It’s Not An Offside Trap – It’s Defense!

There’s a great discussion about U12 8v8 formations going on in an older post I put up on the subject a couple years ago: Thoughts on U11/U12 8v8 Formations. Lots of interesting perspectives and experiences with all sorts of formations. One comment caught my eye:

I am halfway through the spring season and I am contemplating working the 3-2-2, mainly for a Myrtle Beach tournament coming up. I feel it would benefit the girls when playing teams that push defense to midfield so there would be two strikers to serve runs instead of one.

Emphasis mine. Regardless of the formation you play – do you play a pressure defense? If so, why, and if not, why not?

I love a pressure defense. Nothing makes me twitch more than to see a team line up to start the match and all the defenders are standing on the 18. My girls travel team learned in U11 that when the ball advances over midfield, you’re heading to midfield with it. In travel play, you tend to face a pressure defense more often than not (at least here in NC). But in Rec, rarely. That’s what makes it so much fun. It can drive opposing parents crazy as you catch their teams offside over and over.

What’s that you say? I’m crazy for teaching the offside trap to Rec kids? I haven’t even taught it to my travel players. They figured that out on their own (more on that in a bit) My rule is simple, stay even with the ball when it’s heading towards our goal and run to midfield when we’ve advanced it forward over midfield. I’ve done this with teams since U10 (back when they enforced offside). Here’s why I like a pressure defense:

  • It can be an equalizer. I’ve had teams win matches where they were NOT the overall better team. Why? Because they faced a team that had no idea how to handle a pressure defense. They would get called offside all the time, eliminating most break away chances. This is especially true in Rec where a team can often win with a few fast agile ball handlers up front.
  • Defense is no longer a position to ‘hide’ weaker players. Your defenders run – a LOT. So your developing players play elsewhere where they can’t really hide and have to get more involved in the match.
  • It teaches the players how important ‘support’ is on defense – the idea that if the center defender gets beat, you’re positioned to swoop in to help without putting other opponents onside ahead of the ball. Teaching ‘2nd Defender/Support’ to kids is NOT easy – but this can help.
  • You can seal off the game at midfield and make it hard to teams to get into your end of the field. They may have through balls and break aways, but if your defense knows how to handle those – opponents have a choice to make – try to get past midfield 1v1 and using combinations, or play kick and run where you’re more likely to regain possession and build an attack. You’d be surprised how often the latter happens.
  • Your defenders feel more involved in the match – often contributing to offense when an opponent doesn’t leave any strikers at midfield. Encourage them to ‘take the space’ they’re given if they have nobody to cover and to ‘make runs’ if they see an opening to the goal.
  • Your players learn that pushing to midfield quickly can gain them a numbers advantage on transitions. Anyone they ‘leave behind’ is pretty much out of the play until they get back onside. It helps players think about quick transitions and anticipating a change in possession.
  • Players are more comfortable ‘passing back’ to the defense because they’re usually farther away from their own goal.
  • Defensive mistakes aren’t as costly because they’re more apt to happen at mid field, giving you a chance to chase down a break away.
  • It can encourage your keeper to play some sweeper – coming farther out of the box and getting more involved in the play.

Now, a pressure defense is not a magic bullet, and it CAN be dangerous. Things to be wary of include:

  • Your defenders need to have some speed. Otherwise if you face a team that has a basic concept of a through ball, you’re going to get picked apart.
  • You can get burned by a referee crew that doesn’t fully grasp offside – especially players who come back from an offside position to play the ball – they’re offside, but not all refs will make that call.
  • Your defense has to learn to possess the ball upfield instead of just kicking through balls out of bounds. This can be a plus, but it takes work and confidence.
  • If you face a team with 2+ fast aggressive strikers and your defenders aren’t up for it, you’re going to get scored on.
  • In very close matches, you do run the risk of allowing that ‘one breakaway’ on a mistake that results in a critical goal.
  • Building off the above item – it can help encourage defenders to pass back to the keeper. This is such a huge thing, but most defenders are VERY afraid of messing up the pass and setting up an opponent. But learning to do this is a HUGE addition to your teams gameplay and can help your defenders avoid tiring runs and trying to turn upfield under pressure. But it can also result in demoralizing goals when mistakes are made.
  • The opposing parents and some coaches will hate you for it! :)

Touching on that last point… One season I was coaching a ‘middle of the division’ Rec team. Good kids, some strong performances, but we had to beat this strong team team (think they were in 2nd place) to get into our end of season tournament and then, as luck would have it, play them again to advance past the first round. We beat them twice, in large part to a pressure defense. It drove their parents bonkers. I was accused of cheating, not playing fair, taking advantage of the rules, and much more. “The offside trap has no place in Rec soccer”, when we weren’t ‘trapping’ at all. Their forwards just had no concept of waiting to cross midfield until the ball was kicked.

For me as a coach, I just like how the pressure defense helps teach critical skills and tactical thinking, with the players often figuring them out on their own. It also makes for a much more exciting match in most cases.

The key thing is this. I never ‘teach offside’ in practice. I may talk about it briefly, but instead use the matches to help the players learn it. By ‘pushing the envelope’ over and over, they figure it out pretty quickly. My U13’s figured out that staying even with The Wall on a free kick worked well, so long as they took off after the ball the second after it was kicked. This often nullifies most free kicks for opponents. More often than not, the opponents jump the gun. My center defender this season figured out the offside trap all on her own. In one very intense match against a very strong opponent (they were 1st Div Classic – we dropped from 2nd to ‘3rd (Challenge)’), as their midfielders went to plant for a long ball, she’d glance over her shoulders and take a HUGE step forward. It nullified kick and run for this team as well as many through balls, and forced them to work the ball forward 1v1. The AR even commented on how she clearly ‘had been taught the trap’ and did it well. Nope – she figured it out on her own.

That’s my thinking on the topic – what about you all? If you have the players to play a pressure defense, do you? Do you use it selectively or all the time? If you don’t and face a team that uses it, how do you try to nullify it’s advantages?

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  1. This is a nice summary of the pros and cons.

    With more higher level programs adopting a zonal / flat zonal system and eliminating the ‘sweeper’, a pressure defense concept makes great sense. We play a 3-4-3 or 2-3-2 (8 v 8) with emphasis on counterattack/transition. I listened to a successful college coach say that most goals (besides PK) are scored off transitions.

    I think you also need to have goal keepers that mentally consider themselves as “sweepers who can use their hands”. You also need to enforce offsides in practice and reward defense, even in offensive minded activities, with some kind of transition objective.

    At the younger levels, it is tough because you get novice ARs who don’t call offsides consistently or miss calls. It’s a bit frustrating to play a team that packs in the defense and looks for that one breakaway (we played a team in U-12 using a 4-2-1 – losing 1-0 but had the ball 75% of the time and had a 20-2 SOG difference)

  2. I’ve also been there where you out possess a team by far and lose by one goal. It happens. But in the end I hope my players are improving better as players in a 2-3-2/3-4-3 than if they played a flat back four. Especially the defenders, many of whom, even at the mid levels of the sport, do little more than kick/clear vs possess and build an attack from the back.

    And the keeper/sweeper thing is key. Our keeper does this and does it well. Once her defensive line fully trusts themselves to play back to her like any other play, it’ll add a significant piece to their game overall. We’re close but not quite there yet.

  3. I always use a pressure defense on my rec teams. My 8v8 formation is a 3-3-1. The wing players press up when attacking. Occasionally, if my team is tied or behind, I’ll send the keeper forward to the opponent’s 18 yard box when taking a corner kick or a penalty. Young players don’t know what to do with that. I will say that I put my fastest players on defense and emphasize it during practices and games. My center defender is usually one of my best players. I also teach team defending and the importance of the second defender and communication. You also have to go out of your way to praise great defense since all most parents see are the goals. It’s great defending that creates goal scoring opportunities and ultimately wins games.

  4. Playing pressure defense is about good player development and proper soccer – everyone should be doing it. It simply makes sense that teammates would get forward to help support – not stand on the 18 like cones not participating or learning. This is the same as players experiencing all positions on the field – players should be exposed to all positions.

    Coaches that stick their players back on the 18 are simply trying to win a match – instead of developing those players and the team as a unit. For those less experienced coaches, it would make total sense to do that. I would probably do the same thing! But, until we conceptualize that true “winning” occurs through player development (through coaching education) and enhanced enjoyment instead of winning through goals, we’ll always have players standing on the 18 falling behind (and not enjoying the game).

    The true metric of player development is not wins or losses (but you will win MUCH MORE if you develop players properly), but rather helping to develop creatively thinking soccer players. If you can place a player anywhere on the field (except GK – differentiated position) and in any system and they can contribute on the field, then you have developed your player.

    Keep teaching your players the “right” way to play, so they can continue to succeed – and enjoy – soccer in the future.