These are the most important defensive fundamentals for a center-back
In the introduction of the center-back we talked about the different types of center-backs and the different strategies that a center-back has to deal with because of team tactics. In this chapter, we will discuss what defensive skills are most important for a center-back in our eyes. We base this on many years of analyzing different center-backs in different leagues. Just to name a few of the names that we worked with or are working with, Stefan de Vrij (Best Serie A defender 2019), Jurrien Timber (Former Ajax player and now Arsenal), and William Troost-Ekong (Nigeria National Team Captain and played in the PL and Serie A).
There are a couple of different game situations that a center-back is encountering most. This changes with the team tactics, so we will discuss all possibilities. The basic game situations a center-back is in most of the time are duels, covering, depth runs, and crosses. We will now give a basic description of what these game situations are.
Duels is self-explanatory, these are 1v1 with another player, within duels there are two different types, ground duels and aerial duels. Ground duels are everything where the ball is on the ground and aerial duels are all duels where the ball goes through the air. The most common mistakes in duels are body positioning and gambling. Players go into the duel with their bodies unbalanced, or they gamble for the ball without being sure that they can win it. Duels are also an important data point, scouts will look at the duel win rate of a player both over the ground and through the air.
Here you see an example of a ground duel, the player in front of you gets the ball in his feet. As a center-back you have to make several decisions here, there’s no right or wrong, that depends on what the coach expects as team tactics and also what your own skills are. The possibilities are here to go and try to win the ball, to stay in his back and hold up, or to back up completely and stay in your zone. As said all is possible and it depends on what the coach wants and his team tactics what you decide to do.
This is an example of an aerial duel, again there are choices like in a ground duel that depends on team tactics. But here they are more limited, you either go in the duel or not and stay in your zone.
With covering we mean all the situations where a center-back has to cover a teammate, this can be a full back, the other center-back, a midfielder, or even the goalkeeper. With covering, a center-back provides a safety net for the player he’s covering. The most common mistakes with covering are that the player is not aware that he has to cover a different player or that when he comes for cover he’s too close, which then opens up space elsewhere.
Here you see an example of a center-back covering another center-back after an aerial duel, but you can of course also cover after a ground duel. There’s also covering your full back, covering your midfielders, and even covering your goalkeeper, think about when the goalkeeper comes out and you take a spot in the goal. This is a covering goalkeeper game situation.
The higher the level the more complex covering becomes. There are more players that you have to take into account, and the opponent needs less space to create chances. You have to decide fast which one you have to cover.
Dealing with depth runs is another important fundamental for center-backs. Attackers will start running in behind the defense numerous times and it’s the center-backs responsibility to deal with this. If this is not executed well, this will result in an open chance for the attacker. A common mistake is that center-backs have the wrong body positioning, which will make them a second late. They’re not expecting the ball to be played in depth, and are surprised when the ball gets played. This makes them a second late, which can be crucial for conceding a goal or not.
Here you see an example of defending a depth run. A player runs in behind the center-back and the center-back has to deal with this.
The last situation is crosses, while the number of crosses that are given in a game is less than what it was before. This is still an offensive tactic that a lot of teams use and that a lot of goals get scored out. So defending a cross is still a crucial fundamental for a center-back to be able to deal with. A lot center-backs make the mistake of only watching the ball and therefore not marking their direct opponent or they are positioned in the wrong space when there’s no opponent to mark. There are also different types of crosses a center-back has to take into account.
Here you see an example of a crossing situation. In this situation, a center-back again has several options depending on team tactics. Some coaches want to play man against man in the box and some want to play zone. So if the coach wants to play in zonal defending, the center-back has to take the right zone, if the coach wants to play man-to-man in the box, the center-back should mark his opponent in the box.
It depends on the team’s tactics what fundamentals a center-back has to deal with most. If a team plays a high-pressing game this will automatically result in more duels and more depth runs. But the number of crosses is less. If a team plays more often in a low block, the center-back has to do more covering and more defending of crosses. This is an important distinction, and being aware of team tactics can help you become aware of what fundamentals are happening most for a center-back.
These were the four most crucial fundamentals for a center-back defensively, in the next chapter, we will discuss the offensive fundamentals for a center-back.