Why 1v1 defending matters

All Ages

With 1v1 defending being identified as a skills gap within current players, we take a closer look at this part of the modern game and why it’s important to focus on improving in this area.
Back in the 2018/19 season, it was brought to the attention of FA national coaches that there was a possibility of a skills gap, at the top end of the game, with regards to players being able to successfully defend within various, challenging, 1v1 situations. This idea then formed the foundation of Chris Sulley’s research, which this article is based on.

After analysing numerous case studies from the English professional game, the FA youth coach developer came up with a theory.

“The performance problems highlighted in this document [Sulley’s research] suggests that defending has not been enough of a focus for our players throughout their development journey, and that coaches are keen to ‘err’ on the side of caution by wanting an extra defender to minimise risk.”

“Therefore, players have become used to this narrative and context, which has led to defenders struggling to cope when exposed to 1v1 situations that the modern game is demanding more of.”

Case study examples The game can be split up into individual battles all over the pitch, but in this instance, we're focusing on 1v1 scenarios within the defensive third. Here are two examples, showcasing some of the situations that players face in the modern game.

In the first example, Newcastle United look to create an attack down their right-hand side, with right-back, Emil Krafth looking to get a cross into the Arsenal penalty area. Kieran Tierney, Arsenal's left-back, is engaged within a 1v1 duel with Krafth, who manages to get a cross into the box, which is subsequently cleared by Arsenal centre-back, Pablo Mari.

Arsenal's Keiran Tierney goes to close down Newcastle United's Emil Krafth, who looks to cross the ball into the box from out wide on the right.
Arsenal's Kieran Tierney closes down Newcastle United's Emil Krafth. 

In the second example, Crawley Town look to finish an attack within the Leeds United penalty area, with Crawley's centre-forward, Ashley Nadesan, looking to work an opportunity to get a strike off at goal. Leeds United centre-back, Liam Cooper, is engaged in a 1v1 duel with Nadesan, who manages to get a shot off at goal, which is subsequently blocked by Cooper.

Crawley Town's Ashley Nadesan looks to beat Leeds United's Liam Cooper inside the box on the left.
Leeds United's Liam Cooper looks to deny a goalscoring opportunity for Crawley Town's Ashley Nadesan.

Watch the following video to see how the chances in both of the examples mentioned above were created, and how quickly these situations can occur.

1v1 defending

Why we need to focus on 1v1 defending Put simply, it’s a key part of the game and can help your side minimise conceding goalscoring opportunities against the opposition.

By delving into the topic through game-related practices, you can help prepare your players and develop them for what’s to come when they move through the age groups.

Working on 1v1 defending, as early as you deem it appropriate with your players, can give them key skills that they can use later on in their journey.

The final positional destination of developing footballers is uncertain, as no one knows for sure what position players will eventually go on to play in. This trend has been reflected within our England national teams across a number of years.

“Our current [England national teams] defenders have often played in more forward positions within their development journey and then have evolved into being a defender in their late youth development and professional development years” highlights Sulley.

So, if players are given an all-round education, any future transition will be easier to make.

These skills can also help players adapt to a playing philosophy. If we take the way the England national teams play for example, 1v1 defending helps delay, deny and dictate opposition attacks, a key part of the out of possession strategy.

Similarly, these skills often get tested due to the way our England teams play.

“The out of possession England DNA affords opponents opportunities to counter-attack because it aims to dominate possession and territory in most games, alongside promoting defending within a compact narrow shape, which then naturally concedes space within wide areas, leading to increased crossing opportunities for the opposition,” states Sulley.

"Teams who have outstanding 1v1 defenders can also facilitate a more aggressive pressing strategy,” he added.

If you’re looking to work on 1v1 defending with your players when football returns, these sessions could help:

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