I was recently asked, “Coach Hardy, why are you coaching youth soccer teams
to play a flat back four zone defense?” The perception being that a sweeper/
stopper system is a ‘safer’ defense for younger teams. First of all, any defense
will have its strengths and weaknesses. A knowledgeable coach will know those
weaknesses and will encourage their team to break it down. All disclaimers
aside, the flat back four is the preferred system of most modern teams. A
youth soccer coach should emphasize the development of players within the
context of modern soccer.
When properly executed, a flat back four will provide excellent
defensive pressure, cover and balance. Young soccer players should be
developed to play at their highest potential level and nearly all higher level
teams play a flat four or three system. Coaching a flat back four defense gives
players a foundation for future success in soccer. Even a team as young as U11
team can successfully play a flat back four zone defense. A team may give up
‘break-away’ goals in the short term, while they learn the system, but in the
long run they will have the ability to confidently step into a modern defensive
A team can successfully play a flat back four after just a few training
sessions and a handful of games. I use the pre-season practices, tournaments
and scrimmages as a time for a team to learn the player roles and team shape
of a flat back four zone defense.
To help players visually understand the team shape of the defense I
call it the ‘Swoosh’ defense. As the back four defenders shift left and right
across the field, the shape of the defense unit looks like the Nike “Swoosh”
logo. If the players drift out of shape I can just say “Swoosh” and immediately
the players know where to position themselves. As the players feel comfortable
with the system they will remind each other to “Swoosh”. Here are four basic
ideas to be aware of when coaching the Swoosh defense.
1. Swoosh Defense
The back four defensive shape will prevent the other team from having
‘break away chances’ by making sure the far-side outside defender and the
far-side central defender shift and cover diagonally behind the pressuring
near-side defenders. It sounds complicated but it’s actually pretty simple. The
defenders shift diagonally to the position of the ball.
With this correct positioning the ‘Swoosh’ defense is denying ball
penetration, the dangerous attacking players are marked and the covering
defenders will ‘sweep’ any ball that gets played through. If the ball is switched
to the far side of the field, the defending four players will shift the ‘Swoosh’
accordingly. I have found that young players can easily remember to ‘Swoosh!’
more that ‘Pressure, Cover, Balance’.
It is important for players to remember that the diagonal cover shape
is why the team doesn’t need a sweeper. The most common defensive mistake
is for the team to stand totally ‘flat’. This is especially common at the half-field
line when the team with the ball has been maintaining possession in the
opponent’s half of the field. Which explains why teams that are learning the
Swoosh defense will usually give up their goals from half-field breakaways.
If the defenders stand flat at half field then any ball played behind the
defense will result in a breakaway race without anyone to stop a goal but the
2. Marking A Man In Your Zone
In addition to the Swoosh shape, the four defenders need to become
aware of the attacking player in their area of responsibility. Young players
often focus all of their attention on the ball. This bad habit is called ‘ball
watching’. Young players will often ball watch until the ball comes near them
and only then will they try and get it. But getting the ball is only part of the job
of defending. The Swoosh defense requires that players be in a good defensive
position while marking the opponent ‘goal-side and ball-side’.
When defenders ‘ball-watch’, opponents will move into unmarked
positions. The basic rule for defenders is to mark the most dangerous player in
your zone and stay ball-side and goal-side of them.
The break-aways against the Swoosh defense usually happen when a
defender is “caught flat ” and doesn’t react to the open opponent in their zone
until it’s too late. If a defenders waits until after the pass is played forward to
move towards the mark in their zone then there is often a foot race to the goal.
90% of good defense is positioning away from the ball.
(Note: Another reason I use the “Swoosh” term is to because young players will
often stay “flat” if the defense is called a “flat back four”.)
is pretty normal behavior for young soccer players, however, a defender is a
very important position and that player must be alert and mature enough to
not ball watch. Learning to mark correctly is a skill that will come with
commitment to learning.
3. Line Of Restraint And Compactness During Transition
The basic principle of good defending is to create ‘compactness’. I
encourage the defense to create compactness when we transition to offense or
when the opponent passes the ball backwards. We do this because (a)
compacting the space that the other team has to work with creates pressure
and (b) we can catch them off-sides. I do not encourage a sophisticated off-
sides trap below U14, but moving up the field to create compactness will catch
unaware forwards off-sides.
If we are slow in our own transition to offense (for example, after we
just cleared the ball from the defensive third) and our defenders just stay deep
in our own half then we are giving the other team lots of room to move the ball
back towards our goal. The general rule I coach is if the ball goes up the field 5
yards then we move the defense up 5 yards – 20 yards up the field means we
move 20 yards up the field. This is true until we cross half field. At half field,
the back four step a few yards into the opponents half of the field.
If our defense stays back in our own half of the field then there is less
pressure and with less pressure the other team will spend the game in our half.
I believe it is a better idea to try and defend the half line than your goal.
The key to successfully compacting the space is that all of the
defenders must move up together. If just one defender stays back then the
other team will exploit that. The line of defenders moving up the field is called
our ‘Line of Restraint’. Our goal is to have our ‘Line of Restraint’ no more than
35 yards from our forwards until our defenders reach the half line.
Again, a secondary bonus of compacting the space during transition is
that the other team is often off-sides because their forwards are caught
standing around after the ball has been cleared.
4. Off-Sides And Referees
A common concern when playing the Swoosh defense is that referees
can make mistakes with the off0sides call and the other team will have easy
break-aways. As far as the referees missing offsides calls, well, that’s the
nature of the game. The key is to control the controllables. As coaches, we
can’t control the referee’s decisions but we can control the team’s ability to
have good positioning and marking. Furthermore, if a team plays good defense
and scores goals then they will not be in a position that will allow the referee to
determine the outcome of the game.
In summary, if we coach to have defenders compact in transition, get
in our proper ‘Swoosh’ shape, and mark their opponent goal-side and ball-
side, then I am confident that the flat back four zone defense can be successful
even with young teams.
Now that my current U11 team is comfortable with the
Swoosh defense, we have moved onto the role of the attacking outside
defender and their ability to move forward to join the attack.