How to become a better number 6 (defensive midfielder) in soccer

Number 6’s are the engine room of the team, these types of players will always give the team 100% and are not always given the credit they deserve. Their work goes largely unnoticed but they have the ability to win or lose games in the battle of the midfield. To ensure your team wins as many games as possible this post is going to give you everything you need to know about how to become a better number 6 in soccer.

Where does the number 6 play

Where the number 6 plays in soccer

The number 6 is considered a defensive midfielder and they are the deepest lying midfielder on the team. Regardless of the formation, the number will play just in front of the defenders.

You can see the number 6 highlighted in the yellow square. The larger white dashed square represents a typical heat map of the defensive midfielder.

Sometimes teams will play with 2 center midfielders but usually, there will always be one player who will be given the responsibility of the number 6.

6 Roles of the number 6

The role of the number 6 plays the position of the defensive midfielder on the team. The defensive midfielder has incredibly important responsibilities and plays a huge role in the success of the team.

However, the roles will vary depending on whether or not your team is in control of the ball or not.

Below are my most important roles and responsibilities of the 6 when in and out of possession.

These are the exact roles I tell my players who I coach on how they can become a better number 6 and so can you if you follow these 6 things

Roles of the 6 when in possession of the ball

Provide defenders an option to play forward

When your defenders are on the ball you should be always there as a passing option for them in the middle.

By checking in and creating angles to receive the pass you will help your team maintain possession of the ball, which is especially important when your team is looking to play out from the back.

You will also create triangles with your center-backs and full-backs, so you should always have 2 options on the ball minimum.

Don’t get disappointed if you do not receive the ball you as you will create space for a teammate to receive a pass.

If you do not give the defender this option to pass, their last resort would be to boot the ball long which is a cheap way to give up possession of the ball.

The best way to defend is to keep possession of the ball!

start attacks by breaking the first line of defenders

Just because you are a defensive midfielder does not mean that your sole purpose in the game is to defend.

Modern number 6s will win the ball back and look to play forward as early as they can, the quicker they can play the ball forward the higher the chance of creating goal-scoring opportunities.

This should be your first thought after receiving the ball of the defenders.

This can be achieved through breaking the defensive lines either through dribbling past players and attacking the space or playing forward passes to teammates that split the defenders.

It is important to have a variety of dribbling skills and passing ranges that can help start attacks.

You will have to take calculated risks and make decisions in split seconds, the best way to do this is constantly checking your shoulder and looking around to assess the position of your teams and the opposing team.

Your decision should already be made by the time you have received the ball and using your best judgment you can decide to play it backward or sideways if there are no options forward but if there is an option forward your first touch/pass should be sharp and crisp to catch the defending team off guard.

This is what will set the tempo for your team.

You are the teams pivot

As well as providing an option for the defenders to play forward you must always provide an option for the attackers to pass backward if they cannot go forward.

By dropping off and creating an angle you will help your team maintain possession of the ball you are becoming a pivot for your team to change the angle of the attack.

As you are watching your team’s attack unfold try to be aware of your surroundings and ask yourself ‘what if’ as you scan the area in front and behind you.

What if the attacker cannot go forward?

What if the attacker loses the ball or a pass is intercepted?

By doing this you are making sure you are one step ahead of the opponents by anticipating what could happen next.

Use this skill to position yourself in areas to support attacks or win the ball back if the other team manages to clear the ball.

Role of the 6 when out of possession of the ball

Protect the defenders

Your main duty when your team is out of possession of the ball is to protect the defenders.

What you do off the ball is just as important as what you do on the ball and the number 6 is a perfect example of this.

The defensive midfielders are usually the best in the team at snuffing out danger and reading dangerous situations, whether it be by intercepting passes or putting challenges in and winning the ball.

By becoming that shield in front of the defense you are making it very tough for the opposing team to break you down, forcing attackers away from the center of the field and towards the sides where they pose less of a threat.

Once you have won the ball this is where you look to play forward and start the next attack.

To become a better number 6 you don’t always have to win the ball but controlling where the attackers go with your body position and showing them down blind alleys is just as effective.

Organize the players in front of you

Communication is key for a position in soccer but more so when defending, especially against a well-organized attacking team.

An attacking team will try to work the ball around lure defenders out of position which will create space for them to exploit.

As the deepest lying midfielder, you are able to see ‘more of the picture’ than your teammates in front of you, this means you have a responsibility to communicate what your teammates cannot see.

Information such as where players off the ball are moving too, when to press and when to drop, and who they are marking are vital pieces of information to share with your teammates.

Keep what you are saying as concise as possible when giving information to your teammates, this enables them to react quicker to in-game situations in seconds.

Time is everything in this fast-paced game.

Cover for team mates who are out of position

When teams are attacking they easily forget about their defensive responsibilities, sometimes defenders can get carried away and push up too far to support an attack.

In possession of the ball, this isn’t so much of an issue, however when a transition occurs a good team can be on the counter-attack in a matter of seconds.

When counter-attacking teams will try to exploit space that has been left from where players pushed up to support the attack.

As the number 6, you must be aware of spaces the opposition team could exploit if a change of possession were to happen.

If a counterattack does happen you are already aware of players who would get caught of position and know what spaces to cover.

You don’t have to be the fastest player on the pitch, you just have to make sure that your game sense is better than the opponents.

Traits you need to develop to become a good number 6

Anticipation

The best numbers 6s in the world are always thinking 2,3,4 steps ahead. This is because they are constantly looking around and studying what is happening around them and then using that information to predict what will happen next.

A Common mistake that number 6s make is that they get caught ball watching instead of looking at the bigger picture.

As a number 6 if you are looking at the bigger picture you are able to anticipate what events are about to unfold and then you can adjust your positioning accordingly.

Be pro-active rather than reactive.

To be successful at this while playing soccer try to take a step back and watch what’s happening, assess the movements of your teammates and opposing team.

From your judgment to move spaces where you can support your teammates if you have the ball or if your team is out of possession focus on closing passing angles to limit the opponents attacking options on the ball.

Another great way to improve anticipation is by watching soccer either on TV or by going to games.

Keep your focus on the number 6 and watch how they move off the ball and drift into positions to support players on the ball or break down attacks.

Awareness

As number 6s are in the middle of the midfield they must be constantly aware of their surroundings.

The number 6 must always be checking their shoulder and painting a picture of what is going on around them.

By becoming more aware of your surroundings you will find that your decision-making skills will become better and faster.

While watching soccer games keep an eye on the defensive midfielder and count how many times they turn their heads to look around them before they receive the ball, I can guarantee you’ll be surprised at how frequently they do!

It is not just about looking for the sake of looking, take in what you are seeing and use that information to create a positive outcome.

Don’t be afraid of taking longer to look around you, if it means being a little bit slower on the ball because like any skill more you focus on looking the quicker you’ll become.

Composure

Number 6s are always composed on the ball, they are happy receiving the ball, dribbling, and passing under pressure because they trust their ability.

In some instances, players may even invite pressure as they know it will create space for them to exploit.

Again, being be composed on the ball links back to having great awareness.

By being aware of what is going on around you can help you make the best possible decisions when you are on the ball because you are prepared for what is happening around you.

This will make number 6s seem like they have more time on the ball than they really do.

They will know where to take their first touch away from the defender, whether or not they can turn with the ball to start an attack or play a first-time pass to a teammate.

When you are watching a soccer look at how the defensive midfielder receives the ball and how his actions reflect what is going on around him.

Good work ethic

Centre midfielders are renowned for ‘covering every blade of grass on the pitch and the number 6 is no different.

As I mentioned earlier, the defensive midfielder is the engine room and heart of the team.

They are prepared to do everything it takes to ensure a victory for their team; chasing down every ball, closing passing angles, and supporting the attack with no questions asked.

The number 6 will lead by example and set the tone for the work ethic in the team for other players to follow.

They don’t always grab the headlines like the other players but the hard work they put into a team is vital to a team’s success.

Consistency

Consistency is key!

The number 6 must consistently perform and be a presence on the pitch.

It is about doing the simple things incredibly well.

A striker may go missing in a game but it won’t always affect the outcome of the result however if a defensive midfielder goes missing then the whole team will crumble.

As a defensive midfielder you want to take calculated risks, the simple and low-risk decisions can be just as effective in the bigger picture.

Next time you watch a soccer game focus on the number 6, count how many times they give the ball away, and assess the calculated risks they take.

Soccer skills you must improve to become a better number 6

Now that you have a better idea of the roles and traits the number 6 (defensive midfielder) needs to succeed, here are the soccer-specific skills you must master if you want to become a better number 6 in soccer.

First touch

Your first touch is always going to be your most important touch in soccer, that’s why it is important to nail down your first touch.

Your first touch will set you up to perform your desired outcome in the most efficient way possible.

The outcome could be to play a pass, to take a should, or to take the ball away from the defender.

All you need to improve your first touch is a ball and wall, pass the ball against the wall and control it as it comes back to you.

As you get more confident with your touches test yourself with firmer passes or by throwing the ball against the wall so you have to control the ball in the air.

When practicing your first touch make sure that:

  • You practice with both feet
  • Control the ball with different parts of the foot (inside and outside)
  • Try and use different parts of the body such as your chest and thighs
  • When you control the ball make sure the ball is out of your feet

Being able to play on the half turn

Being in the correct body position when receiving the ball will make a huge difference to your game, especially when playing the number 6.

As number 6 you are trying to link the defense to the attack and you won’t be able to do this efficiently if you are in the wrong body position.

Here are my tips to receiving the ball on the half-turn:

  • Check your shoulder so you know you have time and space to turn
  • Create an angle to receive the ball
  • Let the ball roll across your body and use your back foot (the foot furthest from the ball) to control the pass.
  • Take your touch out of your feet and towards space.

Receiving the ball under pressure

You need to be comfortable receiving the ball in tight situations and learn how to use your body to protect the ball from defenders.

When you are checking in to receive the pass from the defenders the chances are that you will be immediately pressured.

Here are a couple of things you can do to help protect the ball under pressure as a number 6:

  • Receive the ball on your front foot (the foot closest to the ball) if you know you are being pressured
  • Keep the ball on your front foot in a side-on body position to keep the ball as far away from the defender as possible
  • Bend your knees and stick your butt out, this will give you a strong base to hold of the defender
  • You can use your arm to help give you a bit of distance between yourself and the defender.

I go over these points in a lot more detail in my post on how to shield the ball in soccer.

Shooting from distance

Being able to score goals from distance is a great skill to have that can set you apart from other defensive midfielders.

Yes, you can defend. Yes, you can help start attacks and yes, you can score goals.

As the deepest lying midfielder, one of the roles you have is being the pivot and helping change the point of attack. However, in some instances you may receive the ball and space can open up in front of you to drive towards the goal and have a shot.

This is a great way you can add goals to your game.

Here are some shooting tips that can help you get more goals as the number 6:

  • Be confident when driving into space, back your self to score when taking the shot
  • Practice taking shots with both feet
  • Try different shooting techniques depending on the scenario (laces for power, inside of the foot for placement)

Have a look at my shooting session from a distance to help you.

Dribbling skills

Being confident in 1v1 situations either with your back to the defender or with the defender in front of you is an essential skill as a number 6.

The key to starting attacks is being able to break past the first line of defenders, once you do this a lot more space opens up for your team to exploit.

This will keep the opposing team guessing and make it a lot harder for them to defend against you.

The best way to improve your dribbling is to begin by practicing skills and turns unopposed.

Once you feel confident, you MUST practice these skills in game-related activities in training or practices.

Range and quality of passing

Finally, you want to improve the quality and range of your passing ability.

As well you using your dribbling ability to break through the opponents’ defensive lines you can also use your passing ability.

The greater the range of your passing abilities the more unpredictable you become to the opponents.

As well as relying on your own ability to play passes you must also have an understanding of how your teammates like to play.

Do you some players want the ball to feet?

Do players want the ball to be played in front of them to run on to?

Which foot does your teammate prefer to control the ball with?

Here are some types of passes you can play and when they should be used:

  • Short passes are played with the inside of the foot and used to teammates who are closer to you
  • Low-driven passes are played with the laces with the body over the ball to keep the ball low. These passes are used when teammates are further away
  • High-driven passes are played with the laces with the body leaning back to get the ball in the air. These passes are used to switch the play

Here are my tips to improve your passing range and quality as a number 6:

  • Learn to pass with both feet
  • Make sure your first touch is out of your feet
  • Play the pass first time if you can (make sure you can the area beforehand though)

3 world-class number 6s soccer players you can learn a lot from

Now that you know all the qualities you need to become a better number 6 these are my top 3 defensive midfielders you need to watch and study to really step up your game.

Claude Makélélé

Many critics in soccer refer Claude Makélélé as the player who created the number 6 role as a defensive midfielder.

He had his most successful at Real Madrid Before Joining Chelsea where Jose Mourinho helped transform him into a number 6

He was small in stature but an incredibly strong and powerful player that had a great passing range and confident dribbling past players.

Below is a video explaining how he made the number 6 role his own:

N’golo Kante

N’Golo Kante was one of the huge influential players that helped Leicester City to their historic Premier League title win in the 2015/16 season.

Players and managers often joked that there were 2 of him on the pitch because he was just everywhere this came from Kante’s incredible work ethic that was combined with an impeccable understanding of his positioning.

It showed in his stats where he achieved 20% of Leicester City’s total interceptions and 19% of their total tackles made.

He then went to Chelsea the following season and help them win the Premier League as well.

Kante is a great role model for young players on and off the pitch.

Here is a video below from His 2017 Chelsea season:

Sergio Busquets

Sergio Busquets has a different approach to playing a number 6 but he is just as effective playing there as Kante or Makalelele.

Busquets is the master of finding pockets of space and creating passing lines between defenders and attackers.

His reading and anticipation of the game is second none and that allows plays at what seems like a walking pace.

In this video below you are going to how he sits a little bit deeper to support his forwards and change the point of attack when areas start to get too congested.

Watch how many times he scans the area.

How to become a better number 6 (defensive midfielder) conclusion

In this post, you should have all the qualities you need to become a better number 6 and have a better understanding of what a great number 6 can bring to the team.

If you know a player who would find this post helpful on how to become a better number 6 share it with them using our social media buttons or if you have other qualities that I missed let me know in the comments below.

Thank you,

Toby

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