How to defend like England: roles and responsibilities

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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 understanding roles, responsibilities and relationships when defending.
The opposition are patient on the ball, building up play to look for an opening. An aggressive press could disrupt their approach, but it's risky. For the press to work, your players need to make some quick decisions. Who initiates the first movement? Who provides cover? How does the team react? The answers to these questions are heavily influenced by the roles, responsibilities and relationships within a team. A good understanding of who does what and when is essential. It could mean that, in a matter of seconds, your players have the ball back – or deny the opposition a goalscoring chance.

Let's take our England national teams as an example. Their philosophy is to play on the front foot and to win the ball back in opposition territory. So there needs to be a collective understanding amongst the players to do this.

For instance, if a player decides to initiate a press, the team needs to be ready to offer support. Pressing in isolation can be ineffective. However, if everyone plays their part, regaining possession is much more likely.

When we think about winning the ball back, it’s easy to just focus on technical skill. But strong relationships and good decision-making are just as important. A great press can look effortless, but the players involved will have been thinking hard about when and how to initiate it, as well as how to provide cover and balance.

Defending is an art, and it takes time to understand the roles and responsibilities within a team. As a coach, your job is to help your players develop the tools they need to get there. A great starting point is simply more time on the pitch. This will help them gel together and make informed decisions – just like our men's senior team do here.

England: roles and responsibilities

Let's pick apart that clip to really highlight the different roles, responsibilities and relationships England have when defending.

How do England press the player on the ball?

A high viewpoint of the England v Wales game at Wembley, showing England pressing high up the pitch.
The closest England player goes to press the player on the ball, which puts the opposition under pressure.

Here, England’s wide forward applies the press. This is a common strategy where the nearest player has to sprint towards the ball to put the opposition (in this case Wales) under pressure. This mentality should inspire others to provide support behind the press.

How do England’s players cover their pressing teammate?

A high viewpoint of the England v Wales game at Wembley, showing an England player pressing high with some of his teammates providing cover.
England’s wide defender presses the ball while three surrounding players provide cover.

As the ball moves across the pitch, England have another opportunity to press. This time the wide defender is closest to the ball and applies pressure. The important thing to notice here is that the surrounding players provide cover and prevent the team from being played through. This helps England maintain a compact shape and forces Wales to keep it wide.

How do England provide balance away from the ball?

A high viewpoint of the England v Wales game at Wembley, showing England players pressing high up the pitch, with supporting teammates providing cover and balance.
England have their closest player pressing the ball, three supporting players covering and three players away from the ball providing balance.

As Wales play the ball inside, England see this as another opportunity to apply pressure. Their closest central midfielder presses the ball, forcing the Welsh player to take his touch back towards an area of the pitch that other England players are covering.

Showing quick decision-making, England’s wide defender, who was pressing before, now provides cover for his teammate. The three players away from the ball provide balance – this helps prevent Wales switching play to the other side of the pitch.

Ultimately this well-rehearsed press forces Wales into making a mistake – and England regain possession.

What this means for you England work hard to ensure that, when it comes to defending, they know exactly who does what and when.

While the details of exactly how they do this may be a little advanced for your players, here are some simple ways to start helping your team understand their responsibilities – and make better decisions:

  • Work on your players’ verbal and non-verbal communication. To be a cohesive group, they’ll need these skills to help their teammates. When the nearest player to the ball goes to press, encourage the covering player to advise their teammate on which direction to show the opposition – like forcing them towards the touchline or into the area where you have more players.
  • Help your players recognise relevant clues, cues and triggers within the game. In pressing situations, get players to ask themselves: when do I press, cover and balance? When might these roles change? This will allow your players to develop their perception skills, as well as their ability to predict and adapt to game scenarios.
  • Consider how closely your practices replicate the ‘real’ game. Think about how many times you challenge your defenders’ decision-making skills. For example, are your attacking players making creative and unpredictable runs? If not, encourage them to do this. Your defenders will then have to deal with the threat and hopefully improve their skills.

Remember, players will only develop if they have the opportunity to practice the skills they need for their football journey.

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

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