How to defend like England: space in wide areas

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 the space in wide areas.
You're pressing the opposition when, suddenly, they find space to switch play to the other side of the pitch. They have room to run. In response, you could remain compact at the back. This limits the space in behind your defence but gives them some freedom out wide. Or you could close them down, but risk being open at the back. A tough choice. Pressing, which is a key part of England’s philosophy, always includes a level of risk. No matter how you do it, when your team move up the pitch, space will be created somewhere. If your response is to stay compact, these pockets often appear in wide areas.

Now that doesn’t mean you stay narrow and let the opposition do exactly what they want on the wings. It means that, in the moment they break, you’re forcing them wide to delay and deny any possibility of them playing through your defence. A recovering player can then apply some pressure out wide.

That’s what England do when out of possession. For players to be able to do this effectively, they need to have the skills to:

  • defend central and wide areas
  • defend 1v1
  • deal with large spaces in behind their defensive line.

We can’t click our fingers and players suddenly understand what they need to do, though. At any age, they need time and the opportunity to practice, plus the chance to build up experience in game-related activities. This will help them develop the skills to deal with these situations – just like our women’s senior team do here.

England: defending the space in wide areas

Let's pick apart that clip to really highlight England’s strategy with defending space in wide areas.

How do England attempt to delay the opposition’s attack?

A tactical camera angle showing the Lionesses against Germany. This shows England applying a counter press.
England counter press the opposition to force them to one side of the pitch.

As England lose possession of the ball on one side of the pitch, the nearest player immediately presses the opposition, in a concept known as counter pressing. This forces the ball to be played backwards – delaying the speed of the attack and allowing time for the Lionesses to recover their shape.

Why would England encourage the ball into wide areas?

A tactical camera angle showing the Lionesses against Germany. This shows the space Germany have on the opposite wing due to England staying compact in the middle of the pitch.
England regain their compact shape and attempt to defend the space in wide areas.

In this situation, Germany work the ball out of tight areas and bypass the immediate counter press. For England, the focus switches to assessing how to deal with the switch of play and how to defend the space in wide areas. For instance, who will press the ball? Who will deny the space in behind? Who is responsible for covering areas away from the ball?

How do the players respond to the ball into wide areas?

A tactical camera angle showing the Lionesses against Germany. This shows England dropping off to defend the space in behind, which forces Germany to continue down the wing, rather than playing through the defence.
England’s defenders protect the space in behind their defensive line by denying the forward pass.

As the ball goes out wide, England’s left back drops off to protect the space in behind their defensive line. This, along with having a recovering wide player tracking back, forces Germany to carry the ball down the wing – rather than threading it through the defence.

As a result, the attack is slowed, England recover their shape and force a mistake, allowing them to launch a counter attack of their own.

What this means for you
So that’s how our England teams do it, but how could this help your team?

Using this exact strategy might not suit the context you coach in. But you can use parts of it to help develop your players and get them used to counter pressing and defending space in wide areas.

Here are three examples:

  • Reward players for winning the ball back as quickly as they can if they lose possession. Transition will naturally happen, so players need to be aware of how a positive mindset can delay opposition attacks.
  • Experiment with different pitch shapes and sizes. To encourage switching play, use a pitch that’s short and wide. Space naturally exists within wide areas, so players are more likely to try and exploit this to their advantage. Remember, the pitch needs to be long enough for defenders to practice defending the space in behind as well.
  • Use conditions that reward players for displaying the behaviours you want to see. For example, if your team defend using a compact shape, push the opposition into a wide area and then regain possession, award a point. By doing this – what gets rewarded gets repeated.

These tips will help your players develop valuable skills that can be sharpened on the next stage of their journey.

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

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