Defensive drills in soccer are often overlooked when coaching young players. Why? Goal scoring opportunities in games fill the highlight reels. While coaches are encouraged to try and keep young players engaged, let’s face it, they are most engaged when trying to score goals.


How do we keep young players engaged while teaching them defensive skills?

Knowing what skills we are trying to impart to young players will help develop their defensive skills. Defensive players need to build the following skill sets:

  • Awareness
  • Position relative to the ball and the defender
  • Patience
  • Trust
  • Lateral movement
  • Spoiling
  • Supporting
  • Operating as a second defender
  • Operating as a defensive unit
  • Slowing an opponent’s progress
  • Transitioning
  • Steering an opponent away from the goal
  • Not allowing your opponent to turn towards the goal
  • Standing side-on to an opponent

It is important to note, not all defending is about stopping your opponent from scoring. The modern defender is much more than that. They score and assist goals while being an active participant in transitioning the ball from the back line to the front.

Training drills usually have an attacking focus. With a little modification and perspective, training drills can enhance both attacking and defensive skills. As a result, it is important young players understand how their defensive role transitions into attack.


Training Drills

1 v 1 Defensive Focus

Despite players attempting to score a goal against their opponent, this drill focuses on the defender’s positioning.


  • Set up a 30 x 20m grid with mini goals in the middle at each of the narrow ends
  • 4 players commence at each of 2 opposite diagonal corners
  • When the coach calls go, 1 player from each corner sprints along the goal line and around their goal into the field
  • The coach releases a ball and one player attacks whilst the other defends their goal
  • The defensive player is encouraged to take a side on position to the attacker between the ball and their goal, steering the attacker towards the side line. The side on position will allow the defender to change direction faster and discourage the attacker from taking a more direct route to goal
  • The defensive player is encouraged to be patient and wait for the player in possession of the ball to lose control and win possession themselves or if this is not achievable, spoil their opponents progress by kicking the ball out


The defensive player aims to direct the player in possession of the ball away from the goal by positioning their body side on to their opponent. This position blocks

  1. The direct path to goal and
  2. Away from the centre of the field making the angled path to goal more acute

‘Jockeying’ the player with the ball, can cause them frustration, pressure and consequently mistakes – this is what we are aiming to achieve.


Introduce a second player to one side or both sides.


1 v 1 Hustle

In this drill defensive players are encouraged to ‘hustle’ and hassle their opponent who are in possession of the ball. The player in possession of the ball must keep the ball away from their opponent.



  • Set up 4 square grids 8 metres x 8 metres
  • 2 players enter each grid with a ball
  • 1 player takes possession of the ball and must keep it away from their opponent and keep it within their grid
  • The player with the ball is encouraged to turn side on (half turn) and keep the ball away from their opponent with the furthest foot whilst using their body to shield the ball
  • The opponent must try and win control or spoil their opponents control by kicking the ball out – hustle and hassle
  • Change after 30 seconds
  • Move 1 player from each grid to another grid after 2 minutes


The drill is designed to develop 2 components. One player utilises the resources available to them – body and legs – to maintain possession of the ball, whilst their opponent is trying to steal or spoil the ball. Securing possession can allow a ball to be passed to a player in a better position and transition into attack.


Make the grids larger or smaller dependent on player competency.


Man on Man – Number Up

In this drill the focus in on man-marking and defenders taking responsibility for marking a single player.



  • Set up a grid 30 metres x 30 metres with a mini goal on the narrow sides opposite each other
  • 5 players on each team are given a number 1 to 5
  • From each team, players can only tackle the opponent with their corresponding number ie player 1 can only tackle player 1, player 2 can only tackle player 2 etc
  • Players can control a loose ball that another player has spoiled, but no active tackling of a player whose number doesn’t match theirs
  • Players are to be encouraged to stick with their number no matter where they go on the field
  • Players attempt to score in their opponents goal


Players learn to take responsibility for marking a single player and stay with them. Further, it creates greater awareness on the pitch having to watch both the ball and their designated player.


Teams get a bonus point if they can pass through consecutive numbers from 1 to 5.


2 v 3 Defensive Drills

This two attackers versus three defenders drill focuses on players learning concepts around the second defender. The second defender explained:

  1. When an attacker in possession of the ball is approaching a defender, that defender is the primary defender
  2. In football terms when one defender stands behind the primary defender, or in close proximity between the primary defender and the goal, that defender is the second defender

If the attacker is able to elude the primary defender, the second defender is a second line of defense that seeks to win the ball or spoil the attacker’s run.


  • Set up a 30 metre x 20 metre grid with a mini goal at one end
  • The 2 attacking players commence opposite the goal 30 meters out
  • 3 defenders are positioned in a line across the front of the goal 5 metres apart and 10 metres from the goal line
  • The 3 defensive players must operate as a defensive unit to block the attack of their 2 opponents
  • Effectively, 2 defenders line themselves up with 2 attackers with the closest defender to the ball the primary defender that goes towards the ball
  • A second player lines up with the 2nd attacker whilst the 3rd defender positions themselves behind the defender drawn to the ball
  • In the above picture, attacker 5 runs towards defender 3. Defender 3 is the closest defender to the ball and therefore goes towards attacker 5. Defender 2 stays with attacker 6 while defender 4 moves into a position behind defender 3 as the ‘second defender’
  • Once the primary defender is beaten, the second defender is now the primary defender and usually represents the last line of defense before the goal keeper
  • Defenders should be encouraged to stand on the half-turn towards the attacker, steering the attacker either towards the sideline, or towards the other defender – effectively away from goal

It is important to note, the second defender is the player that either doesn’t have an attacker in close proximity or is the next closest to the ball without a defender in close proximity. Players need to communicate with each other to make it clear who is acting as the primary.


In contrast to the previous picture, should attacker 5 run the ball towards defender 4, then defender 3 becomes the second defender and moves into the support role behind defender 4. Defender 2 stays with attacker 6.

This is not always an easy concept for young players to grasp. Experience, training and repetition will obviously enhance their understanding and execution. Once mastered, it is an excellent way to mitigate risk and prevent a fast and evasive attacker running past the first defender and onwards towards goal.


Develop young player’s appreciation of the second defender concept and awareness of the positional play of attackers with and without the ball.


Defense wins Games

It is ironic that most training drills focus on attack when more often than not it is the team with the best defense that wins the game. When was the last time you heard someone say we conceded 3 goals but we won the final? It can happen, it just doesn’t happen often.

The team that concedes the least goals wins right? Often with a slight change in approach training drills can create a defensive perspective. This modification will allow players to better engage the role they play in defense whilst also appreciating the options an attacking opponent has available.

When a player understands these attacking options they will be in a better position to make defensive decisions themselves.

As a result, undertaking drills where players are involved with both defensive and attacking roles will create better decisions by the team as a whole. This will contribute to cohesive play and a positive culture.

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  1. This is really awesome this drills you’ve drawn out here. It’s easy to understand and like you have said, defence is another integral aspect of football that is mostly overlooked. When one thinks about it, defence is the link up that gets to the attack and also helps the team from all the emotion that can come from silly mistakes that can lead to costly goals. I like how you have outlined the drills using attacker vs defender. That’s awesome.

    1. Thanks for your feedback Henderson. It is an integral part of the game though the defensive players don’t always get the focus  or the accolades they deserve.

  2. This is highly informative to know of. True, the team with the most compact defence wins the games. We lost our first two matches of the league not because we couldn’t score but we conceded goals way too much. I will definitely incorporate this defensive drills to my team and be hopeful that it would help the boys well. Thanks

  3. Virtually all team sports have offensive and defensive plays. It appears that getting a touch down in football, scoring goals in soccer and hitting a home run in baseball get much more attention and glamour than defensive plays. Since it is Little League time I want to make a point using baseball that will also apply to football. 

    Last year saw the end of 13 year olds playing on the team. The rules for 2019 and the future set the age range from 10 to  12. This one move has transformed the game for the better. In 2018 scoring home runs was quite common. It was easier for teams to win who’s 13 year olds scored a lot of home runs. This year, home runs are rare. It is the defensive plays that make or break a team. And the offensive plays work by moving the runner forward. 

    In football, if the defense uses the right strategy, they can steal the ball and have a chance of scoring a touchdown. A different set of skills are required to do this. And if they don’t score a touchdown, the 4th Down of the offensive team arrives sooner. This makes for a more exciting game in my opinion.

    Hence all players need to be trained to be more rounded and better at either offense or defense. This post featuring defensive drills is spot on. It will create a balance between offense and defense.

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