A Guide to Defensive Positions in Soccer - Right Back & Center Back

USWNT defender, Ali Krieger, explains key attributes for becoming an effective center or wingback in soccer

Defenders are the unsung heroes on every successful soccer team.

While they might not often be the player that scores the winning goal,  every experienced player and coach knows that solid defenders are required to win games.

The main role of a center or wingback is to thwart their opponent’s attempts at an attack on goal. This is an incredibly challenging task, which takes advanced skills in several areas, such as 1 v 1 defending, aerial presence, and teamwork, just to name a few.

In addition to defensive duties, a center or wingback must also possess the confidence, vision, and skills to start their own team's counterattack. 

More often than not, defenders contribute just as much as midfielders and forwards to a striker having a well set up shot at goal. And in some cases, a wingback might even advance the ball far enough to take the shot themselves.

Considering this massive responsibility, it’s no surprise that defensive players are some of the most mentally tough players on a team. They have to be aggressive, yet calm under pressure. Impeccable on defense, but also skilled offensive players. And finally, they need the discipline and drive to perform at 100% for a full 90 minutes or more.

It’s not easy to become a great defender. There is a lot to learn. And knowing how to improve each element of the role can be challenging. 

But with the right mentor and training methods—anyone can get better at playing defensive positions in soccer.

If you’re ready to take your defensive skills up a notch, we’ve got just the person to help. You’ll find articles that focus on defense – and all aspects of the game of soccer – when you sign up for one of our game plans.

A Defensive Powerhouse 

Ali Krieger is one of the most accomplished defensive players in U.S. soccer.

After a successful college career, in 2007, Krieger took the bold step of moving to Frankfurt, Germany, to play with FFC Frankfurt. She earned a starting spot on the team, which subsequently went on to become the UEFA Cup Champions, in her very first year playing professional soccer.

The following year, in 2008, Ali achieved her dream of making the U.S. Women’s National Team. This marked the beginning of an incredible run of international appearances

Krieger played an instrumental role in the defense that held opponents scoreless for a record 540 minutes in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. She returned in 2019 to win the World Cup again, earning her 100th international cap for the U.S. in the process. 

Ali currently plays as a defender for Gotham FC and is part of our team of soccer experts at Versus. She recently recorded two exclusive videos with us, sharing all of her knowledge about being an effective center back or wingback in soccer.

Your System for Success 

We’re going to cover the main points from Krieger’s videos in a moment. But if you want to see them for yourself, all you need to do is choose a plan and download the Versus app.

Our free subscription gives you access to one training video of your choice. While the standard and premium options include unlimited access to video sessions from our entire roster of elite athletes and world-class coaches.

In addition to Ali, we’ve got videos from other U.S. soccer icons, like Kelly O’Hara, Ashlyn Harris, and David Copeland-Smith.

These superstars cover everything you need to know to get better at soccer, such as:

But Versus includes much more than training videos.

Through our conversational AI-based technology—you can ask questions from our whole team on any aspect of training, mindset, and skill development. Just our soccer roster alone boasts answers to over 800 questions, spanning more than 30 topics.

You could be watching Ali’s video on playing center back. And when she gets to the section on mindset, pause the video to ask something like, “How did you develop confidence? Or, “How do you calm your nerves?” And just seconds later, you’ll get a pre-recorded answer from Krieger herself.

But now, let's dive into our overview of Ali’s guide to defensive positions in soccer.

Fundamentals of Defensive Positions

In the Versus app, Krieger has separate videos recorded for center back and right back (wingback). 

We’ll summarize the main points of the training sessions below. Including the key attributes to be successful in both positions, followed by a skills based drill for each.

First, let’s start by looking at the key components of all defensive positions in soccer.

Core Skills

There is a degree of overlap in the skills required to be a successful center or wingback.

Common to each position, is the need for a player to develop skills around:

  • 1 v 1 defending
  • Blocking crosses and intercepting offensive passes
  • Having great defensive footwork
  • Being able to pass the ball at different ranges and paces
  • Coordinating with other defenders to disarm an opponent's attack
  • Rapidly accelerating and decelerating
  • Receiving the ball with a good first touch
  • Building an offensive play

In addition to the above, a center back should also have great aerial control and presence. 

“They need to be steering the team on both sides of the ball,” states Krieger. “Starting the attack, but also making sure that everyone’s organized and staying compact on defense in order to win the ball back immediately.

As for the wingback, “You get a little bit of both sides of the ball,” explains Ali. “You can get into the attack—joining with numbers, crossing balls in, and taking players on to shoot in close range.” But you also have to be rock solid on defense.

There’s no way we can unpack even half of these skills in an article of this size. But Ali and the team have training sessions on most of them available through the Versus app.

The Mental Game

When it comes to the mental game for defenders, Krieger identifies mental toughness and confidence as two essential qualities for a center back or wingback.

Mental toughness is required to cope with the pressure of being the last line of defense throughout the entire game. 

To build the mental toughness required, the best defensive players intentionally condition themselves to deal with the demands of the role. They practice staying aware and motivated throughout the entire 90 minutes of every game, reminding themselves that a lapse of just a few seconds could cost their team the match. 

This level of drive and concentration is something that must be cultivated through focused attention—it won’t just happen on its own.

In terms of confidence,

“You need to have a willingness to want to receive the ball and start the attack,” explains Ali. “You must feel calm and confident under pressure.” 

There are no shortcuts to this level of confidence. It comes from putting in the work during training, then intentionally applying skills during a game.

Finally, to maintain a winning mindset as a defender, you must be prepared to deal with mistakes. 

“It’s really important to stay mentally strong in those moments,” states Ali. “The key is—how quickly can you recover?” 

Dwelling on mistakes will lead to lapses in concentration that allow opponents to attack the goal. And losing the confidence required to receive the ball to build your team’s attack.

On Field Communication

“Communication as a defender is super important. It’s a key component in every game and every training,” explains Krieger.

“As a center back, I’m organizing players in front of me,” she states. “I’m communicating with the midfield line, and they’re communicating with the forward line.”

The image below demonstrates how as a right back, communication is essential to coordinating an effective defense.

In this example, Ali details how,

“The right back is talking constantly to the other three defenders and the goalkeeper, in order to keep organized and not allow forwards to run through the lines so easily.”   

Remember, as a defender, you are the eyes of every player in front of you. Make sure to use your vantage point to communicate strategically with your teammates.

If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed right now. Or worried about how you will remember all these skills—don’t panic. It takes time to become a great defender in soccer. And you don’t have to learn everything at once.

Also, most defensive skills can be practiced simultaneously. Meaning you won’t need a separate drill for everything we’ve covered.

Let’s take a look at a drill Ali recommends for wing backs, followed by one for center back.   

Right Back Six Cone Drill

“This is one of my favorite drills,” Ali states in the video. “It works on your footwork, passing, first touch, the anticipation of a pass, and also dribbling through the cones.”

To set up, place 6 cones in the configuration detailed below.

You’ll need a training partner. And to get started, ask them to stand about 20 yards away from the lowest cone, while you stand at the top cone.

“What I like about this exercise is that I’m replicating my position on the field,” explains Krieger. “Usually I would be receiving the ball from a midfielder, or more often, a center back, or even the goalkeeper.”

So to simulate your experience in a game, get your partner to play you the ball. Then take the first touch to head towards the four cones spaced close together. “It can be a longer, heavier touch,” suggests Ali.

Then dribble through the cones using any surface of your foot.

Take a long touch past the last cone, and play the ball to your partner.

Now you’re going to replicate a game situation. 

“Say you made a mistake and gave the ball away,” suggests Ali. “Now you have to accelerate and drop back diagonally to intercept this pass [that your partner will make toward your starting cone].”

Make the interception as best as you can. Then play the ball back to your partner and start the drill over.

Ali’s advice is to do at least three sets of 10 cycles through the drill. Try to incorporate it weekly into your practice. 

Now we’ll move on to the center back drill.

Center Back Drill

This drill also allows you to practice several skills at once, including working on your first touch, receiving the ball with different surfaces of your foot, aerial control, and audible awareness on the field.

Set up a grid with a square of four cones, overlaid by a triangle of three cones of different colors, like this.

If you don’t have different colored cones that’s fine. You can use any type of equipment or object for the triangle. Just choose three distinctly different things, such as a shoe, bag, and drink. 

To run through the drill, stand in the middle of the square. Then, as your partner plays you the ball, they are going to call out a color (or item) from the triangle.

Receive the ball.

Then take it to the color your partner called (in this case blue) and play it back to them.

It’s a simple drill. But done properly, you will be training several different skills at once.

Complete 3 - 5 reps, resting for 15 seconds in between each set. 

As you run through each round, focus on:

  • First Touch - Your first touch should move the ball in the direction of your target cone. Practice receiving and making the touch with different surfaces of your foot.  
  • Aerial Control - Get your partner to switch up the delivery as you become more confident. Alternate between ground balls, bounce passes, and throwing the ball in the air. Receive the ball and take your first touch with different parts of the body. 
  • Passing - Dribble the ball swiftly to the cone, then execute a crisp, accurate pass to your partner.
  • Communication - This drill primarily trains audible awareness, but be sure to talk back to your partner as well. Treat it like you would in a game, where communication goes both ways.

Becoming a Complete Player

To become great at any defensive position in soccer—you must become a complete player.

Of course, your defensive skills need to be top-notch. 1v1 defending, tackling, blocking and intercepting passes, and having great footwork are essential. 

But to stand out, you’ll need to go further than that.

The best defensive players also have amazing aerial control and presence. They can pass the ball at different ranges and paces. Can receive and take a first touch with any surface of their foot and body. And they communicate with their teammates effectively to coordinate on defense, then start building a counterattack.

To play the full range of defensive positions, you also must have the ability to lead an offensive play. 

In the case of a right or left back—you literally might switch from defending your goal, to setting up or taking a shot at your opponent's goal—all in the one play.

Not everyone has the drive and determination to build this advanced repertoire of skills. And few possess the mental toughness to stay 100% switched on and tenacious on defense for the entire 90 minutes of a soccer game.

But for those willing to put in the work, the rewards are huge.

All soccer coaches understand the immense value a solid defensive player brings to a team. And if you can demonstrate your ability in the areas covered in this article, you will all but assure yourself a spot on the starting lineup.

To watch Ali Krieger’s full training videos on defensive positions in soccer—simply select a plan, download the Versus app, and start learning.

If you want to learn more about improving your technical skills, developing an elite mindset, and how to reach your full potential as a player, head over to Versus and check out our Game Plans. Any of our packages will get you access to our lessons, plus tons of other training sessions, interactive content, and more.

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