Are Defenders Losing the Art of One on One Defence?

Friday, February 27, 2015

By Ryan Ferguson

Recent game trends which have teams often generating an extra number in defence, and less strict rule interpretations, are combining to cause young and developing defenders to lose the art of one on one defence. 

A loose man in defence is obviously not a new concept in football, however in recent times being able to generate this spare man is crucial to not only defending, but even more importantly to setting up the counterattack and being able to maintain possession by creating overlap which is caused by creating the extra number in the back half. The plus one can provide a handy safety net to protect from quick bursts from stoppages but in general play, teams will most often rely on team defence to clog up forward's spaces. The plus one from stoppages, combined with the team defence mentality means that often defenders are not necessarily looking to defend one on one, and are just trying to keep their opponent engaged while they receive support in the air. In terms of the way our game is being officiated, what started out as umpires only paying the obvious decisions has now resulted in defenders getting away with chopping of the arms, holding, pushing in the back, high contact, and often without even pretending to contest the ball. This combination of factors has shifted the need for defenders to defend one on one using subtle techniques of off balancing their opponents, to the point where they are no longer trying to out position a forward, just happy to keep them out of the contest completely. 

Once upon a time defenders needed to win their own ball if they wanted to get a stat and contribute to the team attack, these days with possession football taking hold, once a team mate has come across to take the intercept mark or win the ball on the ground, the defender will often fold out and even backwards and look to rack up uncontested possessions. Defenders have that safety net of being able to rack up possessions as handball and kick receives, if a player is getting their hands on the ball they feel good about themselves, if their opponent is not impacting at the same time then they would rightly feel like they are winning their position and contributing to the team game. The problem is, the more this occurs the more a player will value these uncontested possessions, the more support they get from team mates folding back, and the more often they get away with lazy negative defensive tactics, they will naturally rely less on outpointing opponents and winning these contests, they therefore work less at honing their one on one skills. In the short term, within a game or within a season if players allow themselves to fall into this style of play and rely on the safety net of others and stretching the rules, this will come back to haunt them and they will be found wanting at crucial stages, not to mention what may happen in the longer term when teams get better at finding ways to create space and isolate forwards.

Although not as often as in the past, there still does come a time during games when defenders need to show their wares without the assistance of others, and in these circumstances the chances of infringing (even with the more relaxed interpretations) become higher because there are no distractions around them and it is in these situations young defenders are being thrown to the wolves. Many fringe players are either not equipped with the skill set to regularly win one on one contests, not confident enough in their ability, or just donít have the appropriate mindset to get the balance right between defending and making sharp decisions as to when they can impact and turn defence into attack. And so it seems the subtleties of defending are being lost on many developing players, young defenders are falling into the trap of relying on team mates coming across to help out and some recent interpretations that have allowed them to get away with holding, scragging, and even walking their opponent out of a contest, often with no intention of making a play at the ball.

2015 AFL Rule Interpretations

The best defenders in the competition however are still the players who can nullify an opponent one on one, bring the ball to ground, or better yet win their own ball and take the intercept mark, think Harry Taylor, Alex Rance, and Corey Enright. Mid-sized and small defenders may see their role as very different to key position players, but without developing the ability to defend one on one, not just in a submissive negating manner but positioning and body work in a proactive way, then players are creating flaws in their game which will keep them from playing regular senior football, or if they do will allow opposition teams to exploit this deficiency. Mid-sized defenders playing on Dustin Martin with any sort of deficiency in one on one contests will be immediately isolated in the forward 50 and help may be far away, Luke Bruest loves to outsmart and out position defenders who are purely relying on help or who get consumed by his presence in an attempt to negate his dangerous movement patterns.     

Defenders who can read the play, that back their judgment, have superior alertness, positioning, and body work to that of their opponents, are invaluable weapons to a football team. They can turn defence into attack in an instance and catch opposition teams totally off guard. When all seems lost and conceding a goal is imminent they are capable of standing tall and saving their team. Football clubs must be careful that they do not fall into a false sense of security in regard to the need to develop backmen to have the ability and skill set to play with this precision and mentality. 

This article was written in September (2014) as part of the requirements for the AFL Level 3 High Performance Coaching Course.

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