way to direct opposing attackers– inside or wide, is a heated subject, each has a plus or minus; my own preference is wide unless reasons dictate otherwise for at worst by forcing an opposing attack wide meant my defenders were usually only required to deal with a cross and not several other options that become available to attackers should they come inside.

Defensive marking at crossing situations is something that playing on the half-turn is all about. So often the position that defenders take up is incorrect for it does not allow the marking defender the ability to see both the ball and his opponent at the same time. Good defenders must always be first to the ball, coming second can mean a goal against and a game lost.

Defending from free-kicks, both from wide positions around the penalty area or from more frontal, direct positions needs to be examined. The quality of the new type of ball and the ability of players to make it swerve, in my opinion makes defensive marking strategies that are still remnants of the past, a problem that needs further examination and improvement.

Tackling has also been an important aspect of the game that has been disregarded. Possibly the better playing surfaces have allowed players to ‘go to ground’ too easily and too often. The real ‘sliding tackle’ has been lost in favour of the ‘jump tackle’ that is often not required or dangerous when used.

Dealing with counter –attacking play is really a lesson in team discipline and organisation. The counter attack will usually create a problem if on losing the ball the defending team has become unbalanced with gaps allowed to occur in their defensive ‘shield’ due to an insufficient number of players positioned incorrectly — too many forward, too few in deeper supporting positions to contain a fast attack by their opponents.

Heading is also another vitally important aspect of the game that has been overlooked here. Being dominant in the air whether in defensive or attacking situations provides a team with defensive strength and offensive variations. Teaching Heading should be a priority and introduced at the right time and with the right methods to our youngsters. Like Tackling, Heading is rarely coached and practiced – lack of players with high levels of ability in these skills is a huge problem for us now and will continue to be in the future.

I have dealt with just some of the things associated with defending – there are many more but time and space need me to end here but I hope that this brief entry into defensive play will be of interest and use to you.

Best regards – win with style. Remember, Pele, did call it, ‘The Beautiful Game’.

27 thoughts on “Defending – The Foundation of Competitive Success

  1. Hi John….I agree that good defending seems to have become a lost art. I remember that Bobby Moore, even after playing on the muddiest of pitches which were commonplace in mid-winter 40 – 50 years ago, often finished a match with hardly a speck of dirt on his playing kit. He relied on reading his opponents; which was their best foot, which side did they prefer to turn on and what was the best distance and angle to mark them on relative to their quickness compared to his? So he defended, tackled and jockyed opponents by remaining on his feet.
    I think that many players, in defending situations, go to ground too easily whereas Moore only did so as the very last resort. I have read that because many full backs today are essentially wing backs and started their careers as wingers or attacking midfield players, so that when they have been converted into the wide semi-defending, semi-attacking position, fall short of the defensive requirements because they have have received little, if any, coaching in that during their formative years. But this is another example of where we are falling short of developing the ‘universal’, i.e. complete, player, as opposed to the speciaist, which Matthew Whitehouse draws attention to in his recently published book,”Universality”. Everyone in a team must have the technical skills and game understanding of attacking and defending to achieve ‘universality’ and so good, intelligent defending is just as important as imaginative, creative attacking.

  2. Hi Steve. i am amazed at the really poor defending i see week after week at all levels of the game; individual mistakes, group and team disfunction are regularl occurences. There seems little work going on,especially at the junior end of the game to develop an interest in defending and create a defensive attitude with players. Coaches seem either ill-informed or lack a desire to work on defending and like so much of coaching methods here, there is a disasterous lack of continuity in the development structure. ‘Bits and pieces coaching practises develops ‘bits and pieces’ players who have difficulty throughout their playing years to mould a real sense of game understanding. With the lethal ‘cocktail’ of inadequate skill development in combination with poor game understanding we rely on effort — often brute force and ignorance

  3. I find that many young defenders, although in their mid-teens, have no conception of ‘playing tight’. I recently attempted to coach a group of 16 year olds on protecting the ball and screening. Unfortunately, the defending players were much too slack in their marking, totally unaware of how to mark ball-side and goal-side and so there was insufficient pressure on the receiving player in order for me to coach the screening elements. I had to spend most of the time coaching the defenders in getting tight so as to give the forward players some realistic problems in protecting the ball.
    I read an interview some time ago, conducted with Ray Wilkins, when he said that during his time playing in Italy he noticed how even young children approach the defensive side of the game with the same enthusiasm as they do for the aquisition of attacking skills. The Italians regularly produce some of the world’s best defenders and, as with everything else in the coaching of football, it must clearly be worked on with players from the very earliest ages. I think that in England we have left the coaching of defending until far too late in a player’s development if, in fact, at all.
    I would be interested to hear what the experiences of other coaches have been when coaching young players in the defensive arts and do you think that because kids are much more likely to idolise atttackers like Messi and Ronaldo, rather than defenders like Puyol and Pique, then this has an effect in producing the next generation of top class defenders?

  4. Hi Steve. The ‘glory’ part of playing is obviously the attacking side of the game. However, unless defenders are able to stop opponents and then turn defending into attacking mode the likelyhood of success is minimal. Good practises should allow both defenders and attackers to learn from eachother; as defenders improve so attackers must find ways to offset them and the learning sequnce is carried on. The introduction of defending should begin at an early age and continue throughout the whole of the developng years and beyond — how to accomplish this is a ‘coaching art’ and it has not been recognized nor satisfactorilly accomplished with our past and present national development programs.

  5. I’m still amazed how reluctantly youth coaches in Finland, disregard good defending and positioning, claiming “it’s too early for that…”. As a young portuguese playing on the streets, my concepts of defending and positioning were there without anyone to teach them, because it’s simply part of the game, and if one doesn’t learn it in the foundation years, a clear interpretation can’t be achieved. Sentences like, “fica com ele”, “vai com ele”, “fecha o meio”, “pressiona alto” and so on, are common street football jargon in southern Europe, long before the players enter the club system and are exposed to wider tactical concepts. Tactics and positioning, are used since the very beginning, and denying it’s importance and introduction at young ages, limits the development of game awareness and mechanics.

    PS- Sorry about my written English skills.

    André Capitão

  6. England’s first goal against Scotland on Tuesday night underlined some defensive weaknesses in the Scotland defence which are fairly typical with a lot of defensive play in games these days.As the England player shaped to cross the ball from the left, the Scotland centre back was distracted by Rooney dropping off him into a pocket of space and appeared uncertain whether to go with him or stand his ground in the area. His body shape was such that he was not in a half turned position which would have given him a view of both the ball and any opponent coming in from England’s opposite side (i.e.the right). Consequently, when Oxlade-Chamberlain made his run to put England ahead with a header, he got between both the Scotland centre back and left back. The Scotland left back had failed to drop round on the cover. I find this a common mistake many times these days,whereas in the past the full back on the opposite side to where the cross was coming from always dropped round as cover. Is this because defences are now drilled to maintain their strict in-line shape in an attempt, as so often, to catch a runner offside? But a well timed run, as with that of Oxlade-Chamberlain, will always beat the offside trap.
    I think this is something that coaches should be looking at when coaching their defenders.

  7. I think that Terry Venables made an interesting suggestion recently when he proposed that a law should be made that when a team defends a corner it must adopt a zonal marking system and not man marking. He suggests this in view of the ugly scenes of grappling, holding and shirt pulling which regularly occur at the majority of corner kicks these days. The reaction when the referee awarded a penalty to Swansea recently when Ryan Shawcross quite clearly grabbed hold of a Swansea player was most disappointing. To say, as the Stoke players and management did, that it was an unfair decision because it goes on so often nowadays, was ludicrous. It was refreshing that a referee had made an stand on the matter.
    Defending zonally against corners puts the emphasis on attacking the ball when it enters a particular defender’s zone. It demands more of a defender’s ability to do this, rather than trying to stay with a moving opponent in a general melee, when the penalty area more often resembles a scene from a rugby scrum. Liverpool marked zonally at corners during the Rafa Benetiz years and it only let them down when one or more players did not attack the ball correctly.
    Trying to mark man for man is not sensible because it always used to be said that “you can’t mark a runner”. The attacking player chooses the moment to go and so the marking player will always be at least a split second behind him, assuming he plays fairly and does not hold or grapple and so, in those circumstances, man for man marking actually gives the advantage to the attacker.

    • Hi Steve. I don’t think that Terry’s suggestion would be accepted — there needs to be freedom of choice in the game. The problem would be solved overnight if Referees gave penalty-kicks against these types of foul play in the box. If necessary several penalties could be given per game.

  8. I heard Bruce Grobbelaar speaking on the radio recently about the way in which he viewed his role when he was Liverpool’s keeper in the ‘eighties. He believed it to be his job to dominate the whole penalty area. Nowadays, keepers rarely venture any further than their 6 yard area to come for a cross. For a cross played in any further out from that area they leave it to their defenders to deal with. At Liverpool in the period when Grobbelaar was in goal, Liverpool’s defenders knew that the big Zimbabwean was coming for any ball that was crossed into the box and they immediately got themselves back on the goal line, ready to clear any attempt on goal should Grobbelaar fail to take the cross.
    Grobbelaar was regarded as eccentric and even, by some, as a potential weak link. But I consider him to have been an outstanding keeper and if he had been any kind of weak link, then Liverpool would never have achieved the success which they did in that era. Many of today’s keepers would do well to study old film of Grobbelaar in action because I think that only Neuer and Courtois dominate their penalty areas in anything like the way that he did.

  9. The Liverpool side of that period were light years away from anyone else here. They played a brand of English football with continental ‘trimmings’ and they were a pleasure to watch. I established the visional principles of Premier Skills Coaching from the playing qualities of this team.

  10. Hi all. I’ve heard Stan Collymore, several times ‘explode’ during the radio prog. he is involved in. His interest in the development mess we have here is good to hear but in my opinion his argument does not satisfy the problems we have and will not produce the radical, structured changes we need in development issues. Anyone listenend to the program? i would like to read your thoughts.

  11. Hi John….I have often heard Stan Collymore express his opinions passionately on ‘Talk Sport’ although I did not hear the recent broadcast to which you refer.
    I respect Stan Collymore because he clearly cares deeply about the game and desperately wants to see an improvement in the results and displays of the England team and especially in the areas of youth development in this country. Unfortunately, many old players tend to dismiss all coaching out of hand and hark back to the past where all players developed naturally playing on the street, on waste land etc. Since those conditions for free play no longer exist then it is vital that the message put out by the Premier Skills approach, i.e.that the teaching of the game should be in an environment of ‘controlled chaos’, thereby closely replicating the street football environment, is absolutely vital.
    There is no doubt that many technical points have been lifted from Premier Skills by the FA and inserted into their work at Level 1 and 2 and in the Youth Award modules. This improves the technical content offered to aspiring coaches but there are too many loose ends and the various stages of work do not link together as they do in the Premier Skills courses. This is bound to be the result when practices and exercises are simply lifted from one coaching scheme on to another.
    When I see young children playing football in the school playground they kick the ball as soon as it comes to them, regardless of how much space they might be in. When they join their first club then too often, instead of being coached to run with the ball through that space, committing opponents and freeing team mates, they are instead taught and encouraged to still part quickly with the ball, but now by passing to a team mate instead of just kicking the ball. This, of course, is an improvement but too often we fail our young players by never introducing them to ‘staying with the ball’. So we produce generations of players who are simply ‘releasers’ of the ball and not ‘keepers’ of the ball.
    I do not want to appear naive but if Stan Collymore was prepared to appear on the cover of the Premier Skills DVDs, recommending the methodology, then it could be a step in the right direction.

  12. Hi Steve. This ‘bolg seems to be a ‘chat’ between you and me — where’s other comments?
    The use of celebrities to promote something is questionable in my view. It might attract attention but any astute person readilly appreciates the probable lack of real knowledge of the product by the ‘celeb.’ The way forward is for our Nat. Assn. to wake up and make constructive changes to development and use money properly and not waste it as seems to be ‘par for the course’ here.

  13. Interesting topic again John. It has been said many times that kids love to slide tackle and the art of defending has disappeared. Every Sunday I coach 5-6 year old kids in Harpenden, they are always falling to the ground with a slide tackle from such a young age. I actually banned it this week and if they did I gave a penalty to the other team, it soon stopped. How ever one of the issues coaches like myself have is just lack of time to work on so many things. I am finding it really difficult to get kids to use either foot for example, so that is something I encourage most weeks, but lack of time and kids not able to train outside in the winter on their own, just means they do not play enough for these to become habits.

    Your comment about preferring to keep play out wide and dealing with crosses is the opposite of what Liverpool in the 80s did. Malcolm Cook who you know, did a talk on Liverpool, as he worked under Dalglish. He stated that Liverpool were always told to defend pushing players into the middle of the pitch, where it was more crowded and that they struggled with teams like Wimbledon, Watford and Coventry at the time, who would use the long ball tactics. He also made some very interesting comments about Liverpools youth policy at the time and how they were treated.

    Stats say that more goals are scored through the attacks outside of the box leading to shots inside the box box through the middle of the pitch, than those from crosses out wide, so it makes sense to keep the ball out wide and win it back there.

    John at what age do you work with kids in detail about defending? I have covered the basics with 7-8 yr olds but not team defending, just shutting down properly encouraging them to win the ball back quickly.

    Whilst I remember, there is a English coach working in Madrid, who states that youth grassroots football in Spain is very similar to hear in the UK. Loud parents on the touchline, kick and rush is common just like here. It is really only in the academy set up where you see the football we associate with Spain. He also has said the climate makes so much difference to the amount of hours ordinary kids play with friends, so our kids have a massive disadvantage. Worth considering that nearly all of the best players come from sunny climates.

    • Hi Dave. Young children should be involved with basic aspects of defending from the very beginning of their ‘journey’. Both in practises and then in SUITABLE small-sided games (seet Premier Skills Coaching) The game played should be a continuity of the practises previously used.

      • John would like to see a seminar on defending if you do post it on here, as many of us miss out on events we are not aware of.

  14. Hi Dave…You make a lot of interesting points. I have heard coaches say that there is not a right or wrong way for a defender to show either the outside or inside when jockeying an opponent. Some coaches say that they prefer to show inside if that is where they have numbers in covering situations. Other coaches prefer to show outside because the worst consequence if the attacker breaks clear is a cross, which is always preferable to a shot if an opponent breaks clear on goal. I personally prefer a defender to show outside in the defending third for those reasons. In the attacking third I want my striker to show the defender on the ball inside , with another attacker hovering, ready to pounce if the ball is played across to another defender or back to the keper. In the middle third the players must be flexible in their own decision making.
    Even in Premier Skills Level 1 there is opportunity to coach the youngest players in good defending. As soon as opposition is introduced, and players begin to combine even in very small groups, there is opportunity for the playes to combine defensively in covering and communicating when confronting an attacking opponent who is in possession of the ball.
    When you think about great players from South America and southern Europe then it does seem that a warm, sunny climate does aid the development of outstanding players. However, it must be remembered that Germany experience winters far more severe than we do and, as we all know, their youth development is brilliant. So again it comes down to organisation and exceptional coaching standards, at which the Germans excel and we struggle.

    • Germany do produce quality players, but better national teams in my opinion. When we talk about the real world great players who excite us, then we look to the South Americans or latin players mainly. Germans and Dutch do produce quality players and as you rightly state they are well organised and have an FA that has the power to change.
      Germany as an example were the only nation in the FIFA top 10 rankings who had no Futsal League. Realising the benefits to the game they have turned around and said no other small sided tournaments apart from Futsal now.
      England have power leagues for adults, Futsal is growing but you and I know the FA cant and would not have the power to say Futsal only.
      Defending is all about reacting quickly and being organised. I like the pressing methods of Barcelona, it is very hard to stay on the ball when teams close all the spaces so quickly. I like to push them onto their weaker foot, which usually they will not do and so the ball is on your side, meaning shielding the ball becomes more difficult.

  15. Last night when analysing matches on ‘Match of the Day’, Ruud Gullit remarked that had Sunderland shown more courage in their match against Liverpool at Anfield, then they could have won the game.I think that our coaching in this country does lack courage when compared to some of our foreign counterparts.
    In the Bundesliga at the moment there is a new coaching name, Roger Schmidt at Bayer Leverkusen, who is attracting considerable interest on the continent. He has been appointed this season after doing well last season with Salzburg in Austria. He coaches his teams to play an intense pressing game which is surprising their rivals and at present Leverkusen are third, just behind Wolsberg. In a recent match, at the kick off when the opponents began in possession, Leverkusen lined up with seven players along the half way line and as soon as the opposition played the ball they swarmed forward, won the ball and scored within seconds of the opening whistle. It was the fastest goal scored in Bundesliga history.
    Leverkusen, like Salzburg last season, stay on the front foot, pressing forward at every opportunity in an effort to dominate games. Schmidt had a nondescript playing career but has been well trained and educated as a coach. In England a coach is still judged to quite a fair degree by what his pedigree was as a player and not enough emphasis is placed on the courage that a really top coach must display.

    • Hi Steve. I like the so-called courage of Roger Schmidt, to play an ‘ultra positive’ attacking style.However, as i have said so many times in the past, ” football’s a game of variables” and the pressure forward leaves the space behind. The game of the future will require players to recognize when to play short possession football and when to play longer

      • Hi Steve. Sorry i missed you after the meeting last night. Ilooked for you to take you to the station but you had already gone. Have a great Christmas and thanks for your interest and astute football knowledge. Best regards… John

  16. Thanks John. All the best for Christmas and the New Year. Thanks for all the blog articles together with penetrating observations and comments at the LFCA. All the best. Steve.

  17. It is heartening to see that no Premier League manager has been sacked so far this season, in spite of supporter unrest at, in particular, Liverpool, Leicester, Arsenal and, until recently, Newcastle.
    It is more likely that club directors have become aware that the available replacements appear no better than the present man in the hot seat, rather than having suddenly aquired a more patient frame of mind for the way they have decided to run their clubs. However, if we are really in for a period of stability, (and it could all totally change at the turn of the year), then perhaps our managers and their coaching staffs could use this outbreak of sanity to give a chance to some of the young talent who they think have a chance and are showing promising signs in the Under-21 teams. Loftus-Cheek of Chelsea looked very promising, albeit for only a few minutes that he got on the pitch the other night against Basle, and Garbett has impressed for Everton at left back in their recent Europa League matches.
    There are fewer and fewer clubs with the financial backing to challenge the really big guns for the world’s top talent at astronomical fees and so if the manager’s life span at a club does start to increase then he might as well use it for seriously developing youth. The old excuse of many managers, that it was a waste of time for them to give time to developing that promising 16 year old because they would not be around long enough to get the benefit of the work, would no longer apply and it would be for the benefit of both the game in general and the England team.

  18. John has often written about the need to mix the game styles, with a team’s approach dependant on how the opposition approach a game. At a recent meeting of the London Football Coaches Association, David Pleat made an interesting point when he said that during his time as Tottenham manager, for the first 20 minutes they would put the ball in behind the opponents’ defence, looking for quick players, like Chris Waddle and Clive Allen, to make runs in behind. This forced the opponents’ defence to drop deeper, leaving space in front of them. When that happened Tottenham would exploit that space by getting players in there and playing passes into their feet.
    Threatening the back of the defence with balls played in behind, plays to the strength of Suarez at Barcelona. They should not now become as totally dependant on the tiki taka style which made them so dominant a few years ago. Pep Guardiola seems to have the best mixture of styles after 18 months work at Bayern Munich. A recently published book, ‘Pep Confidential’, illlustrates clearly that Guardiola was aware a few years ago that it was necessary to adapt and tweak the Barcelona game style, but for a number of reasons he needed to take a break and work at another club. Guardiola states clearly in the book that the biggest problem he first faced at Bayern was to convince the players that they were not being prepared as ‘Barcelona Mark 2’. The Bayern players over-passed continuously in the first few weeks of his arrival, because they thought that that was the way to impress their new coach, until he showed them that he was taking them beyond the stage at which he had taken the Barca players.
    This mixing of the game styles can happen in England with the right coaching and underlines that the traditional strengths of the English game must not be discarded, (as some would have us believe), – namely, attacking the ball in the air from good crosses and enthusiastic heading ability, and the awareness, and knowing when, to play direct football at certain times in the game, as illustrated by David Pleat’s Tottenham team.
    At the moment West Ham United are having their best season for years and Andy Carroll, since returning from injury, has fitted into the game style seamlessly, with his traditional English characteristics. The improved technical and tactical levels have largely been achieved by some very good pre-season signings, but it will be interersting to see how the team progresses, in terms of football quality, during the second half of the season.

  19. Hi Steve. Nothing stays the same. As i have tried to illustrate within football and coaching circles for many, many years — there has to constant variations in the game-style or one gets ‘recognized and exploited’. I said in a previous ‘blog’ that Barcelona needed to vary their playing style or they would suffer the consequences.

  20. Hi John. Your page was recommended by a friend and ive found your articles very interesting and well spent reading. I manage an U7 team so keen to get things right from the start!
    Do you recommend any books i could read ?

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