• Raffaele Tomarchio

Zone Defending: How to avoid "Risky Situations"


When defending zonally, each player is responsible to defend an assigned area (zone) of the field. Defenders also have the responsibility to put immediate pressure on any opponent entering their zone, and to provide cover to other teammates in the adjacent zones.

To reach a good defensive organization, all players need to understand the principles of zonal defending, and the key references that a team should follow. The priority order of reference on the field for defenders are:

  1. the ball

  2. teammates,

  3. opponents.

A well organized team will move with the ball in a coordinated manner, keeping compactness both horizontally and vertically, in relation to the position of their teammates and opponents with the right distances between defensive lines (forwards, midfielders, and defenders).

The primary objective when defending zonally, is to restrict available playing space to the opposition by creating numbers up around the ball. This, together with good pressure on the ball and good cover, will facilitate the task to prevent forward play and ultimately win the ball to attack.

In order to get good results, the whole team needs to learn how to read each situation as it develops, and quickly take corrective action. In other words, the whole team needs to think as one.

Like everything else, whatever the defensive system a coach chooses, man to man or zone, it will present advantages and disadvantages.

When teaching the zone defending system, the challenges for the coach and the team, are to work towards ways to minimize weakness and at the same time enhancing its qualities.

In this article, I would like to analyze some of the situations where the back four can be vulnerable, and propose some adjustments that, in my opinion can be used to solve each problem.

The following are some of the most dangerous situations that the back four will have to deal with during a game:

  • Striker's Diagonal runs

  • Runs of midfielders to beat the offside trap

  • One-two in front of the penalty area

  • Dealing with a player that positions himself between the striker's line and the midfielder’s line

  • Dealing with crosses in the box

  • Outside attackesr making inside runs

  • Movement of strikers coming towards the ball

  • Switch of play

Striker's Diagonal Runs

Unlike the man to man defensive system where the sweeper is in charge of dealing with possible diagonal runs of the strikers, with the zone defending system, the back four have to deal with this situation as a group.

It is very important for the defenders to be able to read the situation and to apply a group technique called “the elastic movement”.

This movement of the back four is dictated by whether there is pressure on the ball carrier (covered ball) or if the ball carrier has the time and space (no pressure) to make a decision that can hurt the team (uncovered ball).

In order to neutralize the attacking team when the ball is covered, the back four will step forward and in front of the attackers (Fig 1. If the ball is uncovered, then the back four have to drop back towards the penalty area to take away dangerous space (Fig 2).

The elastic movement is also used when a team systematically uses the offside trap, a subject that will be covered later.

Individually, defenders will deal with diagonal runs from strikers, by first tracking the runs and letting the player go, and then re-aligning with the other defenders (Fig 3).

The defender has to make sure that the ball is still at the passer’s feet, and that the tracked player goes behind the defensive four, before he can let him go in an offside position.

Midfielder's Runs

Some teams that adopt a zone defending system systematically use the offside trap.

As a counter move, the attacking teams might have midfielders making late runs from behind, so that if timed well, can elude the offside trap. One way to neutralize this move is the use of the "elastic movement" (see above description).

This movement will only work if there is good pressure from the midfielders on the ball carrier, preventing forward passing of the ball behind the defensive line for the midfielders to run to (Fig 10).

One-two in Front of the Penalty Area

This situation can be created either by a midfielder to striker or striker to striker combination.The first solution is for the defender (6) to try to intercept the pass to the supporting player (wall player) for the one-two.If that fails, then he must close down the player receiving the ball after the wall pass (Fig 4).

Floating Players Between Lines

A floating player positioned between the midfield line and the strikers can create problems, especially for teams that play in a 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1 or 3-4-3 formation.There are two ways to deal with this situation:

  1. The coach decides to have one of the central midfielders drop in the area of the “floater’ (Fig 5).

  2. The second option is to have a central defender leave his defending line and pick up the player in front (Fig 6).

  1. Figure 5 represents the safest solution, and is used most often when the ball is uncovered (no pressure on the ball).

  2. It is also important to keep both defensive lines and the whole team short, in order to limit playable space and make it difficult for this player to play.

Dealing with Crosses

One of the most dangerous situations for the back four is dealing with crosses from deep areas.

Many times defenders concentrate exclusively on the ball and forget about the attackers in the box.

In this situation defenders need to be able to see the ball and most importantly man mark the closest opponent.

Their aim for the defender, is to be goal side in advance of the opponent, but able to see the ball and the opponent (Fig 7).

Outside Strikers Making Inside Runs

When playing against teams with 3 strikers, outside strikers will make inside runs to receive the ball.

At this point it is important that the outside defender recognizes the situation, passes on the player to the central defender, and steps back to provide cover. Communication and good team compactness is key to this situation (Fig 8).

Striker's Movement to the Ball

One of the most frequent mistakes that young defenders make is to allow strikers to check to the ball and receive it without any pressure.

It is vital that when a striker checks towards the ball, the marking defender has to follow the player to apply pressure. If the striker does not receive the ball, then the defender will leave him and rejoin the back four line.

Even when the ball is “uncovered” and the striker checks to the ball, the same rule applies.

The defender will apply pressure while the other three defenders drop back to cover dangerous space (Fig 9).

Switch of Play

A team that plays zone defence, will move on the field in a coordinated and compact manner with the ball, trying to overload the side where the opposition has possession (strong side).

This leaves the defending team vulnerable to a possible switch of play to the opposite side

(weak side) which is less guarded and therefore easier to penetrate. To overcome this situation, it is important for the defending team to apply good pressure on and around the ball to prevent an easy switch. If the attacking team comes out of the strong area, then it is important to train the back four how to shift to the opposite side (timing) while the ball is traveling and prevent forward play.

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