Your attack might provide the thrills, but it’s your defence that makes you a proper team, as well as delivering success in the long term.
For most of us, our natural inclination is to want to be in possession of the ball and to try to bag a goal. So it’s not surprising that defence is too often overlooked.
This article comprehensively covers the essential tips, tactics and strategies for defending in 5-a-side. These are the things that the good teams know, and the bad ones never seem to figure out.
What good 5-a-side defending looks like
We’ll get into some specific strategies below, but if you want to know what good 5-a-side defending looks like, picture the way you’ve seen basketball teams defending.
What that means is getting everybody back helping with the defense, positioning between the opponents and their target, in our case the goal. It’s about keeping them as far away from danger as possible.
In a one-on-one situation a basketball player gets close to their opponent; close enough to make sure that any shots can be blocked. But crucially, they don’t go diving in at the merest sight of the ball. Instead, the idea is to frustrate and contain the opponent, showing them away from danger and waiting for an opportunity to regain possession.
We’ll look at this in more detail below, but remember, what follows are a lot of tips – too many to apply all in one go – so work in one or two at a time. Bookmark this article, share it with your teammates, and revisit it regularly as you implement it bit by bit. Get the tips below right and you are going to be rock solid!
1. Cover against the counter-attack.
It’s so very tempting to abandon defensive duties when your team is attacking.
But far too many goals are given away by over-committing in attack and then being caught on the break.
Make sure one player occupies a defensive position at all times – that doesn’t mean being back out of the action, it just means that they’re ready to intercept any quick breaks forward and changes of possession.
You may want to rotate this responsibility throughout the game (quite a few teams do), but a lot of teams find it easier and more effective to trust this to one defensive rock: the ‘last man’ – a specialist position and solid defensive strategy covered in this separate article.
2. Transition quickly
Some of the most important defensive moments are where you ‘transition’. That’s the instant that your team goes from being on the attack, to being on the defence.
A natural reaction when your team loses the ball is to pause, then reluctantly start jogging back. But the first three seconds are crucial after a turnover and if you can instead condition yourself not to pause, but to react immediately, running quickly into your defensive position (which might be to immediately press the ball) then your team will be phenomenally hard to play against. You’ll be like a pack of dogs, making it very uncomfortable for your opponent.
To be able to do this properly you have to be fit. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: if you want to play good 5-a-side football you have to be fit.
3. Attitude & responsibility: defence is not just for ‘defenders’
It’s a huge misunderstanding when a player thinks they’re not responsible for defending. The attitude of “I’m a striker, I don’t defend” is utter nonsense for 5-a-side. Fives is more like basketball; you attack as a team and you defend as a team.
But players not helping the defense is a common problem. Here’s just one example posted by one of the awesome people on our Facebook page:
You cannot afford to have anybody slacking off in defensive duties. That will only lead to you being outnumbered, which usually leads to your team getting punished.
Everybody needs to play a part, and that’s mostly a matter of attitude. If everybody in your team doesn’t take on the collective responsibility for defending, then it isn’t a team at all. Practically, consider having a basic formation that you drop back into for defence. Dropping back into a compact 3-1 or a 2-2 can be highly effective way of getting this defensive discipline and can help you get organised.
4. Always be goal-side of your opponent
When you’re taking up defensive positions, the basics are simple: get between your opponent and the goal. That way, you are blocking their route to scoring.
On the other hand, if you let them past you then they’re in with a chance. That’s why it’s vital that, if your opponent makes a move forward, you follow them so they don’t get behind you.
Player A is goal-side of the ball, but that’s not enough. Instead A needs to be goal-side of the player he’s marking, or at the very least blocking the potential pass. Here, player A’s opponent has run past him, and the pass in behind will lead to a clear chance at goal.
5. Keep them out of the danger areas
The closer an opponent is to goal, the better their chance of scoring. So the obvious way of restricting chances is making sure that they don’t get anywhere near, by showing them away from goal.
Try to (legally) block their way and direct them out of the zone where they can do any damage. In the example above, player A is defending by blocking his opponent’s path to goal, instead forcing them away from goal, down the side of the pitch where they can’t cause any problems.
What A does not want to happen is for his opponent to get enough room to shoot at goal from his current position, or to be able to turn towards the centre of the pitch for a better angle at goal.
By the way, the diagram above assumes that the outfield players can’t go in the area (that’s why it’s not marked in red). But the same principle would apply even if this wasn’t the case – you want to always keep the opponent away from goal.
6. Stop the shots
So, you’re blocking their route to goal and you’re doing your best Gandalf impression: “you shall not pass”. You’ve also got them outside the danger zone. What could possibly still go wrong?
It’s now that you’ve got to worry about them having a shot from distance.
Let’s be clear, a shot from distance is a lot better than letting them past you to shoot from closer range, but you still don’t want them having any opportunity.
So, the key to stopping this is making sure that you get close enough the opponent, which means pushing out (i.e. away from goal) towards them. Some defenders get so obsessed with the idea that defending involves retreating that they forget that sometimes they need to go forward to defend effectively.
Take the following example:
Here, player A has failed to get close enough to the opponent, and as a consequence they have a sight of goal which they just might score from. On the other hand, player B has closed this gap and his opponent can’t see enough of the goal to make it worth trying a shot.
The key to all of this is to get close enough, but not too close. Too close and they might dribble past you; too far away and they will easily pick out a shot. As a rule, the nearer they are to goal, the closer you need to be to them.
7. Pressure starts with the nearest player to the ball
The nearest player to the ball bears the responsibility for closing down the opponent. It’s as simple as that.
As the nearest player to the ball, you have a decision to make: should you press the opponent or hold your position. If you’re not outnumbered then you always focus on the player with the ball, if you’re outnumbered, you have to consider holding your ground whilst you wait for cover from your teammates.
8. Press players properly
So, you need to close your opponent down – that’s essentially what is known as ‘pressing’. The first and most important rule is that you approach with care. If you go rushing towards them, they’ll simply run past you and you won’t be able to recover quickly enough.
Instead, close-in cautiously. Reduce the distance quickly so that they don’t have time to shoot but at the same time if you rush in too enthusiastically they’ll just dribble past you. The best way to make sure that you make up the ground is by moving towards the player as they are about to receive the ball. If you make up the ground at this point, you can stop by the time they receive the ball, being set and on your toes to react to their next move.
At that point, if you’re properly positioned, it will look like this:
- Get your distance right – when the opponent is in the danger area close to goal, whether they have got the ball or not, you need to make sure that they are never much more than just over an arm’s length away from you.
- Bend your knees, get a low centre of gravity – this will allow you to quickly react to a change of direction, and make sure that you can stay between your opponent and the goal.
And when it comes to knowing when to press opponents:
- Exploit weaknesses: Always press weaker players. If they’re better players, take advantage of them if the ball is on their weaker foot. Few players are truly comfortable on their weaker foot.
- Press only when safe to do so: Press in the right areas, with a set defence – sometimes it’s actually not wise to press a player; it’s more appropriate to stand-off slightly instead (e.g. if your defense is outnumbered).
- Don’t let them turn – if an opponent has the ball with their back to goal, this is highly advantageous position for you. You need to make sure that they do not turn from that position, usually by staying very close to them.
9. Always be patient
The key to all of this is patience. Charging in against good players will only make you look foolish, as they easily dribble past you or just pass round you.
Instead, it’s more effective to play a patient game. Don’t let your opponent past you; show them away from goal; block their sight of the target; restrict any shots. Make those your top priorities.
Of course you want to win tackles but you need to wait for opportunities where it is safe to do so. Has an opponent shown you too much of the ball? Have they taken a poor touch? Have they received a pass and not properly got it under control? At those points it might be a good time to put a tackle in.
10. Stay with your players, but cover each other
Even though you need to concentrate on marking your own player, you also need to cover your teammate if they are beaten. This means positioning yourself appropriately to do both.
A good 5-a-side player covers their own opponent on defence. A better 5-a-side player will make sure that he also looks to cover his teammates. In the example above, B has taken a position where he can not only cover an opponent of his own, but can also be ready to help player A if his opponent gets past him. Ideally that won’t be needed, but of course it happens from time to time.
Very few teams can organise a defence in complete silence. You need somebody to take control. Although defending starts from the front, communication comes best from the back. That’s where players can see a full view of all the action in front of them, it’s another important job that ideally I like my last-man to play.
12. Don’t give away silly fouls
If somebody loses their discipline then it can quickly undo all the defensive efforts of the rest of the team. Just one rash moment that leads to a cheap free-kick can cost you a goal.
This is one of the key tips in our 7 point plan for playing against a better team. It’s a sure way not only to concede cheap goals, but also for morale to plummet rapidly as well.
Over to you
Twelve tips, that if you implement properly, will give you a seriously impressive defence. But what can you add:
- What’s missing – what works for you that isn’t on the list?
- Are there any of these tips that don’t work for you? Why?
- What’s your number 1 defensive problem?
Leave your comment below – I always respond and usually we all learn something from what you’ve got to say too!
You might also enjoy:
How to play against a better team – a couple of extra tips for where you’re playing superior opposition
The basic problem in defending – the very crux of the issue, it’s what separates the good teams from the others
How fit do I need to be for 5-a-side – It really helps your defending if you’ve got the fitness to do it. How fit do you need to be, and how do you get there? It’s covered here.