#FIFA U-20 World Cup

Centre-backs defending on front foot

FIFA, 30 May 2023


While centre-backs have demonstrated an ability to progress their team’s play in possession, our Technical Study Group have also recognised their ability to make successful, early, defensive interventions during the group stages of the FIFA U-20 World Cup Argentina 2023™.

According to Pape Thiaw, “Centre-backs need to lead from the back. They must have the awareness to be able to anticipate the duel. They must always work in pairs with another centre-back and their starting position is so important. As a centre-back, you are much happier defending when the ball is in front of you than when it is behind you. Opportunities to defend on the front foot should always be anticipated early and taken when possible.”

As we can see in the clips below, early defensive interventions can be very important, particularly when the defenders in closest proximity are also in 1v1 situations. Timing, communication, support and courage are all required to defend on the front foot. 

Jermaine Jones explains, “As a centre-back it’s dangerous if centre-forwards can come blind around you so you need to be positioned so you can see where the danger is and get the first steps to engage early. It’s a fast decision and communication is everything. If one defender goes in, others around him have to cover. The player committing to the challenge needs to trust that the cover and support is occurring behind him.”

Clip 1: England right centre-back (5) Bashir Humphreys takes responsibility, and recognises the opportunity to make an early defensive intervention and stop a counter-attack against his team.
Clip 2: England centre-back (15) Ronnie Edwards communicates with his right centre-back as the opposition strikers switch positions, before engaging to stop the attack and win the ball back.
Clip 3: As Senegal centre-back (12) Babacar Ndiaye engages deep with the attacking player, his three supporting defenders narrow up to close and cover the space he has vacated.

When our Performance Analysis and Insights Team explored the data for successful defensive actions by centre-backs, we saw that Argentina centre-backs (6) Valentín Gómez and (2) Lautaro Di Lollo topped the rankings with averages of 36.4 and 27.8 successful actions per 90 minutes.  

It is notable that Uruguay (4.8 per 90 minutes), Argentina (4.4 per 90), Colombia (4.3 per 90), Uzbekistan (4.3 per 90) and Nigeria (2.9 per 90) forced the most turnovers during the group stages of the competition. Uruguay (8.2 per 90) and Colombia (7.8 per 90) also won the most possession contests in their defensive third during the group games.

As well as preventing dangerous attacks from developing, early interventions also provide valuable opportunities for counter-attacks. It is important for centre-backs to take on the responsibility of defending on the front foot. In return, other defenders must recognise the engagement of their centre-back and provide adequate cover and balance to the defence.

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