How to Beat a Defender in Soccer (MLS-Next Player Thoughts)

Expert Section: Mate Kontra – I’ve been playing soccer for the better part of my life at a very high level consistently. I play the fullback position which has allowed me to become very good at both attacking and defending. I am confident that I can translate my abilities into writing, and help others get better at the sport. Currently I am playing at the MLS-Next Academy level in the United States.

Soccer Photo

One of the best players of this generation, Neymar, is known for his crazy skill moves and for beating pretty much every defender that crosses his path.

Although that can be very entertaining to watch, it is not the best way to beat a defender in soccer believe it or not.

Without a doubt having the skill to pull off flashy moves will put you ahead of the curve, but in most cases it is way too risky and takes too much time. 

So if these types of skill moves aren’t the go-to for getting past defenders in soccer, how can you consistently beat a defender in any given scenario?

The fundamentals of getting past a defender in soccer in theory are very simple. Identify the open space, and keep the ball close to your feet at all times. Next, dribble straight at your defender, and make them commit to a tackle. As soon as they commit, change direction and pace towards the open space and dribble as fast as you can. 

In the rest of this article, each step is broken down into easy-to-understand explanations and valuable advice.

Soccer Player Skills
Soccer Player Showing Off Skills (#1 Envato – YuriArcursPeopleimages)

The 5 Steps to Beating a Defender In Soccer

These following 5 steps are essential in beating a defender in soccer and are part of almost every duel on the pitch. 

#1: Identify Open Space

The very first step before even thinking about taking on a defender is identifying the open space where you want to finish your run after beating the defender. 

This is easily the most important step out of the 5 because finding open space allows you to have more time once you’re past the defender which allows you to make better decisions, setting your team up for success.

Additionally, you can also just keep dribbling when you are in open space because the opposing defenders must close you down before they can defend you, which makes their job much more difficult.

Identify Soccer Space
Soccer Game From Above (#2 Envato – bilanol)

How to get better at finding open space?

Learning how to find open space quickly is a skill that really only comes by playing the game; however, there are useful alternatives that can enhance your learning while you play. 

The best advice I can give to get better at finding open space is to talk to your coach about exactly what he wants you to do on and off the ball.

Otherwise, I would find out the formation my team plays in, and search up the formation and common tactics and passing patterns.

There are many YouTube videos with comprehensive explanations and animations that will give you a better understanding of where you might find space in a game or certain situation.

#2: Keep the ball close to your feet

Having the ability to keep the ball close to your feet grants you a few advantages that are crucial when beating a defender.

Soccer Dribbling
Dribbling With Close Control (#3 Envato – Image-Source)

Keeps Defenders Guessing

The first advantage of keeping the ball close to your feet is that it allows you to go any direction you want, and change directions quickly.

This is important because if the defender wants to be successful, they must wait for you to make a move before they try to tackle you. 

This means that they will more likely wait for you to try to juke them out, which gives you plenty of time to make a good pass or keep advancing the ball forward for your team. 

More control over the ball

The defenders know that when you keep the ball close, you have much more control over the ball compared to when you are sprinting and chasing the ball. 

More often than not this will make defenders hesitate which makes their tackles predictable, so you have an easier time getting around them when they commit to a tackle. 

How to get better at keeping the ball close?

The best way I recommend getting better at this skill is either ball mastery and cone dribbling drills, or just playing a lot of pickup games. 

Ball mastery drills ensure that you get the most amount of touches on the ball while using dribbling skills, which means that you essentially learn the ball. Once you master these, you will instinctively move your feet according to where you want the ball without even thinking about it. 

Cone dribbling drills are very similar and they primarily focus on improving your dribbling skills while running. They are also a perfect exercise for improving this skill.

Playing pickup games is easily the best way to learn to keep the ball close to your feet because you will be playing against actual people and it will test all of your skills at once. Additionally, this will vastly improve your game sense and reaction time.

#3: Dribble At Your Defender

This step is exactly what it sounds like, dribble straight at the defender you are trying to beat. 

The reason you want to dribble at them is that this disguises your intention of dribbling into open space, which provides you with 2 major advantages.

Soccer duel
Dribbling At Opponent In Soccer (#4 Envato – Wavebreakmedia)

Forces Defender to Tackle

When dribbling straight at a defender, they have no idea if you want to go left or right, so they will try to give you more space on one side or the other, and force you to dribble into that space. 

This is the perfect scenario for you because if you do not take the bait and keep dribbling at them, they eventually will be forced to make a tackle, which makes them predictable and easy to beat.

Great Opportunity For a Forward Pass

In the scenario that they do not make a tackle no matter what, you still absolutely hold the upper hand.

Since you dribbled toward the defender and not towards open space, it allows one of your teammates to make a run into that space so you can pass them the ball and advance your team forward. 

How to get better at dribbling the ball?

As described in the previous step, Ball Mastery Drills, Cone Dribbling Skills, and Pickup Games are the best way to improve your ball control and dribbling skills. 

#4: Make The Defender Commit to a Tackle

At this point, you are dribbling at the opposing defender, and you are reaching the point at which you must make your move. 

But how do you exactly make the defender commit to a tackle, so you can cut the ball past them? 

Tackling In Soccer
Defender Committing To Tackle (#5 Envato – drazenphoto)

Getting “too close”

The most simple way to make a defender commit to a tackle is by getting “too close” to them. 

Once you get close enough to a defender they must put a tackle in, otherwise, you will go right past them. 

At this point, they will try to swing or plant their foot in the way of the ball, which is something that is really predictable and all you have to do is push the ball past their foot in the direction of the open space.

Skill Moves

A flashy skill move is rarely necessary, but if the defender does not try to tackle you and you have no supporting runs by teammates, it may be time to pull out some trickery.

To be very concise, in cases such as this, the most effective way to make a defender commit to a tackle is by faking going one direction and then very quickly changing directions. 

Since skill moves are a really broad topic in soccer, I recommend checking out our article on the most effective skill moves in soccer to have a better understanding of how and when to use them.

How to get better at forcing a tackle?

There are two main ways I recommend getting better at forcing a defender to tackle you.

1v1 With a partner

The absolute best way to practice forcing a tackle is with another player. 

This will allow you to simulate game-like scenarios and practice recognizing the distance at which a player will tackle you, and more importantly when a player is about to tackle you. 

Once you practice these two skills enough, you will be able to do them instinctively (without thinking about them), which will make you a nightmare to any defender on the pitch, trust me. 

Cone drills

Realistically, not every session will include a partner to practice things with. In this case, cones will be your best friend. 

I recommend starting by simply placing a cone on the ground. Start from 15 yards away and dribble toward the cone in a controlled manner, keeping the ball close. When you get within 2-3 feet of the cone, in an explosive manner change directions and get up to a sprinting speed with the ball.

Keep repeating it, alternating directions until you get better at it.

I would also recommend checking out our article on improving dribbling skills using cones, as it provides a more in-depth explanation and complete routine to improve your dribbling skills.

#5: Change of Pace & Direction

The final and most fun step of all is when you leave the opposing defender in the dust, scrambling to find his feet and run after you. 

By this point, the defender has swung his leg towards the ball, and you successfully pushed the ball past his foot in the direction that the open space is. 

As soon as the ball passes their foot, you want to explode sprinting as fast as you can towards the open space, with the ball of course. 

This is where Step 1 is very crucial because you will find the most success if you can take a big touch past the defender with nobody else in front of you. This gives you time and space to make a decision that your team can benefit from the most. 

Winning Soccer Duel
Successful Change of Pace & Direction (#5 Envato – Wavebreakmedia)

How to get better at Change of Pace & Direction

In this scenario dribbling skills are a major factor in being able to explode into a sprint and changing directions quickly. 

To master these two things, they will need to be practiced separately, as well as in a combined manner. 

However, this is a very in-depth topic so I recommend checking out the following articles for improving dribbling skills and improving explosiveness for soccer.


The best advice I can give you overall to help you increase your chances of beating a defender in soccer is to go out, play and have fun. 

In terms of individual practice, nothing beats actual gameplay, especially when you are having fun. 

I would just recommend focusing on the 5 key aspects of getting past a defender while you play, and in no time it will become almost like a reflex. 

First, focus on identifying whether or not you have open space once you beat the defender. 

Then, make sure that your dribbling fundamentals are good, keeping the ball close to your feet and driving at the defender.

Make sure to get close enough to your opponent to force them into tackling you, and then in an explosive fashion make your move around them into open space. 

Congratulations, you now know exactly what to do next time you’re up against a defender in soccer. Have fun leaving them in the dust!

Image Attribution & Licensing

Featured Image: ‘Soccer Player Does Rainbow’ by drazenphoto (Licensed via EnvatoElements)

#1: ‘Soccer Player Showing Off Skills’ by YuriArcursPeopleimages (Licensed via EnvatoElements)

#2: ‘Soccer Game From Above’ by bilanol (Licensed via EnvatoElements)

#3 ‘Dribbling With Close Control’ by Image-Source (Licensed via EnvatoElements)

#4 ‘Dribbling At Opponent In Soccer’ by Wavebreakmedia (Licensed via Envato Elements)

#5 ‘Defender Committing To Tackle’ by drazenphoto (Licensed via Envato Elements)

#6 ‘Successful Change of Pace & Direction by Wavebreakmedia (Licensed via Envato Elements)