Simplifying a Zonal Defensive Structure: Part 1

Every time we have a hockey discussion, the main focus is on attacking ideas, playing with the ball. Let’s face it, as coaches or players, we all enjoy playing with the ball. The words speak for themselves: playing with the ball. No one enjoys running behind the ball.

Unfortunately, when we lose the ball, we have to defend to get it back. As I am a very anxious guy, I want the ball back as quickly as possible to keep playing. I don’t like my teams running and wasting energy defending, that is why, having a good structure is really important, and we need to work (much more) on it.

In this post we will describe the most basic way of defending in zone and after after we will look for small variations.

Key Points

Before getting into details, the most important thing for a Team Defensive Structure to work properly is, in my opinion, that:

  • Every player knows its individual role
  • Every player knows where we want to recover the ball (Recovery Zone)

The individual role is key, of course, because any system is made by individual behaviours. When one individual fails, our whole system will probably fail.

And secondly, everybody must know which are the recovery zones, since every individual aproximation must be with the same purpose. Making the other team carry the ball to where we want it. We have to make them feel like they are deciding what to do, but really they aren’t.

General Idea

So as we said before, in order to establish the individual roles, we need to determine the general concept of the press. In this case we will develop a simple zonal press, where we wan’t to close the center, trying to recover the ball on the outside, around the midfield line. (Playing against a team with back 4).

General idea: Where the ball cannot go, and where are the recovery zones (RZ)

Green zone (RZ): Recovery Zone

Red Zone: Our house, the inside of our press. No ball is welcome inside our house.

Individual Roles

Now that we know where the ball can, and where it can’t go, we can start talking about each individual role, which in the greater picture will shape the whole defensive system.

We will first describe all players role when the ball is stopped before playing an outlet, from the center.

The center forward

The center forward will be in charge of the 2 center defenders of the rival team.

His main objetive will be preventing them to play forward easily, trying to close mostly the hotline (Line between the ball and our goal).

As he is in charge of two players, he need to avoid getting eliminated on this 2v1, so he needs to be patient and understand when is the correct moment to put pressure.

An option would be pressing sideways, trying to cut the pass between these two players, but as we are just trying to get the ball outside, we will try to press diagonally, a bit more passively.

The Wings on the ball side

The first responsibility of the wings are going to be their defenders.

But this is not their only role: They also need to help cover the center, trying to make the entrance to “our house” as small as possible.

The difficult task for these players is to find the balance between helping inside, and always being able to put pressure if their defender receives the ball. The most important thing is that this defender can never receive the ball eliminating them: They always need to have them in their same line or a bit in front of them.

High Mid

The high mid will be standing in between both boxes, and also, usually, between two rival’s midfielders. Always slightly towards the ball side

His objetive is to be able to put pressure on any of them in case they receive the ball, but he cannot overcommit on one, opening the opposite.

If they play the ball inside, his main objetive is to put pressure on the ball, but also remembering he is also in charge of the other mid, so he cannot get eliminated by this 2v1.

For this reason, he will put pressure sideways: always remembering that we don’t want the ball inside our house, and also channelling towards the RZ while cutting the 2v1.

The Wings on the Help side

We As we said before, the wings have a clear role on the ball side, but they also have a role when the ball is on their opposite side.

As we just showed, the high mid will always press on the mid on the ball side. For this reason, the opposite mid will be open. Our “Help side” Wing will be in charge of helping out putting pressure on this player, or, at least, closing down all this space.

Again, of course, as we are defending in zone, we need to understand that when any player moves, some space is open. In this case their right defender will have a massive space. The wing must be aware of this and know that if they move the ball around he needs to return to his original position.

The Spider Web

Each individual in a zonal press is like “tied” from a spider web, where they are pulled from different places and need to find the balance between all of these forces.

Their are “pulled” by the ball, by rival players, teammates, and even spaces.

If you are interested by this concept, and the “priorities” in order to decide the positions, check this amazing article from our friend Bernardo Fernandes on Self Pass: Basic Concepts: Defensive Structures

The side Midfielders

Different to others, the side midfielders first role is to close space. They are in charge of the gap between their wing and the center forward. Their secondary objetive is covering their midfielder, or, if no one is there, space behind and outside of them.

The ball cannot go through the red gap. Sometimes maybe this gap becomes to big, because the forwards aren’t in good positions, making it impossible for the mid to cover all, but he is also in charge of talking to these two players, in order to keep this gap small enough. Communication is key here.

The Libero

The Libero, as usual, will always try to be on the hotline, and his main task is to lead the whole press, as well as being ready to jump to cover any gaps created from bad positionings.


Defenders are also defending zones, but they will also be marking when a forward stand inside their zone.

The importance is to understand that, in order to mark a player, we cannot chase them and lose the structure.

They should always be forming a diamond with the Libero.

Real situations

Now, let’s check how this looks on a real game situation. We will study Belgium press, who is usually one of the best zonal defensive teams.

As we can see, everything we have studied so far is applied perfectly by Belgium. In the next post, we will study how to put pressure on the ball in order to successfully carry to where we want it!

Comments 10

    1. Post
    1. Post
    1. Post
  1. This is was very helpful, may I ask what software do you use to create your moving diagrams and also your real-life situation with diagrams on.

    Kind regards


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *