What Makes You a Great Defender

Jérôme Boateng. Sergio Ramos. Carlos Bocanegra. These are some universally recognized great defenders. Even those who don’t cheer for their teams is likely to agree these guys are strong on the defensive line. This article considers the attributes that distinguish the standout defenders from the rest whether in a Development Academy or playing pro.

In “What You Don’t Know About Being a Defender,” Germany’s Jérôme Boateng, reminded us of “the obvious.” The defender has “to stop the other team from scoring.” But what does that entail? For one thing, communication.

The defender, particularly central defenders, are well placed to help organize their teammates. This player will regularly communicate with the rest of the line to keep everyone working together as a unit. As the Bayern Munich defender wrote, “I have to speak a lot to the guys next to me and to the midfielders in front of us about which direction we want to send the ball up.”

Boateng also relies on quick thinking to assess the situation on the field immediately. “You can’t be lazy or caught on your heels” against a Messi or Ronaldo. “They will win and they will score.”

Composure is essential. Defenders play under pressure. “When you’re on the pitch, seconds become luxuries,” Boateng said. “If I’m guarding a striker, I’m feeling where he is, trying to sense where he’s going. I try to be one second before him on the ball. Just one second is what I want against a guy. A second is my biggest weapon.”

Boateng also emphasized the need for confidence. “Ronaldo, Messi, Suárez, Neymar — they can all smell if you’re afraid to duel with them. One whiff and then they destroy you. So you gotta show up,” he wrote.

Knowing the right position to be in is also essential. A Footy Tipster blog, points out a good defender knows how to “provide a shield to prevent their goalkeeper coming under unnecessary pressure” (without making it so that the keeper can’t see the ball). A great defender gets in position to break up an attack, stop a goal, or make that last-minute tackle when it’s needed. 

As for tackling, Boateng said, “Before I go in for a tackle, I have to be 100 percent sure I can get the ball. If I’m not, then I just stay close to the striker. It’s not worth the risk of getting a red card and setting my team back.”

Physical fitness can make a real difference too. USMNT’s former captain Carlos Bocanegra worked hard to maintain his fitness level while defending for the national team, MLS or Rangers in Scotland. "I’m really into the performance side of things,” he told Fox Sports. “For me it’s really important to be someone who hopefully my teammates say: ‘Damn, ‘Los is giving it a hundred per cent every time.’”

Ultimately, a great defender does all he can to defend his team’s clean sheet. Spanish national team captain Ramos has said, “the most important job of a defender is to maintain our goal in zero. If beyond that you can score goals, then great, it makes you different, but always remember what is most important.”

Mutiny Perspectives on Great Defense

We also asked some of our own Mutiny players what it takes to be a great defender. Nathan Slattery, a 2008 who started this year in the back, says defense is about being strong on the ball and being fast. 

A strong defender is someone who “will go into tackles strong but know where they need to be.” He adds, “You have to know where to pass and pass quickly because you don’t want to risk losing the ball that close to the net.”

Kiernan Crenshaw, who’s been known to play right back for the 2006s, says great defending is about technique on the ball and strength. “You have to be a little bit stronger and more aware of where the ball is going,” he said.

Awareness was the characteristic Gael Hernandez, a 2007 defender noted too. “You have to always be aware because there could be a player behind you,” he said. He also mentioned that a great defender is confident in his touches at the back, thinks quickly and plays strong passes. It’s almost as if he read Boateng’s article before we talked to him!

Whatever position you play on the field, a great Mutiny player combines physical and technical skill with emotional fortitude and a desire to get better. Most importantly, they can put the team first, whether it’s when defending or upfront.