The Soccer Defender: Unsung Heroes
The job of the soccer defender basically boils down to this: stop the opponent from scoring.
This is achieved mainly though three tasks; marking, covering, and tackling. Seldom flashy and not very often praised, the defender is at their best when they're not even noticed.
While strikers can get away with missing their scoring opportunities (though hopefully not too many), and midfielders can have their mistakes covered up, very often any mistake a defender makes will end up in the net and be visible for all to see. This is a pressure that all defenders must play with, and means that the position is not suitable for just anyone.
Fullbacks, Wingbacks, Sweepers, Centerbacks...How many defenders are there?
Soccer defenders vary in their positions and their tactics. They can generally be broken down as centerbacks, wingbacks, sweepers and fullbacks. Team strategy will dictate how the defensemen will typically play.
A typical soccer formation will have 4 soccer defenders playing on the back line. There are exceptions however, such as the sweeper formation which can sometimes use a fifth defender as a sweeper to help the other defenders mark.
The two middle defensemen in a typical 4 man back line are known as the centerbacks. Since these players cover the area of the field that attackers will want to be, you'll want to make sure your centerbacks are your most reliable defensemen.
Skills and traits necessary to be a good centerback include:
- Height and a strong physical presence
- Strength in the air to deal with crosses and air balls
- Speed to catch up with long and through balls and chase down attackers
- Good leadership qualities, as often they will be responsible to getting the back line organized
- Vocal on the field
The sweeper (or libero, in Italian) only exists in certain formations and strategies, having been made famous in the Italian catenaccio strategy.
Usually, one of the centerbacks will be designated as a sweeper, with some strategies calling for a fifth soccer defender to act as the sweeper.
The sweeper's job is to patrol the back line, help the defenders with their marking, and clear out (or sweep, hence the name) any loose balls that might make it past the back four. The sweeper can also play an attacking role as well, either by effectively distributing a long ball or making their own penetrating runs.
The sweeper should usually be the team's strongest defenseman as they will be the last line of defence before the goalkeeper. Being able to read the play and intercept passes are essential skills for a good sweeper. An attacking instinct and ability to reset the play quickly will also help tremendously.
Fullbacks occupy the outside positions of the back four, and are responsible for marking opposing wingers and preventing them from gaining access to the goal area and servicing any crosses into the middle of the field.
It's important for fullbacks to be relatively quick so they are able to guard the wingers they'll be matched up against. It's also necessary for fullbacks to develop good defensive awareness and build up good soccer intelligence so they are able to read the play as it develops.
Wingbacks play in the same spot as the fullback, but they are deployed in a slightly different way. Many modern formations have done away with dedicated wingers playing up field. As a result, the team will rely on the wingback to make deep runs into the attacking half of the field to provide width for their attacks. However, the wingback must still be defensively responsible and retreat to cover-up when necessary.
Because of the difficulty in playing this dual role, an effective wingback can be one of the most difficult positions on a team to fill.
What makes a good wingback? Truthfully, a good wingback has to be an excellent all-around player, with outstanding speed and stamina. Skills common to good wingbacks:
- Speed is very important as the wingers you'll be matched against will typically be the opposing team's fastest players
- Stamina is critical for wingbacks, as they will at times be forced to run the whole length of the field for an attack, and then run all the way back to get into a defensive position again
- An attacking instinct is necessary, to push deep into the opponents half and provide width for the attack
- Defensive ability on par with a regular fullback
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