Home » News » Education » From NSCAA Academy Staff Coach Neil Hull: The Defensive P's

From NSCAA Academy Staff Coach Neil Hull: The Defensive P's

Posted by Neil Hull, NSCAA Academy Staff on May 10, 2016 in Education 0 Comments

Bookmark and Share

We have all heard, "Planning and preparation prevent poor performance." But this could be applied to so many avenues of the game. The road I want to follow is defending and the defensive-minded player, which begs the question--how many defenders do we have on a team? A question when asked, some coaches or players will answer three or four depending on there system of play. But in reality, every player is a defender, as well as an attacker!

Answer: Eleven defenders, or as many players as your team fields!

Defending is probably the most important skill on the pitch. After all, if you defend perfectly and do not manage to score, you still leave the field with a point. That point could be worth three if it is against a near competitor. Occasionally, a draw is as good as a win! As Sir Alex Ferguson mentions in his biography, “a defensive mistake often concedes a goal, but when an attacker misses, an opportunity is lost.”

To continue with the defensive alliteration, if you can remember and apply the following P’s to your coaching philosophy, your players defensively will only benefit.

Physicality, and

That is truly a plethora of P’s! Let us break it down one at a time:


The defender’s positioning is primary, not only the key to winning or channeling the attacking player, but also act as a visual clue to give the attacker his options. If the defender is standing square, he is off balance, probably flat-footed and easy prey to the speed of the attacker. To correct this, footwork is essential to the defender, positioning himself on his toes; weight evenly balanced offering a front foot with knees bent to provide a fast, low center of gravity, with the additional benefit of explosive power and speed from already flexed muscles. By offering this position, the defender is fast to pivot and explode with necessary pace and power to counter the speed of the attacker, more about that later! Not only is our footwork important but the positioning of our body in relation to the attacking player.

The defenders’ angle of approach is critical when trying to channel an attacker into pressure, or creating an angle away to the outside of the near post. If the defender approaches the wrong shoulder, or offers incorrect body language, he could be offering time and attacking space, a more experienced coach or player would deny. The distance a defender positions himself from the attacker is also an issue, affected by location on the field and physical and cognitive characteristics of both players, this can be termed as ‘pressure.'


Without pressure, a team does not have an effective defense. Not applying pressure creates opportunity and time, useful tools of the attacker. How much pressure is too much pressure? This is where the saying 'jumping in' comes into play. Inexperienced or players developed with attacking mindsets often become labeled with this attribute. ‘Jumping in’ is when a player totally commits to the tackle with out first denying or delaying the attacker, through the virtue of patience! This method of defending can be very costly in both outcome and predictability. If not corrected at and early stage, it becomes a bad habit difficult to lose, separating good defenders from just ‘defenders.’

So what is a good guide or visual clue? In training, we can teach it as ‘touch tight.’ This is where the defender approaches the attacker, gets close enough to touch him/her then stands off or creates an even balance. If we remained touch tight, our weight would be going forward, allowing us to be easily beaten. This ‘touch tight’ method is generally a training method, once distances and positioning have been repeated a few times and experience gained, a defender will be able to assimilate to his own pressure/distance methodology as her physical defensive attributes dictate. Even in games coaches or spectators will notice defenders being physically touch tight. Especially when the attacker has his back to your goal (target player) and the defender is placing himself as a physical obstacle between the ball and the goal. By touching the attacker’s back, he is almost saying: "Here I am, I’m ready for you, go on, try and take me on if you are good enough!" The touch becomes more psychological than physical pressure, almost forcing the attacker to play the predictable ball back towards his own goal or risk the loss of possession and ego and possibility of a counter attack. This situation is not black and white; some defenders might stand off and allow the attacker to turn into him, dependent on the situation.

Pressure is also a tactical consideration depending on the area of the pitch. There are times when as a defender. One does not want to apply full pressure and be ‘tight’ on an attacker around the half way line for example, unless there is already depth built into the system. For example, if the defender steps in tight and tries to win the ball, the defender is opening himself up to be beaten by a wall pass or a fast attacker using the attacking space behind the defender. If as the last defender, applying full tight pressure at the ‘half’ you are turned or beaten there is no one left to cover and only the goalkeeper to beat, not a good position to leave your team in. However if you ‘standoff’ or ‘sag’ a few paces off the attacker knows he is under physical and visual pressure, and may turn into or, defiantly be slowed down by your virtual pressure and positioning, even if only, in his thinking and improvisational ability, giving vital time for the rest of your team to drop in to shape.


This is the virtue, as the saying goes! Patience ties in with many of the other aspects, but is vital in creating time and making the attacker the dominant thinking player. The more the attacker has to think and be creative, possibilities of mistakes occur. Through patience, by holding off and not ‘jumping in’ the defender denies the attacking channels, slows down the play, and allows recovery attempting to control the attacker’s movement.

Once patience is mastered, the techniques of the individual defender can be applied: waiting for the ball to come out of the attacker’s feet, keeping it in the attackers back foot, forcing the ball on to the attacker’s weak foot, channeling the player in to pressure or dead space. All techniques matured only by time and experience to create the skills of the total defender. Patience could be classed as time, but as a defender one wants to use it to create time.


Predictability is a component of the defense that relies on the ability of the attacker. A weak, less-experienced attacker will not use all the individual tools at his disposal, especially those of improvisation and creativity. Look at the following world class attackers: Drogba, Ronaldinho, Charlie Cooke, Ronaldo, Henry, Puskas, and Pele. What do they all have in common through out the decades? Their play is not sequenced, it’s sporadic and skillful. An attacker is not necessarily the player who puts the ball in the back of the net, but the player who creates that opportunity. As a team has eleven defenders, it also has eleven attackers!

As the defender we want to try to create this predictability in the attacker, individually patience is often the key and as a team, tactical shape leads to its prevention. Denying the attacker his chosen foot or direction, his repetition and the reading of his visual clues are important factors in creating her predictability. Watching videos, scouting, and objective charting of players will assist to highlight attacking players of concern. As a team, the coach should work to avoid possession to such players. Or, when they are in possession ensure strong shape and cover is provided to make their play predictable, by turning them and playing the ball back to their teammates.


Power is the ability to move a certain object a certain distance in a certain time. The defender is that object. Not to be confused, independently, with strength or speed, but a combination of them. The defender has the ability to utilize the inherent power with in his body whilst his muscles are flexed with inner or mid range availability whilst in the process of concentric contraction. If the defender is upright in a non flexed position in his outer range, there is very little available power from the muscles, the power will mainly comes from the body as levers, producing minimal follow through and increasing the player to injuries.

For example in the block tackle, the defender wants to be able to step in to, and across the player with full force of his body weight and inertia, taking the ball through and beyond the attacker. At this point, the ball is ‘loose.’ It is at this point the power through the tackle becomes not only of physical but also tactical importance. Not only is he the dominant player in the tackle, reducing the risk of injury by the flexion of tight protagonist muscles around the joint, but also the synergist or supporting muscles are also in flexion to stabilize the area. His momentum will make him first to the loose ball, transitioning from the role of first defender, to first attacker and penetration. Power will also come into play in line with the positional responsibilities of clearing the ball, with head or foot. As we know, a major roll of defenders especially, the center backs is the use of their heads in clearing balls placed over the top or crossed in to the box.


Pace can be closely linked to power or one of the main components, speed. Pace on the ball, pace off the ball, pace to the ball, pace to close down space. Ultimately, a defender has to have more pace than one player on the pitch, the attacker. If, as so many coaches unfortunately do, find themselves in the position of placing a slower paced player in a defensive position, the ultimately they are setting themselves up for failure. However, this can sometimes be compensated by cognitive speed, speed of the mind and experience. Pace is an endless quality in a defender, because eventually one of the eleven defenders will become the attacker turning the hunter into the predator.


As a defender by position, a coach is generally looking for certain physical qualities. He is looking for height to cut out and prevent the ‘over the top’ ball. Height to dominate the cross ball situations, along with height comes the strong technical use of the head as one of his tools. Knowing when to choose between a clearing, or a penetrating header, creating time or a counter attack. A bad decision by a defender can cost a goal, him choice of play can be paramount to ensure the unit continues to plays as a team. Strength in physical size and ability, being able to take the knocks and continue, pace to and off the ball. The defender perpetuates the ability to dominate space and ground, creating a continual presence to harass and own his defensive space. The physical differences between attackers and defenders constantly stand out and can be statistically seen, by the use of different charting methods.


Personality is a large part of the defenders traits. Metaphorically speaking, in the author’s opinion, the defender drives a truck, wears old jeans, is rough-cut and usually a straight talker, walks the walk but hardly ever gets to talk the talk. Where as the striker drives a sports car, has a gorgeous girlfriend, wears the latest clothes, uses all the products and takes the glory!

To close down and release the pressure, I would like to leave you with a thought on defending from Alan Wade’s principles. According to these principles, the defender never touches the ball. Because as soon as he does he becomes the attacker! Therefore by utilizing the aforementioned P's, you could win the ball without actually touching it. But when you do, you become the attacker, so penetrate penetrate penetrate.

That is truly a plethora of P’s!

More from NSCAA Education

Early Bird Registration Ends on Friday for Summer Residentials in Santa Barbara

From Academy Staff Coach Neil Hull: Confrontation or Clumps?

NSCAA Academy Staff Member Teaches Three Diplomas in Dominica

Early Bird Registration Price Deadline is May 13 for the Residential Courses in Delaware

Join the Conversation

NSCAA members log in to comment. Not a member? Learn more today.

  • No comments yet.