Tuesday, 23 Jul 2024

Origins and Evolution of the Defensive Wall in Football

Wall on direct free kick
Bjørn Erik Pedersen, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Football has witnessed the presence of defensive walls since its early days. We have become so accustomed to seeing players forming a wall to impede attackers during a direct free-kick that we hardly question its origins and development over the years. Though we may never fully uncover its history, one thing is certain: the defensive wall plays a crucial role in the beautiful game. Let’s explore what we know about it.

What Is a Defensive Wall?

When a referee awards an attacking team a direct free-kick, the opposition often arranges a wall of players to safeguard the goal. The goalkeeper typically decides where the wall should stand to cover vulnerable areas. The purpose of the defensive wall is to limit the angles and available space for the attacker to aim at goal. Skilled free-kick specialists possess the ability to curve the ball around or over the wall, aiming for areas where the goalkeeper may struggle to reach.

The Law and Defensive Walls

Indirect Free Kick Following A Back-Pass
Image by BCLFC photographer Jaskirt Dhaliwal / Flickr.com

The rules of football set by The Football Association do not explicitly mention defensive walls. They outline the reasons for awarding direct and indirect free-kicks, focusing on infractions such as pushing, kicking, and tripping. The only specific requirement regarding defensive walls is that all opposing players must be at least ten yards away from the ball until the free-kick is taken.

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In 2019, the regulations regarding defensive walls underwent a change. The new wording states that when three or more defending players create a wall, all attacking players must remain at least 1m (1yd) away from the wall until the ball is in play. Before this amendment, attackers would attempt to position themselves within the wall to impede defenders or create an advantage. The change curtails these tactics and ensures fair play.

Innovative Approaches to the Wall

Player lying behind a wall

Over the years, various creative techniques have been employed with defensive walls. Most free-kicks are aimed high, compelling defenders to jump to intercept the ball’s trajectory towards the goal. To prevent the ball from going underneath or between them, players jump while pointing their toes down and keeping their legs together. However, some teams have taken a different approach by stationing a player behind the wall in a crouched or lying position. This strategy aims to obstruct attackers from shooting along the ground and into the net, a move that has been executed successfully on numerous occasions, provided the player does not use their hands or arms deliberately.

The Defender’s Role in the Wall

Vanishing spray
Oleg Bkhambri (Voltmetro), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Defenders in the wall play a dual role: to make it challenging for attackers to strike the ball by limiting angles and to potentially block the shot with their bodies. This desired attribute of wanting to take the hit has been described as “psychopathic” by former United States national team defender Alexi Lalas. Opposition teams constantly observe the wall for vulnerabilities, hoping to exploit players who might lack the courage to jump high or face the ball directly. This bravery not only potentially prevents goals but also denies an advantage to the attacker.

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In 1993, Bora Milutinovic, the coach of the United States national team at the time, attempted an innovative tactic. He split the wall, leaving a gap in the middle for the goalkeeper to cover while forming two walls on either side to shield the goal. However, opposition attackers quickly exploited this formation by obstructing the goalkeeper’s line of sight, rendering the tactic ineffective. This experimental approach demonstrated the significance of an unobstructed line of vision, ultimately dismissing this strategy.

Goalkeepers and the Defensive Wall

Indirect free kick

The goalkeeper plays a vital role in defending free-kicks by instructing players on how to position themselves to limit angles for the attacking team. However, having too many players in front of them hinders their line of sight, making it difficult to anticipate the ball’s trajectory. German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn once attempted to mitigate this issue by instructing his teammates not to form a wall, except in situations close to the goal, where attackers could powerfully strike the ball. Kahn relied on his shot-stopping ability, confident that he could save the free-kick as long as he could see the ball. Although this tactic provided a clearer line of sight, it also allowed attackers more space to aim at. After conceding goals using this method, Kahn abandoned the approach.


Q: What is the purpose of a defensive wall in football?
A: The defensive wall is created by the defending team during a direct free-kick to obstruct the attacker’s view and limit available angles to aim at the goal.

Q: How did the rules regarding defensive walls change in 2019?
A: The updated rules mandate that all attacking players must remain at least 1m (1yd) away from the wall until the ball is in play when three or more defending players form a wall.

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Q: Can players employ tactics to prevent the ball from going underneath or through the wall?
A: Yes, players often jump, point their toes downward, and keep their legs together to stop the ball from passing underneath them or through the wall.


The defensive wall has become an integral part of football, evolving over time to challenge attackers and protect the goal. Whether it is by limiting angles, blocking shots with their bodies, or employing innovative strategies, defenders play a vital role in this tactical aspect of the game. The role of the goalkeeper is crucial, as they navigate the complexities of organizing the wall while maintaining a clear line of sight. Understanding the history, rules, and dynamics of the defensive wall enhances our appreciation for the technical prowess and strategic thinking involved in this aspect of the sport.

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