The importance of a “good back four” has been around for many years and has historically been a consistent factor in the success of great teams. Of course, a goalkeeper is an important element as well, but a solid defensive unit in front of them is normally the starting point for most coaches when assembling their team and building it on the training ground. So what are the most effective ways of working on this?
We can always start at the basics, which have been traditionally taught as “pressure-cover-balance”. However, I am going to begin by challenging this exercise with the older age groups, not necessarily because I think it’s wrong, but more because I think it’s too easy. If an exercise at the elite level takes away decisions, or even limits them to basic step and cover, I think you are in danger of under-preparing the player for the game. The exercise also needs to progress at a speed that prepares the player for a variety of decisions and challenges them to make them quickly. For example, this 2v2 exercise below, is a popular exercise for young players to teach principles and concepts like pressure, cover, and balance.
However, at a higher level, this exercise should be redundant for a number of reasons.
1. Players are playing in a small area which decreases the physical demands and makes it easier to defend as time and space are limited for attackers.
2. With almost zero practice variability, the players are constantly performing the same defensive actions over and over again, which virtually eliminates any decision-making component.
3. The exercise is significantly limited by the attacking ability of your players. If you have attacking players like Messi, Neymar, or Tobin Heath testing your defenders, it obviously does but otherwise the defenders are at a clear advantage in this scenario.
4. Typically it only works on defending against a dribble or a combination player (i.e. one-two, give-and-go, or overlap) to beat the pressure. In reality however, a ten-yard pass and time on the ball does greater damage to any pressing system.
5. Players can struggle to connect this situation to the game. As coaches, we can easily see 1v1 and 2v2 situations arise throughout a match, but because the game constantly flows, players themselves fail to make the associations because of additional players and bigger, specific areas of the pitch.
There is one traditional exercise or a set of them that have survived the test of time. As a young coach, I remember when I first watched a DVD of Arrigo Sacchi coaching the 4-4-2 system with the Italian national team in 1992, and I was immediately impacted by it. The detail in the work was outstanding. Even in unopposed exercises, Sacchi used reference points on the pitch and team then moved in unison and perfect synchronization. It was the first time that I had watched the collective side of defending be coached without someone yelling “get stuck in” on the sideline. It showed the importance of distances and collective understanding. You still see his ideas in pre-match warm-ups even at professional level today. Getting the movements right, players rehearsing stepping, shifting and dropping before the game kicks off. Below is an example of that video.
Perhaps the game has evolved a little in terms of session design, but Sacchi's work can still be seen throughout the world. Below is an example from Roma under Eusebio Di Francesco, doing a similar form of work, but with a little more context in regards to opponent's attacking set-up. You can see in the video below how he changes the structure of the exercise to deal with a front two and a front three. Similar to Sacchi, he also highlights the detail in reading opposition cues, with a midfielder looking up as a signal for the back four to drop and cover the space in behind in preparation for the long aerial pass.
My personal philosophy on working with the back four is to get identify and refine those details in terms of movements and distances, but at the same time I want to exposing the players to decisions within those details. Here are three training exercises that I feel
The vertical zones are an initial reference point for the defenders and act as teaching tool for distances. However, the attacking players are allowed (even encouraged) to move around the zones. I see two benefits for this freedom. Firstly, it challenges the defenders to make decisions with their markers and they must communicate, over even rotate, if attacking players change positions. Secondly, if the defenders concede possession readily, it impacts the attacking teams ability to move and create more decisions.
A progression to this exercise is to add a holding midfielder and play a 5v5 with three gates on each side. This time there are only three vertical channels. I would use these channels to communicate zones where I believe our defenders can win possession, pressing the wide attacker aggressively and encouraging the holding midfielder to keep them to one side. If we cannot win possession, we want to dictate a backwards pass - which then allows our back four to step up and compress the space even more. There is also a transition element to this exercises and the zones can also act as a visual to show that the opponents will counter-press aggressively when we do win it, so transferring the ball out of the area is crucial to effective transitioning in possession. (See below)
Another exercise that I like to do with a back four is a version of "attacking waves" where the back four stays and defends a different goal after each attack. I know, I know, "that's not realistic Gary. Your right back is now your left back", but I'm okay with that for this exercise because it challenges them to transition and therefore defend in a different way. Compare it to the initial 2v2 exercise and this one is much more demanding in all facets of the game. There are a lot of decisions for defensive units to make in this exercise, so communication should naturally come out. Although the "waves" arrive in groups of four, there is an all-time forwards (in white) who stays so it's a constant 5v4 for the defensive unit to solve the overload. In addition, this exercise is a huge test physically so small sets of work is more than enough here.
As we build and recruit our back fours, we see coaches today pinpointing specific qualities, in and out of possession, that they are looking for from their defenders. However, another aspect to consider is how squad size has impacted success of defensive back fours in the modern game. Twenty years ago, squad sizes were much smaller and you typically had the same players starting every week. Today, because of bigger squads and the emphasis on rest, teams are less reluctant to change their back four, but this can have an on impact relationships and understanding? Below, Tony Adams, former Arsenal and England captain, discusses the best four he played with was not necessarily the best group of individual players. Instead, they were consistent in their selection in terms of starting games, and in the work they did on the training ground. Arsenal manager George Graham was famous for his defensive detail and no doubt it paid off.
Like most aspects of the game, improving your back four takes constant work. As coaches today, we must be intentional about what types of players we recruit, the system that we play, the system that we are up against, and how we select our team. When it comes to training and session design, your philosophy is critical to build upon and refine. I think Eusebio Di Francesco did it best. Study and take from others, adapt, and work intently and consistently with your own players. I don't see that going out of fashion any time soon.
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