How to defend like England: transition

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 in transition.


You’re on the halfway line, ball at your feet, patiently probing for space. Suddenly, your winger makes a run. You commit to the pass – but it’s intercepted. The opposition win the ball and run towards you at speed. What do you do?
This is a moment of transition – and it’s a part of the game that’s becoming more and more common.

As many teams, like England, start to favour a possession-based approach, opponents are more prepared to counter attack quickly.

When transition happens, teams are vulnerable. The opposition will exploit whatever space is available. To prevent this, your players need to be comfortable defending in central and wide areas to successfully delay and deny their attacks.

The game is fluid; you can find yourself out of possession in a matter of seconds. Check out the video below to see how quickly transition happens and how the senior England men’s team respond.

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England: defending in transition

Let's pick apart that clip to really highlight England’s strategy when they swiftly transition from attack to defence.

How do they prepare for transition?

A high tactical angle view of England v Iceland at Wembley shows England on the ball in the final third, with their three central defenders supporting the attack.
England's central defenders push up high to support the attack.

In this example, England's central defenders are pushed up high. This helps them to support the attack by retaining the ball, which is a key part of England’s in possession strategy. It also puts them in a great position to counter press in moments of transition when possession is lost.

What becomes the priority when possession is lost?

A high tactical angle view of England v Iceland at Wembley shows England's three central defenders running back towards their half as they transition from attack to defence.
England's central defenders sprint back to their own half to deny the space in behind.

A key part of England’s out of possession strategy is to be compact within the centre of the pitch and force the opposition out wide.

We see this clearly in the video: the three England central defenders deny the space behind them by turning and sprinting back to their own half. This tactic forces the Iceland goalkeeper to throw the ball wide – just where England want it to be. Plus, it gives the rest of the team more time to make recovery runs.

What is their role and responsibility during transition?

A high tactical angle view of England v Iceland at Wembley shows England's three central defenders run towards their box to mark, cover and defend the goal.
The defenders now sprint into their box and stay compact to mark, cover and defend the goal.

England's recovery runs deny the space in behind and encourage the opposition to play shorter passes. This means that it takes them longer to build towards the goal. In the video, we see England take advantage of this delay and use it to recover their defensive shape.

England's central defenders are then responsible for picking up positions within the width of the goal. Staying compact like this and not being dragged out wide allows the recovering midfielder to intercept the ball and start a counter attack of their own.

What this means for you

Now, we’re not asking coaches up and down the country to implement England’s strategy with their U10s. But you can use these ideas to help your players develop the skills they need for transition within the modern game.

Here are three ways you can do this:

  • Expose your players to a variety of area sizes that help to replicate game-realistic scenarios. Smaller areas result in more transitions and opportunities to counter press. Larger areas allow players to experience tracking back over bigger distances and getting into shape as they quickly change from attack to defence.
  • Get your players to think about the ‘what ifs’. When a team is in possession, are the players who are not immediately involved thinking about what could happen next – and adjusting their positions accordingly?
  • Encourage your players to make immediate recovery runs when possession is lost. These sprints are a great way to deny space, recover to a compact shape and defend the goal.

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


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