What is "Backs On"?
A Coach Asks
I went to a coaching seminar and stayed after to ask about defending tactics. The coach suggested several alternatives, but mentioned playing "backs on". What does this mean? When would we play "backs on"?
Playing "backs on" means that your marking backs, usually your two outside defenders, will mark 1v1 against assigned opponents, and will track those opponents at all times, even tracking the opponents to the opposite side of the field if needed.
Playing backs on applies exceptional pressure to the opposing side attacking your goal, and is, more or less, what coaches teach beginning players to do at U8 and U10. The coach who yells "mark up" is asking everyone, especially the marking backs, to tighten up with opponents being marked. So, it is very easy to explain to your marking backs, and it is very easy to audit during the match. A quick glance can tell you whether your backs are "on" their mark.
A crafty team with experienced strikers who work together can tear your defense apart if you play backs on without understanding what they can do with runs.
For example, with two opposing strikers, one striker checks early into midfield and spins out in a bending run to prepare to go forward again. This "down striker" has brought a marking back into midfield, and left space up top. The second striker, still up top as the "up striker", delays, checks to goal a step or two to gain the attention of the marking back, then checks into midfield as well, dragging the "backs on" defender.
What's left? Perhaps just a central defender left alone in a very, very big space and a worried goalkeeper. The opposing side has created a through ball situation that will set up two strikers and one ball going against your central defender. Each of the strikers has a good chance to get a step on the "backs on" defender who has tracked out into midfield, so the capable opponent will play a through ball. Four sets of hips will turn to goal, two for the opponents attacking your goal, and two for your side, your "backs on" defenders. Pretty scary stuff, because with their hips turned toward your own goal, your defenders may not be able to win the ball without fouling.
When to Use It
Playing backs on works best at younger ages, where it is a teaching tool, and it works with advanced teams from U14 up who play with a central defender and screen (stopper) who are quick to step up into the passing lanes and a goalkeeper who plays high in the defense to assist with controlling space, rather than hanging back on the line. Backs on is appropriate when playing high pressure system against a better team that may have some weakness getting out of the back.
For example, you may be facing a much stronger opponent and may not have hope of maintaining much possession in the attacking half. How then can you score without possession? Let the other team do the heavy lifting and instead focus on winning the ball from defenders in the final third, where scoring does not require your team to have maintained possession from your goal-line to theirs.
Specifically, if you can teach your strikers and midfielders to play balls to the flags or the corners of the opponents penalty area when they are likely to lose possession, and if you can teach your strikers to isolate defenders so that the defenders play predictable passes up the touch-lines to places where your defenders and outside midfielders can easily win the ball, you can gain possession close enough to shoot at once.
For example, one striker to ball, one striker to the line of play between the ball and the keeper (then turning to double down on the ball), a midfielder or striker to the goalkeeper, attacking mid to the central defender, outside mids run to the opponents outside defenders, and your defenders push up to mark the opponents outside midfielders. This leaves your central defender, keeper, and screen or stopper to worry about the opponents strikers. You are gambling that the defender with the ball, facing probably two of your players, will not have the presence of mind or composure to look up to see that a striker might not be marked, and will not have the time or space to prepare an accurate pass of 40 yards or more.
Now, this explanation of pressurizing did not have the marking backs on those strikers, we released the outside backs to go to the half-way line to win that pass we can expect from the outside backs. Right, so we played backs on to start discouraging the strikers early on, but when we get a chance to play a ball forward, we break out of "backs on" and pass those strikers to the sweeper/stopper team. "Good luck, were outa here! Be right back after we get a goal!"
By the way, when you want to pressurize as a team, you should see your entire team across the half-way line and into the attacking half in about 6 seconds, regardless of age group. The central defender and screen will push up but they have marking responsibilities in a full team pressurizing situation. Your goalkeeper will have to come out to the 18 or further to control space behind the defense when your entire team is chasing a defender with the ball at the other end. You will also take advantage of visual cues to know when to break off from pressurizing in order to recover defending shape. A simple example, if the opposing goalkeeper picks the ball up in hands, its time to recover the team to a tight shape in midfield, leaving space along the touch-lines empty.
It is more important for your players to learn how to play a combination of 1v1 marking and zone, playing 1v1 near the ball and zone away. This is not complicated.
Some coaches swear that 1v1 everywhere is the way to go, but in the next sentence, they will always agree that doubling up on the ball is often a good idea. Well, as soon as you double up on the ball, you are numbers up near the ball. This means that you are numbers down away from the ball, and that means you are playing zone away from the ball. It is no more complicated than that.
Zone means that, as a defender, I have my space and I will be the first defender if the ball comes to my space with a player, or that I will try to win the ball if it is played to my space. I will play numbers down defense against two attackers, and delay for support to arrive. Playing zone also means that I will deliberately let some space go that is not critical. I will probably not chase opponents without the ball all the way to the touch-line far from my goal when by myself, but will instead work to cover the middle.
Having emphasized teaching zone and 1v1 together, we should still suggest that you give it spin as a learning aid for you and the team. Playing backs on is kind of fun to try, so play with in scrimmages. It is an interesting exercise as much for the coach as for the team. You will learn a lot about defending shape and defensive organization by experimenting with it, and gain some ideas about striker play and attacking the goal at the same time.