Defending: Covering space VS Man-marking

Van Dijk doesn’t tackle, he just runs away.”

Not completely wrong but still pretty much wrong enough. A common mistake among football fans is considering dropping back as a shameful way to defend.

FLASH NEWS: It’s not.

Note:This article will not be arguing that dropping back is the best defensive behavior. Hang tight we’re starting.

Before we start, we ought to define what we’re dealing with. In simple words: there are two phases to defend a one-on-one situation; when the opponent has the ball and when he doesn’t.

When the opponent does not have the ball

In this situation, the defender is supposed to mark his matching player and prevent chance creation. In order to do so, the defender will either cover the space to prevent a potential call for through ball OR will stand close to the attacker in order to prevent him from getting the ball.

Situation 1: The defender decides to cover space

If the defender chooses to hold his position or drop back a little to cover empty space, the opponent will see himself free to receive the ball and potentially create a chance from his position. However, given that the defender has already covered the available space to make a run, it is very likely that the attacker will either try to take him on by going forward or create a chance for a teammates as he will have enough time and space to visualize the pitch.

The fact that the defender decided to drop back has now limited his opponent to look for another solution or risk taking him on, although the space is already closed down. This approach would frustrate a technical player who prefers getting the ball in small spaces to get the better of his defender. On the other hand, a creative player with good vision would be given far too much space and could lead to dangerous chances.

Situation 2: The defender closes his opponents down

By man-marking his matching player, the defender is trying to do two things: prevent the receiver from getting the ball and convince the passer that his teammates is closed down. Ideally, he would succeed in doing the latter; thus avoiding to even attempt an interception.

Making this choice could however have 2 possible disastrous scenarios. The first one being a run from another player than the one being marked, exploiting the space left by the defender when he decided to get closer. The second would be losing the marked player; attackers being usually faster and more agile, they often succeed in getting away from their marker and receive through balls in the back of the defender.

Deciding to man-mark your opponent will most likely imply that your teammates will have to be ready to cover for the space you left.

When the opponent has the ball:

Once again we will analyze each situation separately. When an opponent is trying to take the defender on, this one will either drop back or challenge for the ball.

Situation 1: Dropping back

The scene that inspired this article will be the illustration of this situation. During the second leg of last year’s UCL game between Liverpool and Barcelona, Van Dijk would make sure to put Messi in front of him then run back whenever Leo gets on the ball. By doing so, Virgil would take away from Messi his ability to dribble.

Dropping back in this situation maintains a distance between the defender and the attacker, delaying the one on one situation while also limiting the attackers space after each step he takes. This technique allowed Liverpool’s defense to get back in shape before the attacker could make a decision as he was not done with his one-on-one yet.

This time, as opposed to our previous scenarios, dropping back requires a team effort from the other players to limit as much as possible the options of the player holding the ball.

It is a very difficult way to defend and requires the defender to have high anticipation skills along with stamina.

Situation 2: Taking the attacker on

Straight forward. Attacker tries to take the defender on, defender steps up to take the ball before the dribble. It’s a 50/50, would Bonucci say. Except it’s not.

As previously mentioned, more pace and more skills give a slight advantage to attackers. Unless you’re learning from Nesta and Maldini, the attacker is highly likely to make you bite the dust.

In order to make the decision to take the opponent on, the defender should be certain of getting the ball AND make sure his partner is ready to cover if, God forbids, he misses his tackle.


There is absolutely no right or wrong way to defend. The defending approach certainly varies from one game to another, one situation to the next. It is up to the coach and the defender to make the right choice depending on his team’s shape and his own defending abilities.



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