SOCCER DEFENSIVE WALL BUILDING
Building a defensive “wall” in soccer is the placement of a number of defenders, shoulder-to-shoulder, in order to block the goal from a nearby free kick. The wall is usually 10-yards closer to the goal from the spot of the ball. The ball is often just outside the Penalty Area. Defensive walls start to become important when youth players advance in skills and maturity enough to be able to shoot accurately and strongly on a free kick close to the goal. A well-placed shot on-goal from this distance, to an upper- or lower-corner, can be extremely difficult for a goalkeeper to stop. On a full-sized field, this ability usually starts around 12-years old, so, if coaches have not already done so, they need to introduce wall building by this time.
Why build a wall? Because it works. The wall effectively blocks approximately half of the goal, providing the goalkeeper with increased reaction time to cover the other half of the goal or to reach a slower-paced shot going around or over the wall. Defenders establish the wall to cut down the angle on the near side, closer to the ball, while the goalkeeper covers the angle on the fire side, farther from the ball. Attackers must either exhibit exceptional shooting skills to score directly, or develop a “set play” designed to take advantage of the situation. The following graphic provides a starting point for how a wall might generally be expected to block a portion of the goal:
Building a soccer defensive wall is not a haphazard undertaking. It is planned, it is methodical, and it requires a heightened level of urgency and alertness on the part of all defensive players. Defenders must always be aware of any circumstance during the run of play that may require a wall to be built and to instantly react if one is directed. Wall building requires “all-hands-on-deck,” where every defender promptly retreats to a designated position to: 1.) Build the wall; 2.) Mark attackers; and, 3.) Prepare an effective counter-attack. Attackers may take the free quick immediately or implement a set play. Defenders must be prepared in advance for either possibility, but especially for a quick kick. If a set play is used, a well-built wall is highly effective in reducing the chances of a goal being scored. Based on where the ball is going to be spotted, defenders must anticipate that a wall will be formed and already be moving into position before the call for the wall is made.
An understanding of wall building starts with the full knowledge and comprehension of the Laws of the Game that are applicable to the process from the defenders’ perspective. The Spirit and Intent of the Laws of the Game are designed to keep the game flowing with minimal disruptions and with few extended stoppages. As such, free kicks are expected to favor the attackers to be made whole for having been fouled and to get the ball back into play. The most pertinent parts of the Laws that apply to wall building are contained in “Law 13 – Free Kicks.”
In summary, the Referee calls a foul or violation and signals whether the kick is to be indirect or direct. The ball is to be placed at the point on the field where the foul or violation occurred, with two exceptions: 1.) If the foul occurred within the Penalty Area and would have resulted in a direct free kick, it becomes a Penalty Kick. 2.) If the violation occurred within the Goal Area and results in an indirect free kick, the ball is moved away from the goal and placed on the nearest point of the goal-area line.
The ball must be stationary when it is placed and it only resumes being in play when it is kicked and clearly moves. “Kicking” includes lifting the ball with one foot or with both feet simultaneously. Until the ball is in play, all defenders must be at least 10-yards away from the ball, unless they are standing on their own goal line between the goalposts. Faking to take a free kick (a “run-over,” for example) in order to confuse the defenders is allowed. Defenders are to move expeditiously to get at least 10-yards away. If a defender is closer than 10-yards when the kick is taken, the kick is to be re-taken unless “advantage” can be applied in accordance with Law 5. If the attacking team chooses to take the kick when a defender is closer than 10-yards, and the defender intercepts the ball, the Referee is to allow play to continue.
In the past, not too long ago, coaches would illegally and unfairly position a defender very near the ball in order to try to keep the opponent from taking a quick kick while a wall was being built. This was tolerated for years until the Law was specifically modified to emphasize that players doing this would be cautioned and Referees were instructed to issue the yellow card expeditiously, in accordance with Law 12, for “delaying the restart of play.” Also in the not-too-distant-past, attackers would try to force themselves into the wall. This created a lot of very distasteful pushing and shoving that took away from the game. The Law was further modified to expressly state that, “Where three or more defending team players form a ‘wall’, all attacking team players must remain at least 1 m (1 yd) from the ‘wall’ until the ball is in play.” (For a two- or one-man wall, attackers are afforded the usual right of being allowed to position themselves anywhere they want, as long as they got there first. A defender could stand behind them.)
There is no obligation on the part of a Referee to allow defenders enough time to build a wall. From an officiating perspective, the application of the Laws of the Game in this situation are no different from any particular free kick. Upon calling the foul or violation, the Referee indicates if the kick is direct or indirect, by holding up one arm to show indirect. By not holding up the one arm, the kick is direct. The Referee then ensures that the ball has been placed in the proper location, that the ball is not moving before it is kicked, and that all officials are in a proper position. When these conditions are met – which can happen very quickly – play may continue. The Referee is not required to blow a whistle, but may give a brief hand signal.
At this point, a number of events may be taking place. If the Referee is ready, the attackers may choose to kick the ball immediately. This is known as a “quick free kick (QFK)” or a “quick kick.” Even if a wall is being built by the defense, or players on the defense are standing less than 10-yards away, if the attackers choose to take a quick kick, then the Referee allows play to continue. Under these circumstances, unless a defender is delaying the restart of play, the Referee is not obligated to show the 10-yard distance or to attempt to get defenders to move. If a defender is blocking the ball, it is unsporting conduct and the Referee should go directly to a yellow card. There is to be no verbal “warning” first.
If the attackers choose not to take a quick kick, they are said to be setting up for a “ceremonial free kick (CFK).” This consists of waiting to see what the defense is going to do and then deciding whether or not to kick the ball directly at the goal (with the foul having resulted in a direct free kick) or using a set play (with the foul or violation having resulted in either a direct free kick or an indirect free kick). If the attacking team chooses to take a ceremonial free kick and the defenders have clearly set up a wall less than the required 10-yards distance away from the spot of the ball, then the attackers may ask the Referee to move the wall back.
If the attacking team requests that the Referee move the wall back and the Referee proceeds to do so, the ball remains dead and is not to be put back into play by the attacking team. At this point, if the Referee is carrying “vanishing spray,” the Referee is to mark the location of the ball, by inscribing a semi-circle on the turf around the ball, so that the attacking team can not unfairly move the ball while the Referee’s back is turned. The Referee then walks to the 10-yard distance, moves the wall back, and marks a temporary restraining line in front of the players in the wall with the vanishing spray. This is done to ensure that, while the Referee is returning back to the proper position to resume play, the defenders in the wall do not “cheat” forward. If the attacking team does not ask that the wall be moved back, and the wall is significantly less than 10-yards away, the referee can still stop play and move the wall. If the attacking team asks for the wall to be moved, they are obligated to wait to take the kick. Upon returning to their proper position and ensuring that no violations have occurred in the interim, the Referee blows the whistle for play to resume.
There are some other possible exceptions to the Referee preparing for an immediate restart. These include such things as: other misconduct requiring issuance of a card, an injury, or the attacking team requests a substitution.
Making the Decision to Build a Wall
The Referee calls a foul or violation against the defenders where the ball is going to be placed near their Penalty Area. Since the chance of scoring has gone up due to this location, bodies are needed to block the near-side of the goal so the goalkeeper can have more reaction time to defend the far-side of the goal.
Although any defender could theoretically call for a wall to be built, the goalkeeper is the sole individual who makes the decision to build a wall. This determination to call for a wall is generally made according to: 1.) The location of the ball; and, 2.) The training, experience, and confidence of the goalkeeper. The process of “wall building,” “wall placement,” or “wall setting” is based on the distance of the ball away from the goal and the angle of the ball off of the midline of the field. In general, the closer the spot of the ball is to the goal, and the closer the spot of the ball is to the midline of the field, the more defenders are required in the wall.
A wall can contain as few as two players, if the wall is off toward the side of the goal, or as many as five (up to eight) players, if the wall is directly in front of the goal. (A single defender can still stand alone at 10-yards, but this does not involve traditional wall building.) A two-person wall is likely to be effective near the end-lines, but five or more are likely to be needed if the ball is placed directly in front of the goal just outside the Penalty Area. Three- and four-person walls are likely in the arc between these two, with fewer players needed as the ball is spotted farther away from the goal. Another approach is to place five players in the wall when the ball is spotted within 7-yards of the outer edge of the Penalty Area, in the middle of the field; four players when the ball is 20- to 25-yards away from the goal, and just off the midline; three players from 25- to 30-yards out and farther off the midline, and so forth. The following graphic provides a starting point for how many players might be expected to join in a wall, based on the location of the ball:
Upon quickly making the decision to build a wall, the goalkeeper makes a loud, oral communication call that a wall is to be built and how many defenders are to be in the wall. This usually takes the form of “(Number)-man Wall” or, “Wall, (number).” For example, the goalkeeper clearly yells, “3-man Wall” or “Wall, 3.”
All players on the team must be taught their responsibilities in a wall-building situation and how to react. The coach must drill the team accordingly and defenders must anticipate the need for the wall before it is called by the goalkeeper. Midfielders and strikers usually go into the wall. Other defenders take up positions to mark attackers nearby, including moving upfield to establish a line for offside. At least two other players are identified who set up for a fast break once the ball is saved, one acting as an outlet and the other positioned to make an attacking run.
Traditional Wall Building
The first player to start the building of a traditional defensive wall is designated as the “Anchor” or the “Post-man.” This is usually the tallest of the available midfielders or strikers. Upon hearing the call for a wall, the Anchor immediately moves to the location on the field that is: 1.) On an imaginary line from the near post of the goal to the ball; and, 2.) 10-yards away from the ball. The initial location found by the Anchor is rarely exactly on the optimal spot. Accordingly, as soon as the Anchor reaches the location, this player then may turn and face the goalkeeper, who now acts as the wall setter.
Upon calling for the wall, the goalkeeper moves to the near post and directs the Anchor to the exact position desired by the goalkeeper. That position should center the body of the Anchor over the imaginary line running from the near post to the ball. This is done by the goalkeeper first saying “Left” or “Right” and then stating the number of steps required. “Left” or “Right” is always defined as being from a defensive posture, looking out from the goal, even though the Anchor may be facing back at their goalkeeper. The distance of a “step” is defined by the coach in advance and replicated in practice. This could also include a “half-step.” To reinforce which way the Anchor is to move, the goalkeeper also emphatically points in the proper direction. For example, while pointing toward the right touchline, the goalkeeper would say, “Right, one step.” As an option, the Anchor does not have to face the goalkeeper. The instant the Anchor is positioned properly, the goalkeeper states, “Hold.” This may be accompanied by a visual signal where the goalkeeper clasps the palms of both hands together with arms raised above the head. If the Anchor is facing the goal, the Anchor then immediately turns around to face the ball.
It should be noted that, while the goalkeeper is positioning the Anchor, the goalkeeper’s vision is being screened from the ball by the very wall that is being built. Accordingly, the goalkeeper needs to set the Anchor quickly, then move to a proper position to both: 1.) Get clear from the possibility of an “unsighted” shot; and, 2.) Protect the far side of the goal. As the Anchor is being set, the other players to be in the wall should have already arrived. They always face the ball. Based on instruction and practice, each of these players should know exactly which place they should take next to the Anchor. Often this is based on the player’s height, from the tallest, down. These players may also be designated by a number, with the Anchor identified as Number One, and each successive player designated by the next-highest number. These players fill in, shoulder-to-shoulder, in order, starting next to the Anchor and then closer to the midline of the field. As the Anchor is moved by the goalkeeper, the players in the wall must shift accordingly. It is the Anchor’s responsibility to ensure that the other players in the wall are positioned properly.
In this scenario, the final position of the Anchor is such that, if someone was looking along the imaginary line from the ball to the near post, the post would appear to be “coming out of the Anchor’s head.” The coach, in concert with the goalkeeper, may determine that they want the Anchor to be positioned a full-body-width outside the post in order to block a bending ball to the near side. Similarly, the coach needs to determine exactly how tightly the players are to be packed, when they are shoulder-to-shoulder, and the stance of their legs, especially the distance between the players’ legs, both as individuals and in relation to the person next to them (with neither being greater than the width of the ball). Both of these determinations are based on the very specific purpose that the wall is built: 1.) To block a direct shot; and, 2.) To make any other shot be as difficult as possible. Any “gaps” wide enough to let a ball pass through must not be permitted and any actions on the part of the players as the ball is shot must not let a ball get through. If the ball is on the midline (straight-on to the goal), or close to the midline, the coach and the goalie should have determined in advance whether the wall is to be built to the right or to the left post. The goalie should still confirm this orally when it happens.
A wall may be tested for gaps in practice by shooting at it. By convention or local rules, players in a wall are permitted to engage in “protection” of certain body parts. Men and boys may cover their genitals with their hands and women and girls may cover their breasts with their arms. Hands or arms must be held tightly to the body before the shot and may not be moved toward the ball when it arrives. To do so, and make contact with the ball, is a handling violation. Players may jump at the time the ball is kicked in order to try to get a little bit of extra height to improve the effectiveness of the wall. This is fine, but they must not jump so high that a ball can pass under their feet on the ground. Players might instinctively turn their bodies when the ball is shot, as a natural reaction to avoid getting struck, but this must be overcome because of the gap it creates between players. Players in the wall must not rush at the kick for the same reason. Deflecting a header over the crossbar should be practiced. Players in a wall are to be stoic, stand firmly facing the ball, and absorb whatever comes their way.
As an interesting alternative, so that players in the wall may jump to their maximum heights without being worried about the ball being slipped underneath, a defender may lie on their side on the ground to the near post directly behind the wall. This defender usually faces the goal in order to a.) avoid possibly being hit in the hands/arm; and, b.) to see a rebound coming off the goalie or the goal. This player needs to promptly get to their feet right after the kick is taken.
As soon as the shot is taken, players in the wall must react immediately to what has happened to the ball. Unless the ball goes out of bounds, it is in play and likely to still be in a very dangerous area. The ball may be safely in the possession of the goalkeeper.
Non-Traditional Approach to Setting the Wall – Freeing the Goalkeeper
There is a technique that can be used that frees the goalkeeper from positioning the Anchor player. Once the goalkeeper calls for a wall, a designated “Wall Setter,” usually a forward or lead midfielder, immediately moves to a position beyond the ball, closer to midfield. In effect, the imaginary line from the near post to the ball is extended about 10-yards farther into the field and the Wall Setter takes up a spot at the end of the line (beyond the attackers taking up position for the kick). The Wall Setter then performs all of the same functions of moving the Anchor into the correct position, but from a location closer to the halfway line, or to the sideline, from the ball. This has the effect of allowing the goalkeeper to both: 1.) Always be able see the ball; and, 2.) Immediately take a position that increases the chance of stopping a quick kick. In addition to freeing the goalkeeper, this also has the added benefit of allowing the player in the Anchor position to never have to turn their back to the ball.
Upon arriving, the Anchor now faces out from the goal, looking at the ball, and does not ever turn and face the goalkeeper. The Wall Setter uses all of the same oral communications and hand signals to position the Anchor. The directions are still based on the defenders’ perspective. In this case however, because the Wall Setter is now facing toward the goal, the Wall Setter must say “Right, one step,” while pointing to the left and vice versa. If this becomes problematic, the “Right” and “Left” parts of the oral communication can be dropped. In effect, this example then becomes “One step,” while pointing in the correct direction. As before, when the Anchor is positioned properly, the Wall Setter says “Hold,” while clasping the palms of the hands together above the head.
The Odd Case – A Wall Less than 10-Yards from the Ball
On extremely rare occasions, an indirect free kick may be awarded against the defenders where the spot of the ball is less than 10-yards away from the goal. This could occur due to impeding, dangerous play, or goalkeeper errors (such as picking up a back-pass). This calls for the immediate construction of a wall where the Law mandates that the players in the wall stand on the goal-line, between the goal posts, until the ball is kicked. This type of wall needs to be built even faster than a traditional wall. There is no Anchor player. Often, the tallest player will get directly in front of the ball and the next-tallest players should fill in, should-to-shoulder, to the near post.
Most teams do not spend much time preparing for this situation. At the highest levels, it happens in less than 1-percent of games. There is a lot of variability in what defenders may do next. The coach and the goalkeeper should decide which approach they want to use. The goalkeeper could stand straight-on to the ball or be positioned closer to the far post. All other defending players should fill in, shoulder-to-shoulder, as in a regular wall. One defender could be designated as a “bullet player.” This player would be straight-on to the ball and sprint directly at the ball as soon as it moves. Because the kick is indirect, defenders could actually jump out of the way of a straight shot! If the ball doesn’t touch anyone else, it is not a goal and the defenders are awarded a goal kick. Otherwise, all defenders could sprint out of the goal the instant the ball is touched.
Soccer Coaching Tips:
- Coaches have made effective use of a long rope to visually demonstrate the angles associated with the placement of a wall. One end of the rope is tied to the near post, the point of a triangle is created at the location of the ball, and the other end is taken back to the goal-line. The wall is then placed 10-yards away from the ball, with the players on either end of the wall having their foot on the rope.
- Goalies should not “cheat” to the side of the goal to which they expect the shot to go. Balance and weight should be centered in order to react effectively to either side.
- The size of the wall should be just big enough to be properly effective. Too few wall players leaves a gap that can’t be reached by the goalkeeper. Too many wall players leaves other, dangerous, attackers unmarked.
- The vast majority of the time, wall players are faced with a designed, “set piece” on the part of the attackers. By their very nature, these set pieces are intended to try to influence the wall to gain an advantage. Wall players must not be fooled by such things as the attacking team sending a runner over top of the ball, or by an attacker repositioning the ball with their hands. The wall must stay firmly in place until the shot comes or the nature of the set piece has been determined.
- Coaches should explicitly warn their players about the use of delaying tactics, specifically standing in front of the ball to create time for a wall to be built, because the resulting yellow card is likely not to be worth it.
- Mannequins (“dummies”) may be used to train the goalkeeper for shots going around a wall.
- A novel idea has been presented recently that coaches experiment with not using a wall at all, but just place defenders strategically all around the front of the goal.
© Copyright, John C. Harves