How to defend like England: crosses

Guide All Ages

In a series of articles, we look at how our England national teams defend and explore how you can use this approach to prepare your players for the modern game. Here, we look at defending crosses.
Your team like to press high and encourage the opposition to go wide when they come forward. But what happens if they get past you and find themselves near your box? Who closes down the crosser, who marks who and what happens if the ball is whipped into the penalty area? These are questions for every team, especially England. Because of how our national teams play – staying compact and encouraging the ball wide – they have to deal with crosses regularly.

For example, over the last two major tournaments, the men’s senior team faced 12 crosses on average per game, with the women’s senior team coming up against 11 (data provided by Stats Perform).

This shows how important it is to know how to deal with crosses, both individually and as a team. However, depending on the age group you coach, crossing may not be a big part of your game. Yet.

As your team get older, the chances are that it’ll become more frequent. So, when your players prepare to walk out onto their Wembley every week, they have to develop some key skills. To play like England, teams need to successfully defend 1v1 within any area of the pitch, cope with moments of transition and effectively defend the space both in behind and out wide.

But, also as important is the need for players to know their roles and responsibilities. A good awareness of who does what and when is essential.

To showcase this, watch how the Lionesses manage their roles and responsibilities in the clip below.

England: defending crosses

Let's pick apart that clip to really highlight the strategy England have when defending crosses.

What is the priority for England when defending crosses?

An England player goes to press an opponent out wide to stop a cross from coming into the box, during the game against Germany women at Wembley.
The priority for the closest England player is to press the ball to attempt to stop the cross.

As mentioned, England's style of play often gives the opposition more space in wide areas. This increases the likelihood of crosses – and places a demand on our players to deal with them effectively.

This is exactly the scenario we see here. After initially dealing with the corner, Germany are forced back out wide. The priority for the closest player to the ball then becomes to press the opponent. Here, a key decision needs to be made: can the cross be stopped, or do we need to affect its quality instead?

Stopping the cross at source means England don’t have to defend a potentially dangerous ball into their penalty area.

But if that's not possible, closing the gap to the opponent limits their options on the ball. It blocks off potentially dangerous cutbacks and forces the opposition to deliver deeper into the penalty area.

Why would England encourage the ball into wide areas?

A group of England players force Germany to go wide, so they can't play through the defence and into the box, during the Lionesses' game against them at Wembley.
England force the ball into wide areas to delay the speed of the opposition attack.

In this situation, the Lionesses deny space centrally by maintaining a compact shape – forcing the German player to pass the ball into a wide area – and block entry into the box.

By doing this, England have more time to get into position to defend the potential cross. They’re then better placed to assess the flight of the ball and take effective action if it comes into their penalty area.

The Lionesses can also pick up on important cues from the opposition – such as what type of run they might make and what space the defenders need to prioritise.

How do England defend the cross in the penalty area?

England drop back to the six-yard line to mark, cover and defend their goal as a cross comes in from the right-hand side, during their game with Germany women at Wembley.
England were unable to stop the cross so now have to defend the ball when it comes into their penalty area.

Even with the best intentions and strategy, the opposition will sometimes get crosses into the box that need to be defended. In this situation, there’s too much of a gap to make up between the defender and the opponent on the ball, so England shift their focus to 1v1 defending excellence. This involves marking, covering and defending the goal.

Here, the defenders need to win the first contact, so they have to assess the flight of the ball and the potential danger from the opposition players’ movement.

When making clearances within their penalty area, England focus on three objectives:

  • Height: can I clear the ball over the opposition players?
  • Width: can I clear the ball away from central areas?
  • Distance: can I clear the ball as far away from my goal as possible?

Meeting these objectives gets the ball away from the goal and allows England time to step up the pitch and press their opponent.

What this means for you

Throughout this series, we’ve highlighted that defending is an art and that it takes time for teams to master the skills they need.

As a coach, it’s up to you to provide your players with the opportunities to refine their talents in realistic sessions that replicate the demands of the game. Eventually, they may be able to make the calculated decisions that our women’s senior team displayed earlier in this article.

Here are some simple ways you can start helping your team defend crosses – and make better decisions:

  • Consider the types of practices you put on for your players. To master dealing with crosses, your players need repetition of realistic actions in and around the box. The more players experience these moments, the better they’ll get at finding the right solution within a game.
  • Highlight simple, clear and consistent messages to your players. ‘The rule of three’ is a great way to do this. For example, when players have to clear the ball, remind them to consider ‘height, width and distance’. Or, when they need to deal with an attack in the penalty area, ask them to ‘mark, cover and defend the goal’.
  • Allow your players to organise their defensive structure. A perfect starting place could be giving your goalkeeper the task of communicating with their teammates to defend crosses effectively. By promoting individual, unit and team-based challenges, your players will take ownership of the situation.

Remember, your players will only improve if you give them appropriate opportunities to practice the skills they need now – and in the future.

For more defending content like this, take a look at how to defend like England: roles and responsibilities.

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