Ask most defenders what their primary objective is and they likely will reply, “Prevent a goal.” That is both true and false.
While the defense’s ultimate wish is to post shutouts, its first mission is to regain possession of the ball as quickly as possible. The reason is simple: Without the ball, the opposing offense cannot score.
There are two ways a defender can take the ball from an opponent: Intercept a pass to open space or tackle the ball as the opponent attacks. If the defense is not in a position to intercept or tackle the ball, then its focus should be on preventing penetration, which the offense uses to create scoring opportunities.
“Offenses will create a lot of chances,” says Brent Erwin, a staff coach at the IMG Soccer Academy in Bradenton, Fla., “but there are a lot of mechanisms for stopping them.”
Most defenses employ a four-player back system that uses a zone defense to cover the three attacking players and protect open space. The more threatening the attack becomes, the more likely a midfielder will drop back and assist the defensive stand. In theory, offenses could offset by the numbers game by pushing more players forward, but then they would be susceptible to a counter attack.
“Almost every time the attackers are outnumbered,” Erwin says, “for fear they’ll allow a goal if they commit too many players up front. The game has evolved. Teams used to have nine players up front. The bottom line is you don’t want to allow goals.”
These four defenders are called halfbacks. There are two “outside backs” and two “center backs.” Some teams prefer to stack the “center backs,” in which case the player on top is a “stopper” and the player closest to the goalie is a “sweeper.”
The outside backs are responsible for keeping the ball in front of them and taking the ball from an opponent when possible. The player with the ball is considered most dangerous and is marked, or guarded, accordingly.
The second most dangerous opponent is the player in the best position to receive a pass and score. As the offensive teams moves the ball from side to side, the defense will rotate accordingly, making sure to cover the ball and passing lanes to the second attacking player.
“They want to deny penetration and man-to-man mark,” Erwin said. “I can deny penetration by keeping an eye on the ball and an opposing teammate who has the best chance to hurt me.”
If an offensive player penetrates this first line of defense, then it’s the sweeper’s job to stop the drive. In many ways, the sweeper position models the free safety in football, the last line of protection. The sweeper wants to ease the burden on the goalkeeper by making any shot as difficult as possible.
“The sweeper is always giving cover,” Erwin says. “He is in the center of the field, but if the ball moves to the left side, he cheats to that side. He is trying to find out where the danger is and deny penetration in the middle of the field.
“If the offense breaks through the line, the sweeper has to try to stop it.”