In an age where attacking players exude an unrivalled degree of balance and explosive athleticism, there exists an assured, yet waning breed of player relishing defensive confrontation. Traditionally, these players operate under their own system of play. They’re the ones who will just as soon turn a scowl into a malevolent smile during combative drills aimed to expose those lacking the grit and skill to defend individually.
Coaches use such agents of chaos (provided they exist) to identify those who compete and those who’d rather not mix it up. Most of these players are bred from years following simple, direct orders. They play simple football within their skill set and are happy to be a cog in the machine. Most are defenders, or at the very least, defensive-minded and methodical in their purpose. In short, these players are to defending what the most prolific goalscorers are to attacking football.
The best defenders’ role often goes unnoticed to the point of being overlooked. Football has changed and now relies on players who can operate more as technicians than role players. The game doesn’t champion quality defending the way it lauds attacking flair and fluidity. Stellar defensive displays rarely make the highlight reel. The absolute negation of an opponent’s best attacking player and the nullification of their attacking production is relegated to the attacker “having a bad game” or “struggling to find form”. In reality, it’s the centre-back’s exceptional defending.
Modern football necessitates versatility — full-backs are expected to operate as wing-backs and the true winger opts to cut inside rather than beat his man to the byline and cross the ball. Service into the box comes in the form of diagonal balls delivered from backs in advanced roles, not traditional in-swinging crosses. The job of the centre-back has shifted to operate further up the pitch and, if necessary, in the wide channels — areas a traditional centre-back would seldom venture to in the past.
There’s a reason Paul Merson said, “The best player I ever played against was Paolo Maldini. We [Arsenal] played against Milan in the European Super Cup [in 1995]. Maldini marked me and I didn’t even get a kick of the ball all game. He was just unbelievable.”
There’s also a reason modern players like Branislav Ivanović, Ashley Cole, Mats Hummels, Giorgio Chiellini, Sergio Ramos, and Nemanja Vidić are integral players to sides that are traditionally stringent in defence. These players operate as defenders before becoming playmakers. On the side opposite the consistency of these aforementioned players are those who seem to confuse aggression with recklessness.
Corner kicks are a haven for defenders who are too often a step late and rely on grabbing players instead of establishing a good defensive starting position. The full-back position has morphed to expose players, for all their attacking capabilities, as fundamentally unfocused on the defensive responsibility the position demands. Such criticisms speak more to a systemic issue in modern football validating the game’s evolution.
The reality is popularized tactics like Total Football and tiki taka place hefty demands on players to contribute offensively. In his book, Born to Manage, Terry Venables describes the impact of Total Football:
“They developed a game based on attack, where defenders could be comfortable in attack and forwards could defend. It was almost as if their clubs would throw team shirts on the floor and ask the players to pick any number. They played without restrictions.”
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Read | In celebration of Paolo Maldini, the greatest defender of his age
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What many don’t realize and fully appreciate is possession football relies heavily on defensive principles. Ball retention not only forces the opposition to work to get the ball, but it pulls them into exploitable scenarios.
Getting caught in a Barcelona triangle as a forward or on the short-side of a 4v2 in the middle of the park is a form of defensive football and resembles a training session rondo by taking the air out of the ball and the wind out of an opponent’s sails while maintaining possession.
Possession-heavy tactics and football have their own kryptonite in the form of defensive block midfields and backlines with players willingly operating as terriers hunting the ball down and forcing the team in possession to panic. Such sides use counter-attacking outlets ready to expose and exploit the usable space between and behind attacking-focused defenders who have essentially lulled themselves into switching off defensively. Sides looking to counter illustrate the importance of defensive drilling that produces winning football. Attractive football is often effective football and the game is now a 360-degree environment for every player, not just the maestros.
For a team game, there are few things more revealing about a player than their prowess or paucity of defensive ability. We hear cliché phrases like, “that’s a striker’s challenge there” to absolve the clumsiness of a wild lunge from a striker vengefully lashing out against a defender that has kicked them all match. But football has always hinged on how often players win their individual battles over the course of 90 minutes.
It’s evident the mentality of the modern defender differs from the mindset of yesterday’s defensive stalwarts. In many respects, stratagems such as Gegenpressing, and to an extent, Total Football, utilise team defending to ostensibly absolve the art of individual defending. Today’s football is so attack-orientated that the modern full- back often spends more time in the attacking half than he does tracking his runner defensively, the centre-half operates as a proxy playmaker and the fulcrum of build-up play in the increasingly popular albeit risky tactic of playing out of the back.
Footballers are defined by performance and results. Results often reveal a hidden narrative about a player. Successful teams are built on principles that necessitate its players to dominate not only the opposition as a whole, but a player’s opposite number out on the pitch. Quality coaching reinforces the notion that the team’s success hinges upon players’ ability to see the game through the lens of a player and of a coach. Top academies train their teams on gridded fields and use magnet board pitches with grids to illustrate how best to exploit usable space. Magnets denote a player’s corresponding position on the field, showing the areas each particular player is responsible for not only covering, but dominating. To lose the individual battle means others must break formation and leave their marks to help win the duel and mitigate the opposition’s threat.
Early and often rudimentary forms of Gegenpressing graphically reveal what happens when a team’s weak link is exposed and breaks, forcing the team to compensate. Executing this tactic to young players requires hours of reinforcement-based drilling to emphasise the importance of individual responsibility, discipline, and tactical intelligence in players. In a 2012 visit to FC Köln’s academy, I watched entire sessions dedicated to 1v1, 2v2, 2v1, and 3v2 transition games aimed at reinforcing the attacking and defensive principles required to win. Players either elevated their play or wilted under the pressure in these sessions due to the intensity of individual competition with consequences. The litmus test revealed those refusing to be defeated and those who accepted taking a hiding.
Over the years, I’ve often wondered if coaches define the playing culture or vice versa. Players inevitably encounter an array of coaches who either take pride in teaching and instilling defensive discipline or in the attacking flair that often results in attractive play. Both tend to be effective methods yielding winning football. Coaches opting to take a more merciless approach to instilling defensive proficiency within their ranks have a number of drills designed to reprogram a player’s mentality by physically and figuratively breaking them. As archaic and out-of-line this approach may seem in an age where on-field generals are culled from football, it is clear individual defending is a dying art.
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Read | How Franco Baresi became one of football’s greatest defenders
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But how do such practices translate to actual game play and do they serve players well? Harkening back to my playing days, I recall an activity simply known as the “Wall Game”, which has its origins in the old English First Division where hard men ruled the pitch.
The activity pits two players in a gladiatorial-like battle. Each player had a goalkeeper and a goal behind them in a confined area around 18×18 yards. Both teams formed a perimeter “wall”, whereby they couldn’t move, pass, or help the poor bastards battling in the middle to get out. Amid the shouting and vitriol-laden language, players only hear white noise whilst in the middle. In theory, the objective was simple. Score and you’re out while a fresh player with a ball attacks the fatiguing defender, who must remain in the cauldron.
Goals were scored in bunches up to seven before the hapless defender and his team were made to run as punishment only for that same defender to start out in the middle again. What started out as one-versus-one defending quickly became a controlled version of Fight Club — except there was no tapping out and players literally had to step in for the player to stop the thrashings, which is probably the point. Step up and battle. When a teammate has had enough, someone else has to shoulder the responsibility. Players became less concerned about the petty, less concerned about winning, and more focused on not losing. The whole exercise is effective yet brutal.
Watching three academies train stateside (two non-MLS and one MLS) over the course of four years, there’s an apparent lack of defensive principles taught during possession games. Players don’t see the consequence of giving the ball away. Where have the simple possession games where the team with the ball greatly outnumbers the defending team, who must hunt the ball down like a pack of ravenous dogs gone?
In these games, the defending team must win possession as the clock ticks upward. There are ten balls are played in at various entry points while the total time it takes for the defending team to clear all ten balls is added up and punishment is exacted accordingly to the group who took the most time to win back all ten balls. Perhaps the most effective drill of consequence is the “six second exercise”, which is exactly what it sounds like; win the ball back within six seconds of losing it to mitigate any potential counterattacking movement. When six seconds passed without disrupting the attack, consequences were doled out for the team. Such an exercise turns every player into a defender. The practice itself seems lodged in an age where punishment and consequence served as deterrents for lazy performance and a lack of personal and team accountability.
Right or wrong, if you’ve played at a reasonably high level, drills like these either make you smile or cringe. And that says a lot about the type of mentality you had as a player and probably have as a person. The takeaway is that football has irrevocably changed. Goals are often scored in bunches as the floodgates quickly open for two main reasons: the increase in frequency and focus of attacking football, and the decrease of players who take pride in the art of individual defending.
We may never see the likes of a Franz Beckenbauer, Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Alesssandro Nesta, Lilian Thuram, Jaap Stam, or Javier Zanetti to name a few. Just like goalscoring, which is an art, individual defending requires time and repetitions as inputs and yields experience as the output. Teaching good defensive principles and moulding good defenders takes time — time that this age of football might not be willing to spend on the art compared to yesterday’s game.
“In life there is always time for everything; however, we have to know how to find it,” Javier Zanetti wrote in his autobiography. “Perhaps having played over a thousand games, 100,000 unrelenting minutes on the pitch, taught me to respect the value of time.”
By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3