As the great Sir Alex Ferguson once said – “Attack wins you games, defence wins you titles.” This quotation does a fantastic job in highlighting the importance of a strong defence, but it’s also important to note that defense also wins you games, which eventually then leads to those title wins that the legendary former Manchester United manager is talking about. When your defence is struggling, what better topic to introduce in a session than individual marking and defensive awareness? Of course other issues such as a lack of pressure or just an overall absence of possession may be the bigger problem, but without an ounce of defensive awareness and ability to properly mark the other team’s attackers, the team’s ability to win a game becomes exponentially more difficult. Here is a great analytical activity on Individual Marking & Defensive Awareness, devised by The Mastermind Site.
16 players 1 ball 8 bibs (e.g. 6 blue, 2 pink) 12 cones 44 x 50 area
This activity involves 8 players for the yellow team, 6 players for the blue team and two neutrals in pink. The yellow team is attacking on two blue gates to score, which will be set up on the corners of the grid. The blue team is trying to score on net, which is defended by the yellow team.
The neutrals are locked into their zones separated by orange cones and they also have a few balls ready to go just outside of the grid as all restarts are going to come from them.
The focus of the session is on marking, so each blue player is occupied by one yellow player. However, the blue players are free to interchange and roam around. They do not necessarily have to be locked in to their positions. If they interchange, the yellow defenders may get confused about who to mark and think they need to follow the player, when they actually need to hold their position and communicate with each other that a player is coming. The blue team is set up in a 4-3-3 formation, minus two central midfielders. The neutrals in this case act as the blue team’s fullbacks. The yellow team is set up in either a 4-4-2 formation with one of the two centre backs missing or in a 3-4-3 with the neutrals acting as a wing-backs and a striker missing instead. This can all be easily adapted to suit the needs of your team, such as adding a fourth defender for yellow or a second central midfielder for blue.
The yellow team scores by dribbling through the blue gates on the corners of the field or through passing to a teammate on the other side of a blue gate.
The blue team scores on the goal that will be defended by the yellow team. The neutrals are locked into their zones, separated by orange cones. All restarts start with one of the neutrals attacking at speed down the line and playing in a cross to the blue team. This method of restarting play is important because it means the yellow team is going to have an abundance of opportunities to test their defensive awareness and their ability to mark. The yellow team will try and win the ball away from blue and then look to play in their forwards or the neutrals to eventually try and score on the blue gates through a dribble or pass. The blue team will look to recover if they lose the ball and score on goal. If the ball goes out of play, the nearest neutral can grab a new ball, attack down the line and put in a cross right away.
WHO MARKS WHO AND HOW?
The three yellow defenders should each have their eye on a blue attacker and at least one of the two central midfielders needs to be marking the blue central midfielder. The other free central mid (probably the one closer to the ball) can be focused on supporting in defense and cutting off potential passing lanes for the cross, such as pressuring the ball. If the near-side defender decides to pressure the ball instead, the free central midfielder can recover to mark the blue winger instead, so long as these players communicate adequately. Out of possession, the yellow strikers can also be marking the two blue centre-backs, although more loosely as the ball coming in from the neutral is always going to be delivered into the box.
All defending team players (most commonly the yellow team) should be marking goal-side and ball-side, as shown in the image. The furthest defender away from the ball, in this case the yellow team’s left-back, can mark a bit more loosely and closer to the ball than the other two. This is because if the ball does get played into the far side, the yellow left defender should be able to get their in time so long as their starting position is good enough. Currently, the danger is in other areas and they be required to help their central defender. The near-side defender can decide to pressure the ball, however, they need to communicate to their central midfielder to mark the blue left-winger in their place. Because the neutral player is locked into their zone, pressuring the ball is not necessarily needed for this activity. It also adds a more complicated element to an already complex activity and may mean the cross delivered into the box isn’t a good one. As a result, the focus can instead be put on the right defender’s ability to mark the blue left winger and the central midfielder’s awareness of what is around them to make the best course of action. Pressuring the ball can be introduced as a later progression or right away for older, more experienced teams, or not at all if you want all the focus to be on the marking of the yellow team.
In the image shown, it is also important to note that the yellow central midfielders haven’t yet communicated who is to mark the blue player and who is to support in another area. The yellow striker on the far side from the ball is correctly marking goal-side and ball-side, but the near-sided yellow striker is not.
KEY COACHING POINTS
- How where you are in relation to the ball changes how you mark (loose vs. tight marking).
- Communication of all players.
- Goal-side and ball-side marking.
- Aggression, desire to win the ball back and clear it out of danger.
- Scanning & tracking the movements of the three blue attackers.
- Never turn your back! Always face the ball.
- Marking of the yellow central midfielders and strikers too, not just the defenders.
- Add another centre-back for the yellow team: The near-side right and left defenders now have a decision to make on whether they pressure the ball or stick with the blue team’s winger. If they choose to pressure the ball, they need to communicate with the nearest centre back to mark the winger instead, who should in turn communicate with the other centre back to mark the blue striker.
- Have the yellow CM’s start at the half-way line: Often times, the central midfielders get caught too high and have to make recovery runs to stop the other team from scoring. This progression forces the yellow central midfielders into a game-realistic encounter that they probably experience every single game – a lung-bursting run back to help out their defenders. This could be just one central midfielder making a recovery run or both. The important thing is how they recover and how they communicate on who is to take up what task (i.e. who will take the marking responsibilities of the blue team’s central midfielder).
- Defenders start out of position: In this scenario, the defenders have just been beaten by their own off-side trap and have allowed the other team’s fullback (the neutral) to go forward, with three blue attackers in advantageous positions. Now they need to recover and make up for their mistake by getting back goal-side, intercepting the pass and clearing the ball out of danger.
- Make teams even: Give every single player someone to mark by adding a second blue central midfielder. This can be taken one step further if the neutrals are added to the game, one for blue and one for yellow. Just make sure that if the new yellow player is coming in as a third attacker, the new blue needs to come in as a third defender. If the neutrals enter the frame and the orange cone zone is taken away, the ball can come in from a coach instead. Again, the ball coming in from a cross is a necessary component to the game as it will give the yellow defenders several opportunities to practice their marking and their ability to see the danger and get the ball away, in a game-realistic way.
This analytical activity is fantastic for teaching players a very important game mechanic – marking and defensive awareness. These are two subjects that many defenders struggle with, even if the concept of marking seems so simple to us as coaches. It introduces a realistic game-mechanic of a cross coming in from a neutral player as a method of restarting play. This is so that the yellow team will spend as much time as possible defending against the blue team and learning how to properly mark and defend in a variety of different scenarios. This activity is also easily adjustable to meet the needs of your team and easily allows for many different types of progressions, depending on what you want your team to focus on.