Key defensive tactical principles

Every strategy, game plan or tactical approach ought to have a clear vision about the key principles it was built upon, and its weaknesses and strengths. The team must know how they want to attack and defend. These principles and guidelines help the players to orientate themselves in time and space across the pitch. Now we discuss about defensive tactical principles in detail to understand their importance, and be able to implement them better in everyday work on the ground.

The defensive principles of football allow better cohesion between the players, developing their collective understanding. These principles target for accurate and quick response in order to defend the goal and get back ball possession. Performing these principles instructs the players’ positioning on the pitch in relation to the ball, teammates, opponents, as well as to the main objectives of the team. Thus, these defensive principles of a team’s tactic aim to coerce the space and time and opportunities of the opponents so as to achieve their purpose, avoiding the effectiveness of the opponent’s offensive momentums.

The five fundamental defensive tactical principles are:

  • delay,
  • defensive coverage
  • balance
  • concentration
  • defensive unity

Delay Principle

The delay principle is characterized by the action of the defender over the attacking opponent, with or without ball possession aimed at reducing the offensive and exploitable space, and reducing the opportunities to pass or finish an offensive action successfully. The guidelines of this principle is the specific and strict marking of the attacker with or without ball possession, monitoring the movements and intentions so as to delay offensive progression into dangerous zones making goal scoring chances, as well as the constraint of passing lines or shooting attempts. During this process, defenders should maintain their compactness and positions between their own goal and the ball’s position in relation to the other players.

Example of a suited training drill here:

Defensive Coverage Principle

Defensive coverage refers to the protective/defending action of the first defender, i.e. the second defender protects the defender’s position and shadow while that makes the delay principle over the attacker with ball possession, for more information about this  concept you can read this and this excellent article from Thus, if the attacker with the ball beats his first defender, the second who obeys this principle will try to slow the offensive progress with his/her positioning or making pressing movements. In addition, the protective process from the second player can allow an improvement of the team’s defensive action as a whole, because they feel much safer in cases of failure to attack the ball, and the team can reiterate his defensive actions.

Example of a suited training drill here:

Balance Principle

Our first theoretic assumption to achieve the balance principle is granting numerical dominance (or at least equality) during the defensive transition or in the defensive phase over the opponent. The second theoretical assumption is the frequent adjustments the team make in reaction to the opponent’s positioning and movements or actions. The main guidelines of the balance principle are to cover the space between the ball and the goal, reducing the exploitable channels and gaps between the lines and mark the attackers without ball possession,  avoiding passing lines, and thus reducing success opportunities.

Example of a suited training drill here:

Concentration Principle

The concentration principle aims to decrease the effective play area of the opposing team reducing their space to exploit and influence their decisions to choose less dangerous actions(back pass, side pass, holding the ball); as such, the higher proximity between teammates in the defensive phase increases the effectiveness of the defensive coverage, as well as the protection of the score zone and reduce the more dangerous actions closer to the goal(shots, low crosses into the box etc.). Therefore, for an effective defensive process or preventing the opponent’s actions, the highest priority is to ensure the concentration principle, as this will make it easier to recover ball possession. The main point behind this principle is “being in the right place in the right time as a team”, the team can concentrate its focus and forces to an exact space on the pitch, exploit the numerical superiority what we spoke about before, and using this superiority the team can gain huge advantage  The guidelines of this principle are to orientate the opponent to play in less dangerous areas, and decrease the length and width of the players’ distribution so as to reduce the free spaces between teammates. The concentration principle can be accomplished in any field zone, but depends on the strategies and orientation of the team, as well as the match status.

Example of a suited training drill here:

Defensive Unit Principle

The defensive unit principle is the positioning rule for the off-ball defenders so they can decrease the effective playspace of the opponent’s attacking unit. To accomplish and use this principle effectively, a deeper knowledge and understanding of the game is indispensable, as is knowledge of the strategic orientations, movements, roles and responsibilities of one’s own team.

A defensive unit conception depends on the ability to position oneself in the right place int he right time according to one’s teammates, the ball’s position, opponents’ position and the status of one’s own team as well as the main strategy used throughout the match (if the team plays a pressing game, this defensive unit must be more agressive in their positioning, and their covering duties will increase due to the teammates agressive pressing movements to fill their gap).

I hope I gave some insight into the art of defending and how to train the team to apply these principles to achieve a solid defensive line.

The training drills are not mine, you can access a lot more useful training drills and tips if you sign up to the fantastic

Next time I would like to introduce the offensive principles of football. I hope you will enjoy that one too. If you have any insight or idea, or you just want to share your thoughts about football please comment here ,or on my twitter here.


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