February 2, 2011
Last year, I wrote a guide about how to play a simple 4-4-2. One of the major components of that is the back four. In fact, most modern formations build upon four defenders; two full backs and two centre backs. It’s clearly very important to know how to set them up. So – how do you set them up?
There is certainly no one “right” way to do this. We could talk for hours about all the combinations of centre backs, asymmetric full backs, and the modern “centre half” dropping from midfield. But that is not the point of this article. Here, we just want to know: how do you set up a simple back four?
Most four-man defences actually revolve around six defenders. We have:
- The full backs: number 3 and number 2
- The centre backs: number 5 and number 6
- The goalkeeper: number 1
- The “holding midfielder”: number 4
Clearly, not all formations are set up in the same way. So, what follows is a general guide based around the “simple” 4-4-2.
The centre backs
In general, centre backs tend to be reasonably tall players capable of marking, tackling and getting themselves into the right position to thwart attacks. The simplest setting is to give each a centre back role with a defend duty.
However, this is not the only way to set them up. More mobile players (with higher acceleration, and perhaps more anticipation, agility and balance) may be more useful as “covering” defenders. More physical players (with higher jumping, strength and aggression) may be more useful as “stoppers”. Those with the ability to play with the ball (with better technique, passing, creativity and first touch) may take on the ball-playing defender role. While others with rather limited technical skills might be best as limited defenders. But of course, there are just guidelines. Providing you match up the key attributes with those highlighted by the tactical interface, you shouldn’t come across many problems.
How you define the roles is up to you. This guide is about setting up a simple back four, so we will concentrate on the default centre back role. On the other hand there is a lot more variety to be had with the use of the defensive duties. Some of the more common set ups are as follows:
- Defend – Defend: Both centre backs will act like “normal” defenders, closing down when they think the time is right, but covering when they do not. They will tend to stay in a line, which might be useful when playing against two centre forwards.
- Defend – Stopper: One centre back will behave as a “normal” defender, sticking with the defensive line. The other will look to close down and attack the ball when it gets to the opposition forward. This can be good to get your tall player to attack the ball in the air, or to harry a forward who is good with the ball at his feet.
- Defend – Cover: One centre back will hold the line while the other sags back behind to cover. This can be useful if the opposition is playing a very quick forward who is able to beat his man. If the forward does manage to elude the “defender”, then the “cover” can sweep in behind to mop up the damage, especially if that cover player has a bit of pace himself.
- Cover – Stopper: This mixes the duties so that one attacks the ball while the other sweeps up. The two defenders will tend to “split”, so that one might find himself ahead of the line while the other drops behind. This can be very useful against lone-forward formations, but may leave exploitable gaps as the offside trap will be difficult to pull off. For that reason, it may be useful to use a true anchor man in the midfield in order to add defensive stability.
It is not recommended that you set the centre backs as “stopper – stopper” or “cover – cover”. Doing so will lead to either a defensive line which is too aggressive (which will leave holes) or too passive (which will give the opposition too much space). But that is not to say that it would be impossible to get such a system to work.
The full backs
The primary defensive duty of the full backs is to protect the wings. For this reason, you do not want them to run forward too much and leave exploitable space behind them. When playing an attacking opponent, you may need to play defensively on the wing. If the opposition are not attacking as much, you can afford to be more aggressive. For this reason, the default setting is full back role with an automatic duty. This means the full backs will become more or less attacking based on your chosen strategy.
If your full backs are very good at attacking and have the stamina, you might make them wing backs. Bear in mind, however, that this will make the defence less stable if the opponent attacks down the wings. It will depend on the skills of the opposition and your style of play what sort of player you choose. Again, use the highlighted attributes as a guide.
If you find you are exploited down the flanks, look to give the full backs a support or even defend duty.
Setting up the keeper is a matter of personal preference and the skill of your number 1. If he has the necessary skills, he can act as a sweeper keeper, coming out of his box to pick up loose balls and feeding the ball forward to keep attacks going. On the other hand, more conventional teams may just prefer to use the keeper as a wall in front of the goal – and nothing else.
A keeper with good communication and command of his area will get the defence more organised and help keep the ball out of the net. In combination, the keeper and the defenders form the “back five” which is ultimately your last line of defence.
If you have a team with a very defensive outlook and a very deep line then it almost goes without saying that a sweeper keeper will be redundant. Sweeper keepers are usually best used in teams playing higher up the field where there is a need to recycle possession quickly when the ball is cleared up field by the opposition.
The “holding” midfielder
I have put “holding” in quotation marks because it is not necessary to play the holding midfielder as a DMC or as a ball winning midfielder. The “number 4” (the MCd as we have called it in the past) is the more defensive out of your midfield. In a simple 4-4-2, he would be the central midfielder with a defend duty.
It is important to have a less attacking midfielder so that there is someone patrolling the middle of the park. This is your first line of defence. No matter how good the defenders are at marking, if the opposition midfield is given all day to sit on the ball and pick the perfect pass eventually they will open you up. Whether this guy is a full-blown anchor man or just a more defensive midfielder, he will help to add stability to the team and increase the defence’s chances of keeping a clean sheet.
The “number 4” should, therefore, be set up in combination with the rest of the defence. If your full backs are bombing forward, he can be a proper anchor man, sitting almost as a third central defender and providing cover. If your full backs are more defensive, you may be able to afford him a little more freedom in the centre of the park as a central midfielder or even a deeper lying playmaker. The important thing is that he provides defensive cover.
Marking systems play a part in how the team will behave. In a zonal system, the players will mark opponents as they enter their position on the pitch. For this reason, the players will not tend to hold their shape a little more. In a man marking system, each defender has responsibility for a particular opponent. In this system, the defenders will be more prone to follow an attacker even if that means that he gets pulled out of the team’s shape. When deciding on which marking system to use, be aware of the relative skills of your players and the relative needs of the team. Is it more important to ensure that all opposition players have pressure on them or that the team holds its defensive shape?
Of course, these six players do not exist in isolation. Nor are they solely defenders. While the full backs are part of the “back four” they are also important tools for attacking the wings. Similarly, while the wingers and other midfielders may have different roles and duties they still need to be able to win the ball back and retain possession in order to stop the opposition from attacking. In setting up your team defensively, you need to be aware of all of these issues.
There is a lot more to defending than I have mentioned here. But I hope this acts as a basic guide on what sort of instructions you can give to your defenders. I will leave you with a brief summary of how I would set up the six defensive players in a simple 4-4-2
1 – GK – Goalkeeper (defend)
2 – DR – Full back (automatic)
5 – DCr – Centre back (defend)
6 – DCl – Centre back (defend)
3 – DL – Full back (automatic)
4 – MC (either left or right) – Central midfielder (defend)