Become A Better Center Back in 4 Simple Steps:
Hope you’re doing well, working hard and looking forward to an excellent summer!
Today is the second article in our new series where I will be covering specific tips for each position on the pitch.
I get a ton of questions on how to become a better center back, holding midfielder, or striker…
As you know, when you ask, I provide !
Last time, we focused on full backs, which is a position I’ve personally played in at a high level in Europe for several years.
Disclaimer Before We Get Started:
There is no single magic formula to become the best center back on the face of this planet.
As you’ve probably noticed from my podcast (go check it out if you haven’t already!), every single pro has his own unique journey.
There’s no “one-size-fits-all method” to become the best center back.
Plus, every single player has his own attributes, strengths, and weaknesses.
You need to self-reflect and look at the parts of your game that need most improvement to push up to a higher level!
This doesn’t mean you should neglect your strengths though, don’t get me wrong!
I always say, you should double down on those because they set you apart from the rest of the crowd.
Ready to dive in? Let’s go!
1-Have GREAT tactical IQ
2-Become a Leader on the Pitch
3-Make sure your technique is on point
4-Work on your strength and explosiveness
1-Have Great Tactical IQ:
Master the art of anticipation
Listen, of course every single player on the pitch should have a solid tactical IQ.
But, as a center back, this is even more important.
You’re in a position where you can see the entire pitch at all times…
That isn’t the case for a midfielder who’s constantly on the half-turn, or a striker with his back to goal or running into the channel.
That means you have a responsibility to anticipate actions before they’re going to happen, and “read” your opponent’s game effectively.
For example, if your team is under pressure from the opponent who has most of the possession and is switching the ball from side to side, you NEED to be aware of your surroundings at all times.
When the ball is shuffling from their 6 to their fullback, you don’t want to be caught ball-watching (focusing narrowly on the ball and not the other things going on around you)…
If you do, their winger might make a run in between you and your fullback and catch you off-guard by finishing 1-on-1 against your keeper…
SO… Always keep an eye on your shoulder when shuffling and anticipate the danger before it even happens if that makes sense.
Let’s take another situation for you to visualize:
Let’s say the opposing team has the ball, and your team has a solid 4-4-2 block.
If one of your center midfielders triggers a press all of a sudden and leaves some space behind him…
As a center back, you need to anticipate that the ball will probably be played in that space by the opponent to break our line.
If you anticipate their number 9 tucking into that space and read the pass ahead of time, you can get to the ball and recover it quickly.
SO basically, you shouldn’t be reacting all the time…
You should scan the pitch at all times, be aware of any potential danger and anticipate your opponent’s game.
You are your team’s last body guard!
Study the pros
Now, of course this tactical understanding of the game comes with experience.
Just look at Thiago Silva for instance…
The man’s almost 39 years old and still crushing it in the Premier League with Chelsea.
He might not be as explosive as he used to be, sure…
But, he is brilliant at reading the game and anticipating plays.
It almost feels like he’s never sprinting, or having to make crazy runs to track back.
Because his positioning and tactical IQ are so good that he’s always able to stop dangerous attacks and be on time to help his team recover the ball.
I really encourage you to study top level center backs to improve your own game.
Personally, I like to pause the game when the ball gets to the player I’m studying – this could be Thiago Silva in this instance – and then you can try to anticipate (predict) his next action.
If you anticipated something different than the actual outcome, play it again, and try to understand the player’s thought process.
I find this is an effective way to notice different situations that can occur on the pitch as a center back and recognize the best action to perform.
You can also do the same process for defensive actions : if a ball is being played into the number 9’s feet, how is Thiago Silva behaving?
Is he getting super tight, is he leaving the striker a couple of yards’ space?
When you look at the top pro games with real intent, you’ll notice patterns of play that tend to repeat themselves: whether that’s runs from a number 9, common passes played by a number 10, etc.
Your goal is to notice those patterns…
This will improve your “football IQ.”
And that’s my last point: don’t JUST look at center backs.
Understand how offensive midfielders move around the pitch, how a number 6 sprays diagonals across the field, etc.
This will allow you to develop a better tactical IQ, and of course to better anticipate actions from your opponents to help your team defend more effectively.
Adapt to your Opponent:
Lastly, you want to be able to adapt to the type of strikers you’ll come across in games.
You can’t expect to defend the same exact way in every single game of your career.
As a center back, you need to play to your strengths, but also recognize your strikers’ weaknesses.
For example, defending against Lukaku and Aguero isn’t the same thing at all…
As a center back, you need to expect Lukaku to be very strong with his back to goal and be ready for some rough 50/50 challenges.
While for Aguero, you need to make sure you’re very mobile and read his movements constantly, as he’ll try to sneak around a few yards behind you or be lower on the pitch to free up some space in behind you for his faster wingers.
If you can notice your opposing striker’s preferred actions by studying them before the game, that’s ideal.
If you can’t, you should get a good grasp of their game within 10 minutes after kick-off: their preferred foot, strengths, weaknesses, common runs, tendencies, etc.
Once you’ve fully grasped what they commonly do, adapt to that, and find ways to expose their weaknesses.
For example, if the striker is constantly putting the ball to his right foot, shift your body to show him down the line on his weaker foot.
Or, if you feel like the striker’s constantly looking for contact with his back to goal and getting super close to you to draw fouls, maybe give him a couple of yards’ space and explode in front of him when that ball is played to his feet to recover the possession.
This can especially be effective if you’re a smaller center back coming up against a tall striker.
You’re probably more explosive than he is…
So, wait for that ball to come and explode in front of him instead of getting into that tight duel in the first place.
See what I mean? It’s all about reading the game, adapting to your opponent’s weaknesses, and obviously showing your defensive skills.
Keep in mind, the best way to work on your actual defensive skills will be by playing games and gaining experience against different types of strikers.
2-Become a Leader on the Pitch
This is one of the most valuable skills you can develop as a center back.
Obviously, there’s 2 different types of leaders on a football pitch.
You have technical leaders, who dictate the flow of the game, and players who lead by their voice, presence & physical ability!
Obviously, in an ideal world, you’d want to be both types of leaders.
But typically, as a center back, your coach would want you to lead by presence and your voice.
You must make yourself heard as a center back.
As we touched on, you can see the entire pitch, so you have a responsibility to be that ‘in game coach.’
Once you’ve developed that tactical IQ, you’ll be able to help your teammates with their positioning, encourage everyone to push up the field to get out of a high press, etc.
For example, a very common situation is when a number 10 tucks in between your team’s defensive line and midfield.
This is a tough situation to handle, because if that number 10 manages to get on the ball, he can turn and drive the ball at you and the other center back, considering you already must handle the number 9.
So, again, you need to anticipate that (like we talked about in the previous tip) and communicate with your midfielders.
This can be as simple as shouting “Right Shoulder!” or “Backpedal!” to your number 6, either to close off a passing option to that number 10, or to come and mark him directly.
This can prevent the opponent from breaking up our lines with an easy pass and getting in situations where they have more numbers than us in the attacking third.
You need to be doing the exact same thing with your fullbacks, with your goalkeeper, and with the other midfielders.
Any player that’s near your position needs to know you have their back and you can give them directions at any given time.
This is probably why the center back position is one of the positions that require the most concentration & pin point focus.
You not only need to anticipate plays, but also must give key information to the players around you at all times to prevent suffering dangerous attacks.
Overall, if you can help your teammates by shouting directions and tips to adjust their position, they’ll feel more comfortable with you on the pitch.
If they’re more comfortable with you, they’ll trust you and want to have you by their side week in week out.
Believe me, the coach can easily pick that up from the group!
Finally, I think a couple underrated benefits of being a leader and being loud on the pitch are that you can intimidate opponents and give yourself confidence as the game builds.
Personally, when I give key information to a player that may save us from conceding an attack, I build confidence and tell myself that I did well.
This is especially true in the opening minutes of the game…
Just like you want to start with some easy passes to gain momentum, communicating with your teammates can build self-confidence and collective confidence too.
Also, beyond the tactical aspect, you want to encourage your teammates mentally.
If your team is 1 goal down, drive the spirits up with some simple words like: “Come on guys, heads up, let’s do this!”.
Or if you’re leading 1-0, keep everyone focused and dialed in to keep a clean sheet.
If a player makes a mistake in your team, same thing, encourage them to keep going and to focus on the next play.
If your coach notices you’re constantly encouraging your teammates and being a positive force to help keep clean sheets, he’ll have an extra reason to keep you on the pitch for 90 minutes every weekend.
No wonder the most iconic captains are center backs :
Think of Thiago Silva, Marquinhos, Ramos, Van Dijk…
So, do yourself a favor and be a leader when you step out onto the field!
3-Make Sure Your Technique is on Point
With the way football is evolving nowadays, every single player on the field needs to be reliable technically.
I mean, nowadays, even goalkeepers can ping some beautiful 60 meter diags.
As a center back, you need excellent technique if you want to make it to the top, period.
You’re literally the first part of the chain when it comes to offensive actions for your team, so you want to help your teammates get higher up the pitch and get goal-scoring opportunities.
This means your first touch, your ball control, and your passing need to be on point.
Break the opposition’s defensive block
Just think about it this way…
In modern-day football, when teams get into their defensive shape, they primarily focus on staying compact with tight lines and avoiding the ball from reaching dangerous areas in the middle of the pitch.
This typically means center backs aren’t pressed immediately at the beginning of the buildup play.
But as soon as the ball is played wide, the opponents start to press.
However, if you can be the type of center back that’s brave enough to drive forward and hit accurate, long distance passes on the ground to your number 8 or 10 in between the lines…
You’ll become very very valuable!
One of the hardest things to do in football is break down the opponent’s defensive block, especially at the pro level where every player is tactically aware and dialed in.
A very easy way to work on this individually is with gated passing.
Set up a tiny goal (or 2 cones) in the middle of a pitch (where your number 8 or 10 would be positioned) and have the ball at your feet in the center back position.
Once you’re ready, start driving the ball forward with aggressive dribbles and then focus on hitting the ball hard on the ground and with pace to the tiny goal, in order to replicate those passes that will break the opponent’s defensive block.
Also try to disguise these types of passes if you can..
Don’t make it obvious that you’re going to play them.
Since you’re trying to play into a very small interval or pocket of space, defenders will likely be close.
If you make it too obvious, they’ll intercept the ball easily. So the best thing you can do is look in another direction initially, act like you’re going to play it there and then quickly move your leg across your body to hit the ball where you actually want it to go.
When working on these types of passes individually, focus on “selling” that pass to defenders before rotating your hips at the last second to play the pass you really want to make in the other direction.
Thiago Alacantara from Liverpool is excellent at disguising his passes, so I recommend looking at clips of his to see what I mean by “selling” passes.
If you can master this type of pass as a center back, you’ll help your team get into very dangerous positions consistently!
Master the Ball:
Although most teams don’t go high up the pitch to the point where they’re pressing center backs and the goalkeeper, it can happen.
Again, top pro teams are renowned for their pressing ability, like Guardiola’s Man City for example.
I mean, I’ve seen clips of players like De Bruyne chasing down the goalkeeper several times a game just so he clears the ball out of bounds and City can get possession back.
Anyway, against these types of teams, you need to stay calm under pressure as a center back.
Instead of getting rid of the ball, you should be able to turn, shuffle the ball or take the right touch to beat an attacker’s press. This will really set you apart and have a lot of eyes on you!
Of course, don’t be reckless with this. You need to be smart and judge the situation!
Remember, you are the last man on the pitch apart from your goalkeeper…
Meaning that if you play with fire and lose that ball, you’re probably giving your opponent a chance at a 1 on 1 situation against your keeper.
Not ideal, right?
With all that being said, there is a reward for that risk.
If you manage to beat the initial high press with a good touch into space, this will open up the field tremendously and spaces will appear for your team to attack.
Now, beating that initial press doesn’t necessarily have to be with a dribble or risky move, it can also be with a pass.
That’s where communication and team shape comes into play.
When a striker is closing you down hard, for example, your number 6 should give you a passing lane.
This can allow you to form a triangle: where you can play your 6 and he can find the other center back or a full back with one touch.
Once you’re out of that pressure and the striker is beaten, you can play on and move up the pitch.
It’s just about scanning and noticing you can play out of the pressure instead of hitting a clueless long ball out of bounds.
My number one tip to master these types of tight situations is to work on your ball mastery.
If you can master the ball and be comfortable with it at your feet, you’ll handle pressure situations with way way more confidence.
Here’s a video where I compiled 100 ball mastery exercises just for you, 100% free!
Or you can get on my brand new app for free. Your choice!
No excuses, get out there and work !
Finally, another way to create great chances for your team is through long balls, especially if the opponent team is pressing high.
If the opposition’s defensive line is high, you can catch them off-guard with a run by one of your wingers or strikers into space.
With one pass, you can create a very dangerous situation.
Make sure these long balls are mid-height and moving fast : if they’re too high and lifted, defenders will be able to intercept them too easily.
Now of course, this is easier said than done. I recommend hitting some long balls before or after team training with your striker or winger : this will build up that chemistry come game day.
Of course, you can work on them individually, too, either by hitting a target or focusing on playing into a specific space.
Make sure you don’t overdo it though, focus on quality over quantity, as long balls can be taxing on the body.
4-Work on Your Strength and Explosiveness:
Like I often say, the number one thing you should do as a defender is be patient.
Especially at the higher level, where strikers and wingers are super tricky and can catch you off guard easily if you decide to lunge in carelessly.
But at the end of the day, you also need to try and match that opponent’s speed and explosiveness.
You need that explosiveness to deal with them over the first couple of yards. Those are the most important for you as a center back.
You most likely won’t be doing 50m sprints during games but you will certainly have some 5 to 10m bursts constantly in order to deal with your strikers’ change of directions and deep runs.
I’m not the fastest player personally..
I haven’t been blessed with many fast-twitch muscle fibers…
But, I’ve worked on my explosiveness and speed over the years and have improved it tremendously.
I’ve actually just released a super in-depth article on improving your speed as a footballer.
You can check it out here.
You can take a look at that article, but here’s a quick summary to keep in mind:
-Work on controlling your body in space.
-Take care of your biomechanics and running technique.
-Build maximal strength to have a base on your plyometrics and explosive movements.
-Work on plyometrics to improve your tendon stiffness and resilience in your muscles, tendons, joints and ligaments.
-Move weight fast in the gym with specific movements.
-Make sure your mobility is on point.
AND remember you’re a footballer, NOT a bodybuilder. It’s about moving weight fast and explosively, not always moving more weight!
Also, when working on developing your speed and explosiveness, you’ll have other great benefits as a center back.
Implementing plyometric work on top of a solid base will help you develop a higher vertical and overall jumping ability.
This will help make you more efficient in both boxes: when defending a corner kick for instance, and when attacking in the opposition’s box!
If you can add a few goals to your team in a season, you’ll become more valuable.
In the modern game, free kicks and corner kicks can decide games!
It’s all about those little details that can help you reach the top, so get working!
To conclude, as a center back, you want to make sure you have a great tactical understanding of all positions on the pitch.
Improving your IQ with experience as well as game analysis will help you become a better leader on the pitch and anticipate situations to defend more efficiently.
Positive communication and team shape is key to win football matches, and as a center back, you have a big responsibility to ensure your team is locked in and concentrated for the entire game.
Also, modern center backs are all technically sound… So you better make sure your first touch, passing and overall ball control are on point.
This will bring your team confidence to build out from the back more effectively and show your coach that you are brave on the ball!
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Finally, you want to work on your speed to deal with tricky wingers and strikers.
Once you build a solid strength base (which will help you be stronger in 1v1s), plyometrics are your best friend!
You’ll develop that explosiveness which is key to defend better and also hopefully score more goals on set plays by jumping higher than your opponents!
I hope all these tips helped you, my friend!
Make sure you apply them in your training and games today!
Let’s have a great rest of the week and keep pushing! Let’s get i!