Football today, compared to the creation of the Premier League in 1992, has changed. Games and players are analysed and scrutinised with more focus than ever. We are paraded with facts, stats, records, past meetings and betting odds before, during and after matches, alongside instant replays and ubiquitous social media commentaries. As football has changed, it’s become much more attacking, and a team’s defensive duties are largely ignored. In fact, it is only the centre back who in truth does much defending- even full backs are expected to just be another attacker, with a larger propensity to track back.
Centre backs tend not to get the attention of appraisal that they deserve, whereas in truth, it’s much harder to be a centre back than you think. It requires constant concentration, bravery, and strength. A top quality defender (not Phil Jones) has to be one step ahead of the play, being able to read a game and adjust his movement accordingly. Where a striker has the freedom of the box in which to weave his magic, a centre back has to rely on at least one defensive partner to know what they’re doing. Putting your complete trust in both your partner and yourself to know what to do in a split second is difficult.
As much as it is about physique, a centre back also has to have mental toughness. For example, a defender that gives away a penalty but remains on the pitch has to constantly remain aware of what’s going on around him. He will come under the pressure of the team, the goalkeeper and the opposition, who will seek to aggravate him and possibly get him sent off. Furthermore, as he ages and loses his pace, positioning becomes ever more important. Look at John Terry. At 34, he no longer has the pace that he could rely on during his glory years between 2004 and 2012, yet he hasn’t missed one Premier League game this season, and was practically begged to come back from his resignation for the 2014 World Cup.
As the game has developed, so too has the role of the ball-playing defender. Rio Ferdinand, after arriving at Manchester United from Leeds for a transfer record fee in 2000 was highly praised for his passing range and his calmness and ability on the ball- the game had changed, with pressing beginning higher up the pitch; instead of marking strikers, opposition defenders were now tasked with closing down influential midfielders. With no other outlet, it was down to the defender to start an attack, a job Ferdinand relished.
His partnership with Nemanja Vidic- a more old-fashioned defender, allowing Rio to get forward and start another attacking phase, was a key component or a successful United team for a number of years. Of course, this can go too far in the other direction- David Luiz is probably the best current example of a ball-playing defender, somehow costing an obviously drunk PSG £50 million, despite perpetual defensive lapses and a shocking semi-final performance for Brazil against Germany.
This links in with a solid defensive partnership. Let’s compare the 2004-07 Chelsea of John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho with that of Manchester City under Roberto Mancini. Carvalho was of equal ability to Terry, and covered him, allowing Terry to move forward and cut off an attack, knowing he had a strong and intelligent defender behind him if he missed the tackle. Knowing he had that security, Terry rarely earned yellow cards as he didn’t have to slow an opponent down. Jose Mourinho’s titles were in no small part down to this understanding.
At Manchester City, Vincent Kompany was paired with the inferior Joleon Lescott, however they still managed to forge a successful partnership, winning the title, albeit at the last minute, in 2012, because both knew each other’s weaknesses, and fit each other’s’ gaps (stop sniggering at the back). However, pairing Kompany with the slightly-better-than-Joleon-Lescott Matija Nastasic the next season was ultimately a failure, as the partnership wasn’t forged; there was no mental connection and no understanding, weakening Manchester City’s defence, causing a series of defensive mishaps, causing them to lose the league, and hastening Mancini’s departure.
A strong central defensive partnership is key, now more than ever, in any successful team, particularly with the decline of the style of tiki-taka and the rise of quick counter-attacking. Liverpool’s Brendan Rodgers has never really gotten over his remark that ‘defensive coaching [was] easy’ after his defeat at Anfield to exactly the same style.
Compare this with the role of an attacker. A player like David Silva, quite rightly, revered for his ability to quickly switch play with his passing and direct running. The game is much easier for Silva because he is aware that any pass, tackle, or shot that he misses, he will have plenty of other chances. When the team is not in possession, he only needs to make a token effort to come back, so as not to waste his energy.
Obviously, the chance for glory is offset by a shorter career and an increased risk of injury for an attacker, many of whom burn themselves out through their careers. Finally, a good defender has to focus on his longevity. It’s unlikely for a defender to retire before 35; the great Paolo Maldini played on until he was 857. John Terry at the moment, at 34, is still one of the leading defenders in the Premier League. Carlos Puyol’s best years for both Barcelona and Spain were past 30, both of whom have degraded after his retirement as the lackadaisical Gerard Pique has become the senior defender.
In short, the centre back does one of the most difficult jobs on the pitch. His headers, clearances, bravery and ability go largely unnoticed, and his chances for glory are mostly restricted to set pieces. He needs to constantly be switched on, he needs to be expected to start every game, and he perpetually needs to maintain his level of performance throughout a season. He must remain mentally tough when he inevitably makes mistakes, put himself in the firing line for his team, and lead by example on the pitch. Finally, now more than ever, he has to be able to play the ball, spot a pass, and remain at the top level of his game for a number of years. It’s an ugly job, but someone’s gotta do it.