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Goals Win Games but Defense Wins Championships
By Mitch Murray
Head Men's Soccer Coach

Santa Clara University

Great individual flair and spectacular goals are what highlight videos are made of. However, if winning championships is what you are after, spend time on organizing your defense.

There are many players who show great promise going forward, but give little help to their side defensively. If their team is far superior to their opponent they can usually get away with playing in one direction. But if the sides are equal or if the opponent is superior, then for a team to win they must be willing to defend with 11.

Defending is really about concentration and attitude. Any player is capable of being an effective defender as long as that player understands the basic principles of defense and is committed to the importance of defending.

This month I will cover the basic rules of individual defending and follow up in future issues with drills and functional training to help your team become organized and efficient in defense.


  1. Start defending as soon as the ball is lost. The player closest to the ball should give immediate chase to try and win the ball back. The other players must work to recover behind the ball and take up positions either to mark an opponent or to take away passing lanes, thereby slowing down their attack.
  2. Work while the ball is being passed. The biggest fault of most defenders is they watch the ball too long before working to close down spaces. This allows the opponent time to collect the ball and compose themselves before there is adequate pressure on the ball. Once an opponent has played the ball it will not change direction until it touches another player. Defenders can therefore safely adjust their position at speed until the ball reaches its destination. There are four options when pressuring the ball.
    1. Win the ball outright before it reaches its intended target
    2. Tackle the ball away (50-50 ball)
    3. Don't allow the player to turn with the ball (force a back or square pass)
    4. Delay and decoy
  3. React to the movement of the ball and not the man. Good dribblers depend on defenders becoming impatient and biting on their fakes or feints. Good defenders only react to the movement of the ball and tackle only when the ball is exposed.
  4. Make the opponents play predictable. The priority of the defender pressuring the ball is not to win the tackle but to make the next pass predictable. The angle of the pressure and the distance from the opponent should show the cover players where the next pass is likely to go. This allows the defense to compact part of the field while zoning or loosely marking in other parts of the field.
  5. Mark ball side and goal side. Most defenders I watch like to mark on the backside of opponents, but in doing so they tend to allow the opponent to be ball side. Most good target players like to play with their back to goal and like the ball played into their feet. When a defender is confident in marking ball side it makes it much more difficult for the attacker to receive the ball on the ground.
  6. Watch the ball and the man. Ideally, keep track of both so there are no surprisesbut if doing so is impossible then keep your eye on the ball. Taking away passing lanes and space is more important than following the player off the ball. Obviously, it is important to know where your opponents are... but it is most important to know where the ball is, as that is where the danger lies.
  7. Be patient, and keep your feet when tackling. Defenses break down when individuals become impatient and dive in wildly. Players that constantly slide tackle put their team at a disadvantage. First it takes a lot of energy to throw your body to the ground and get back up, which over the course of the game will result in late and clumsy tackles. Secondly, when a player slide tackles, that player is essentially out of the game until he or she gets back upwhich means the team is playing with ten players for a short time. Finally, the modern attacker is good at taking dives and drawing fouls, which are much easier to sell to the referee when the defender slide tackles. Ideally, it is important to wait for the opponent to expose the ball before tackling. Otherwise, try to force the ball to be played back or square to where there is the best defensive cover. There are two times where slide tackling can be effective. The first is along the touch, which allows the defender to get back up before the opponent can throw the ball into play. The second is to prevent a chance on goal by the opponent, which is basically in desperation.
  8. When in doubt get it out. Too many goals are conceded by defenders failing to clear dangerous balls. When a defender is not sure of his options he must play the ball out high, wide and far. It is more important to play the ball high, because this allows the defense time to reorganize and pressure the ball. Play the ball wide to prevent a quick strike on goal by your opponent and if possible play the ball over distance to alleviate pressure on goal.
  9. Attack the ball and don't let it bounce. Defenders should try to meet the ball at its highest point to prevent attackers from beating them to the ball.
  10. Be brave. When it is time to tackle, commit to the tackle and be strong in the tackle. Just as it takes practice and repetition to perfect technique, the same applies to defending. In as much as these individual defending principles are mostly common sense, they must be emphasized and practiced daily in training before they will become habit in the games.

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