How to Defend in Soccer

Every position defends in games, yet most coaches don’t teach players how to defender properly.

Coaches often say things like “don’t stab” or “get goalside” during games but these phrases are hardly a substitute for teaching players to defend.

It’s not surprising that almost all beginners and some advanced players don’t know how to defend properly.

This guide will teach you how to approach an attacker, the defensive stance, how to tackle properly, and tips on how to defend effectively.

The Defending Approach

1.  Move quickly to the player with the ball

Sprint towards the player with the ball.

The faster you put pressure on the attacker, the faster he will have to make a decision.

High pressure often forces offensive mistakes. Offensive players have less time to look up and find a good pass and won’t be able to dribble as far up the field.

2.  Slow Down Quickly

Novice defenders apply high pressure but are easy to beat. They rush to the ball so its easy for good players to cut away from them.

Make yourself harder to beat by slowing down a few feet from the player with the ball. Act like you’re sprinting hard towards a player but quickly slow you approach by taking small steps and decreasing your speed.

Determining the ideal time to slow down takes practice. When learning this skill you will slow down too close to the player with the ball (which allows the offensive player to beat you easily) or too far away (which doesn’t put adequate pressure on the attacker). As you practice defending at the correct distance will become a habit that you will do without thinking.

3.  Defend at an angle

You want to make dribbling as hard as possible.

When you defend at a slight angle (with your body turned slightly to the side) you make it harder for the attacking player to move in both directions.

You can force him in the direction you want him to go and/or make him use his weak foot.

For example, you defend at a right angle, forcing the attacker to your left. The sideline is on your left so now the attacker doesn’t have much space to work with if he chooses to dribble.

Another example is you know that you have teammates nearby to your left. So you defend at a right angle, forcing the attacker to your left. Another teammate pressures the attacker and you make the tackle.

The Defensive Stance

1.  Lower your center of gravity

Bend your knees lower your butt slightly. When you stay in this position you will move easier and have good balance.

2.  Put your arms out

Put your arms out naturally to improve your balance.

Use your arms to brush the attacker’s arms away when they try to dribble past you.

Tackling in Soccer

Getting the defensive approach and stance right is essential. Master both and you won’t need to tackle as often since the attacker will pass the ball quickly. As a result, you won’t get beat as often.

Tackling isn’t an exact science. How and when you tackle depends on the situation.

In general, tackle the attacker when he makes a mistake. Tackle quickly when he makes a bad touch or touches the ball too closely to you.

When you play against good dribblers you have to tackle at the slightest mistake or hesitation. Always tackle when the attacker is off-balance. Otherwise, continue delaying the player. You will get beat most of the time when you tackle good players recklessly.

When a player turns his back to you always apply intense pressure. Defend both sides of the player. If you put too much pressure on one side, he can turn to the other side and beat you.

Tackling a player is similar to passing a soccer ball. Move your leg to the side to build momentum then move it forward in a passing motion.

Do not use your toe to poke the ball unless you’re sure you’ll win the tackle. Poking the ball is quicker than using proper tackling technique, but you will get beat badly if the attacker touches the ball away from you. Recovering from a missed toe tackle takes a long time and attackers can dodge the tackle easily. For these reasons, use the technique explained in the previous paragraph most of the time.

If you miss a tackle, immediately turn your body and sprint towards the attacker. If you recover quickly you have a good chance at catching up and tackling the attacker. If you defend well and recover quickly when beaten, attackers will be hesitant to dribble past you.

Fake a tackle occasionally. Act like you will tackle then pull back halfway through the tackle. Fake tackles put the attacker off balance and force mistakes.

When you decide to tackle, commit fully. Do not go in with any hesitation as this gives the attacker more time to cut the ball away. Tackle hard.

If the attacker moves to the side or turns, use your body to defend ruthlessly. Good defenders create fear in attackers by putting unrelenting pressure on them the second they make a move.

Tackling takes timing and balance. Learning to tackle effectively takes a lot of practice. You will learn what works best in different situations as you become more experienced.

Off the Ball Defending

Off the ball defending comes down to good things:

  1. Staying in a good position
  2. Staying with your man

Where you should position yourself depends on the soccer position you’re playing and the situation. In general, you’re in a good defensive position when you are in a valuable space on the field.

For instance, you’re in a good position when playing wingback if you have the sideline covered. Stay close enough to the sideline that you can sprint towards a through ball played down the sideline but far enough away from the sideline so that you can cover your man if he makes an inside run.

This sounds confusing, but it quickly becomes second nature when you play games at your preferred position.

Staying with your man is simple but isn’t easy. You have your man covered if you are close enough to intercept a pass or apply intense pressure when he receives a pass, and are far enough away to stick with him when he makes a run forward. Always stay closer to your goal than your man. This is called staying goalside (read our article How to Communicate Effectively in Soccer to learn soccer terms).

Keep an eye on your man as much as possible (touch him with your arm if he’s close to you). You only need to let your guard down for a second to get beat.

Soccer Defending Tips

1. Use the Offside Trap

The offside trap can be extremely effective against teams that play through balls to a fast forward.

To perform an offside trap, one player (usually the center back) signals and every defender moves forward. Signal for an offside trap a few seconds before the ball is passed.

Even if you don’t use an offside trap regularly, you should still be aware of offside. One defensive player should never be far behind other teammates. Hold a strong line to prevent forwards and wingers from getting behind the line easily while avoiding getting called for offsides.

2. Call for a double team

A double team is effective when used correctly.

Call for a double team when the attacker is in a tight spot, like near the sideline, or doesn’t have good support (for instance, a single forward going down the middle without supporting runs).

3. Tell teammates who to mark

If you notice an unmarked opposing player, immediately tell a teammate to mark him.

Sometimes teammates get preoccupied with the ball and leave players open. Prevent an easy goal by keeping on the lookout for open players and informing your teammates.

4. Delay effectively

Defenders often focus too much on tackling. Delaying an attacker effectively can be just as effective.

When you delay an attacker, your teammates have time to get back and mark their man. As a result, the attacker usually has little options and will make a bad pass.

5. Learn the defensive header

Head the ball far and wide when you are in the defensive half. Read our article, How to Head a Soccer Ball to learn more.

6. Don’t be afraid to foul

Never tackle with the intent to injure. Having said that, do not be afraid to get called for a foul.

When you worry about fouling, you defend less aggressive.

Fouls will happen. They often don’t cause harm to your team. You will be much more effective playing aggressive and getting called for fouls occasionally than playing timid and avoiding fouls.

7. Keep your anger and frustration under control

I’m still amazed at how often advanced players commit pointless fouls (often resulting in yellow and red cards) simply because they lose control of their emotions.

Soccer can be frustrating. You will get angry. You can let your anger and frustration get the better of you and hurt your team, or you can use it as motivation to play better.

Tell yourself “I will not let my anger control me. I will use it as motivation to succeed.”

Control your anger and frustration and you will defend better.

13 thoughts on “How to Defend in Soccer”

  1. Do you have tips on how to keep the opposing team from stomping their cleats into the ankles of a defender effectively taking the defender out on injury for the rest of game? Thank you!

    • Hey Karen – Sounds like your speaking from a poor experience out on the field. Sorry to say, but dirty plays do happen. I hope you’re feeling okay and the damage done wasn’t too bad.

      When you’re playing that team again, I suggest speaking to the referee before the game. Let him or her know that dirty plays have been an issue with this team in the past and to look out for them. More often than not, officials who’ve been warned about potential dirty plays will take appropriate action if it happens again on their watch.

  2. I think you should explain each role and what is there duty and what they can and can’t do. That way when people read this they have a better understanding of each position and apply that knowledge with this one and be successful on the field.

    • Hi Maya – Unfortunately there’s not much to do at that point except hope the keeper stops them. Always get back though. If your keeper is able to break up the play, you’ll want to be there to clean it up!

      • If you are playing outside back, call for one of your center backs to come out and you take their place. The center is often farther back and can get to the attacker faster than you can after you get beat. In this situation, make sure you quickly get back to be the center back.

  3. Please explain the double team method.
    Is this basically 1 player in tackle whilst the team mate stays in line if the attacker gets through?

  4. Please can you help me what to do when the opposition are on a counter-attack and they are completely out numbering you?
    Especially when the opposition has double the amount attacking than you do defending?

    Thank you

    • From my experience play farther back and help the goal tender as much as possible. When doing this don’t get in the way of the goal tender because you can cause him not to see the ball.

  5. Bonjour,

    My son is a defender and plays in the U13 category (he is 12 years old). Do you have exercises to help him learn to defend?

    thank you so much

    See you soon

    • Work on how to read players stances, footwork, and positioning. To help better read players have your son watch videos on people attacking in different scenarios and have him try and guess the next move they make before they make it. For footwork I recommend searching up videos for this because I don’t have a good tip for this. Finally positioning is something you learn from game to game. It is finding out where you will be most effective and less likely to get dusted.


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