Training The Defensive Cover Shadow
Updated: Aug 31
At Eagleclaw Football Club, we teach our players to concentrate more on positioning instead of positions (e.g. center back, right back, midfielder, etc.) In the fluid positional play style Eagleclaw teaches, players seek to position themselves in order to rationally occupy spaces on the field and achieve tactical advantages (superiorities) and such positioning is important for defending as well as attacking. Always, the proper or best positioning is in relation to the ball, teammates, opponents, the other spaces in the field that we want to create or exploit. If a players gets it right, we see it as "intelligent positioning." At an individual level, much has been written about the positioning of the attacking players. But individual defensive positioning is equally important for players in a positional play club or team.
The language we use is really important here. The word "positioning" conveys responsibility, awareness, decision-making, action and fluidity, while the word "position" conveys something more static or even simply a title - (e.g. "I'm a centerback"). At any moment in time, where a player should be - their positioning - may have little to do with their initial starting position when the whistle first blows. That is why the language we choose to use in training sessions is vitally important.
“Our players had four reference points: the ball, the space, the opponent, and their own teammates. Every movement had to happen in relation to these reference points. Each player had to decide which of these reference points should determine his movements.”
– Arrigo Sacchi
Even though we are training under Phase 2 conditions requiring social distancing and prohibiting close physical contact, we at Eagleclaw still work hard to develop training exercises that are faithful to our Positional Play style, curriculum and training methodology. This is made even harder because our training environment at Starfire Sports requires us to train in groups or pods of five players who are limited to a defined area of the field. Also, players within a pod must maintain at least 6 feet of distance from each other at all times and may not physically contact another player. So a team of 15 players would be three pods of five players training separately with significant restrictions. In addition, the coach must remain on the outside of the training area. So, how can we effectively train individual defending in these conditions?
A recent example is an exercise I developed to focus on defensive positioning that creates 'cover shadows'. A cover shadow is the area covered directly behind a defending player. It is typically diagrammed as a triangular space behind the defender that is created when the defender positions themselves between the ball and an opposing player. Cover shadows are effective because they allow defenders to press the ball carrier while at the same time blocking passing lines. The challenge for attackers is to get out of the shadows, to lose their marker and move into space.
© Eagleclaw Football Club
A smart defensive team can create cover shadows all over the field. In fact, one of the principal ways to frustrate a Positional Play team is to use 'man marking'. The effective use of situational man-marking, particularly against a team in their own defensive third as they are trying to play out from the back, can be very effective. But man-marking is extremely difficult to execute if the defenders are not disciplined, do not understand how their cover shadows are created and move with them and do not have good scanning rates to know what is happening behind them in their cover shadow as well as around them.
© Eagleclaw Football Club
The 4v1 Triangle with SmartGoals
To tackle the challenge of training smart defensive positioning while complying with Phase 2 conditions, I turned to technology and specifically SmartGoals. My objective was to create an extremely common tactical situation where a defender must be aware at all times of where the ball is, position themselves between the ball and a player they want to neutralize, and attempt to prevent the attackers from advancing the ball or achieving their objective. At Eagleclaw, we often teach our teams to press high with three forwards, so it is important for each pressing player individually to understand how to create and maintain their own cover shadow to prevent the keeper from playing a short passing option from the back.
I am also operating with regulatory safety constraints. The exercise can only involve 5 players, they must always be socially distant and no physical contact is permitted.
Designing this exercise took some time, but I think the result is an extremely effective, engaging, interactive and Phase 2 compliant exercise! The key was to replicate the situation in a game-realistic way with multiple targets for the attacking team, while keeping the defensive player between the ball and the pivot. At the same time, I wanted to create randomly appearing targets for the attackers that would require all players to actively scan and decide where to attack and defend. Our SmartGoals were the perfect solution for this problem.
Here's how it works. I began by creating a nested triangular playing area. There is a larger triangular area, with a smaller triangular area (the defensive space) inside and an even small triangular area (the pivot space) inside. The entire area is designed to maintain proper social distancing. Along each line of the outside triangle we placed two Smartgoals. As a pass is made through a lit Smartgoal, it switches off and the next lit SmartGoal can appear anywhere randomly, thereby creating variable targets to challenge the player's scanning habits and spatial awareness. If you think about it, the triangular pivot space actually functions as a physical representation of the defenders cover shadow. Wherever the defender moves, the cover shadow is behind them.
The team in possession tries to score, but can only do so if the Pivot #6 can connect a pass through a lit Smartgoal to a teammate.
RULES AND PLAY
Players #2, #5 and #3 must remain outside the large white triangle, but playing relatively tight to the line.
Defensive player #9 plays inside the red triangle, but may not move into the yellow triangle, which is the pivot space.
Player #6 is the pivot and must remain inside the pivot space.
Players outside the white triangle may circulate the ball to each through any part of the playing area with the goal of moving the defender away from a target - a lit SmartGoal - so that the Pivot can connect a pass through the target to a teammate.
If the Pivot completes a pass through a target, play continues.
If the defender is able to get a foot on any pass, they switch roles with the player who made the pass. We do not require the defender to actually win the ball as the game is already tilted sufficiently in favor of the attackers.
Here are two sequences showing the game being played by Eagleclaw players:
At this point, I consider the exercise to be very effective, but still very much a prototype. In fact, I unveiled it at the training ground for the first time just yesterday! The integration of SmartGoals was essential, in my view, and really brings critical variability to aid development of visual scanning and decision-making. Placing two goals on each line forced the players to move along their lines as the target could appear in either or both of the SmartGoals on their line. This also helped the players' movement along their line to provide pass support as teammates circulate the ball. During the flow of the game, the defender is forced to really pay attention as they work to deny the Pivot access to the ball or an opportunity to score. There is a bit of unavoidable awkwardness for the defender as they cannot enter the pivot space to press the ball. As the ball is passed from one side of the area to the other, the defender cannot always make the most efficient and direct movement to press the ball and sometimes must run around the pivot space. There really is no solution to this as the constraint is maintaining separation between players. At the same time, the small pivot space forces the Pivot to be creative about losing their marker to create space at the edges or margins of the cover shadow in order to receive a pass. The Pivot must work really had to keep an open body position.
I am already thinking about some improvements that can be made to this exercise, but so far it really works well as a Positional Play exercise that is tactically relevant, stimulating and still Phase 2 compliant. I can already see ways in which this exercise can be expanded to a bigger and really robust positional game when we get to Phase 3. Hopefully we'll get there soon!