Soccer Strategy Breakdown Series: Part 2 — Defense Formations

In youth soccer, strategy, careful planning, and teamwork are all important parts of mastering this exciting, competitive, beautiful game. Helping young players learn about effective defensive formations and strategies can make a big difference in their performance on the field. Read on to learn about some of the winning youth soccer defensive formations that can help players develop, progress, excel — and have fun on the field.

Defensive Formations

Defensive formations detail how players are positioned on the field to help them gain defensive advantages over their opponents. The best defensive formations help create pressure on the offense, blocking attackers, creating turnovers as well as counterattacking and scoring opportunities.

One key skill for defenders is understanding their opponents’ offensive formations, such as the 4-4-2 soccer formation. Players aged 4 through 19 can join their local Rush Soccer club to learn these formations and master various soccer skills.

Using set pieces, or organized formations, can help youth soccer players understand their role in their team’s overall strategy. With practice, players can play more confidently and smoothly as they learn to transition from one formation to the next.

Defensive formations are composed of players who each have an assigned position on the field. These positions are used in each formation to help the players learn where they are located on the field and where and when they will move during game play.

Marking the Opponent

Marking the opponent (also called “marking up”) occurs when a player — in this case, the defender — is positioned close to their opponent so they can pressure them or challenge them for the ball. This technique is common during set plays, such as goal kicks, corner kicks, defensive walls, and free kicks. Marking helps reduce open chances at the goal, and it gives the defense a better opportunity to intercept passes toward the goal as well as tackle the player with the ball. When marking their assigned attacker, defenders should be prepared to anticipate their routes and movements on the field.

For example, when the ball is close to the defenders’ goal, a defender can mark the attacking player by being within arm’s length, but not on top of them. If the ball comes to that attacker, the defender can move quickly to the attacker to try to steal the ball. Each defender is assigned to a specific attacker (and vice versa).

When the ball is on the other side of the field, the defender will mark the space where the ball could go, rather than the attacking player. By keeping an open stance and splitting the space, the defender can see both the ball and the nearby attacker. This gives the defender flexibility in reacting to where the ball is moved, enabling them to move quickly to the attacker that is being marked.

The Defensive Wall

A key defense against free kicks, the defensive wall is one of the first — and most commonly used — set piece formations that a young player will learn. The coach for a younger (or less experienced) team may choose to set up the formation of the wall, composed of strikers and midfielders. The shortest players stand in the middle of the wall line, moving out to the end of the line with the next tallest players. As players develop, the goalkeeper will set up the wall, determining the number of players. The keeper also tells the players when to hold and whether to slide right or left.

When the defense gives up a foul that results in a free kick, the player who committed the foul will stand in front of the attacker to take the free kick. This allows the defense to stop any rhythm-disrupting quick kicks after the foul is called. This player usually isn’t part of the wall, but if they normally are part of the wall, another player will take that position near the ball.

After the goalkeeper determines that the attacker will not take a quick free kick, they set up the defensive wall of two to four players to counter the attackers’ set play. Once the keeper takes a position in the goal (which could be at either post or in the center of the goal), the players in the wall move to cover the unprotected space in the goal. With a well-constructed effective wall, the defense can reduce any scoring opportunities by the offense.

Building a defensive wall requires each player to know their roles in:

  1. Building the wall
  2. Marking their assigned attackers
  3. Getting ready for a good counterattack

Coaches can help position the goalkeeper and the players in the wall. Before the game — and possibly during the game, depending on the players’ ages — coaches should also prep the players so they know where they will be positioned in the wall.

Each player should be familiar with their positions and responsibilities in a defensive wall, especially how to anticipate and react to each situation. Because forwards and midfielders typically form the wall, the other defenders will mark their respective attackers. If offside is called in their age group, the defenders can also position themselves up field to form a line for offside. The wall should be large enough to prevent scoring opportunities but should have enough players to close any gaps that the goalkeeper can’t reach. However, too many players in the wall leaves attackers unmarked.

Facing the goal, the first player in the defensive wall takes a position about six to eight steps from the ball. This position is directly in line between the ball and the nearest goal post. The other players build a wall toward the other post. Players may protect their faces and other sensitive parts of their body with their hands and arms.

Once the referee blows the whistle, the attacker takes the kick. The ball can either be stopped by the wall, as intended, or it can go over or around the players in the wall. At this point, the goalkeeper can play the ball. The player who is positioned facing the goal can quickly run to support the goalkeeper, acting as a defensive back to block and/or clear the ball.

Sometimes a great kick will get past any defensive wall and the goalie, which provides the coach with a great opportunity to talk to their team about what they can learn from giving up that goal.

Implementing the Offside Trap

As a refresher of Law 11, which describes offside positions and offenses, the three main parts of committing an offside offense include:

  1. Being in the offside position, even though being in an offside position by itself isn’t an offense
  2. Active involvement in the play
  3. Timing throughout the play

Offside is established at the moment when the ball is played to the player who may be offside — not at the moment that they receive the pass. If that player is in an offside position at the moment the ball is played and then becomes involved in active play, an offside offense occurs.

Whenever all these instances occur, the assistant referee blows the whistle to stop the play. They signal offside by holding their flag straight up without waving it. When the center referee sees the flag, the assistant referee lowers the flag to the far, center, or near position, indicating where the offside offense occurred on the pitch. The defending team then takes an indirect free kick from the position of the offside infraction, as described in Law 11.4.

To create an offside trap, the defense sets up a high defensive line, which is located farther away from their own goal. The offside trap formation is set up to catch the advancing attackers in an offside position as they move to the goal. Using the high defensive line, the offside trap strategy can leave the defensive goal vulnerable if the attacking players remain onside and break through the back line.

Clearing the Ball

From the earliest age groups, youth soccer players learn that clearing the ball away from their own goal is an important way to transition the ball and advance game play. They can either clear the ball out of bounds (which leads to a throw-in or a corner kick by the opposition) or boot the ball as deep into their attacking zone as they can. A clearing kick can either be on the ground or in the air.

As defenders advance in their ball control skills, they learn to clear the ball different ways under various levels of pressure by the offense. When they are faced with low offensive pressure, the defender can pass the ball to a midfielder who is ready to receive it and then advance toward their goal.

In medium-pressure scenarios, the opponents try to force a turnover, but there is enough time to make a decision about clearing the ball. Defenders can pass the ball to a teammate on the wings or an attacker near the goal. After stopping the ball, the defender can also create a counterattacking opportunity through the midfield.

High-pressure situations require both quick thinking and a pre-planned clearing strategy. More advanced players can use the clearing techniques described for medium-pressure situations, or they can simply boot the ball up field with a specific recipient in mind to prevent turnovers.

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