5 Tips to Improve as a Defender

Defend without having to make a tackle.

The legendary Paulo Maldini once said, “If I have to make a tackle, then I have already made a mistake.” Wise words from one of the best defenders of all time. Defending isn’t about lunging into Youtube worthy challenges or physical altercations. It’s a very subtle art of managing your space and the opposition forward.

The best defenders don’t have to be the most action packed players on the pitch. The Maldinis and Mertesackers of this world rely first on excellent reading of the game to keep the opposition quiet and their shorts clean.

In our training series helping the common footballers improve their performance, we speak to Coach Dennis Ikogho from ESPZEN Soccer School to get tips on improving your footballing performance. Today, Coach Dennis shares his tips on improving your instincts as a defender.

Defend by staying on your feet

The temptation to pull off one of those Hollywood moves where you swoop in last minute to win the ball cleanly from your opponent is always high but a game of football isn’t a Youtube highlights compilation.

Staying on your feet means that you’re mobile, ready to adapt any changes in your opponent’s movement and you keep yourself involved in the one-on-one battle.

“Don’t dive in to win the ball all the time. Hold firm and delay the attacker. If you tackle too early, you’ve committed to lunging in and have a high chance of not winning the ball. In that split second where you need to recover, a smart attacker would have bypassed you and taken a different direction to space and your team is one man down,” emphasises Coach Dennis.

“As a defender, you can’t allow your opponents to get past you so easily so be on your toes and keep your body low so that you can react quickly to any changes of direction your opponent makes.”

Show your opponent to the side

Football is a game of chess and as a defender, your job is to move the action to areas where your opponent can do the least amount of damage to your goal.

While staying on your feet, the next thing to do is to jockey and lead your attacker away from central areas and to flanks where they have less chance to aim at goal. Instead of making the tackle, angle your body to block the options that leads your opponent to dribble or pass into the central area.

“When you jockey your opponent to the sides, try to also get them to play with their weaker foot. If they opponent is right footed, get him in a position where the best way out is with his weaker left foot. While already penned down by the flanks and away from danger, force the opponent to use their weaker foot to put them in an awkward position. Now your opponent is at his weakest moment and where your team is in the lowest risk of conceding a goal – tackle and win back the ball when you see an opportunity,” shares Coach Dennis.

Suffocating opponents at its best.

Be alert and assess all scenarios

If your teammate nearby commits for a tackle or header, you are now the second defender. In this role, don’t ball watch. Be pro-active in your actions and anticipate the situation. Always be ready for the next step.

You’re never sure if your teammate will win his duel so assess your environment. Are there any opponent runners you need to close down? Or perhaps you need to step up to activate the offside trap?

If you think your teammate would not be winning his battle, step in to take on the opponent. Considering you’re temporarily one man down, slow down the opponent by pushing him towards the flanks and buy time for your teammates to recover the spaces you have vacated.

“Football is played in the head, not in the feet. Just because you’re not challenging duels doesn’t mean you’re not in the game. Always assess your environment,” reminded Coach Dennis.

Go high and far with your clearances

After you’ve won the ball, it’s time to kick start the attack and pass it forward. But what if the situation is dangerous and calls for some urgency? Kick or head it long.

“If you have to clear the ball, go high and far at about a 45 degree angle with your clearance to make sure the ball is nowhere near the danger zone and it can’t be intercepted mid-flight. This will give your team time to recover your defensive team shape,” said Coach Dennis.

“And when you head the ball, don’t close your eyes so that you know where you’re heading the ball towards.”

Defenders have to keep it simple

You don’t always have to spread those long diagonal balls or dribble past your opponents, especially if you’re the last line of defence. You’re in a very high risk zone and doing any unnecessary moves like that will you in danger of conceding the ball to predatory strikers.

“Don’t be afraid to keep the game simple. Your job is to move the ball to the midfield with less risk. If the option isn’t there, don’t be afraid to make a side ways or back pass to reset the play and regain numerical advantage.”

“Forcing the ball long might mean you hand possession back to the opponent and dribbling out of your penalty box could mean you fall into the trap of your opponent’s coordinated high press. Keep it simple and be patient,” reminded Coach Dennis.

Special thanks to the good people of ESPZEN Soccer Schools for working with us on training tips to improve your football skills. If you’re keen to sign up for classes, they have classes for kids and adults. Follow our Insta-stories for updates as we take you through each week’s classes.

Finally, a big thank you to The Cage at HYFA for allowing us to shoot on their newly relaid 11-a-side turf. Do visit The Cage if you’re looking for a pristine pitch to play on after Covid19 restrictions have lifted.

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