Category Archives for Coaching

Zonal Defending for All Formations

By Stefano Santona

Structuring the spaces of the playing field is considered a fundamental component in the process of creating a competitive football club and it is an essential function of any collective sports team. Providing structure is manifested through the understanding and occupation of the most appropriate spaces by the individual athlete and collective team in every situation or problem that appears in the game, where the individual and team place themselves with the intuition to exploit spacial and numerical advantage in the various danger zones of the pitch.

In an effort to obtain a structured and cohesive defensive organization, coaches often think of several different ways to train defences that will become efficient and impenetrable, even though that is a utopian scenario. With zonal defending, the team structures itself in a tight shape, with the lines in close proximity to each other and in accordance with the movement of the ball–which is one of the primary references of zonal marking. Keeping in mind that football is a collective sport, it is important to remember that it is possible to attack through defending and to defend through attacking. Having this in mind, it is imperative to think about controlling the game even without having possession of the ball. Manipulating the opponent in the different moments of the game at the highest level is a fundamental ability for the individual player, as well as for the collective team.

In order to better understand the complexity of football, it is necessary to break down the game into moments, i.e., offensive, defensive, offensive transition, and defensive transition. Of these moments, the most critical parts of the game are found in the transitions and the defensive moments. The team that is in defensive transition or in the defensive moment of the game does not have possession of the ball, however this does not mean that they are not in control of the game. It is possible to have control of the game even without the ball, and, even though it is complex, it is not complicated.

The defensive organization of a team will only be truly collective when the actions performed by every single one of the eleven players are made towards a common reference or ideal, where the individual tasks of the players are related, regulated with, and dependent on each other. It is the only way that the collective unit will prevail over the individual quality of the units that form the group. Thus, it is necessary to build principles of the game that define the collective behaviours of the group. Football is an unpredictable game–it doesn’t allow for planned movements throughout the duration of a match. Instead, it is through building principles that the players will obtain an ability to react effectively in the different situations that the game offers.

When a team is attacking, it looks to increase the playing space in the pitch, to occupy the corridors of the field, and to create width and depth through the lines. When a team is defending, it looks to make the pitch smaller by reducing the playing space allowed to the opposing team. The main idea is to reduce the space between the lines and obtain numerical advantage in the sectors closest to the ball. Based on these principles, the main references for defensive positioning for the entire collective group are the following:

• The spaces are the big target for marking

• The biggest concern is to collectively close the most valuable spaces (closest to the ball) and thus condition the opponent

• The position of the ball and the position of the teammates are the biggest references

• Every player, in coordination with his teammates, has to close different spaces, in accordance with the position of the ball

• The permanent existence of a system of successive covering between players is a vital aspect, which is achieved through good organization of the lines

• It is important to pressure the player in possession of the ball, in order to reduce the time and space available for execution

• The careful and intelligent occupation of the most valuable spaces which consequently allows a team to control the opponents without possession of the ball

• Any tight marking of an opponent without possession of the ball is always circumstantial and a consequence of rational occupation of space

• There is a bigger need of effective visual and verbal communication in the defensive moment of the game–especially for the player that pressures, the player that instructs the teammate to press, for the player that covers, and for the player that covers the player who is already covering.

Zonal defending can most certainly be considered the best way to defend, as the concern here is the space being occupied and not the opposing players. A space that can be controlled without having possession of the ball, thus we can influence the player with the ball, and obtain control of the spaces. In order to achieve this high level of collective functioning, it is necessary not only to train, but to train with immense quality, with the focus being on what the athlete learns, and not so much on what or how it is trained. It is a teaching process, and if one individual does not understand the concept of zonal defending, the function of the group will collapse.

In our new book, The Complete Guide to Zonal Defending we show several samples of exercises that coaches can incorporate into their sessions according to their team’s needs and philosophy, with some specific exercises for different formations that coaches may utilize like the 4-3-3, 4-4-2, 4-5-1 and 4-2-3-1. Nevertheless, do not forget that the most important are the principles, and these do not significantly change according to formation utilized.

By Stefano Santona

Possession Out of Tight Spaces

By Steven Smith


Teams: 7 v 7

Time: 10-12 minutes

Objectives: Increase possession skills in teams of all developmental levels

Possession oriented play is essential to the modern game of soccer. Many of the activities to develop possession allow for maximum success by giving space for possession or by giving extra attackers to the possessing side. The ability to control the ball in possession in tight spaces is often ignored in training session by prioritizing success and space.

This activity emphasizes possession while having to concentrate and think more than just one step ahead. The athletes will need to move to position themselves for maintaining possession in very tight spaces (much like the full sided game when compressed to a certain portion of the field). This movement and communication necessary under strict pressure of time and space can have a great effect on maintaining possession once the game whistle blows.


Two teams of seven players occupy a rectangular grid in any portion of the field.  Coach serves the ball to either color team for initial play.  Each successful pass is counted in sequence until the score of 21 is achieved.  Every ball that goes out of play is left out and the coach starts a new ball without hesitation to the team who did not knock the ball out of bounds.  Quick transition to the new ball is essential.  Once a total (not sequential) 21 passes is achieved the game ends and the losing side must respond with a consequence such as a series of sideline to sideline sprints and the game resumes.  A third team waiting in the wings can substitute for the losing side and begin possession by being served the first ball.


Add goalkeepers to the end who can play the ball with either their feet or to the hands (coach’s preference) but the pass to the goalkeeper does not count as part of the total completed passes toward the accumulation of 21 passes (see drawing 2).

Other sideline players can be added on the sidelines but their passes are limited to one touch wall passes and do not count toward the accumulation of 21 passes (see drawing 3).

Add a neutral player to inside of grid wearing red.  Each time a team successfully finds the targeted red player two passes are counted for that success.  This allows players to meet the challenge of playing with a plan and finding a target player in the midst of pressure (see drawing 4).


By Steve Smith
Steve Smith has been a men’s college coach that holds an NSCAA Advanced National Diploma and a Doctorate in Physical Education.

Making Play Predictable

By Sean Pearson

Area Size: Quarter or Half field (depending on age of players)

Teams: 15 – 20 mins

Players: 7 v 7


  • To stop forward penetration
  • To force sideways and backwards passes


2 teams set up in a 2-3-1 formation in a scrimmage like scenario.


The aim for this session is for your team to work together defensively by stifling forward progression of the opposition and frustrating the other team into backwards and sideways passes until they become frustrated. Your team must stay close together to stop penetrating passing lines into the feet of players further up the field. They cut off angles so the only available pass is one of backwards or sideways.

The defending team does not have to sit right in front of their own goal for this tactic to work. It is more effective to perform it in the middle of the field. As the opposition pass wide, the defending wide midfielder gets across to pressure the player on the ball so they can’t move forwards, the rest of the team slides across, compacting that side of the field, leaving the opposite wing open. The striker drops down to stop any balls into the center of midfield.

As the ball travels back to the CB the striker of the defending team presses the CB to force them to make a quick decision, again not allowing forward penetration. The obvious pass is sideways to the free CB. The team again slide into the middle to compact the area directly in front of or around the ball.

Now we have a little change of shape, because we don’t want to be so compact that passes out wide can break the defensive lines. Again the focus is to stop forward penetration by cutting off forwards passing options. As the ball travels to the opposite CB, the striker drops down to stop passes into the CM. The wide midfielder stays narrow to stop passes into the striker’s feet. The FB comes across to pressure the WM when they receive the ball and the CB and opposite WM slide across to cover and keep defensive shape.

As the ball arrives to the WM the FB is close to Pressure them, the WM has dropped down to block the pass into the striker’s feet again and striker drops to stop passes into the CM again, this leaves a pass backwards to the CB as the only pass available.

Players need to understand that they are working as a team to stop forward progression and not become individual and start to run all over the field. If players can win the ball when pressing then absolutely go for it, but the aim is to frustrate the other team going forward and giving the ball away by trying passes that are not on.

When the other team wins possession the defending team aims to frustrate and stop forward progression just like they experienced.


  • Add neutrals to challenge the defending team and increase the difficulty
  • Allow only 1 or 2 players to communicate to teammates to help build leaders in defense

By Sean Pearson. Sean is also the author Coaching Team Shape in the 3-3-1, Coaching Team Shape in the 4-2-3-1 and Coaching Team Shape in the 4-3-3

What Tactical Formation Did Spain Use to Win Euro 2012?

By Wayne Harrison


The starting position phase formation is approximately a 4-2-3-1; the attacking phase is 4-2-1-3 or 3-3-1-3; and the defending phase is a 4-4-1-1, so we haveContinue reading