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In the sport of association football, a defender is an outfield player whose primary role is to prevent the opposition from attacking.
There are four types of defender: centre-back, sweeper, full-back and wing-back. The centre-back and full-back positions are essential in most modern formations. The sweeper and wing-back roles are more specialised for certain formations.
The job of the centre-back (also known as the centre-half, central defender, or stopper) is to stop opposing players, particularly the strikers, from scoring, and to bring the ball out from their penalty area. As their name suggests, they play in a central position.
The position was formerly referred to as centre-half, although the emphasis of the centre-half was more forward thinking in action. In the early part of the 20th century, when most teams employed the 2–3–5 formation, the two players at the back were called full-backs and the row of three players in front of them were called half-backs. As formations evolved, the central player in this trio, the centre-half, moved into a more defensive position on the field, taking the name of the position with him. The right and left players in the trio were called the right-half and left-half respectively.
In the modern game, most teams employ two centre-backs, stationed in front of the goalkeeper. There are two main defensive strategies used by centre-backs: the zonal defence, where each centre-back covers a specific area of the pitch; and man-to-man marking, where each centre-back has the job of covering a particular opposition player.
- Marking threats in their immediate area (zonal defending) or to mark a particular opposition player (man-marking).
- Making tackles on attacking players as the last line of defence against the opposition.
- Intercepting dangerous crosses, shots and through-passes that cause an immediate danger to the team.
- Defending opposition corners and to stay in the opposition team's penalty box for corners and set-pieces with headers.
- To form the tactical base of the team. Coaches either choose to field the "line" of defence deep or further upfield. The choice of defensive line has great tactical implications in the professional game. A deep defensive line is considered a more conservative approach; however, it also means that the midfielders are required to cover more ground in the game and risk conceding midfield territory to the opposition. A high defensive line allows teams to pin opposition teams into their own territory and apply pressure when chasing for a goal; however, it leaves the defending team vulnerable to counter-attacks by quick opposition players.
- Maintain the defensive posture. Due to the advent of the offside rule in the modern game, defenders and centre-backs in particular need to ensure that the defensive line is strictly enforced when opposition attacking players are nearby. A defender that strays slightly behind the defensive line, for example, can "play" an opposition player onside and inadvertently create a scoring opportunity.
- Playing a simple game. Due to their proximity to goal, centre-backs need to avoid over-elaboration and play short and simple passes to their colleagues upfield, as well as avoid playing passes square across the defence, where they are vulnerable to interception by an opposition player.
- Height, good heading and jumping ability to contest balls in the air.
- Strength, marking and tackling ability to deal with one-on-one threats.
- Ability to read the game as well as anticipate incoming threats. Centre-backs need to balance the need to deal with any imminent threat from the opposition and the need to maintain the defensive posture.
- Concentration. Centre-backs need to focus on the task at hand and get interceptions, last-ditch tackles and headers correctly every time. They also need to ensure that they get a sure footing on the ball when clearing it so as to play it away from danger.
- Passing. Under pressure, centre-backs may need to call on competent passing skills to move the ball out to midfielders.
The sweeper (or libero) is a more versatile type of centre-back who "sweeps up" the ball if an opponent manages to breach the defensive line. His position is rather more fluid than other defenders who man-mark their designated opponents. Because of this, the position is sometimes referred to as libero (; from the Italian word meaning "free", as used by the sports journalist Gianni Brera). Though the sweeper may be expected to build counter-attacking moves, and as such requires better ball control and passing ability than a typical centre-back, his talents are often confined to the defensive realm. For example, the catenaccio system of play, used in Italian football in the 1960s, employed a purely defensive sweeper who only "roamed" around the back line. The more modern Fundell-Libero possesses the defensive qualities of the typical libero whilst being able to expose the opposition during counter attacks. Whilst rarely seen in professional football the position has been extensively used in lower leagues. The Fundell-Libero sits behind centre backs as a sweeper before charging through the team to join in the attack, otherwise known as "turning on the afterburners". A modern example is David Luiz of Chelsea FC.
Some sweepers move forward and distribute the ball up-field, while others intercept passes and get the ball off the opposition without needing to hurl themselves into tackles. In modern football, its usage has been fairly restricted, with few clubs in the biggest leagues using the position.
The full-backs take up the holding wide positions and traditionally stayed in defence at all times, until a set-piece. Modern full-backs take a more attacking role, overlapping with wingers down the flank. There is one full-back on each side of the field except in defences with fewer than four players, where there may be no full-backs and instead only centre backs. The traditional English full-back was a large, strong man who would make substantial use of "hacking" – deliberately kicking the shins of opponents, a practice that was accepted as legal in Britain but not in other countries, and caused major controversy as the game became increasingly internationalised from the 1950s on. It is now effectively banned everywhere, and it is this in part that has given rise to a different set of defensive roles.
In the modern game, full-backs have taken on a more attacking role than is the case traditionally. Wingerless formations, such as the diamond 4–4–2 formation, demand the full-back to cover considerable ground up and down the flank. Some of the responsibilities of modern full-backs include:
- Provide a physical obstruction to opposition attacking players by shepherding them towards an area where they exert less influence. They may manoeuvre in a fashion that causes the opponent to cut in towards the centre-back or defensive midfielder with his weaker foot, where he is likely to be dispossessed. Otherwise, jockeying and smart positioning may simply pin back a winger in an area where he is less likely to exert influence.
- Making off-the-ball runs into spaces down the channels and supplying crosses into the opposing penalty box.
- Throw-ins are often assigned to full-backs.
- Marking wingers and other attacking players. Full-backs generally do not commit into challenges in their opponents' half. However, they aim to quickly dispossess attacking players who have already breached the defensive line with a sliding tackle from the side. Markers must however avoid keeping too tight on opponents or risk disrupting the defensive organisation.
- Maintaining tactical discipline by ensuring other team-mates do not overrun the defensive line and inadvertently play an opponent onside.
- Providing a passing option down the flank; for instance, by creating opportunities for sequences like one-two passing moves.
- In wingerless formations, full-backs need to cover the roles of both wingers and full-backs, although defensive work may be shared with one of the central midfielders.
- Additionally, attacking full-backs help to pin both opposition full-backs and wingers deeper in their own half with aggressive attacking intent. Their presence in attack also forces the opposition to withdraw players from central midfield, which the team can seize to its advantage.
Due to the physical and technical demands of their playing position, successful full-backs need a wide range of attributes, which make them suited for adaptation to other roles on the pitch. Many of the game's utility players, who can play in multiple positions on the pitch, are natural full-backs. A rather prominent example is the Real Madrid full-back Sergio Ramos, who has played on both flanks as a full-back and as a defensive midfielder, and in central defence throughout his career. In the modern game, full-backs often chip in a fair share of assists with their runs down the flank when the team is on a counter-attack. The more common attributes of full-backs, however, include:
- Pace and stamina to handle the demands of covering large distances up and down the flank.
- A healthy work rate and team responsibility.
- Marking and tackling abilities and a sense of anticipation.
- Good off-the-ball ability to create attacking opportunities for his team by running into empty channels.
- Dribbling ability. Many of the game's eminent attacking full-backs are excellent dribblers in their own right and occasionally deputise as attacking wingers.
- Player intelligence. As is common for defenders, full-backs need to decide during the flow of play whether to stick close to a winger or maintain a suitable distance. Full-backs that stay too close to attacking players are vulnerable to being pulled out of position and leaving a gap in the defence. A quick passing movement like a pair of one-two passes will leave the channel behind the defending full-back open. This vulnerability is a reason why wingers considered to be dangerous are double-marked by both the full-back and the winger. This allows the full-back to focus on holding his defensive line.
The wing-back is a modern variation on the full-back with heavier emphasis on attack. The name is a portmanteau of "winger" and "full-back". They are usually employed in a 3-5-2 formation, and could therefore be considered part of the midfield, although they may also be used in a 5–3–2 formation, in which they would have a more defensive role.
In the evolution of the modern game, wing-backs are the combination of wingers and full-backs. As such, it is one of the most physically demanding positions in modern football. Wing-backs are often more adventurous than full-backs and are expected to provide width, especially in teams without wingers. A wing-back needs to be of exceptional stamina, be able to provide crosses upfield and defend effectively against opponents' attacks down the flanks. A defensive midfielder is usually fielded to cover the advances of wing-backs.
- "Positions guide: Central Defender". London: BBC Sport. 2005-09-01. Retrieved 2008-06-21.
- "Positions guide: Sweeper". London: BBC Sport. 1 September 2005. Retrieved 21 June 2008.
- "Football is Coming Home to Die-Hard Translators". Article on the Translation Journal. 1 April 2008. Retrieved 14 April 2008.
- Pleat, David (6 June 2007). "Fleet-of-foot full-backs carry key to effective attacking". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 11 December 2008. David Pleat explains in a Guardian article how full-backs aid football teams when attacking.
- Pleat, David (18 February 2008). "How Gunners can avoid being pulled apart by Brazilian". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 11 December 2008. David Pleat explains the team effort in marking an attacking player stationed in the outside-wing position.
- Pleat, David (18 May 2006). "How Larsson swung the tie". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 11 December 2008. David Pleat explains how the introductions of Barcelona full-back Juliano Belletti and striker Henrik Larsson in the 2006 UEFA Champions League Final improved Barcelona's presence in wide areas. Belletti eventually scored the winning goal for the final.
- Pleat, David (31 December 2007). "City countered by visitors' Petrov defence". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 11 December 2008. David Pleat discusses the tactical implications of full-backs and other defenders marking wingers in a Guardian match analysis.
- "Positions guide: Wingback". London: BBC Sport. 1 September 2005. Retrieved 21 June 2008.