Londoner Mark Stimson had a decent career as a defender playing at the top level for Spurs and Newcastle United. His coaching career hasn’t quite hit the same heights with periods at Grays, Stevenage, Gillingham, Barnet, Kettering, and since 2012 at Thurrock. However at whatever level of the game you play or coach, communication is a vital element of defending well as a unit, and Stimson jokes that it’s harder with younger players in the modern game as they’re used to texting each other rather than talking. In this particular session he had further challenges, coaching a group of Arsenal youngsters who he’d not previously worked with, and not of all of whom were defenders.
When discussing getting a back four to work as a team, Stimson emphasised the need to have leaders on the pitch. In a session covering the subject, he will start this from the warm-up where he will give either the group, or individuals the responsibility for the warm-up exercises, hoping that by giving them responsibility, they will take it on to the pitch. In the session here, he asked each team to nominate a captain when there was not enough communication and that player was required to be the main communicator. In terms of the quality of the work, he demanded as high a level of performance in the warm-up as in the main session.
While one of the aims of the session was to get to the point where the defenders were dealing with an overload situation, the first exercise was two attackers against four defenders, with the attackers looking to dribble the ball over a line behind the defensive line. Although the defenders found this quite easy, the aim was to build their confidence, and it allowed Stimson to introduce the principles required; one player closes the ball with others taking up support or cover positions and good communication by instructing the closing defender to show left or right. Unsurprisingly, the latter point was hammered home. Then the defenders were tested by the addition of a third attacker, then a fourth.
The session was not just about defending on the ball, but as much about around the ball. Players away from the ball needed to communicate, but at the same time be observing other players’ movement and reacting. For example, if an attacking player was supported on the left then instructing the closest defender to show them right. Observing also your likely opponent as a defender, which foot do they favour and what would they want to do in a 1 v 1 situation. Stimson emphasised positivity at all times – attacking the ball if it was there to be won.
Positionally, the defence had to again play as a unit and adopt certain principles. If the ball was won or play was forced backwards, this needed to be a trigger to move up as a unit. They needed to be in a line and not drop behind and play attackers onside. The team should not play offside unless there was pressure on the ball. When overloaded they should not press the ball but drop off. They should use the same language and have key words which all the players understood.
The session moved on to a 4 v 4 plus ‘keepers exercise along similar lines, and here the importance of communication was brought to the fore once again, with the ‘keepers being told they should be the noisiest players on the pitch. An additional player was added to the attacking side to create an overload, then another was added to try and “pin” defenders as an attacking target player. In the game situation, offside was used to add realism and to allow the defensive unit to practise the principles of when to press and when to drop off.
It is often the case that coaching sessions will finish with a game, however on this occasion the practise finished with an exercise on 1 v 1 defending when through on goal. Stimson conceded that the practise could have equally been used at the start of the session, but he wanted to see that the principles coached within the session had been taken onboard by the players – showing the attacker in one direction as well good communication from the ‘keeper behind.
In essence, a simple session, but Mark Stimson sees defending as recognising danger and dealing with it. The point was emphasised throughout the session, but the importance of communication is vital, and he fears that the lack of this in a positive way, as well as a lack of leadership in younger players is detrimental to their development.