(Less) reactive defending and closing doors
Despite what you may hear, defending is reactive. But there are ways to make it less reactive. Let's talk about one of those ways.
Edward Hopper, Rooms by the Sea, 1951.
By nature, defending is a reactive exercise. When the offensive team has the ball, it’s the defensive team’s job to track it down and win it back. The ball moves, the defensive team shifts. The ball moves, the defensive team shifts. Movement, shifting. Action, reaction. It’s a dance, one that I’m sure you can picture.
Even though they’ve seen and participated in the dance before, some smart coaches will talk about defending as a proactive exercise. In 2014, Robin Fraser (then an assistant coach with the New York Red Bulls and now the head coach of the Colorado Rapids) gave a coaching demonstration titled Dictating the Game Without The Ball, in which he ran through defensive exercises designed to teach defensive fundamentals and team-wide principles that lead to defensive control. One year later, in a 2015 interview with the New York Times, Jesse Marsch called his New York Red Bulls team “the anti-Barcelona” because they “try to command the game with field position, without the ball.”
In an even more extreme camp, you have Marcelo Bielsa, Matías Almeyda, and the other branches of the Bielsa Coaching Tree. With their man-marking defensive systems, these coaches are probably the ones who try to get closest to defensive dictation, although they often end up the furthest away. Yes, when you step in front of your man and intercept a pass you do take defending into your own hands (or feet) for a moment. But when you miss a marking assignment or are too slow to understand your surroundings, you’re stuck chasing your assignment as he streaks down field towards your goal. Chasing a streaker is about as reactive as it gets.
You have to read between the lines a bit, but when Fraser and Marsch or even Bielsa or Almeyda talk about dictating the game defensively, I don’t think they’re talking about authoritatively controlling the offensive team’s every movement. Or even authoritatively controlling most of the offensive team’s movements. No, I think they’re talking about creating moments in a game when defending can be less reactive.
When you’re defending, you want to create situations that allow you to exert some level of control over the offensive team. Ultimately, the team with the ball will always have the ball (a groundbreaking truth, I know) which means that they’re the ones running the show. However, using something like field position - as Marsch specifically stated - or counter pressing - like we see from the world’s top-tier possession teams - or even tasteful man-marking can give the defensive team an opportunity to have a little input into the offensive team’s chosen course of action.
I’ve been watching games this week and thinking about ways to make defending a little less reactive. I keep coming back to one thing: the sideline trap. “The sideline,” as I expressly remember my junior varsity basketball coach telling my team, “is your friend.” It serves as an extra defender, which was handy for my JV team because we pretty much always needed an extra defender with us on the court. Like many basketball principles, the same idea applies to soccer: the sideline can be used as a defensive weapon. If the other team loses the ball out of bounds, your team gets possession, which is at least part of the goal of defending.
Let’s carry the basketball theme a little further, shall we? Here’s a great example of a sideline trap from a recent WNBA game that creates a turnover and a transition opportunity.
You can see it in the above gif, but to properly execute a sideline trap, the defensive team needs to close the door. Joe, what on earth are you talking about? Well, I use the term “close the door” to mean that the defensive team needs to have (1) appropriate numbers, (2) appropriate body positioning, and (3) appropriate pressure on the ball to force the offensive team to stay in that near-sideline space or lose the ball while trying to get out of that space. In his Dictating the Game Without The Ball demonstration, Robin Fraser talked about closing the door. “If we’re gonna go [press against the sideline],” Frasier said while conducting a small army of young soccer players on a miniature soccer field, “then we better win the ball or foul. But it’s unacceptable to go, let them out, get to the other side.”
Don’t let them out. Just close the door.
If we revisit the basketball sideline trap from above, we can see how well the Seattle Storm close the door.
Numerical advantage in the trap? Check. Body positioning and on-ball pressure that makes a central pass difficult? Check. A player from the weak side sliding over to disrupt that difficult central pass? Check.
Now, if you’ll allow me, I’d like to submit an example of what happens when you don’t close the door to serve as a warning to every defender out there who’s thinking about leaving the door even the slightest bit ajar. Our example comes from Philadelphia Union’s 5-0 thrashing of Toronto FC on Saturday. Bask in its foreboding message.
Defending high up the field near the far sideline in a numerically even situation with their body positioning largely closing off the middle of the field, Toronto had Philadelphia right where they wanted them. They’d already checked two items off of the official Close The Door Checklist™. However, the third item on the list (pressure on the ball) did not get checked off. Erickson Gallardo goofed and let Alejandro Bedoya play the ball into the middle of the field, breaking the trap and getting away from TFC’s numbers. Three passes later and the Union had the ball in the back of Toronto’s net.
For the offensive team, creating a goal-scoring opportunity is always easier if there’s space to exploit. It was certainly a lot easier for the Union to create a goal-scoring chance once they moved the ball in the middle of the field with options sprinting forward into the attack than it was when they were stuck against the sideline deep in their own half.
So if you’re the defensive team, don’t make life easy for your opponents. Defending can’t be totally proactive - or at least I don’t think it can - but it doesn’t have to be totally reactive either. Force the opposition to play in small areas away from the goal where they can’t hurt you. And whatever you do, don’t leave the door open.