The role of the central defender throughout history has almost always focused on the idea of restricting the opposition from attacking through the dangerous central areas of the field. In this time, though, pioneers like Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer flirted with the idea that a centre-back could be more than just a defensive-minded player. The Libero – or sweeper as it came to be known – would be tasked with monitoring and securing the defensive line off the ball and being a line-breaking extra number while in possession of it, moving forward to play the killer pass or to create an overload.
It has since sparked discussion centred around the best ways to make defensive players active in the attacking phase. After all, football is a numbers game centred on space and how teams control space: with more active numbers in attacking areas, more opportunities to create scoring chances will likely follow. This is what Pep Guardiola, Max Allegri, José Mourinho, Arsène Wenger and the world’s other top coaches all think about before pulling the trigger on signing their next centre-back.
The modern central defender must be their team’s first reference in attack. Leonardo Bonucci, Mats Hummels and Jérôme Boateng’s reputations as three of the best defenders in the world were not formed purely because they are fabulous defenders. Many Juventus fans would even be quick to point out that Andrea Barzagli is as good a defender as Bonucci. So why is Bonucci held in such high regard in comparison to his esteemed centre-back partner?
It is because he brings a new and unpredictable dimension to the Juventus attack, filling the void left by midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo. Bonucci’s role in the Juventus team almost turns into a deep-lying playmaker when his side is in possession. His ability to pick out attacking team-mates with inch-perfect long-range passes is a skill matched by few midfielders in Europe, let alone central defenders. His stunning assist for Emanuele Giaccherini while playing for Italy against Belgium at Euro 2016 was a perfect example of how the modern centre-back spreads the attack.
In a piece from The Players’ Tribune, Jerome Boateng describes his initial instincts when receiving the ball as a centre-back: ‘For me, whether I win the ball or get it from a teammate, I’m looking immediately for our striker. He’s the guy who is furthest up the field, and if I can get the ball to him, it will open up the field and start a counterattack.’
There is no longer a position to hide in. Modern football is total football in a different sense. While positions might not be fluid in the same way in which Ajax won three consecutive European Cups in the 1970s, players must be complete all-rounders. So, while Boateng might not stride forward like Beckenbauer to join in the attack, he needs to be able to control the ball, move like a striker and pass like a midfielder.
He also needs to be a quarterback. From his position, he can see the entire field. He can see where space is opening, where defenders are closing in and where the offside line is and if it is structured effectively.These expectations are lofty and some defenders with seemingly great pedigree have been crushed by them.
Dmytro Chygrynskiy’s Barcelona move is probably the most notable example of this. Signed for €25 million and expected to slot straight into a Barcelona team that had just won the Champions League, the Ukrainian struggled with the tempo and style expected of a team coached by Pep Guardiola. Not only was he not up to scratch defensively, he failed to replicate the style and quality of ball-playing of Gerard Piqué and Carles Puyol when moving out of defence. This quickly drew the ire of Barcelona fans and the club was pressured into selling him.
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So, who are the next generation of centre-backs establishing themselves at the elite level?
John Stones seems an obvious starting point. The second most expensive defender in football history was Guardiola’s ideal choice to shore up Manchester City’s defence this season, while aiding the Spaniard’s attempts to replicate the style of football his teams have played at Bayern Munich and Barcelona. But he has had his own teething problems at the Etihad, with defensive issues marring some impressive technical displays.
This is where football traditionalists worry about the trade-off between technical and defensive ability. Former Celtic player Chris Sutton was quick to criticise Stones after a Champions League clash between his ex-club and Manchester City. Speaking to BT Sport, Sutton claimed that Stones’ style made him vulnerable because of how readable it was: “He is an issue for me because he never kicks the ball into touch. He’s not playing against mugs. When a centre-forward knows you’re not going to kick the ball into the stand, they know you’re going to do a trick.”
While he has led a defence that has underperformed at regular intervals this year, Stones continues to be entrusted with his role by Guardiola, who has likened the 22-year-old to his former Barcelona team-mate Ronald Koeman. It speaks volumes about the way the most forward-thinking coaches want young defenders to learn; they want to them take risks. Furthermore, if things go wrong these coaches are quick to shift blame elsewhere to continue promoting this risk-taking.
Juventus coach Max Allegri has been prepared to do this with Daniele Rugani. Famed for completing every minute of the 2014-15 Serie A season with Empoli without picking up a single card, Allegri has told Rugani that he needs to be more aggressive in order to follow the example set by Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini in the Juventus defence.
Elsewhere in Europe, young centre-backs are thriving at clubs with coaches willing to wear the odd defensive mistake in pursuit of a more aesthetically pleasing and efficient attacking play style. Alessio Romagnoli is at the heart of the youth revolution occurring at AC Milan and he has earned many plaudits for his unique style, which oddly combines elements of being extremely refined and combative at the same time.
In Germany, Jonathan Tah has mixed both impressive speed and tidy ball control for his 1.92 metre frame to become one of Leverkusen manager Roger Schmidt’s most trusted lieutenants and a three-time German international at age 20. While in Spain, French international Aymeric Laporte was also touted as a potential for Manchester City after four years of consistent displays at Athletic Club. The 22-year-old’s success has much to do with the fabled Marcelo Bielsa, who promoted him to the first team at 18. In a recent interview with France Football, Laporte thanked Bielsa for being direct and for trusting him.
Stones, Tah, Laporte and Romagnoli are three of the best defensive prospects in Europe. They, like many others, will continue to hone their skills, hoping for the support of a willing manager while looking to emulate Bonucci, Boateng and Piqué. The best defenders never stop mastering the craft, the best passers are rarely discouraged by risk, and those with the best touch are the most immune to pressure. Maybe it is time to stop calling them defenders.
By Stephen Ganavas. Follow @Marottanomics