Defender (association football)

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In the sport of association football, a defender is an outside player whose primary role is to prevent the opposition from attacking.

There are four types of defenders: centre-back, sweeper, full-back, and wing-back. The centre-back and full-back positions are essential in most modern formations. The sweeper and wing-back roles are more specialised for certain formations.


The task of the centre-back (a.k.a the centre-half, central defender, and stopper) is to try to prevent opposing players, particularly the strikers, from scoring and to bring balls out of their penalty area. As their name suggests, they play in a central position.

The 2-3-5 formation

This position was formerly referred to as "centre-half" and players in it were more concerned with coming up with what moves to make next in a particular game. In the early 20th century, when most teams employed this 2–3–5 formation, the two players at the back were called full-backs and the row of three players in front of them half-backs. As formations evolved, the central player's task in this trio, the centre-half, became more defensive. The right and left players in the trio were called the right-half and left-half respectively.

In the modern game, most teams employ two centre-backs, stationed in front of the goalkeeper. There are two main defensive strategies used by centre-backs: the zonal defence, where each centre-back covers a specific area of the pitch; and man-to-man marking, where each centre-back has the job of covering a particular opposition player.

Standard 4–4–2 formation
  • Marking threats in their immediate area (zonal defending) or to mark a particular opposition player (man-marking).
  • Making tackles on attacking players as the last line of defence against the opposition.
  • Intercepting dangerous crosses, shots and through-passes that cause an immediate danger to the team.
  • Defending opposition corners and to stay in the opposition team's penalty box for corners and set-pieces with headers.[1]
  • To form the tactical base of the team. Coaches either choose to field the "line" of defence deep or further upfield. The choice of defensive line has great tactical implications in the professional game. A deep defensive line is considered a more conservative approach; however, it also means that the midfielders are required to cover more ground in the game and risk conceding midfield territory to the opposition. A high defensive line allows teams to pin opposition teams into their own territory and apply pressure when chasing for a goal; however, it leaves the defending team vulnerable to counter-attacks by quick opposition players.
  • Maintain the defensive posture. Due to the advent of the offside rule in the modern game, defenders and centre-backs in particular need to ensure that the defensive line is strictly enforced when opposition attacking players are nearby. A defender that strays slightly behind the defensive line, for example, can "play" an opposition player onside and inadvertently create a scoring opportunity.
  • Playing a simple game. Due to their proximity to goal, centre-backs need to avoid over-elaboration and play short and simple passes to their colleagues upfield, as well as avoid playing passes square across the defence, where they are vulnerable to interception by an opposition player.
  • Height, good heading and jumping ability to contest balls in the air.
  • Strength, marking and tackling ability to deal with one-on-one threats.
  • Ability to read the game as well as anticipate incoming threats. Centre-backs need to balance the need to deal with any imminent threat from the opposition and the need to maintain the defensive posture.
  • Concentration. Centre-backs need to focus on the task at hand and get interceptions, last-ditch tackles and headers correctly every time. They also need to ensure that they get a sure footing on the ball when clearing it so as to play it away from danger.
  • Passing. Under pressure, centre-backs may need to call on competent passing skills to move the ball out to midfielders.

Sweeper (libero)[edit]

The 5-3-2 formation with a sweeper

The sweeper (or libero) is a more versatile centre-back who "sweeps up" the ball if an opponent manages to breach the defensive line. This position is rather more fluid than that of other defenders who man-mark their designated opponents. Because of this, it is sometimes referred to as libero ([ˈlibero], which originated from the Italian word for "free." Though sweepers may be expected to build counter-attacking moves, and as such require better ball control and passing ability than typical centre-backs, their talents are often confined to the defensive realm. For example, the catenaccio system of play, used in Italian football in the 1960s, employed a purely defensive sweeper who only "roamed" around the back line. The more modern libero possesses the defensive qualities of the typical libero whilst being able to expose the opposition during counterattacks. The Fundell-libero has become more popular in recent time with the sweeper transitioning to the most advanced forward in an attack. This variation on the position requires great pace and fitness. Whilst rarely seen in professional football the position has been extensively used in lower leagues. Modern libero sits behind centre-backs as a sweeper before charging through the team to join in the attack.[2]

Some sweepers move forward and distribute the ball up-field, while others intercept passes and get the ball off the opposition without needing to hurl themselves into tackles. If the sweeper does move up the field to distribute the ball, they will need to make a speedy recovery run back the their position. In modern football, its usage has been fairly restricted, with few clubs in the biggest leagues using the position.

The position is most commonly associated to have been pioneered by Franz Beckenbauer and Gaetano Scirea, and later by Franco Baresi and Matthias Sammer in the 1990s era, although they were not the first players to play this position, with earlier proponents such as Alexandru Apolzan, Velibor Vasović and Ján Popluhár.[3][4][5][6] Though it is rarely used in modern football, it remains a highly respected and demanding position.

A recent and successful use of the sweeper was made by Otto Rehhagel, Greece's manager, in the 2004 European Championship. Rehhagel utilized Traianos Dellas as Greece's sweeper to great success, as Greece surprisingly became European champions.


The full-backs take up the holding wide positions and traditionally stayed in defence at all times, until a set-piece. Modern full-backs take a more attacking role, overlapping with wingers down the flank. There is one full-back on each side of the field except in defences with fewer than four players, where there may be no full-backs and instead only centre-backs.[7] The traditional English full-back was a large, strong man who would make substantial use of "hacking" – deliberately kicking the shins of opponents, a practice that was accepted as legal in Britain but not in other countries, and caused major controversy as the game became increasingly internationalised from the 1950s on. It is now effectively banned everywhere, and it is this in part that has given rise to a different set of defensive roles. The full-backs have become essential in the modern game formation 4-3-3 or the now commonly used 4-2-3-1 formation.

In the modern game, full-backs have taken on a more attacking role than is the case traditionally.[8] Wingerless formations, such as the diamond 4–4–2 formation, demand the full-back to cover considerable ground up and down the flank. Some of the responsibilities of modern full-backs include:

  • Provide a physical obstruction to opposition attacking players by shepherding them towards an area where they exert less influence. They may manoeuvre in a fashion that causes the opponent to cut in towards the centre-back or defensive midfielder with his weaker foot, where he is likely to be dispossessed. Otherwise, jockeying and smart positioning may simply pin back a winger in an area where he is less likely to exert influence.
  • Making off-the-ball runs into spaces down the channels and supplying crosses into the opposing penalty box.
  • Throw-ins are often assigned to full-backs.
  • Marking wingers and other attacking players. Full-backs generally do not commit into challenges in their opponents' half. However, they aim to quickly dispossess attacking players who have already breached the defensive line with a sliding tackle from the side. Markers must however avoid keeping too tight on opponents or risk disrupting the defensive organisation.[9]
  • Maintaining tactical discipline by ensuring other team-mates do not overrun the defensive line and inadvertently play an opponent onside.
  • Providing a passing option down the flank; for instance, by creating opportunities for sequences like one-two passing moves.
  • In wingerless formations, full-backs need to cover the roles of both wingers and full-backs, although defensive work may be shared with one of the central midfielders.
  • Additionally, attacking full-backs help to pin both opposition full-backs and wingers deeper in their own half with aggressive attacking intent. Their presence in attack also forces the opposition to withdraw players from central midfield, which the team can seize to its advantage.[10]

Due to the physical and technical demands of their playing position, successful full-backs need a wide range of attributes, which make them suited for adaptation to other roles on the pitch. Many of the game's utility players, who can play in multiple positions on the pitch, are natural full-backs. A rather prominent example is the Real Madrid full-back Sergio Ramos, who has played on the flanks as a full-back and in central defense throughout his career. In the modern game, full-backs often chip in a fair share of assists with their runs down the flank when the team is on a counter-attack. The more common attributes of full-backs, however, include:

  • Pace and stamina to handle the demands of covering large distances up and down the flank.
  • A healthy work rate and team responsibility.
  • Marking and tackling abilities and a sense of anticipation.
  • Good off-the-ball ability to create attacking opportunities for his team by running into empty channels.
  • Dribbling ability. Many of the game's eminent attacking full-backs are excellent dribblers in their own right and occasionally deputise as attacking wingers.
  • Player intelligence. As is common for defenders, full-backs need to decide during the flow of play whether to stick close to a winger or maintain a suitable distance. Full-backs that stay too close to attacking players are vulnerable to being pulled out of position and leaving a gap in the defence. A quick passing movement like a pair of one-two passes will leave the channel behind the defending full-back open. This vulnerability is a reason why wingers considered to be dangerous are double-marked by both the full-back and the winger. This allows the full-back to focus on holding his defensive line.[11]


The wing-back is a modern variation on the full-back with heavier emphasis on attack. Today, this position is considered a half-back. Yes, the player focus' heavier on attack and less on defending. Yet, the player still has to get back and mark up on the opposing team to make the player less of a threat. Some formations have half-back players that mainly focus on defending, and some that focus more on attack.

In the evolution of the modern game, wing-backs are the combination of wingers and full-backs. As such, it is one of the most physically demanding positions in modern football. Wing-backs are often more adventurous than full-backs and are expected to provide width, especially in teams without wingers. A wing-back needs to be of exceptional stamina, be able to provide crosses upfield and defend effectively against opponents' attacks down the flanks, a good example of this is the Western Sydney Wanderers player Shannon Cole or the Hull City player Ahmed Elmohamady. A defensive midfielder is usually fielded to cover the advances of wing-backs.[12]


  1. ^ "Positions guide: Central Defender". London: BBC Sport. 1 September 2005. Retrieved 21 June 2008. 
  2. ^ "Positions guide: Sweeper". London: BBC Sport. 1 September 2005. Retrieved 21 June 2008. 
  3. ^ Rotting fruit, dying flowers The Guardian
  4. ^ Czechoslovakia World Cup Hero Jan Popluhar Dies Aged 75
  5. ^ VELIBOR VASOVIC The Independent
  6. ^ Evolution of the Sweeper
  7. ^ "Football is Coming Home to Die-Hard Translators". Article on the Translation Journal. 1 April 2008. Retrieved 14 April 2008. 
  8. ^ Pleat, David (6 June 2007). "Fleet-of-foot full-backs carry key to effective attacking". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 11 December 2008.  David Pleat explains in a Guardian article how full-backs aid football teams when attacking.
  9. ^ Pleat, David (18 February 2008). "How Gunners can avoid being pulled apart by Brazilian". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 11 December 2008.  David Pleat explains the team effort in marking an attacking player stationed in the outside-wing position.
  10. ^ Pleat, David (18 May 2006). "How Larsson swung the tie". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 11 December 2008.  David Pleat explains how the introductions of Barcelona full-back Juliano Belletti and striker Henrik Larsson in the 2006 UEFA Champions League Final improved Barcelona's presence in wide areas. Belletti eventually scored the winning goal for the final.
  11. ^ Pleat, David (31 December 2007). "City countered by visitors' Petrov defence". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 11 December 2008.  David Pleat discusses the tactical implications of full-backs and other defenders marking wingers in a Guardian match analysis.
  12. ^ "Positions guide: Wingback". London: BBC Sport. 1 September 2005. Retrieved 21 June 2008.