The success of any team relies on the strength of their defense. World Cups have been won by defensively-oriented teams like the 2006 Italian National Team captained by legendary center back, Fabio Cannavaro. We've heard the saying time and time again, but it continues to ring true: defense wins championships. There are two key aspects to the principles of defense: unit defense and individual defending.
Unit defense is how a team defends as a cohesive group. This cohesion is mostly dependent on defensive formation. In the past, the most classic formation included a sweeper, two outside fullbacks, and a "stopper" or defensive midfielder playing in front of the sweeper. Nowadays, the most utilized defensive formation is the "flat back four" which is a zonal defense that includes two center backs playing side by side and two outside full backs on the flanks. The main purpose of this formation is to remain compact and provide cover for teammates, thereby denying any holes in the unit for the opposition to break through.
In the flat back four formation, it's necessary for defensive players to screen and slide as the ball moves across the field with the opposition. When a player is attacking, the nearest defender steps to the ball and closes down space. The defender must try to keep the attacker in front of them, and deny any crosses or shots on goal. The rest of the defense slides closer to the ball while remaining in their respective zones. This slide provides cover for the defender stepping to the ball in case the attacker moves past them towards goal.
The major motivation for the flat back defense is staying compact and pushing the opposition to the flanks. The benefit of staying compact is cutting down the opposition's chances to break through the center of the field with direct access to the goal. Compactness also forces the opposition to the flanks of the field where it is much more difficult to get a shot off on goal.
A unit's performance is only as strong as the individual performances within. Weak links in the zonal defensive system will leave vulnerable gaps in the formation and lead to the concession of goals. To prevent this, individuals in the flat back four formation can focus on the 4Ds to help their teammates:
1) Delay – nearest player steps to the ball and slows down the opposition, allowing for the rest of the defense to get back into shape.
2) Deny – deny attackers of space, time and positioning close to the goal.
3) Deflect – get in front of the ball when an attacker moves to make a cross or shot.
4) Defend – make a tackle at the right moment to gain possession of the ball.
Basic Body Positioning Tips for Defenders:
A) Keep the attacker in front of you at an arm's length away. This amount of space will put pressure on the attacker to make a mistake, but also limit the defender from making a careless dive.
B) Stay low to the ground and use small steps on your toes to adjust for quick cuts from the attacker.
C) Never be flat footed – you should approach the ball with one shoulder first and hips facing the side of the field, not forward. Lead with a foot in front and one in back. If you approach with your shoulders forward and legs too far apart, it is very easy for an attacker to put the ball through your legs (a nutmeg) and blow by you to the goal. This body positioning will also allow you to push the attacking player to the flanks, or into an area where there are more defenders.
D) Keep your focus on the ball and not on the player's feet. A good attacker will use body movements and foot skills to try and fake out a defender – don't fall for it!
Images & video courtesy of Nike Academy.