By Nate Baker
I first want to thank the Arlington Soccer Association for asking me to be a part of such a cool initiative. I also want to thank U-17 Arlington Strikers Red for having the right mentality and giving their full-effort and focus to the session.
Look forward to helping out again next year!
The session was meant to be a 45-minute primer before the group scrimmaged 11v11. The topic I was instructed to train was defending, so I tried to build from the base of 2-man defending (pressure-cover) and then build into a bigger small-side game. At Navy, we are really big on pattern-play when building team agreements when we are IN possession, but within the last year, we have taken that same mindset and applied it to how we train our team defending. For me, this helps us build a base before even bringing the ball into the session. It allows us to train the defensive movement of the team on a micro (2-man) and a macro level (entire eleven players within team shape).
Part 1 of the Session (Step and Cover Pattern Work)
We had ten players, so we broke the group into pairs. If you have bigger numbers, you can put three to a group and have one guy take a break in between sets. The distance of the cones are about eight yards, but you can change that depending on workload and preference. The coach starts each group in “Steady State” and then shouts “Left” or “Right” to get them to close down the metaphorical cone that represents the 1st attacker (player with the ball), while the weak-side defender provides cover. As soon as coach shouts “left” each group simultaneously moves into their next position with the covering 2nd defender closes down his corresponding cone (becoming 1st defender), while the original 1st defender falls into a covering position (becoming 2nd defender). It is the coach’s choice as to how long he makes each set. The goal is sharp simultaneous movement with the proper technique and body movement.
1st defender’s role is to close the ball with pace and use good body positioning (low athletic stance) to push the 1st attacker (his cone) towards the 2nd defender. The 2nd defender’s role is to provide cover to intercept a split pass or be able to step and press 1st attacker if 1st defender is beaten off the dribble. The transition from being 1st defender to 2nd defender (and vice versa) is vital. Players were expected to work hard to cover the ground with everyone working together in unison, so it would look a piston, hungry for the coach’s next shout.
The cross-over step should really be a point of emphasis. I forgot to mention it in the diagrams below, but you should encourage both 1st and 2nd defender to use a crossover step to initiate their movement into the next space. For me, it is the quickest/efficient way to cover ground when pressing or covering. Make sure your players never back pedal into space when covering. Back-pedaling is a less-efficient way of covering ground and should be discouraged.
The below picture shows three groups of two working in unison, which will be different than the two pictures that follow that show stages of the process with one group of two. I know that might be confusing, so I apologize.
You can then build in the pattern shouts of “Give-Go” and “Overlap”. Again, we are building defensive agreements within the team. For the purpose of the exercise, you have to just envision that the two cones your players are closing down are attackers who are literally just passing the ball square, back and forth. That becomes clear when you think about the press/cover work above, but now we have to imagine the cones trying to “give-go” and “overlap” and paint a picture for the players.
As you can see above, you start the set with your “right” and “left” shouts for however long you want, but when you yell “give-go” the 1st defender will “find the mark” with his hand and establish an inside lane that allows the tracking defender to win the return pass, while quickly tracking with his eyes and body shape where the ball is in case a return pass is ever played (once this is done, you can go back to steady state to start the next set). The 2nd defender’s role when “give-go” is to close down the square-pass that starts the give-go. Notice the movements of the two defenders as they move from stage 2 (Left) to stage 3 (Give-Go) and follow the color coordinated arrows to see the movements in depth. Remember, what you are seeing above is one group moving through three movements, not three groups of two players doing different movements.
Same goes for “Overlap”. This will probably be the more difficult of the two for the players to conceptualize, but again notice the progression above and the corresponding movements. Let’s look again at stage 2 (left) and soon as overlap is called, the 1st defender(orange arrows) must move in his defensive stance on a backwards shuffle to account for the weakside cone (2nd attacker getting around for the overlap), while the 2nd defender must now step across and close down the cone with the ball (red arrows). It is extremely important, each player shouts his responsibility when they diagnose the overlap is coming by shouting “Got Ball” or “Got Overlap”.
Part 2: 4v2 Step and Cover
The next exercise puts the pattern work to practice. Focus on the step and cover technique that was practiced earlier. There are two sets of players in each 4×12 yard end zone. Their goal is to connect as many passes as possible (on the ground) to the group in the opposite end zone as the two in the middle use proper step and cover techniques to win the ball.
It’s important that the two in the middle work together and in unison. It is the coach’s decision on when to call for a new group of two defenders (and the end zone players) but my suggestion is to just make sure you aren’t stopping it every second to change people in and out. Leave the end zone guys in for awhile, so you you don’t disrupt the session. If defender wins the ball, have him quickly pass it back to the end zone players, so the drill can start again quickly. Any ball that goes far from the grid, reinsert a new ball from coach on side. The most important thing to stress to your defenders is to not get split and that is a joint effort.
A good way to avoid the split is by introducing the “baseball glove technique”. Both defenders need to think of the inside of each of their feet as baseball gloves that can intercept any ball played below waist level to their right or left. Most opportunities to intercept will come from the 2nd defender in a covering position. I think this exercise is a really good teaching exercise and can be done in a normal training environment for as long as 30 minutes.
I usually start with the endzone players having mandatory two touch, which gives the defenders a half-second more to do their defensive duties. To make it more challenging, you can allow one-touch.
Part 3: Small-side 7v7 (3-3-1) to Central Targets:
We only had ten players for the session, so I shrunk the space and made it 4v4 to targets and put each team in a 2-1-1 shape, which allowed the pressure-cover themes to come out. Also, within a small-side set-up, defending give-go’s and overlaps now became new issues that the two defenders didn’t have to deal with in the previous exercise, so I would definitely be looking for an opportunity to show a proper (or improper) example of give-go and overlap defending and refer back to the partner-pattern work they did at the beginning of the session. The team in possession scores a goal by connecting with the target on the opposite end of the field. The targets always play one-touch if they can, and always play to their own team (rotate targets during natural breaks, ball out of bouds). Ball should be restarted by a coach on the outside at midfield.
A key element that can be introduced at this phase is “weak-side”. Weak-side is the 3rd defender’s role in tucking towards the ball, while being able to get to his “man-responsibility”. I put down three cones centrally to split the field vertically to give them a gauge on when a weak-side player needed to tuck to balance the team. Just think bigger picture: How would a right-back position himself if his left winger is the first defender? Setting each group into a shape like a 3-3-1, provides context to how an entire team moves within a defensive shape.
I started with unlimited touch, but I found that playing two-touch allowed for clearer opportunities to spot give-go’s and proper pressure-cover defending. Although, you potentially sacrifice your ability to bring out an overlap defending opportunity within the game, I think it was for the best.
At Navy, we play a lot of “2-touch. 1-touch” which basically means you can use a max of two touches unless it is a transition (i.e. intercepting a pass from the other team, play restarted from the coach). I used this rule with the boys and what it did was allow them to see why they were doing all this defending work in the first place…to have the ball themselves! It’s a very important coaching point that the players learn to have the presence of mind to retain possession once they have won it, and putting a one-touch restriction on transitions forces them to think faster and one-step ahead.
Hope this helps all the coaches out there as they prepare their defensive-themed training sessions. Feel free to contact me by clicking here if you have any questions on the session.