Soccer 101 is a series of articles taking an inside look at what it takes to play the various positions on the field at a high level. In the first article, Lewis Sharpe of the Georgia Gwinnett College men’s team talked to us about playing goalie.
Today, we’re staying on the GGC campus in Lawrenceville to get a better understanding of what it takes to play as a defender. Our instructor for defense is Kelsey Griswold of the Grizzlies’ women’s soccer team.
Kelsey has played in every game of the GGC women’s team first two seasons. In 2013, she spearheaded one of the best defenses in the NAIA. GGC allowed only 15 goals in 19 games last season.
For her role in the Grizzlies’ defense, Kelsey was selected to the 2013 A.I.I. Women’s Soccer All-Conference first team and was named to the to the A.I.I. All-Tournament Team. Hailing from nearby Lilburn, Georgia, Kelsey also has won a pair of club state titles, and was named an all-region selection three times during her prep career.
Kelsey shared some of the insight she’s learned about how to play successful defense.
Overall Approach to Playing Defense
Kelsey: We have a 4-4-2. That’s four defenders, four midfielders, and two forwards. I’m one of the center defenders. There’s two center defenders – a left and a right one, and then you have a right defender and a left defender, that is basically a wing that runs up and down the field. As the center defender, my job is really to direct people, because apart from the goalie, we’re one of the few people who can see the entire field.
Communication with Teammates
Kelsey: Communication is key as a center defender, because you can really give people information on whether to turn, if they have time to pass the ball, or this player’s open, or drop the ball because you have pressure coming. So basically I’m the voice from the back. I’ll say “Switch the field,” or “Drop the ball,” or “I’m open,” or “She’s open,” or “They’re making a run.” I do a lot of talking.
Playing the Ball versus Playing the Offensive Players
Kelsey: It kind of depends on the play, but typically we’re man-marking, depending on if there are two forwards or three forwards. We always try to have “plus one,” which means you have yourself and another player on your team defending one person. So in case you get beat, you have somebody behind you who can cover you, so it’s not one-on-one with the goalie.
For four defenders, if the ball’s on the right side, we have a way of setting up so that if one person gets beat or two people get beat or all of us get beat, there’s always somebody behind the ball to stop that forward coming towards the goal.
On Judging If You Should Tackle the Ball or Play Off It
Kelsey: Well, my coach, who’s a defender, says if you and the ball can arrive at the same time, then you should go. But if you think the ball’s going to come before you can get there and the player can turn, keep your distance so that they don’t do a quick move around you and you’re beat and we’re down a player. So it really depends on the situation.
I’d say slide tackling is always the last option because it’s kind of a hit and miss thing. If you miss, you’re beat. Your goalie’s kind of screwed over because it’s just her and the forward now. We do this thing where you jockey, kind of. You keep about a two-yard distance in between, so they can’t really get around you or you can shield them to one side so they only have one option, and of course you want to shield them towards the sideline, so that they’re not coming in the middle, getting a chance to shoot.
Defending Balls in the Air
Kelsey: Balls in the air can be pretty tricky because they can be unpredictable. Depending on the height — sometimes it’s coming at your neck and you don’t know if you should head it or you should chest it or let somebody else get it — it’s really difficult when it’s in the air. I’m a pretty good header so I like to head the ball out of the box. You want to aim towards the sideline, because you don’t want to head the ball in the middle. Balls on the ground are definitely much easier to deal with than in the air.
Deciding How to Clear a Ball
Kelsey: It depends on what other people do, because if the ball comes at me and my left back goes wide to give me an option, I can play the ball and we can work from there. But if there’s a lot of pressure, if I have three girls coming at me, of course I’m going to boot it as far as I can, because I’m not going to take the risk. I would prefer to play it around people instead of just booting it because we obviously would keep possession, but if you have a doubt, we just boot it out. It’s the safest option.
Developing an Understanding of What Teammates Do
Kelsey: As you play with people more, it definitely becomes stronger. It is a mutual understanding, and you get to learn how people play and how they defend, and you adjust to that. As the season goes on and you play games, all four backs have a mutual communication without even speaking. So we understand that if one person steps up, the other three need to drop back and pinch in, or if I have the ball, we need to spread out so they can give me options.
Coach has a format that we typically do, a general way of defending. Like how you should set up when the ball’s here and then when the ball’s there. But your coaches can’t be on the field with you so you have to adjust. As you play together more, it develops. That’s really what it is; getting used to each other and the way each other plays.
Set Piece Defending
Kelsey: Most goals are scored on set pieces. For corner kicks we have a style where two people are on the post, front and back post, and they don’t move until the ball is cleared out. And then we have four people on the 6, because typically that’s where the ball is going. And then we have one person between the 6 and the 18, and then two people on the top of the 18 and the back of the 18. We have the majority of our players back on defense when it’s a corner kick — and for set pieces as well. Depending on how close or how far, we’ll have a wall. Typically there will be three or four girls on the wall. And then we try to stay even with the wall and as soon as the ball is kicked we will drop back and clear it, or adjust however we need to.
The Goalie’s Role in The Defense
Kelsey: We try our best to protect our goalies because we want the minimal goals scored on us as possible. I am super protective of my goalies. I don’t want anything getting to them, I’ll do whatever it takes to stop the ball from getting to them. [GGC’s goalies only had to make 38 saves in 19 games in 2013.]
Your goalie is another defender so a lot of times you won’t have any options and you have to play the ball back to her. There’s nothing wrong with that, it kind of makes things a little more difficult, but then again it relieves pressure and gives everyone a chance to calm down and collect themselves and get in the right position. So the goalie is a key part of the defense. I can see most of the field but they can see the whole field. They see everything that’s happening. A lot of times forwards will sneak in behind you and you won’t even realize it, but the goalie is there to say, “A man’s coming in behind you, watch your right shoulder”. So they’re really really important when it comes to the game. They are defense with us.
Making The Decision to Go Forward With The Ball
Kelsey: It depends on how the other team is set up in their formation, but if I see an opportunity to go up the field I’m going to take it. I’m not going to leave my defenders out to dry, so if they’re too marked up I’m just going to pass it off to a mid-fielder and let them deal with it. I definitely enjoy going forward. Most of the time that I go forward is because we have a corner kick and Dom [Head Coach Domenic Martelli] wants me in there trying to get my head on the ball, or because I take the free kick. It really depends on if you feel safe enough to leave your defense because it’s one thing getting up there and it’s another thing coming back and recovering.
Deciding to Stay Forward or Go Back to Defense
Kelsey: That’s a tough one. Of course you want to get the ball into the net but you don’t want to give them any opportunity to have a counter-attack. Most of the times if the ball doesn’t come to me and it’s kicked out even slightly, I’m sprinting back to my position.
Another Player Dropping Back If A Defender Goes Forward
Kelsey: Occasionally I’ll just take the chance and nobody covers me, but most of the times if I step forward one of our holding mid-fielders will stay back slightly and I’ll take their position — kind of switch with them momentarily until I have the opportunity to run back to where I’m supposed to be.
Kelsey: As a center defender I typically try to give another option, a drop option, which is most of the time a last resort because you always want to be going forward. If anything is not open just throw it down the line and hope for the best because you can’t really go wrong with that. I’m always giving them an option for a drop because if they’re ever stuck or can’t go anywhere my job is to be there.
The Hardest Part About Being a Defender
Kelsey: I’d have to say, one-on-one’s. Those are the toughest because if you’re beat, it’s over with. It’s a lot of pressure and there are a lot of things going on in your mind in these couple of seconds when they’re dribbling at you — you’ve got to figure it out, and quick. You really don’t have time to think about what you’re going to do. It’s what comes first or what comes naturally as a defender.
Most of the time it’s instinctive. I’ve played soccer since I was 5 so I’ve been doing it for a long time. It really comes natural and some times you don’t even realize that you do it, it’s just you do it, and then you get the ball out, and it’s good to go. You do it and then you’re like wow, I really just tackled her and won the ball and now were out of here. It’s a good feeling.
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