By Bruce Brownlee
Players will look at the flat back 4 as 1v1 marking. This will create dangerous space behind the defender furthest from the ball, who will get caught ball watching. It will also leave space open at the top of the penalty area when defenders track opponents away and Midfielders don't cover. 1v1 thinking will also take away second defender support near the ball.
To correct this, work on covering space, not marking, away from the ball, and on getting support for the first defender near the ball. Train your players to back off when their opponent passes the ball away, instantly.
To demonstrate, stand up 4 players in a 2v2 with attackers facing goal with 1 ball. Start with the first defender pressed on close to stand up the attacker with the ball, and the second defender tucked in beside and behind to cover the second attacker as well as the space behind the first defender. Everyone's frozen at this point. Have the first attacker pass the ball to the second attacker, then step forward into the space behind the original first defender (still pressed on tight and frozen). Because the original defender did not drop off immediately, the attacker's first step put the attacker into space behind the original first defender, where the attacker can now receive the ball in space.
Now that you have shown that the first defenders must drop off to support as second defenders when the ball is passed away, start groups of 4 in this situation with the attackers interpassing, but otherwise stationary. You should have the defenders moving in opposite directions as the ball moves, one closing down, one tucking in to support.
When the defenders can accomplish this change of shape rapidly and reliably, you are ready to go to 4 defenders engaged in the same activity. Put 4 attackers with a ball outside the penalty area, for example, and have 4 defenders work on changing shape quickly to get pressure on the ball, support for the first defender, close marking near the ball, and coverage of space away from the ball. Correct any tight marking that's happening far away from the ball that could create space behind the defense.
Put in two Midfielders for the attacking side to help change the point of attack quickly. Now, let them play 6 v 4, defenders down, and give the defending side a keeper and full-size goal behind them, and give the defenders a couple of counter goals at the half-way line.
Finally, add a couple of Midfielders for the defending side and let the game play as a 6v6, same equipment. Now, you are looking for the defending Midfielders to track runners through the defense, and to help cover space near the D that is open and dangerous when a ball on the wing is played to the center quickly. A clever attacking side will overload the area near the ball to take your defenders deep behind the point of attack, then switch the ball away in hopes that they can get a shot before your defenders change the shape of their group. Your Midfielders covering space or running with the shooter can save you here. Alternatively, one of your back 4 must read the game well enough and be quick enough to close this out. In real match play, both can be true.
Bruce Brownlee coached boys soccer from 1978 to 1988 in Marietta, Georgia. Coached girls teams from 1988 to 2003 for Tophat Soccer Club in Atlanta and AFC Lightning Soccer Club in Fayetteville, Georgia. Served as a staff ODP recruiter and coach in 2002-2003. Returned in 2010-2011 to help coach his granddaughter’s U11 team. Won 4 state cup championships at Tophat. Proud of his four children who played top-level club soccer and amateur and college soccer later. His site Soccer Coaching Notes.com is a terrific resource for club and amateur soccer coaches.
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