What Makes a Great Defender?

In the second of our “Anatomy of a Successful Football Team” series, we look at what makes a great defender.

Different Roles of a Defender

There are several different types of defender, ranging from the old fashioned and tough-tackling centre back with the warrior-like spirit to the marauding, pacey full-back who dribbles the ball down the wing before delivering a pin-point cross.

Both are crucial in a successful team, so let us look at the different types of defender you will find and the roles they have.

Central Defender – The central defender will look to hold their position and put in those vital tackles and blocks to prevent the opposition scoring. Most modern football teams will pair an old-fashioned type of defender, who will look to clear the ball as soon as, and as far away from the goal, as possible, with a ball-playing defender who will be composed on the ball and look to play out from the back with short passes.

Full-Back – The full-back will generally have to play two roles within one. They will be required to defend, by tracking the wide attacking players of the opposition and prevent them getting crosses in. They also will look to get forward and assist their own wide attacking players in putting pressure on the opposition defence.

Wing-Back – The wing-back is a cross between a defender and winger, whose role will mostly include getting the ball down the wing and whipping crosses in. This role will usually be used in a team playing with three central defenders, so the defensive duties of the wing-back will be a lot less than that of the full-back. However, they will still need to be a solid defensive player to play this role successfully.

Attributes Required to be a Great Defender

Obviously, attributes required to be great in a certain role may differ but every defender must have these basic attributes to succeed.

Positioning – Being in the correct position allows a defender to read the game, anticipate the play, and prevent themselves being caught out. If a defender is out of position, it puts pressure on their teammates and allows the opposition to exploit gaps in the defence.

Communication – When it comes to defending, communication is key. A great defender will be able to organise their teammates by regularly shouting instructions. A solid communicator will lead by example and look to keep the defence working as one cohesive unit.

Strength – This is an important attribute as it prevents defenders being pushed around by physically imposing strikers. A great defender will match a big target-man for strength and not be brushed aside every time the ball comes into the box.

Technical Ability – Every great defender must be technically sound, with good on-the-ball skills. Whilst there is still a place for defenders who hoof the ball up field every time it comes near them, a technically good defender will be able to pick out passes to retain possession and help mount a counter-attack.

Composure – Great defenders do not fold under pressure. They stay calm under an onslaught from the opposition attack, they do not hack a nervy clearance to the nearest opponent, and they help to calm their teammates.

There are different attributes for each role, such as speed and stamina for full-backs/wing-backs and great heading ability for centre-backs.

However, without the five attributes listed above, even the best header of the ball or the quickest full-back will never quite hit the highs of being known as great.

Positives of a Great Defender & Negatives of a Poor One

A great defender will keep their teams defence organised, well positioned and disciplined. Their awareness will keep them ready to react to any attacking movement from opposition players. Composure will ensure they are calm and collected when dealing with an attacking onslaught, and fantastic technical ability will enable them to pick the right pass to maintain possession for their team.

They will provide a shield to prevent their goalkeeper coming under unnecessary pressure and they will ultimately stop the other team scoring.

A poor defender will be caught out of position, become flustered under pressure, and leave space for the opposition to get in behind. They will make mistakes, meaning their teammates will need to cover for them.

A great defender can win a team games with last-ditch tackles, pin-point passing leading to a successful counter-attack, and quality leadership from the back.

Poor defenders lose their team games and make life difficult for those around them.

Three of the Best Defenders of All-Time

Bobby Moore

England’s 1966 World Cup winning captain was labelled by the great Pele as the greatest defender he ever played against, and it’s not difficult to see why.

The West Ham United legend was a born leader who motivated, organised, and lifted his teammates. What stood out most about Moore was his fantastic tackling, with him standing his ground and taking the ball off an opponent without having to resort to tough or unfair measures.

His great tackling was backed up by his organisational skills, fantastic positioning, and how well he could read a game. He anticipated every action and reaction on the pitch, which enabled him to deal with pretty much everything that was thrown at him.

Franz Beckenbauer

If Moore was England’s greatest ever defender, Beckenbauer is Germany’s.

“Der Kaiser” was originally a midfielder but moved back to play in an advanced sweeper role, with which he is credited as creating.

On the pitch, he was elegant, dominant and a leader. He had the defensive qualities which allowed him to “sweep up” behind the defensive line and was composed, and technically sound on the ball. His passing ability was often the starting point of his team’s counter-attacks and he enjoyed getting forward as much as possible.

In recent years, he is best known for his off-pitch lack of ethics and accusations of fraud, on the pitch, he was one of the best all-round footballers who ever played the game.

Paolo Maldini

“Il Capitano” is the greatest left-back to ever play the game, and many consider him to be the greatest defender of all-time.

Being naturally right footed, Maldini started his career as a right-back but soon switched to the left side of defence and that is where he became one of the greats.

He was extremely versatile and just as adept at playing centre-back as he was on the left, with qualities to make him the perfect all-round defender.

Perfect positioning, match awareness, co-ordination, leadership, technical ability, marking, great aerial ability, superb tackling, stamina, speed, athleticism, and tactical knowledge were just some of the attributes Maldini possessed.

He was one of the only modern-day players who could succeed in the advanced sweeper position created by Beckenbauer, and his runs down the wing which ended with him putting in fantastic crosses kept the opposition defence constantly on edge.

oareat, and Not So Great, Defender Moments

Here, we look at some of the best defensive moments of all-time and some of the worst.

Firstly, we will sit back and enjoy the greatness that is Paolo Maldini. We have included him in our three of the best and here’s a video to show why.

We will follow that with a compilation of some of the most “heroic” defensive tackles and clearances.

And now, we will look at some of the worst defensive errors.

First up is a mistake by a Liechtenstein defender which allowed Lithuania to score a simple goal.

Finally, we have a compilation of mistakes made by England defender John Stones, which shows even talented defenders with lots of potential can make game-changing errors.

Read the rest of the series

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