Defenders are best positioned when they are ‘square’ with the opposition and shoulders parallel to the goal line. This allows them to come forward, taking away space and creating pressure, and with the ability to easily step left or right as the play dictates. If a defender turns too far toward a touch line, he / she is committed in that direction and will either find it difficult to turn back or not have as much power.

This is often referred to as a ‘soft shoulder’ and it is a great spot to attack someone. Because the defender has moved off the ball carrier’s mid-line and is no longer square, the attacker might be able to get behind the defender’s back. Even if the defender stops and turns back to correct this error, it is likely that all the attacker will get is an arm or a very weak attempt to tackle because all the defender’s momentum is gone.

This often happens when:

a) your opponents use a drift defence and players aren’t disciplined, some moving quicker / slower than the rest or not being focused on their specific role / angle of pursuit

b) a defender has over-read the play and targeted the next attacker in line

c) a ball fake / dummy pass causes a defender to follow the predicted path of the ball rather than stay focused on the hips of the attacker

You can also find a soft shoulder in the next defender outside you, that is: the one guarding your teammate who’s closer to the touchline. Even if that defender is square with your team mate, a sudden cut will allow you to slip behind that defender. This is more likely if the gaps between defenders are reasonably large. By targeting the space behind that defender’s inside shoulder, you are also running as far away as possible from the defender covering you. If the next defender notices you, he/she will be forced to make a decision:

… stay on his man, and trust his inside defensive partner. Here, however, the inside man is too slow, giving the ball carrier a line break behind the next defender’s soft shoulder.

… turn to stop you, opening a door for your team mate to receive a flat pass or offload.

This second scenario is what I call creating a ‘hard shoulder’. If a soft shoulder is a defender turned away from you, it only makes sense that a defender turning to toward you has established a hard shoulder in your direction and a soft shoulder for your team mate. Both the ball carrier and a support runner must recognise these scenarios to take advantage of them.

The hard and soft shoulder principle also comes into play before the ball has been passed. Support players can take note of defenders who are turned in looking at the ball or turned out, overly focused on the player they’re responsible for. They can pick a running line based on this information and call for a pass to exploit it.

We will look at angles of attacks in greater detail in the following sections: