Defensive Pet Peeve
When you watch the frankly unhealthy amount of football I do, certain patterns in the game start to emerge. Over the last few years, there has been one behaviour regularly exhibited by central defenders that drives me mad, one that I think represents a deficiency in the way that defenders (and defences) are coached in the Premier League.
I don’t usually have access to comprehensive video footage, so it’s been difficult to write about this in the past, but I’ve recently noticed a couple of goals scored as a consequence of this defensive tendency and I managed to find some clips that demonstrate the issue:
When opposition forwards get into the box from wide areas, defenders regularly choose to defend their goal line rather than other opposition players.
Let’s look at some examples before I properly get on my soapbox.
Here’s Tom Ince’s injury time winner vs Watford:
Watford clear the initial long throw to Andre Gray but their striker gives the ball away cheaply. Terence Kongolo sends the ball high towards the edge of the box, Sebastian Prödl gets himself in a tangle so he misses his header, and Huddersfield gain possession inside Watford’s area.
As the ball breaks free, Cathcart’s location on the pitch is good but his body shape is all wrong; he’s so focused on the ball that he turns his back on the rest of the game, rendering him unaware of Tom Ince lurking on the edge of the box. Watford have two defenders to deal with the two Huddersfield players nearest to the ball, so Cathcart shouldn’t really be worrying about that side of the pitch.
Matthias Jørgensen eventually finds himself in possession level with the six-yard box. Cathcart instinctively sprints back to get himself in line with his deepest team-mate so he’s in place to prevent a square pass across the face of goal (or possibly to protect the goal line), despite there being no Huddersfield players attacking that part of the pitch.
Worse than that, he’s so preoccupied with Jørgensen being called offside that he runs back with his arm head aloft and even turns towards his own goal and glances over his right shoulder to check with the linesman. That glance proves fatal as he takes an extra pace into the six-yard box, meaning it takes him a split second longer to turn, which allows Ince to get to the pass unchallenged. If he’d looked over his left shoulder at any point in the build-up, Cathcart would have spotted Ince earlier and would have at least been able to put the attacker under more pressure as he shot, if not snuffed out the danger entirely.
Cathcart isn’t the only Watford player culpable here — after missing his header, Prödl should work harder to stop the pass, while Etienne Capoue is the closest player to Ince as the phase of play develops so he should track his opponent’s run into the box — but the Northern Irishman did contribute to this goal being scored. His lack of awareness stemmed from his failure to get a proper picture of what was going on around him and it cost his team point. He defended this one on autopilot rather than actively reacting to the situation.
On a similar note, here’s Dušan Tadić scoring against Chelsea:
This clip isn’t the greatest but it gets the point across. Pierre-Emile Højbjerg slides a brilliant through ball between the two right-sided Chelsea centre-halves, Betrand does Azpiliceuta for pace, and surges into the box.
Betrand ends up in a similar position to Jørgensen and he passes it into a similar area. One major difference between the two situations is that Watford had a back four, whereas Chelsea are operating with their back three which clearly changes things. Azpiliceuta has been left for dead, so Andreas Christensen, ostensibly the middle CB, has to close down Bertrand to try and prevent the delivery. In turn, Gary Cahill feels as though he has to fill in the space that Christensen vacates. Cahill is also reacting to Shane Long, whose intelligent run drags the defensive line closer to goal, opening up the space for Tadić behind him.
Again, we have a scenario where a central midfielder could have helped out his defence more (N’golo Kanté this time) but as the far-side central defender in the three, Cahill should have the best view of how the Southampton attack is developing and should be alert to the danger of onrushing players. Perhaps this is harsh, but he should be ignore Long’s run and have faith in his goalkeeper to deal with anything played square across the six-yard box. As it is, Cahill’s positioning means that he can’t shift his momentum and propel himself forward quickly enough to meaningfully influence Tadić as he strokes it home.
This isn’t the most egregious example of this behaviour because there is a justification for why Cahill acts the way he does, but it still illustrates the way this urge to play in a deep defensive line inside the box is so damaging.
Then there’s Sadio Mané’s goal vs Roma:
As Liverpool circulate the ball across their defence, Kolarov decides to push forward to cut off Jordan Henderson as a passing option, which essentially makes Alexander-Arnold’s decision for him. The Liverpool full-back hoists the ball down the right channel and Mo Salah has an ocean of space to scurry into.
The geologically slow Roma defence desperately tries to get back and by the time Salah gets into the box, Federico Fazio is within touching distance of the goalscorer Mané, even if he’s unaware of what the Liverpool player is actually doing.
From there, Fazio makes the wrong choice. The Roma defender tries to stop Salah from playing the ball square, forfeiting the good position he had originally taken up. Mané holds his run slightly while Fazio ploughs forward and Salah is left with a simple pass for the 3–0 lead. The Argentine defender actually impedes his goalkeeper’s line of sight, so Alisson has no time to react to Mané’s shot.
Finally here’s Tottenham’s opener vs Brighton, scored by Harry Kane:
A rare misplaced pass by Pascal Groß, and some good closing down by Wanyama and Son, leaves Tottenham with possession on the byline down in the right-hand side of the box. With Lewis Dunk taken out of the equation by Son’s tenacity, goalkeeper Mat Ryan rushes out to put pressure on the South Korean. Harry Kane is sauntering towards the edge of the box and Dunk’s CB partner Shane Duffy shuffles across to take up a position roughly on the penalty spot.
From there, he deters an early cut back from Son, he can see if Wanyama or Eriksen dart into the area for a pass inside, and he’s in place to clear up any deflections that might occur if Son takes a shot. The only issue he has is if there’s someone arriving from the opposite touchline, but that’s ultimately his right-back’s responsibility. It’s strong position.
After that, things start to fall apart.
Ryan quickly gets out to challenge Son, but the Tottenham forward manages to dribble inside him. Even though Gaetan Bong has rushed back to offer support, Duffy is worried about Son getting a shot off so his impulse is to sprint back to try and potentially get a block in.
Between them, Bong and Ryan do enough to put Son off so he can’t shoot. Instead, his heavy touch falls to Kane. However, by the time the Spurs striker hits his shot, Duffy is practically on his own goal line and is thus helpless to stop the ball finding its way into the back of the net.
Had Duffy man-marked Kane, or even held the position he had taken up in the second screenshot, the likelihood of this passage of play ending in a Tottenham goal would have been drastically reduced.
This one in particular irks me because, as an outfield player, unless the opposition attacker completely duffs their shot, you’re next to useless standing on the line; there’s virtually no chance of you reacting quickly enough to stop a shot going in without the use of your hands. If your goalkeeper has gone AWOL, you have a much better chance of blocking a shot if you stay close to opposition players in the box. Worry about defending strikers, not the goal line.
So we have four goals caused, to greater and lesser degrees, by central defenders instinctively racing back to take up positions close to their own goal, rather than staying with opposition players in the box. Where does this impulse come from?
One explanation is a fear of exposing the corridor of uncertainty, to borrow Alan Hansen’s phrase. Usually used to denote the horizontal area of space between the defensive line and the goalkeeper inside the penalty area, the corridor of uncertainty alarms defenders because passes played effectively into that area tend to result in goals, via strikers ghosting in between defenders to nudge the ball goalwards, or through deflected/ mistimed clearances.
From that perspective, dropping deep in order to compress the distance between the defensive line and the goalkeeper makes sense: a narrow er corridor increases the difficulty of the pass and means the passer has to be more accurate with their delivery, and it also reduces the amount of time a forward has to react to the cross as the ball travels through/ around a greater number of bodies. Additionally, if a defender stands closer to their own goal they act as a physical deterrent, as it gives them the opportunity to clear the ball, or at least get something on it, if it’s played into the area they’re occupying. It’s essentially a form of zonal marking based on the idea that the goal itself is what needs to be defended.
While that seems to make sense, the issue with that approach is that it leaves you vulnerable to the cut back. As with all decisions in football, choosing to do one thing leaves you weak elsewhere, so you have to make a value judgement about potential threats. To my mind, cutting the ball back represents the greater danger as it creates high quality chances more consistently than flashing passes across the face of goal. Enlisting CBs to deal with with passes pulled back from the byline rather than relying on midfielders to follow attacking players arriving late into the area seems like the better set-up.
I also tend to think that a team positioning their defensive line on the edge of the six-yard box displays a lack of confidence in their goalkeeper. Anything that is played across the face of goal should be the GK’s responsibility and having defenders drop that deep in order to clear those passes seems to suggest that they don’t trust their ‘keeper to deal with it.
Leaving that type of cross to the goalkeeper seems logical — their movement is away from the goal line so even if they fail to catch it or don’t make clean contact on their clearance, at least the ball is moving away from goal, whereas if a defender is moving back towards their own net and scuffs their clearance, there’s a high risk of an own goal. The counter argument to that is if a goalkeeper pushes the ball away without any great distance, they are sending the ball into a dangerous area, but that risk is mitigated if defenders are man marking inside box rather than adopting their positions in a deep defensive line.
The idea of the defensive line itself is another possible cause. From an early age, defenders at every standard of football have the importance of staying in line with their team-mates drilled into them as a means of retaining defensive shape. This is useful higher up the pitch as that structure, in conjunction with the offside rule, forces forwards to be vigilant with the timing of their runs. Having a reliable, flat defensive line therefore minimises the chance of a striker ending up one-on-one with the goalkeeper. It’s also helpful for a team to have a uniformly flat defensive structure because it gives attackers no obvious space to run into and if someone does switch off and allow their marker to run past them, it’s much easier for his fellow defenders to cover him if they all have the same lateral starting point.
Maintaining a rigid shape is much less important when the opposition has the ball in the wide areas of the box as in the clips above. As the ball gets closer to the byline, there is less space for it to be passed forwards (obviously) so worrying about catching a striker offside becomes redundant. Likewise there’s little point in taking your position from the defender closest to the goal line because you’re not necessarily providing cover at that point. Both Cathcart and Cahill sprinted back to get in line because that’s where they think they should be, rather than assessing the situation and acting accordingly.
Of course, this issue could simply be the quality of defenders in the examples I chose. Shane Duffy has generally had an excellent season for Brighton, but none of these players are among the top tier of Premier League defenders and there are big question marks over Fazio’s ability, too.
Their mistakes ultimately originate from a lack of awareness caused by tunnel vision. Cathcart is oblivious to Tom Ince’s run and Fazio has the same problem with Mané.Cahill either doesn’t notice Tadić until it’s too late or he doesn’t consider him a threat. Harry Kane is in Duffy’s field of vision when Pascal Groß misplaces his pass, but he then becomes so focused on the ball that he doesn’t register the striker’s movement. It’s instructive to go back and watch the clips while focusing on the defender’s head movements — none of them ever turn their head or scan the rest of the pitch to get more information in the way that elite midfielders do.
Instead they are all zeroed in on watching the ball, one of the most fundamental errors you can make as a defender. If there’s one point to takeaway, it’s this:
If you’re not the defender closest to the player in possession, the ball is not the greatest danger. Focus your attention elsewhere.
While Cathcart, Duffy, Fazio, and Cahill all made basic mistakes, they’re far from the only ones. Players who are considered to be more talented make similar errors quite regularly, which makes me think this impulse derives from coaching and tactical instruction rather than individual deficiency.
So how do you correct this instinct?
One option is to abandon the disciplined line structure when the opponent breaks into the box from wide. You could have your team adopt a conventional flat defensive line until the opposition advances into your area. At that point, the widest defender goes to close down the pass and the rest of them pick a man to mark.
The other option is to adopt a different structure entirely. This is something that Napoli have done to great effect under Maurizio Sarri:
The footage shows Napoli running through a series of drills designed to simulate in-game crossing situations. With the ball at the feet of a right-winger in a standard one-on-one scenario out wide, the Napoli defence take a fairly typical defensive shape:
As the winger advances deeper into the Napoli half, the three defenders in the box stagger their line:
The central defender closest to the ball stands level with the front post inside the six-yard box, blocking off the corridor of uncertainty (and if the ball gets through him or is played over him, the goalkeeper should be able to claim it), while the other two defenders stagger their positions so they’re able to close down the ball if it’s passed back towards the penalty spot.
It’s a smart bit of thinking that allows them to cover both potential threats. There’s a good chance that it’s working, too. With 34 games played, Napoli have only conceded 23 goals, the joint 2nd best record in Italy, with only Juventus (20 goals) conceding fewer.
Low crosses and cut backs are such a valuable tool for attacking sides because they regularly create high quality chances — they were pretty much the cornerstone of Manchester City’s attack this season — so finding ways to effectively defend against these types of situations is vitally important.
Ditching the orthodoxy of the flat defensive line and deterring players from defending excessively deeply are the simplest ways to guard against this issue.