8 Tips To Become a Better Defensive Midfielder (Soccer)

8 Tips To Become a Better Defensive Midfielder (Soccer)

To dominate the ball in soccer you need to find ways of winning back the ball quickly and launching your attacks. Defensive midfield (CDM) is the perfect position to allow players to do this. The defensive midfielders often have to be great readers of the game and anticipate the movements and actions of the opposition. So what is needed to become a solid defensive midfielder?

8 Tips to become a great defensive midfielder:

  • Defend first mindset
  • Tireless work ethic
  • Well timed Tackler
  • Experts in Support Play
  • Simple Decision Makers
  • Ability to switch and slice
  • Ability to protect and screen
  • Leaders on the Pitch

In soccer, the tactics of the game are changing all of the time but one thing which seems to have remained consistent in all of the great teams is a ball-winning defensive midfielder who work tirelessly in front of the 18-yard box to win back the ball, protect the defense and launch attacks.

1. Defend First Mindset

The defensive midfielder’s main job role is to defend first. Their job role is mainly to break up attacks from the opponent and control the space between the opposition’s midfield and attack.  Every top team has a player who operates in this space with the incentive to win them back the ball and connect simple passes to restart attacks. 

Physically this player will use a range of different movements involving short explosive movements to close down players who enter into this central space, sliding movements to plug gaps between players in possession of the ball, and recovery running to get back into position quickly if they have been bypassed. 

Changing direction quickly will be another physical quality these players need to demonstrate. When the ball is switched from one side of the pitch to the other, the defensive midfielder must change direction quickly to slide across the pitch and protect the space the ball has moved into. 

There are times when the defensive midfielder needs to leave the central space they are protecting. For example, they may need to offer to support to defensive fullbacks. If the fullback is up against quick skillful opponents, the defensive midfielder may move out of the central space to help protect the space inside or behind the defensive player. 

Another situation where a defensive midfielder may leave the central space is when a defensive player (usually a full back) has joined in an attack and this instance, the defensive midfielder may have to operate spaces that are left by these defensive players joining in the attack. 

As a coach, you must try to prioritize different moments for these players and try to help them understand their role of when and where to leave the central space open. 

Below is a table of key points coaches may want to use to help coach the players their defensive responsibilities:

Priority 1 Protect the Central SpaceThe central space is the area in front of the 18-yard box but up to the halfway line. They can do this by tackling, blocking, intercepting, and screening any passes into players operating in these spaces.
Priority 2 Recognize when to leave central space The moments to leave the central space are often the ones when the fullback needs help or cover. The defensive midfielder will step out of position to cover the space inside of the fullback or behind the fullback.
Priority 3
Protect the box
Against strong opposition, the defensive midfielder may need to operate as an additional center back and drop back to pick up an attacker in the box
Priority 4
Plug the gaps
If a teammate joins in with an attack the defensive midfielder may have to fill the space this player left to provide cover, balance, and security to the team
A summary of defensive responsibilities for the defensive midfielder

2. Develop a Tireless Work Ethic

A tireless work ethic involves high levels of physical fitness and a determination not to give the opponent time and space on the ball. The best way to describe the work ethic required is through the actions the defensive midfielders must show in their desire to win back the ball.

The best defensive midfield players must be willing to hound, disrupt and pressure opponents as they receive the ball to get them to make hurried decisions in possession. Sliding and screening across the pitch is another job that can be psychologically draining but these players will keep doing this job over and over to protect those spaces between midfield and defense and back up their teammates where required

Short explosive bursts of recovery running if a ball bypasses them, is another essential component of the defensive midfielder. The types of the recovery run the defensive midfielder usually makes are straight-line runs between the two boxes, or from central to wide areas, if a ball is clipped in behind the defensive line. These runs often last between 3 and 8 seconds.

Defensive Midfielder (Soccer)

3. A Well Timed Tackler

The defensive midfielder must be willing to tackle and show agility to make clean tackles to win back the ball then distribute it to teammates. Tackling itself is an art and a skill that must be practiced. Players need to spot the correct times to make their tackles.

Some of the best defensive midfielders are that good at reading the game they often don’t need to tackle, they just intercept the ball at the right moment as it arrives. This could be something to coach less physical and dominant defensive midfielders. Become expert interceptors.

There are triggers that defensive midfielders must recognize that will help them decide when to tackle or intercept. In terms of interception spotting that the ball receiver has not looked and does not know you are there is a good moment to step in front or across an attacker and intercept the oncoming ball. another interception opportunity is when the ball carrier makes a slow or under-hit pass.

A final opportunity for interception is when the ball carrier takes a touch that is too big and gets away from them. The Defensive midfielder can read this moment and step onto the touch and intercept the ball.

Tackling is about timing and aggression. Defensive midfielders must be patient and make their tackles at the right time. These players can often run the risk of picking up bookings and being sent off therefore timing is everything to win the ball smoothly.

In the lead-up, to a tackle, the player must scan before that they have cover behind them and they can jump out of position to make the tackle. The defensive midfielder should then close down quickly at an angle and aggressively keep their eyes on the ball and try to make the direction that the attacker has to go predictable.

The next choice is whether they need to tackle on their feet or whether to go to the ground. A keynote if going to ground, the player needs to be pretty confident that they will win the ball otherwise they will be out of the game

When making the tackle the player must keep their eyes on the ball, keep their feet low to the ground, and try to use their bodies to step into the attacker or across them as you attempt to win the ball. The inside of the foot offers a good surface to make a tackle when running straight at a player and the toes offer a good surface to Knick the ball if the tackle is made when the attacker is trying to shield the ball from the defender.

This one is a little controversial but the best defensive midfielders can recognize when to concede a foul because the attacker is in a great position to exploit their team. This is sometimes known as tactical fouling by which a player will foul an opponent to slow down the game and give teammates a chance to get behind the ball.

This is something coaches should be mindful of and as games programs become more competitive, there may be times when your players have to step into the runs of attackers, hold onto their shirts, clip the heels of the opponent to allow teammates to get back into position. Some coaches are happy to coach this and for others, it goes against their beliefs. Coaches must choose if this is something they expect from their players.

4. Experts In Support Play

Support play is a skill of positioning. Players who support the ball well can find spaces on the field which allow them to show for the ball, connect units of the team and take pressure off teammates. The best defensive midfielders can do this well because they anticipate the actions of the ball carrier, and the opponent then finds the correct angle to give the ball carrier.

There are three basic concepts to offering good support to teammates and this closely relates to the risk-reward of the player on the ball losing it. The first concept is the ideal but also the riskiest and it is where players support the ball behind and between players. This is great because if the pass to the support player is successful then two players have been taken out of the game with one pass.

The second concept is to support the ball at the side of opponents. This is a little less risky and allows the team with the ball to go around the pressure rather than through it. Good receiving skills are helpful if using this type of support as the ball receiver is often switching play or turning so as the ball arrives they must have scanned behind them and know if they can turn.

The final concept is support in front of the opponents this is a low-risk option of support and is usually used to draw the opposition out of position to play around or through them. The ball receiver will support the ball because of the opponent. They will receive the ball and hold onto it to try and draw a player out of position. Once the pressure arrives the ball carrier will release the ball and the next pass can often exploit the space left.

Defensive Midfielder

5. Simple Decision Makers

Because of the central space, these players operate in it can become too risky for these players to hold onto the ball for too long. 

The risk of losing possession in these areas means that a loss of possession often leads to an opportunity to score for the opponent.  It is therefore important that these players prioritize quick simple passes to move the ball out of high pressured areas into areas of less pressure often by switching the ball or passing to a teammate between two or more pressing players.  

The skill of scanning is essential to the pressure that these players feel. If the player scans before they receive the ball they will see options and opposition. They will have an idea of the type of support required and know if they can go through, around, or in front of the opponent. The earlier the scan, the more composed these players tend to be, because they are in control of the situation.

The message to these players in possession is to play quickly off limited touches, keep things simple, don’t risk possession too often with longer riskier passes, and switch the ball when presented with the opportunity to do so.  This information ensures that the players in this area understand that even in possession they are protecting the central space by keeping the ball. 

When supporting the defensive players who are being closed down quickly, some simple advice to offer these players is to try and position themselves between the opponents pressing players rather than being marked.  Which is the through option. Or they could drop in front of the pressing players and offer an extra body and support option at which is the concept of being in front of the opponent.

If the defensive midfielders do find themselves marked they should get out of the eye line of their marker by trying to start behind the marking player. This should help to make a space for them to move into. At the right time, they can move from behind the marker to in front and hopefully make enough room to support the ball carrier and keep it.

6. Ability to Switch and Slice

Another important role for defensive midfielders to execute is offering support behind the ball when their team is attacking to recycle the attack.  This means they place themselves in a central position to receive the ball behind the group of players launching the attack then if one of these players turns back they support the ball and can switch the point of attack.

The best midfielders are willing to do this as many times as it takes to create an opportunity to score.    The slice aspect of this type of situation may occur if a fullback from the opponent tries to read the switch pass of the defensive midfielder and they may jump out of position early to mark the wide player. This will leave a space between the center of the opposition back and fullback. 

In these moments the defensive player has an opportunity to play in behind and between the opponent’s backline for the attackers to exploit.  The key with this type of pass is the disguise that the player uses to execute the pass. They will shape up to play the switch pass then slice through the gap the opponent has left.

This type of pass again carries more risk so the ball carrier must make the decision at the moment and decide if the pass is worth the risk. I would suggest it will be as long as the team in possession is set behind the ball with enough number to deal with any opposition counter-attacks.

7. Ability to Protect and Screen

When a team is attacking they can be vulnerable to counter-attacks and as previously mentioned the defensive midfielder’s main priority is to protect the central space. As each attack is occurring they need to position themselves in front of the center backs to stop any clearances or regains from the opponent getting to the attackers up against the defenders. 

The defensive midfielder should be coached to keep their discipline and hold their position to allow for successful regains. They need to constantly watch the game and ensure they anticipate where the ball may be passed or cleared too.

Ideally, they should try to land on the first ball as it is cleared or passed, if they cannot achieve this then they must adjust their position to compete for the second ball if they are not positioned correctly to compete for the first. For example, if the first ball goes over their head via a flick-on from an attacker, they should try to land on the first touch of the next player thus creating pressure on both sides of the attacker.

The defensive midfielder should try to position themselves correctly to put pressure on the attacker trying to get on the ball in front of them or be in a position to recover centrally if a pass manages to get to a player behind them.  Their main responsibility is looking after the central space between the box and the halfway line.

Part of this position will therefore mean that defensive midfielders will be expected to tackle, screen, and intercept several times in a game. As coaches placing these players into practices that allow them to do this is an excellent way of developing their decision-making.  

The decision to tackle or just intercept could be based on the physicality of the player in this position, a tall powerful player in this position may enjoy the physical battle of games and be willing to put themselves into positions to be aggressive and regain the ball whereas smaller and less powerful players may win the ball back through reading the game, pressing and intercepting things as opposed to tackling. 

The coach needs to look at the characteristics of the players under their care and help the player make the correct decisions based on their physicality and the success they have with tackling and intercepting. 

8. Often Leaders on the Field

Leadership qualities to guide motivate and support teammates are something these players will often demonstrate. 

Defensive midfielders are placed in the center of the pitch they will generally see everything which goes on and give vocal support to help other players. This is reassuring as the attacking players know that there is cover if needed and that they have someone to recycle the attack if required. 

The organization of other teammates can be reassuring especially if the information is supportive. These players have a knack for saying the right thing at the right time or just generally leading by example through their effort and commitment towards the game or training.

These players have to demonstrate consistency because this role requires players to do things simply and quickly, the best defensive midfielders will be consistent in their performance and sometimes not stand out like a skillful wide player. 

The coach must acknowledge the work and job that these players do and try to ensure they give thanks and appreciation for their selfless work. They will stay committed throughout most games and can be relied on to regain and retain the ball for the team.  Some coaches may describe their role as doing the dirty work but every successful team has at least one of these players who consistently does this well.  

Work rate, these players will demonstrate a great capacity and ethic to work run hard for the team to occupy spaces, often without getting a touch or they will put their body on the line to break up play with a tackle.  They prioritize others over themselves to protect the defenders centrally and in wide areas. 

They are team players upon winning the ball they will give it to the attackers, thus demonstrating selflessness.   They will go about their job and generally don’t need to be reminded or told repeatedly to do something they are good learners so they are told once they often implement it quickly.

Related Questions

I thought this was meant to be for beginners? It is, the 8 tips are in essence the simple messages and ideas coaches and players can take on board to improve their game. The detail within each heading is the information coaches can look for and use to help their players know what to work on, look for or expect if playing in this position.

Do you have any other tips to help? Yes, watch the best players and see what they do in specific areas of the pitch, pitch a few of the tips mentioned above and what the best players implement them. Fabinho, from Liverpool, Kimmich, from Bayern Munich, Kante, from Chelsea would be good places to start.

What about attacking midfielders? A similar article has been written about attacking midfielders on this site and can be found here

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