#FIFA U-20 World Cup

Progressive centre-backs

FIFA, 30 May 2023


The competencies of a number of centre-backs have stood out for the Technical Study Group (TSG) during the group stages of the FIFA U-20 World Cup, both in and out of possession.

The ability to break lines with vertical passes has been evident in the early stages of the competition while out of possession, the successful defensive interventions by a number of centre-backs has impressed the TSG members.


When building play a key objective is to break the lines of the opposition’s defence to progress the ball. Several centre-backs have demonstrated their ability to play through the lines of their opponent’s defence with accurate, incisive vertical passes.

Brazil’s (4) Robert was ranked number one for ball progressions by centre-backs, with 20.6 per 90 minutes during the group stages.

Israel, England and Slovakia all ranked high (when all their centre-backs are included) for ball carries and vertical passes.

In the clips below we see examples of centre-backs exploiting passing lanes that are open due to the movements to receive by their team-mates ahead of the ball. 

According to Pape Thiaw, “A centre-back needs to be intelligent and recognise where there’s space to play the ball. They need to be able to recognise when they have players in space to receive between the lines. They also must have the ability to execute accurate, long and short passes. They must be comfortable on the ball, preferably with both feet.”

“Vertical passes can be risky because if possession is lost, then the opponent could have an opportunity to execute a dangerous counter-attack, particularly if the ball lost in a central position when the team shape is open,” he explains.

In clip 1 below, we see Brazil centre-back (4) Robert advance with the ball, as Italy retreat into a mid-block. He does not need to engage an opposition player in order to recognise the passing lane that opened for his team-mate (14) Douglas Mendes to receive the ball and executes an incisive vertical pass.

Similarly, in the second clip Slovakia centre-back Sebastian Kóša steps in unopposed against Fiji’s mid-block and plays a vertical, line-breaking pass before any pressure is applied by the opponent.  

When opposition teams retreat into blocks and allow the centre-backs to have possession of the ball without pressure, it is important that they can use this opportunity to their advantage and progress the ball.  

Jermaine Jones explains that centre-backs can also step in to opposed situations and engage opposition defenders to create opportunities to play into the space they have vacated. 

“While sometimes centre-backs can penetrate the passing lanes when unopposed, it is also important that they do this when opposed and can use the space ahead of them a little bit more. As the tournament progresses, I would like to see centre-backs step in to create overloads and see how other players engage to progress the ball this way.”  

Clip 1: Brazil centre-back (4) Robert steps in with the ball before breaking the first line of Italy’s defence with a vertical pass.
Clip 2: Slovakia centre-back (6) Sebastian Kóša breaks the first line of Fiji’s defence with a vertical pass.
Clip 3: USA centre-back Brandan Craig uses a diagonal pass to break lines of Ecuador’s defence.
Clip 4: Guatemala’s defensive lines are broken when Uzbekistan centre-back (3) Abdukodir Khusanov plays an effective vertical pass.

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