Defender (association football)

In association football (soccer), a defender is a player who tries to prevent the other team from scoring.

There are four types of defender - centre back, sweeper, full back, and wing back.

Centre back

The job of the centre back, centre half, central defender, or stopper is to stop opposing players, particularly the strikers, from scoring, and to bring the ball out from their penalty area. As their name suggests, they play in a central position. Most teams employ two centre backs, stationed in front of the goalkeeper. There are two main defensive strategies used by centre backs: the zonal defence, where each centre back covers a specific area of the pitch, and man-to-man marking, where each centre back has the job of covering a particular opposition player.

Centre backs are often tall, with good heading and tackling ability. An ability to read the game well is a distinct advantage. Sometimes, particularly in lower grades of football, centre backs concentrate less on ball control and passing, preferring to merely clear the ball in a "safety-first" fashion. However, there is a long tradition of centre backs having more than just rudimentary footballing skill, enabling a more possession-oriented playing style.

The position was formerly referred to as centre half, although the emphasis of the centre half was more forward thinking in action. In the early part of the 20th century, when most teams employed the 2-3-5 formation, the two players at the back were called full backs and the row of three players in front of them were called half backs. As formations evolved, the central player in this trio, the centre half, moved into a more defensive position on the field, taking the name of the position with them. The right and left players in the trio were called the right half and left half respectively.

Centre backs usually remain in the half of the field that contains the goal they are defending, but tall defenders will often go forward to the opposing team's penalty box when their team takes corner kicks or free kicks, where scoring with one's head is a possibility.


The sweeper is a more versatile type of center back that "sweeps up" the ball if the opponent manages to breach the defensive line. His or her position is rather more fluid than other defenders who man-mark their designated opponents. Because of this, the position is sometimes referred to as libero (from the Italian word meaning free). The sweeper's ability to read the game is even more vital than for a centre back. A sweeper is sometimes expected to build counter-attacking moves, and as such requires better ball control and passing ability than a typical centre back. However, sweepers are often merely defensive players. For example, the catenaccio system of play, used in Italian football in the 1960s, employed a purely defensive sweeper who only 'roamed' around the back line. Franz Beckenbauer is perhaps the greatest ever sweeper to have graced the game. In the 1974 FIFA World Cup final against the Netherlands, he, Paul Breitner and Berti Vogts manmarked Johan Cruyff so well that the Dutch were never able to fully employ their "total football" tactics. Consequently, the Germans won when Müller slotted in the winning goal.

Some sweepers move forward and distribute the ball up-field, while others intercept passes and get the ball off the opposition without needing to hurl themselves into tackles. In modern football, its usage has been fairly restricted, with few clubs in the biggest leagues using the position.

A relatively recent innovation is the "Sweeper-Keeper" where a goalkeeper stays higher up the pitch than he might normally do, and performs the defensive actions of a sweeper by clearing long and through balls outside the penalty area. Most of these goalkeepers are fast and with some outfield skill, required if they get themselves into trouble with a poor decision to "rush out" of the penalty area. Many of these keepers are also "eccentric" which can sometimes combine to cause disastrous mistakes such as losing the ball outside the area to an opposing striker, handling the ball or fouling and being sent off or being lobbed after being too far out of the goal area. This style is considered to have developed as a result of the new back-pass rule in 1992.

Full back

The full backs take up the wide defensive positions, one on each side of the field. Their main task is to prevent opposition players crossing or cutting the ball back into the penalty area. In some defensive systems, full backs man-mark opponents. Most full backs are also expected to provide an attacking dimension by getting upfield along the wings and providing crosses.

In the traditional 2-3-5 team formation, the two players in the final row of defence before the goalkeeper were referred to as full backs. This formation is little used in the modern game, having been replaced largely by the four-man defence, but the term "full back" lives on — the full backs now occupy the wide positions in the defensive line, with the old centre half [back] doubled-up to fill the central defensive position.

The traditional English full back was a large, strong man who would make substantial use of "hacking" - deliberately kicking the shins of opponents, a practice that was accepted as legal in Britain but not in other countries, and caused major controversy as the game became increasingly internationalized from the 1950s on. It is now effectively banned everywhere, and it is this in part that has given rise to a different set of defensive roles.

In contrast, the role of the full back often involves an attacking element: to some extent the full backs have replaced the winger and are expected to get forward to deliver crosses from a wide position. The modern full back is usually pacy, strong in the tackle and with good stamina to get up and down the field.


The wingbacks are a modern variation on the full back with heavier emphasis on attack. The name is a portmanteau of "winger" and "back". They are usually employed in a 3-5-2 formation, and could therefore be considered part of the midfield. But they may also be used in a 5-3-2 formation and therefore have a more defensive role.

In the evolution of the modern game, wingbacks are the combination of wingers and fullbacks. As such it is one of the most demanding positions in modern football. Wingbacks are often more adventurous than full backs and are expected to provide width, especially in teams without wingers. A wingback needs to be of exceptional stamina, be able to provide crosses upfield and defend effectively against opponents' attacks down the flanks. A defensive midfielder is usually fielded to cover the advances of wingbacks.

See also


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