What Does a Defender Do in Soccer? (Roles, Qualities & More)


what does a defender do in soccer

Many high level soccer coaches believe that defense and defenders are the most important elements in their team! And to be honest, it is really hard to argue with that …

… Indeed, with weak defenders you will lose matches, most of the time, regardless of the quality of the strikers you’ve got upfront!

In this article, I breakdown the role of defenders in soccer, so you will understand what this position is all about.

Let’s dive in!

What are the main roles of a defender?

The goal of defensive players is to stop the opponent’s attack, interfere with the creation of the opponent’s attack and prevent the opponent from scoring a goal!

In addition to the defensive aspects, they have an essential role in the initial phase of organizing the attack and the distribution of the ball to the offensive players of their team.

Defensive players play in the line in front of the goalkeeper and are divided into central defenders, sweepers and full backs.

How many defensive players will be on the field depends on the team formation and tactical approach. Formation set up determines the defenders’ role and specific tasks in a team.

What’s the role of the central defender?

Central defenders are players who play in the central part of the defense and their main role is to prevent opposing attackers from scoring goals or to create a chance for teammates to score goals.

Thus, their role is to mark the opposing attackers as a part of defensive tasks, while the offensive activities include distribution of the ball to midfielders or attackers.

Often central defenders are high players, with great heading abilities. This is useful when defending, as they can clear the area in front of their goal and stop opponent’s crosses.

In addition, their heading ability is helpful with offensive set pieces, as they are often targets in these situations.

The central defenders spend most of the game on their own half of the field. In today’s soccer the coaches mostly decide to use formation that includes two central defenders.

A good central defender is characterized by strength, speed, reading the game, and with precision in the passing game.

What’s the role of full backs?

Full-backs are players who stand wide in defense and there is one of them on each side of a formation.

To be more precise, there is a right and a left full-back in the soccer team. Their main role is to guard the opponent’s outside attackers and to prevent side crosses into your own penalty area.

Although their tasks are primarily defensive, their role is huge during attacking play as well. They are expected to go through the flanks, as well as to join the attack from the background by entering an empty space and send quality passes to forwards.

This is one of the most physically demanding positions on the soccer team, as these players need to cover a huge amount of area on the playing field.

Also, they are constantly playing at high pace due to their role, which requires a high level of physical preparation.

What’s the role of the sweeper?

Sweeper is a player who plays behind the central defenders and in front of the goalkeeper. His main role is to remove everything that passes behind the defenders of his team.

That is why it is also called a cleaner. It is characterized by good reading of the game, timely tackling and tight marking.

In the attack phase, he is expected to be calm in the pass and the movement of the ball to the midfielders or attackers.

In the offensive part of the play, he is expected to open counter attacks that can endanger the opponent’s goal. These players are very intelligent and elegant.

Should defenders learn how to score?

Of course they should! The easiest way for them to score goals is whether by a corner or a free kick.

Defenders are usually tall and a break game can be a situation where they can take advantage of their height and jumpiness.

Practicing coordinated actions from the break and directing the centers to the defenders should be the offensive weapon of every team.

Many defenders such as Sergio Ramos or Branislav Ivanovic became famous for scoring goals after the break. Another way to endanger an opponent’s goal is to shoot from a distance.

Usually defensive players are characterized by a strong kick that should be used in the right way. Defenders are quite offensive in modern soccer and throwing them in from the background can jeopardize an opponent’s goal.

Is defense the hardest soccer position?

Certainly, the position in defense is one of the most difficult positions in soccer!

Primarily because each mistake can cost his team dearly. When an attacker misses, it is not as loud as when a defensive player makes a fatal mistake.

Modern soccer, which requires starting the game from the last line of defense and exchanging passes in order for the ball to reach the front players, has further complicated the difficulty of this position.

Each defensive player is expected to have a high level of motor skills such as strength and endurance and a high level of concentration in order to be able to adequately respond to all tasks on the field.

Attributes that every soccer defender should have!

First of all, defenders must have a high level of motor skills. This primarily refers to their strength because they are often exposed to duel games with opposing players.

They need endurance so that they can respond in the right way to all efforts. The defensive player must be calm, when he is under pressure from the opponent and when he needs to take the ball out in the attack preparation phase.

The feature of all great defenders is anticipation of the game and position of the ball. Then, a good setup is a prerequisite to react well in a given situation. Some other important attributes are courage, determination, and perseverance.

Tips & Drills to become a better defender …

Play as simple as possible – a defensive player should not hold the ball too much in his possession because excessive retention of the ball can allow the opponent to take the ball and create a chance to score.

That is why it is best to play by the principle of receiving the ball and passing to the first free player, as simple and easy as possible.

Analyze the field conditions – this is one of the most important features of a defensive player. You have to scout the opponent well, don’t run into the ball if you are not 100% sure that you can take it.

Be patient and wait for the right moment to take the ball away from the opponent’s legs.

Be calm when passing the ball – before you pass the ball around, you need to know the positions of your teammates on the field, as well as which one of them is free.

When you take the ball, you should keep your head up, in order to see the positions of players on the field. Under any circumstances, the defensive player must remain cool-headed and calm, focused and composed.

Anticipate the playing position – try to always be positioned in a way that will allow you to prevent your opponent’s play as soon as possible.

Good positioning is half the job done. Play on the principle that prevention is better than cure. Keep an eye on where the ball is and how the opposing players are moving relative to it.

When they try to pass the ball around, you will be able to react and take the ball away from them. Good positioning will allow you to build up the counter attack and swiftly use the opponent’s mistake.

 Use your strength – constant work at the gym, work on push-ups and sit-ups will allow you to build up much needed strength for a good duel game.

Strengthening physical attributes is a prerequisite for winning a duel with strong opponents.

Endurance – remember that defensive players have to run a lot during the game without losing their own fitness and stamina.

That is why constant work on endurance is very important, so they can keep the quality of their game all 90 minutes.

Set up a small grid of cones and practice with your partner. Your teammate has the role of the attacker and moves the ball from one side to the other.

Your goal as the defender is to practice your feet work, by constantly following the attacker’s movement.

You always have one foot a little bit in front of the other, in order to force the opponent to go in the side direction.

When the attacker changes the direction, you adapt your body by switching the feet.

The purpose of this drill is to teach you how to change your body position without losing the attacker, and to avoid the situations to turn around and chase the attacker when he suddenly changes direction.

This is also a perfect drill to learn how to stay with the attacker all the time, by not giving them much space to move.

For defenders, it is important to cope with pressure when having the ball. In these situations, it is essential to keep a good view of the field and players’ positions.

For this purpose, you should practice turning to an open space when receiving the ball. To practice this, position yourself between two teammates, at 10 yards distance from each.

When the first partner sends the ball to you, receive the ball with an immediate turn to the second teammate and pass the ball to him.

Second teammate returns the ball to you, and you do the same in the opposite direction. You can make drill a little bit difficult with limiting receive and pass to two touches.

Risks of being a defender!

Any mistake in defense or in passing or controlling the ball can have fatal outcomes. Therefore, playing as a defensive player carries a risk.

A defensive player must be focused throughout the entire game because even the slightest mistake can cost his team getting a positive result from a game.

A moment of recklessness can give your opponent a chance to score. The mistakes of the goalkeeper and the defensive player are most noticeable mistakes in a soccer match.

A defensive player should not indulge in dribbling activity because a lost ball in his team’s half can be problematic.

Badly placed pass or poor ball control are the things that are not allowed to a defender. That is why a defensive player should play as simply as possible.

Passing the ball to an open player without any complication is the best solution for a defensive player when in a possession of the ball. If the player is physically ready and maximally concentrated, he will be able to play the game without any mistake.

In order to lower the risk of mistakes, an appropriate training schedule and rest are necessary.

Famous Defenders to be Inspired from …

Sergio Ramos is considered one of the best defenders of today. He is characterized by incredible strength and stability.

In addition to all soccer characteristics, he has also a strong leadership ability. He has been the leader of Real Madrid for more than a decade.

He brought joy to the Madrid club countless times with his goals after the set pieces. His defensive ability is at high level due to his determination and decisive tackles.

His strength allowed him to easily win duels with opponents and hold the control over the ball.

Along with Sergio Ramos, we should definitely mention the great Dutchman Virgil van Dijk. A player characterized by fantastic positioning and composure.

He has an amazing percentage of won duels on the ground and in the air. Liverpool fans have suffered for a long time when it comes to defensive players, but it seems that all their troubles have been solved by the arrival of this player at Anfield.

He is their defense leader and the foundation of Liverpool security in the back line.

Another in a series of phenomenal defenders was Nemanja Vidic. The player who captivated with his incredible strength, jump game and timely tackles marked one era of the famous team from Manchester.

He was the captain and leader of a team that won many trophies. How huge his contribution was, it is best shown by the fact that for years after his departure, Manchester is still looking for the right solution in the position of central defender.

Final Thoughts …

This was a quite long but very important article for me! Indeed, even if defense in soccer might seem or sound like an obvious concept when it comes to the needed tasks, I still believe that such a position is complex enough to the point where players really need to understand all the aspects related to this position …

… By doing so, you should perform much better at any capacity (4v4, 6v6, 7v7, 9v9, 11v11).

Claressa Cormier

Claressa Cormier has over 15 years of soccer experience between playing the sport at a semi-professional level, following the biggest soccer teams & leagues out there as well as helping beginners to get started on the right foot.

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