Defence vs Attack Practices

A defence vs attack practice is great for game-realism. It is usually set up on a half pitch (but obviously can be adapted depending on what you're working on) and pits one team (the defending team) against another (the attacking team). By manipulating the restart so we always start from the same situation each time, we can ensure our players are repeatedly put in whatever situation we want to work on (or we can vary the restart to have our players solve problems where they have to adapt on the fly).


Example Practice - Playing From the Back

An example of a defence vs attack practice is shown below. In this example, the focus is on playing out from the back, so the defending team (white) restart play from the goalkeeper every time the ball goes out. If they work the ball up the pitch and into any of the 3 coned goals (representing the two wingers and centre mid) on the half way line, they score a point. If the attacking team (pink) win the ball, they try to combine to score in the main goal. Mini goals can be replaced with an "end zone" the players have to dribble into or receive a pass in if you want to make it easier for the defending team to work their way out.

The above practice is geared around a particular topic (playing from the back), but in reality, like all defence vs attack practices, it allows your players to work on all kinds of things they may face in a match. The attacking team can work on defending from the front, pressing, trying to win the ball back high up the pitch, as well as their attacking play and finishing skills when they do win the ball. The defending team are working on both they combination play when in possession to work their way out and their defending, both matched up and outnumbered when they lose the ball.

These practices are great because they keep everyone involved and warm (no queues or lines) and they are a lot of fun too. As a coach you can take individual players out and give them personal challenges suited to them, as well as the team challenges they have.


Defence vs Attack Practices - Session Ideas

There are endless possibilities in terms of setting up attack vs defence practices to mimic certain phases of play. In addition to the above "Playing From the Back" practice, here are some more examples, but be creative and make your own up based around what you want to work on...

  • Deep lying defence - play starts from the half way line with the attacking team in possession and the defending team sitting deep protecting a 1-0 lead. Can the attacking team find a way to break the defence down, tempt them out and use the space that creates or score from long range? Numbers can be manipulated so the defending team has more players to make it even harder for the attackers.
  • Set pieces - play starts from a throw in, corner or free kick for the attacking team every time, allowing your team to practice keeping possession from these situations. As soon as the ball is in open play, the game continues as normal until it goes out and we go again.
  • Attacking overload - weight the teams so the attackers have 6 vs 3 or similar. The challenge for the defending team is to try and frustrate the attackers and stop them creating out and out goalscoring chances. If you want to work on the defending team having to get back and cover from a counter attack then start the play with a ball in behind and one of the defenders waiting on the half way line until you say "recover". If the defenders win the ball, have them keep possession for 5 passes to score a point or hit an early long ball through one of the gates etc... depending on what you want them to focus on.
  • Pressing - working with the playing from the back exercise above, have the attacking team's main challenge to win the ball in the final third (cone off this area). If they do that and score, it's worth double.


These ideas are by no means exhaustive - whatever your topic, you can tweak a defence vs attack practice to suit you.


Defence vs Attack - General Points
  • Keeping goalkeepers involved - if your practice involves a reasonable number of defenders or your defenders are playing particularly well when out of possession (or indeed in possession), then the number of shots your attackers are likely to have may be minimal. This can leave your goalkeeper as a spectator for long spells. A couple of ideas here would be firstly to not even have a goalkeeper - this can work well and encourage positivity from the attackers in terms getting shots away and a higher work rate from the defenders because they have no goalie to rely on. Eventually you would probably want to progress to having a goalkeeper for realism, but it can be a good starting point. The other thing would be to have a coach firing shots in at the goalkeeper whilst play is going on, giving the goalie something to practice (perhaps claiming crosses or saving long range shots) whilst also having to multitask and keep concentration on the game that's going on so that when the attacking team do shoot, the goalie is switched on to that danger.
  • Give both teams a challenge - I've seen practices where the focus is so much on repeating a particular scenario that as soon as one of the teams wins the ball, they just have to give it back to the other so the coach can recreate the situation again. Pretty demoralising for younger players to work hard to win the ball and then just give it back. So including the gates / goals for the defending team to break out and score through or giving them the challenge of working the ball into an end zone or keeping possession for a certain number of passes is a great way to give both teams an aim and a challenge.
  • Pitch size - to be truly game realistic, your practice would ideally take part on an area that matches the width of your matchday pitch and mimics the length of whatever area your chosen phase of play would take place in, but of course a lot of us have limitations on area at practice and you also need to think about how many players you have available and adapt the size of the area to that. Practising on an area much smaller will also be useful for getting the initial technical points across, working on a specific topic (like breaking down a tightly packed defence for example) or giving the players confidence by manipulating success for them, but then matchday may be very different if the size of area is vastly different, so an introduction in a smaller area, eventually progressing to full width may be ideal. Thinking through whether a smaller area makes things easier (defending a smaller area is much easier) or harder (defending a big area against fast or skilful attackers can be very difficult) allows you to at least prepare your players for the difference they might face on match day and how they might handle that.
  • Watch your "conditions" - be careful that if you place conditions on the play, they don't make things so unrealistic that is becomes easy for one team because of how predictable it is. In the "Playing from the back" scenario above for example, the temptation might be to tell the goalkeeper they have to play short to one of the centre backs or defensive midfielder, but this rule just means that the opposition can mark those players outright and success will be very limited. In a real match, your goalkeeper would be allowed to make their own decision about distribution, so it wouldn't be that predictable. A better thing may be to ask the goalkeeper (without the opposition's knowledge) to play short as a priority, but if that wasn't on, to go longer. This keeps the play unpredictable for the attackers and stops the game becoming unrealistic, whilst still allowing your team to play from the back. Of course you could put a second limitation on the opposition to ensure they had to drop off into their half of the area every time the goalkeeper played. Lots of ways to set it up, but thinking them through and adapting if something isn't working is key.
  • Size of the Goal(s) - for example, if you usually play with 11 a side goals and you're working on long range finishing in your DvsA practice, having a mini soccer goal isn't going to allow for a lot of success or realism. If you don't have the size of goal you'd like, you can use poles to represent it or put 2 goals next to each other. Similarly, in the playing from the back practice above, if the mini goals the defending team are looking to play through are too big, it may be too easy for them to play out without really focusing on the accuracy of their passing. Lots of permutations, but think them through in advance and the practice will be better.
  • Individual challenges - giving individual challenges to players within the context of these types of practice allows you to develop a specific skill for a specific player in a game-realistic scenario. For example, my left winger might be asked to cut inside and shoot with a right-footed shot if that was something we wanted to work on. The opposition don't know what challenge has been handed out, so you're looking at them to realise and adapt if it keeps happening.
  • Lots of spare balls - these practices break down if the players have to keep running across the field to get the ball. Keep lots of spare footballs wherever play is going to restart from and take a short drinks break to collect them all in in one go if required. An assistant coach on ball duty is a great help here.
  • Rotate positions - for younger players particularly, always playing the same role isn't going to aid their development. Rotate everyone between attacking and defensive roles and switch the goalie out too.
  • Neutral players - a great way to manipulate numbers in your defence vs attack practices is to use one or more neutral players to play for the team in possession. This gives an overload and allows them to keep the ball more successfully.


Personally, I love defence vs attack practices because they provide so many opportunities to coach different team and individual points and they keep everyone involved. They can make for a great "middle" part to a session, where you've started with a technical practice or warm up, move into your defence vs attack practice and then finish with a match.

Any questions, ian.knapp@langtongreencsa.org.uk