How To Be A World-Class Center Back In Soccer

The best soccer teams in the world will have a spine of high-quality players that will be able to dominate their position and will consistently produce match-winning moments. A center-back is a figure in any successful soccer team. A center-back is a leader and a player the team can turn to when their backs are up against the wall. This post will tell you everything you need to know about how you can be a world-class center back in soccer.

Where does a center-back play?

Center back position in a 4-4-2 formation
Center back position in a 3-5-2 formation

A center back will play will the middle of the defensive line and they usually wear the number 5 and 4 shirt.

Depending on the teams’ formation they may play with 2 center backs or 3 center backs.

Their main role is to stop the opposing teams from scoring and creating chances.

This is done through winning their 1v1s, anticipating where the danger is, and helping organize their teammates.

6 roles that all the best center-backs do

Center-backs provide much to a team than just winning their duels, headers, and tackles.

The game is changing and so must the roles of the center-back.

In the current game of soccer, coaches are encouraging their teams to create opportunities to go forward by building out from the back.

This means that center-backs must be comfortable on the ball in areas close to their goal while under pressure.

Center-backs are also essential in retaining possession and helping change the point of attack.

If a player in a more advanced position on the pitch cannot go forward the center-back should always be an option to pass back to.

With all positions, the role of the center-back will change depending on whether the team is in or out of possession.

This will help you understand the roles of how to be a center back in soccer.

Roles of the center-backs while in possession of the ball

Retain possession

When in possession of the ball a large responsibility of the center-back is to help keep their team stay in possession.

An example of this would be helping change the point of an attack. If a more advanced player cannot go forward or if one side of the pitch is too congested.

The center-back should always be in a position where they can support the players in more advanced positions if they cannot go forward.

As well as support players in more advanced positions center-backs must create angles to receive the ball from the goalkeeper or other defenders when playing the ball out from the back.

If a center-back does not do this then the ball will likely get played long.

Playing long balls can increase the chance of losing possession of the ball.

Start attacks from the back

Center-backs are often described as the quarterbacks of soccer.

This is because when they have the ball at their feet all their options are in front of them and they can control the outcome of what happens next.

Yes, you want a center-back to be strong, win their 50s, and put in game-deciding challenges.

However, you also want a center-back who is composed on the ball and can pick open an oppositions’ defense.

You can start attacks from the back by breaking past the first or second defensive line. This can be achieved through dribbling past players or by passing to teammates between defensive lines.

Change the point of attacks

Center-backs also have the role of helping a team change the point of attack.

If an area of the pitch is getting too congested players can pass back to the center-back to help reset the play.

The center-back can then switch the ball to a player who is in a space to exploit the opposition.

The quicker a team can recycle the ball and change the point of attack to a player in space the higher the chance of creating a goal-scoring opportunity.

Roles of the center-backs while out of possession of the ball

Keep the team compact and organized when defending

As a center-back, you must command the players around you while defending.

Making sure that your teammates are remaining compact, organized, and aware when defending is critical when trying not to concede.

When you are defending you want to be as hard to break down as possible. This means forcing players around the outside and into wide areas

when gaps form between defensive lines this gives the opposition space to exploit and create goal-scoring chances against your team.

The center-back will be in the heart of the defense and see more of the picture than other teammates.

This includes opposition players making runs into teammates’ blind spots and teammates getting dragged out of position.

They can help highlight where the biggest threats and organize players to prevent them from becoming a threat.

To prevent these scenarios from happening they must effectively organize and communicate with their team.

Show attackers away from the goal

This is essential for any defender, not just the center-back.

You must always show the attacker away from the goal in the majority of defending 1v1 scenarios.

By showing the attacker away from the goal you are decreasing the threat they possess when creating chances.

When showing an attacker away from the goal you want to show them to the sidelines, which limits how much space they have.

On top of this, make sure their back is turned to the goal and don’t let them turn back.

This will be a lot harder for the attacker to turn and make it easier for you to defend.

Call the defensive line

As a center-back in soccer, you should command the defensive line.

This means instructing players when to move up the pitch, drop off, step up to try and catch an opponent offside or when setting up to defend freekicks.

The center-back is the deepest lying defender, this ensures that they can see everything in front of them.

From this position, they can keep an eye on teammates who are not in line with other defenders.

The center-back can also quickly step up if they need to catch an opposition striker offside.

Qualities you need to be a better center-back

These are the qualities you must work on to be a center back in soccer

Consistency

To be a world-class center-back you need to be consistent throughout the season.

Center-backs are put under the microscope because when they make a mistake it typically gifts goals to the opposition team. If a striker makes a mistake it usually gives the opposition possession of the ball in a non-threatening area.

To improve your consistency on the pitch here are some things you should take into consideration:

  • Injury prevention

Take the time to look after yourself on and off the pitch. To be consistent you need to get a good run of games and an injury can easily halt that.

When you come back from an injury it can be harder to recover to the form you were previously.

  • Take the pre-match warm-up seriously

Warm-ups are not only important for injury prevention but they also provide you an opportunity to mentally get yourself locked in for the game so your approach it with the right mindset.

  • Lifestyle

Off the pitch, you need to make sure that you are consistent with your routines. Fueling yourself with appropriate food, getting enough rest, and having a solid recovery routine after training and games.

Good communication skills

As a center-back, you are in charge of organizing the players around you and in front of you. You need to help your teammates be in the right position at the right time when defending and attacking.

Remember! As a center-back you can see the entire pitch, so you have a better understanding of the bigger picture. You just need to share that information with the players around you clearly and concisely.

You want to avoid long-winded sentences, as this will take too long to explain and for your teammate to process.

The best way to communicate is through a common language. This may vary from team to team however they are all effective if used correctly.

Your teams’ common language should be made up of short words and phrases that can be explained and processed by a teammate in split second.

The words and phrases you use should be consistent and paint the same image in everyone’s mind.

Awareness

The best center-backs are constantly aware of what is going on around them.

They do this by always checking their shoulders and scanning the pitch when attacking and defending.

When defending be aware of where your teammates are and the opposition. This is crucial to remaining compact and hard to break down.

Center-backs who are aware when they are defending can nullify attacking runs more effectively.

The best center-backs are those who don’t even have to make a challenge to win the ball. This is because their position and awareness allow them to read the game and intercept the passes.

This is done by anticipating what the player on the ball will do and accessing the next potential threat

you will quickly have to access where the immediate danger is and access the next potential threat.

Center-backs must also be aware of their teammates and opposition players when they have the ball. This will help them remain composed on the ball and make the best possible decisions on the ball.

Leadership

If you look a the majority of center-backs they are all fantastic leaders. Not only do they lead by example with their soccer skills but also with how they motivate the team.

The center-back will help set the intensity of the game.

They’ll be able to notice when the opposition is on the backfoot and will encourage players to be direct.

Or they’ll notice when the tempo needs to be slowed to help get their team back into the game and retain possession.

A center-back must lead by example, actions speak louder than words. It is all good and well motivating players but you need to set the bar for them to follow. This will gain you a lot of respect from your fellow teammates.

Being able to talk to players on a personal level is incredibly important too.

A leader will praise players when they do something right but most importantly they find the right words to say to players when their heads are down.

6 Soccer skills you need to improve to become a better center-back in soccer

These are the 6 most important soccer skills you must develop to be a center back in soccer.

To be able to receive and pass under pressure

As the game of soccer is gradually changing and adapting, playing out of the back has become increasingly more common.

This means that center-backs are expected to be comfortable with the ball at their feet, while under pressure to help start the teams’ attacks. This is on top of their defensive duties.

To give themselves more time and space on the ball the center-backs need to drop deeper and wider when in possession of the ball.

This can be quite daunting for some players. Seeing how close you are to your own goal and how big the pitch seems, the more you practice getting the ball in these positions the more confident you will become.

When receiving the ball the center-back should control the ball or play a first-time pass on their back foot in an open body position. This keeps as many options open to the center-back as possible.

While receiving in an open body position you should be scanning the pitch around you. This ensures you know where the opposition players and your teammates are.

Click here for 10 turning and receiving drills

Start attacks that break defensive lines.

Your duties as a center-back are not just limited to defending, the best center-backs can start attacks with their dribbling or passing ability.

Typically in soccer, there are 3 defensive lines you can breakthrough. The attackers will be the first line. The midfielders will be the second line, and the opposition defenders will be the 3rd line.

For example, if you can dribble past an attacker, or pass to a teammate in between the attackers’ defensive line and the midfielders, you would have broken the opposition’s first line of defense.

Even as a center-back your first thought should always be forward.

However, when deciding to break opposition defensive lines you need to weigh up the risk vs reward and know when and how to break opposition lines.

To get better at your decision-making to play forward, when you scan the pitch look as far forward as you can first, then work your way back for safer options.

When you make a decision as well be confident in your ability to deliver and accept that mistakes will be made.

It’s learning not mistakes made.

Receive the ball in an open body position

I touched on this previously but the best center-backs in soccer always receive the ball in an open body position.

As a center-back, you always want to receive the ball in an open body position, with your chest and shoulders facing the opposition goal as often as possible.

Not only will you give yourself more options on the ball, but it will also be more challenging for attackers to press a center-back, as there are so many different decisions they can now make.

When receiving a pass on the back foot you can either use the inside of your foot or the outside of your foot depending on the situation.

Make sure you check your shoulders beforehand when receiving a pass so you know that you:

  • Have the time to receive the ball on the back foot
  • Know whether you have time to take a touch or play a first-time pass
  • Can see where your teammates are
  • Know where opposition players are coming from

You should be comfortable receiving the ball on your left and right foot. Click here for some passing and moving drills to help you.

This small change will improve your confidence on the ball and have more of an influence you have on the game from center-back.

Defensive and attacking headers

Yes, it’s no surprise that defensive headers are something a center-back has to work on and the technique is slightly different from attacking headers.

With defensive headers, you are still trying to use your forehead to head the ball however you want to direct your header upwards as opposed to downwards.

This will help get a greater distance on the ball, which will help your team clear their lines and reset.

Defensive headers are usually made when a long ball, goal kick, or cross is being delivered towards your half.

Here are my tips on how you can win more defensive headers as a center-back:

  • Start a little further back from where you anticipate the ball will go. This will allow you to adjust your body position and run to meet the ball as opposed to standing stationary.
  • As the ball is in the eye keep your eye on the ball (especially in windy conditions
  • When you jump to head the ball you want to be inside on body position
  • Shout your name when you are going to win the ball. This will avoid any confusion as to who is going for the header and can help put off opponents.
  • Even if you don’t think you are going to win the header, still attempt to win the ball as this will put pressure on the opponents.

Winning attacking headers are a great way to increase your goal count for the season.

Typically, center-backs tend to possess the most aerial threat in the team and should use this to your advantage.

Set pieces such as corners and free-kicks give a great opportunity for center-backs to go forward.

However, for an attacking header, you want to try to direct the ball lower and into the corners of the goal.

This means timing your jump so you are over the ball and requires a bit more composure to direct the ball goalwards.

Here are some tips on how you can score more goals from headers:

  • Similar to defensive headers, give your some space to run into the area to attack the ball. You will have to be tricky to mark and use different movements to lose your defender.
  • As the ball is coming into the area, track the flight of the ball the whole way
  • Be confident when attacking the ball
  • Make contact with the ball using your forehead aiming for the corners
  • Depending on the cross you may need to redirect the head if the cross comes in with pace. If the cross is floated in you will have to generate power to the header using your momentum and neck muscles.

If you would like some fun soccer heading drills, click here.

Defensive 1v1s

It doesn’t matter how good you are as a center-back but if you cannot defend in 1v1 scenarios then this position is not for you.

To be great at defending in 1v1s you need to dictate where the opposition player goes.

This can be done by adjusting your body position and forcing them away from the goal or towards other players.

Within the first 15 minutes of the game, you’ll want to pay close attention to the attacker and figure out:

  • Their preferred foot
  • The spaces they like to find
  • Different types of runs they make
  • What skills do they like to use
  • Do they like to take their shot early or will they try to dribble past you

You’ll want to use this knowledge to your advantage when you are in a 1v1 scenario with them or trying to prevent a 1v1 scenario with them.

It is also important to remember that you do not always have to win the ball in a 1v1 you can force the player away from the goal and that is just as effective.

For a complete guide on how to defend 1v1s and soccer drills, click here.

Range of passing

A center-back has a similar role to a quarterback with the ball at their feet.

This is because they can see the whole field and have the opportunity to start attacks using a quick decision-making process.

Remember, when you receive the ball, the first thought should be can I get the ball to the player furthest up the field. If not, you gradually work your way back until you either play a pass sideways or back to your goalkeeper.

To be able to play those long field balls or switches play to set up attacks you need to have the ability to play a long-range pass. These types of passes can be riskier in terms of retaining possession, however, they may come with great rewards.

Equally a shorter pass will be easier to play with a higher chance of retaining possession but the reward may be a lot lower.

Varying your range of passing also helps you become a lot less predictable, opposition players may not know whether to drop off or close you down.

This will give you a lot more time and space on the ball.

You will also be expected to play different ranges of passes with both feet, so whatever you can do with one foot you should be able to do with the other!

3 World-class center-backs to watch in soccer

There have been many past and present world-class center-backs but these are the 3 that stick out to me. Watch these videos on these players on how to become a center back in soccer

Nemanja Vidic

Nemanja Vidic was a ruthless center-back who was arguably one of the best 1v1 defenders the Premier League has ever seen.

Vidic was renowned for his firm challenges, reading of the game, and leadership qualities

He spent the majority of his career at Mancher United, this is also where he had the most success, winning 5 Premier League titles as well as the champions league.

Vidic grew into a leader of the team, playing alongside Rio Ferdinand and earning captaincy from 2010 – to 2014.

Ferdinand went on to describe Vidic as a player who would put his head in where players wouldn’t even put their foot.

Virgil Van Dijk

Virgil Van Dijk currently plays his trade at Liverpool FC and is currently regarded as one of the best center-backs in the world.

There are not a lot of things Van Dijk can’t do.

He reads the game very well and can make key interceptions.

His is has a huge aerial advantage so he can win the majority of his defensive and attacking headers.

On top of this, his range of passing, quality of passing, and composure on the ball under his pressure is all someone all aspiring center-backs should look up to.

During his time at Liverpool, his most notable honors are the Premier League title and the Champions League.

Ruben Dias

Ruben Dias is a young up-and-coming center-back who has cemented himself a spot in the Manchester City starting lineup.

He plays with a grit and determination that is often missing from younger center-backs entering the game.

His style of play and the qualities he brings to the team earned him his first game as captain of the club in the 2021 season.

Dias can comfortably play out the back with both feet while remaining composed under pressure.

His range of passing and dribbling ability means that he can break through opposition defensive lines and set up dangerous attacks.

How to be a center back in soccer conclusion

In this post, I hope I have given you all the tips and tricks you need to be a better center back in soccer.

For this role not only do you need to develop your soccer skills but also your leadership and communication skills.

Remember, center-backs are not just there to stop goals, they are also there to help set up scoring opportunities.

Be confident in your ability to control the ball under pressure and take risks in the right areas. To do this you need to make sure that you are scanning the area around you so you know where your opponents and teammates are.

If you have any other tips that you think could help players on how to be a better center back in soccer share them with them in the comments below.

Thank you,

Toby

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