Becoming a skilful player: Jonny Evans

Guide All Ages

Looking to make it to the top? Leicester City defender, Jonny Evans, discusses some of the things that helped him become a skilful Premier League centre-back.

Evans, a Manchester United academy graduate, helped the Red Devils clinch three English top-flight titles, along with other silverware, before leaving in 2015. He then played his part in a historic FA Cup campaign for Leicester, as they won the tournament for the first time.
Reflecting on his career so far, Evans shared insight into what he’s learnt and how he plays the game.

Learning from others
Leaning on the knowledge of others is a useful tool for development. Evans, who has over 90 caps for Northern Ireland, has played alongside some experienced players – including some of the best in the Premier League. Learning from them has helped him develop his game.

“Outside of the coaching side of it, I think a lot of my influences came from playing alongside good players.

“I played left-back on my debut for Northern Ireland. I wasn't an attacking left-back, I was more like a fourth centre-back, and Aaron Hughes was playing at the back. The speed at which he moved the defensive line was something that stuck with me. I couldn't keep up with him at the time. Physically, the way he was squeezing the pitch and moving up, it’s something that’s never really left me.

Nemanja Vidic [at Manchester United] was another one. He didn’t stop moving his body position. I remember I wasn’t playing in the game, I was watching from behind the goal – which is always a good angle to watch defenders and how they’re moving across the pitch – and just watching the way he moved. He was moving his body like every two, three seconds. That's something that really stuck with me: that he would never allow himself to be square to the play at any time.”

Body shape
Knowing where to stand in comparison to the ball and how to use your body shape when defending will give you an advantage over your opponent. Evans often has to press high playing for The Foxes, which leaves space behind their defensive line. But knowing how to use those skills allows him to be prepared if the opposition break.

“Your starting position [is very important] and also your body shape – being ready to go backwards if you need to. If you squeeze [the pitch] well enough, you're ready to go back a lot of the times.

“Vidic was one of the first people I really noticed doing it [the side on position] and I became obsessed with it over the years and still think about it every single day. Someone passing the ball can change your body position so quickly. And maybe it’s quite natural to me now, but I probably do change my body shape a lot throughout the game.

“I think when you're younger, you want to impress. You want to try and get tackles in. You overcommit at times. But sometimes being able to show someone, with your body shape, where you want to direct them or force them to take a shot from a wider angle... sometimes that's as good as defending as getting the tackle in.”

Having contact with the striker

Squeeze the pitch
Having the ability to read the game, move up with play and stay tight to opponents is key to the role Evans plays at Leicester.

“If you're sustaining the pressure, a lot of the times the opposition will drop back, or maybe after 10 seconds will drop back in. This has been a big feature of the play under Brendan Rodgers at Leicester. We have good possession of the ball, sustained pressure, so my first thought would probably be to try and squeeze the pitch.

“In the past, I might have stayed back near the halfway line. But I think moving with the ball across the pitch, but also moving with the ball when it's down the far end of the pitch and really trying to squeeze the other team in [is important].

“You want to be in a position where you're tight, and if there’s a clearance, you want to be able to be in a position where, as your opponent controls the ball, you're able to go and engage with them. Not necessarily always win the ball, but you want to force them back or force them to have a bad touch.

“Sometimes that's good enough because a lot of the time you have your defensive players and midfield players coming back.”

1v1 defending
The ability to defend 1v1 is crucial to the modern game – particularly if you want to defend like England. Having the skill to dictate play or delay an attack by defending 1v1 is something that has enhanced Evans' game – helping him to adapt to other positions.

“I played a lot at full-back in my career, especially at West Brom, and I played right across the back four. 1v1 defending was so valuable to me when I was able to go out into those positions.

“And it definitely helped me going back into centre-back if I was ever playing full-back. Being able to defend in a 1v1 position when I was able to go back into centre-back, I felt so much more confident in those scenarios.”

Developing footwork
Being able to spin, twist and turn may sound like basic skills – but having good physical literacy is incredibly important. No matter what level you’re at. Prioritising movement is something that Evans really benefitted from.

“I did a lot of footwork. I can remember one of the fitness coaches, Tony Strudwick, he had some footwork stuff from a basketball coach about how they move and pivot on their feet. He used to get me and a few others doing little turning movements.

“It was really helpful, and I still use it now when I'm defending - just being able to pivot off your feet. It's so vital that, being able to turn your body shape from facing one side, to get it almost 180 degrees round where you're actually facing the other in a split second.”

Body shape, angles and staying on your feet

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