Basic Principles of Defending

“Defence starts with the battle for possession – when you have the ball, you do not have to defend.”

(Evert, 2006: 33)

The main responsibility of the defending team is to prevent the attackers from scoring and to win back possession in order to mount an attack in return. The term ‘attacking without the ball’ is an extremely apt definition for the mindset required to be successful in defence as most teams spend about 50 per cent of their time attempting to regain the ball from the opposition (Reilly, Clarys & Stibbe, 1993).

From a review of the literature of defending in football, the effectiveness of a team’s defensive ability, aside from tackling, is largely reliant upon four main tactical elements of performance: defensive organization; marking; pressing and the offside tactic.

Defensive Organization

A high quality and effective defending team becomes impenetrable for the attacking team by acting as a coherently compact and organized defensive unit (Goldblatt & Action, 2009). The foundation of defensive organization is comprised of working together to regain possession of the ball, holding a tight defensive line, maintaining ‘team shape’, claiming responsibility (both individually and collectively) for marking attacking players and disrupting the opposing team’s attacking options and fluency as much as possible.


Marking, or ‘picking up’, is based on preventing the ball being passed easily from one opposing team member to another by closely ‘shadowing’ their movements (Goldblatt & Action, 2009). There are two types of marking strategies in football: zonal marking (players are responsible for certain areas of the pitch) and ‘man-to-man’ (players are allocated a particular opponent to defend against).


Pressing is a collective tactical action (i.e. carried out by one of more players), performed in situations of non-possession (i.e. defending) (Lucchesi, 2003). Therefore, pressing is based on a number of players cooperating simultaneously in a pre-established strategy so as to achieve a common aim (i.e. re-gain possession). Moreover, the purpose of pressing is to close up the spaces and playing time for the team that is in possession, making it difficult for them to develop their attacking moves and easier for the defending team to regain the ball.

The Offside Tactic

The offside tactic tend to be the final phase of a ‘pressure’ movement carried out by all the players of a team behind the line of the ball stepping forward just before an opponent passes the ball to a forward-running attacker (Goldblatt & Action, 2009). This tactical element can enable possession to be regained by either a free-kick or aggressive pressure (Trapattoni, 1999). It is a high-risk strategy, but can be particularly effective if performed (as well as coached) effectively.

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