When and Where to Tackle?

A Coach Asks

I have to teach kids when and when not to tackle. How can I do this effectively?

Some Ideas

There are hundreds of articles about individual defending tactics that could provide a lot of good advice and detail, but I will just offer my best recollections. There are hundreds of exercises available in books and literature. Please check out a few other sources, I don't want to let you down by misunderstanding what's wanted exactly.

The Decision to Tackle

The defender's decision to tackle depends mostly on 

  • the location of the ball (nearest which goal?) (near the touch-line?) 
  • whether or not the defender has support.

A couple of examples -

  • Your striker is chasing a pass between the opposing sweeper and an opposing defender, and has a chance to win a ball in the final third that might lead to an immediate shot. Your striker should feel free to tackle, even without support, in order to get a scoring chance, because of the location near the opponent's goal.
  • Your defender and outside midfielder have doubled up on an opposing midfielder along the touch-line in your final third. Even though it's your final third, closest to your goal, your defender has support from the midfielder and is along the touch-line far away from goal. Tackling to win possession here is a good idea if the opponent shows the ball.
  • Your stopper stands half-way between your 18 and the half-way line, and two opponents with the ball sprint toward your goal. Your sweeper is sprinting to provide cover but is not quite there yet. In this case, your stopper may be the last defender, is unsupported, and sits in front of the final third. Clearly you would like the stopper just to match pace with the attackers, back up, and to delay them as much as possible until support arrives. No tackling here because it's in the final third, and because there's no support yet, and because the stopper still has enough time to keep a cushion between the stopper and the attackers. (As the attackers get closer to goal, the stopper will have to close this cushion because it allows room to shoot. See below.)
  • Same as above, but no help arrived, your sweeper fell down and the outside defenders are late getting back. The stopper delayed as long as possible, but the attacker with the ball has run straight at the stopper and forced the stopper to commit. The attacking player uses an attacking move and tries to play the ball into space behind your stopper and run by. Your stopper must try to tackle, even though there is no support and the ball is in your defending third. This is truly the worst situation imaginable, but it happens.

Most of the exercises I can recall focus on getting your first defender to delay until a recovery defender is available.

First, look at the Sigi Schmidt clinic called Pressure, Cover, Balance.

This provides a progression that really focuses on defending tactics. In the second match-related exercise, the first defender is supported (for the first time). The emphasis in this exercise is in getting the first defender to now take responsibility to close down the attacker since the first defender is supported. Note however, tackling is not the focus of the exercise, it's about the decision on how close to play. In this case, the first defender could tackle if there is a chance to win the ball.

Next, from many references like Coaching Soccer the Modern Way by Ditchfield and Bahr, you will see a series of exercises that progress from one defender without support to three or more defenders. Perhaps you could set up a 10x20 grid and do this sequence.

Exercise 1. Play 1v1 lengthwise, with attacker and defender starting outside grid ends. Defender serves ball to attacker and closes space as the ball travels. In this exercise the defender will not tackle unless beaten or unless the attacker literally makes a mistake and gives the ball to the defender. Attacker tries to cross goal-line from which defender served ball, defender tries to force attacker out of grid or win ball, but more than anything, to delay the attacker and make play predictable and safe.

The classic coaching points you must look for and correct when the moment is right include

  1. defender should note which foot attacker will use, and approach on a bending path that will put pressure on the attacker's favorite foot, but attract the attacker to the other foot.
  2. defender travels as the ball travels to close as much space as possible
  3. defender arrives under control, with the brakes on, and begins to back up and jockey the attacker
  4. the defender does not rush at the attacker and try to tackle
  5. the defender tries to work the attacker to the touch-line by allowing a little space to one side, but backing up if the attacker tries to get to space behind the defender
  6. the defender works hard to never allow both feet to straddle the line of play, but instead to have both feet, one up and one back, slightly off the line of play to the side of the attacker's favorite foot
  7. the defender should match pace, backing up, with the attacker at first to keep a space between the two
  8. the defender should be moving feet about twice as fast as the attacker moves feet
  9. if the attacker plays the ball past the defender, the defender should be able to step across the line of play to shield and possess the ball

There are about 100 more points, and everyone has their own favorites. Of all of these, arriving early and under control, matching pace, and keeping the feet moving are perhaps most important. 

Caution: You might be asked "When should the defender approach with a bending run instead of a straight run". This is not a trivial question.

The answer is, an outward bending run, which opens space to attract the attacker, can not be used close enough to your own goal to allow a shot. If the attacker is close enough to shoot, then the defender should either go straight to the ball, or in many cases, use an inward bending run that takes the defender onto the line of play between the ball and your goal. This inward bending run does not always help steer the attacker to the side, but it does help close down the chance for a shot right away before any jockeying starts. The "straight to the ball" applies if a shot must be stopped instantly.

Exercise 2. 1v1 plus recovery defender. Same as 1, except that recover defender arrives after a few moments. You can arrange this many ways, such as by having the recovery defender start from 10 yards behind the defender when the ball is first played, or having the defender start at the attackers end and sprint into a supporting position behind and slightly to the side of the first defender (tucked in).

Here you will ask the first defender to provide delay, as in the first exercise, until the recovery defender arrives. When there is support, then the first defender can pressurize more, close the space, and tackle if there is an opportunity.

Exercise 3. Expand your grid to 30 wide and 50 long, meters or yards doesn't matter, but do adjust the space for your age group.  (Play across a half field). Play 5v5 to two cone goals, one at each end of the field. One player for each team serves as goalkeeper in cone goals about 6 yards wide. Rotate goalkeepers as you play. This leaves 4v4 on the field. Your game restriction here is that two players for the defending side must start behind the goal-line of the attacking side as the attackers play out from goal. This leaves the defending team down 2v4 until the two recovery defenders arrive. There should be only delay or desperation tackling in this circumstance until the recovery defenders arrive to provide a second defender where needed. After this, the tackling decision is based on having support tucked in behind the first defender, and on location on the field. Tackling near the opponent's goal or along the touch-lines is safer than stabbing at the ball in midfield or in front of your own goal. Find the moments in the game where a tackle might have been made, such as when your players doubled up on the ball in a safe place, and coach toward tackling or provide encouragement for correct decisions made not to tackle when support or location are wrong. (See exercise 106 in Secrets of Soccer from IFK Goteborg).

Exercise 4. Play with no restrictions 5v5 or more to two goals, and coach your individual defending tactics topic in the game. Look for your opportunities to confirm good decision-making.

Another reference I could recommend for coaches working with younger players is Karl DeWazien's well-illustrated book FUNdamental Soccer Tactics.