How the new breed of hybrid central defender is catching up to the game around them

How the new breed of hybrid central defender is catching up to the game around them

As a concept, the idea of a “warrior poet” focuses on the merging of two characteristics that have been primarily kept as separate entities. The brute force of a warrior and the artistic flair of the poet are often seen as opposing ends of a spectrum, something often encompassing ideas of masculinity. The stories of these two personas have always been intertwined, with tales of the warrior captured by the poets and the warriors in turn inspired by their words. Perhaps there cannot be one without the other. 

Within the world of football, there are both warriors and poets who grace the field of play. In much the same way that the real-world warriors and poets rely on each other, those who express their talents on a football pitch need the other to thrive. The warriors are those who allow the creative talents of the poet to flourish, whilst the poets are the prime creators of the narratives that keep football socially relevant to the masses, thus elevating the standing of the warriors. No position can perhaps lay claim to a greater relationship between warrior and poet as that of the central defender. 

There is often the perception about central defenders that they either fulfil one role or the other. They are either built in the mould of the old-school heroes like Ron “Chopper” Harris and are known for their physicality and solidity, or their job is to be an integral part of the attacking play rather than a defender first, the style in which Pep Guardiola has tried to train John Stones at Manchester City. Increasingly, however, there is a blurring of the lines between the roles. More defenders are becoming competent at both variations of their position, becoming complete defenders in the process. 

The shift has been a gradual one, and the recognition of the talents of these stars is finally catching up to the level it should be at. When Liverpool parted with £75m for Dutch defender Virgil van Dijk, many fans and pundits questioned the price, suggesting that it was perhaps too high a fee to pay for a defender. Fast-forward over a year since his arrival and Liverpool have reached a Champions League final, made the semi-finals in the current season, and are in the midst of an incredible title race which may see them finish as runners-up with a point tally good enough for glory most seasons. 

The improvement that Liverpool have made since the mid-point of the 2017/18 season cannot be solely attributed to Van Dijk’s arrival, with the team becoming less reliant on the individual brilliance and explosiveness of their stellar front three – but the Dutchman’s presence is certainly a leading factor in the up-turn.

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The leadership and organisational qualities he possesses are invaluable. He is a physical match for any style of striker, being both strong and quick, and his distribution out from the back is of high-enough quality for a side expecting to dominate the ball. 

The underlying cause of the trend is not a simple one to assess, with footballing trends morphing continuously. However, the shift towards more football clubs trying to play possession-based football and utilising the role of a centre-forward in a deeper position has created the circumstances that forced the new, hybrid breed of central defenders to grow. 

Inevitably, as with all tactical developments in football, the countermeasures took time to fully formulate. In a modern sense, the false nine can perhaps be traced back to Roma’s use of Francesco Totti under the coaching of Luciano Spaletti, but the rise to true prominence came from Guardiola’s use of Lionel Messi in the role at the peak of his Barcelona team’s powers.

The growth of single-striker formations, and particularly the movement of those strikers into deeper positions to contribute to build-up play, has forced central defenders to adapt their game into a more mobile version of the old-fashioned defenders who man-mark opposing strikers. 

Take Van Dijk. Perhaps the leading exponent of the new form of central defender, the man who has just been named PFA Player of the Year has commanded the meanest defence in the Premier League all season. Defensively, the Dutchman has, according to the official Premier League website, a 71 percent tackle success rate and made 183 clearances. BBC Sport lists Van Dijk’s aerial duel success rate at 77 percent – the best in the league – and claims that no player has managed to dribble past the defender this season. 

Offensively, Van Dijk is also a key contributor to Liverpool’s prowess. Averaging nearly 74 passes each match, he has completed 2,664 passes in his 36 matches this year, bettered only by Chelsea’s Jorginho, a midfielder. In addition, he has also played 189 accurate long balls, often as raking diagonal passes to a marauding right-back. With teams averaging more passes per game than ever before, defenders, especially those at the top, have become key parts of the build-up.

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That’s not to suggest that there haven’t been good ball-playing defenders – they’ve existed for as long as any can remember – but rarely have they been as important in the build-up as now (discounting liberos).

Go back a mere ten seasons and the top five players in terms of passes were all central midfielders, with Denilson, Xabi Alonso, John Obi Mikel, Frank Lampard and Danny Murphy leading the way. The highest ranked defender was Jamie Carragher in sixth place with 2,025 passes for the whole season.

Denilson, the leading passer of that campaign, finished with 2,535. This season, four of the top five are central defenders, with Van Dijk joined by Aymeric Laporte, Antonio Rüdiger and David Luiz. Van Dijk and Laporte have already passed Denilson’s total and you have to drop to the eighth defender and tenth player on the list – Kyle Walker – to find a defender with lower numbers than Carragher’s.

Maybe its something in the water within the Netherlands, but Van Dijk’s international teammate is looking likely to be the player to take on the mantle as world’s best defender. Ajax’s Matthijs de Ligt, the youngest player to captain a team in the Champions League semi-finals, looks every bit as composed in all facets of the game as his senior partner. 

Flashback a few weeks to Ajax’s highly impressive triumph in Turin to defeat Juventus over two legs and de Ligt’s performance cannot be understated. Aside from scoring the winning goal, a powerful header highlighting the physical qualities of the youngster, his all-round game helped the Dutch giants dominate the majority of the match. Whilst marshalling the defensive line to combat the considerable threats of Cristiano Ronaldo and Moise Kean, de Ligt was also an assured presence in the build-up play, linking successfully with his midfielders and allowing Ajax to implement their adventurous style.

The academy model at Ajax is a certain factor in his development in both aspects of the game, with the defender playing games in midfield at youth level to progress his reading and calmness both on the ball and under pressure – but the trend extends beyond Dutch defenders. 

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In Germany, Spain and France, three of the top five for average passes per game are central defenders and even in Italy, the traditional home of world-class central defenders, both Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly and Internazionale’s Milan Škriniar feature in the top five. Daley Blind of Ajax and Jérémy Mathieu of Sporting also top the same statistic in the Netherlands and Portugal respectively. 

It is an important caveat to add that the majority of the defenders that find themselves near the top of the passing stats are playing for the better teams in the league and it is, therefore, natural that those players will see more of the ball. The bigger clubs often encounter teams sitting deep against them in order to be solid, and defenders are afforded more time on the ball, easily able to play simple passes. This inevitably leads to these players rising towards the top of the charts. 

However, It is more than just an increasing ability to be able to play the ball comfortably from the back that marks the evolution of central defenders in the modern game. A major part of the criticism that was labelled against John Stones after his move to Manchester City was a seeming over-reliance on his ball-playing skills, which hindered rather than complimented his defensive ability. The leading defenders in the game today are masters of both trades. 

With the fewer number of crosses that are being played into the box on average in the Premier League, the impact of the tall centre-forward has diminished. Of the eight players involved in the race for the Premier League Golden Boot this season, only Pierre-Emerick Aubamayeng and Harry Kane are over six foot tall and only half are likely to be labelled as strikers. 

This has meant that whilst central defenders need to be able to cope with the potential physical presence of a striker, there are more occasions when they are forced to step forward or wider to deal with key opposition players. The performance of Gerard Piqué against Liverpool in the Champions League semi-final highlights this need, with the Spaniard drifting across to deal with the considerable threat that Sadio Mané posed. 

It has been a season in which Piqué has risen back to the forefront of the minds of people thinking of the best defenders in the world, and his performance in the first leg served to show the varied qualities that defenders possess. Piqué, alongside Sergio Ramos for Spain, was perhaps one of the first from this era to truly show both aspects of defending, and his style has become the norm for elite central defenders. 

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As the threat of wide players as out-and-out goalscorers has increased, the athletic ability of a defender in dealing with those situations has become one of the most important aspects of their role. The players themselves have noticed the trend. In a recent interview, Liverpool’s Joe Gomez suggested that although teammates Mané and Mohamed Salah were perhaps quicker over the first few yards, he and Van Dijk would have the edge over half a pitch.

When watching footage of both players, as well as the likes of Koulibaly and de Ligt, it is clear that is more than just a bold statement born out of the arrogance of youth. The recovery runs that these players make have seen them regularly get out of a troublesome situation. Some may say that the likes of Des Walker and Paul McGrath exhibited these qualities some years ago, but they didn’t have the ball-playing qualities of the aforementioned players today.

The impressive pace that the new form of central defender possesses, alongside their still imposing physical presence, makes them more adept at adapting to their in-game challenge, from marking a traditional big-man striker, stepping out of the back-line, or tracking the run of a pacey winger. 

In the reactionary world of social media which we find ourselves in, there is a tendency to view the player having the best season in a specific position as the best there ever was. It cannot be accurately suggested that Van Dijk is the best defender the Premier League has seen, much the same way it isn’t for Koulibaly in Italy or de Ligt in the Netherlands. What is true for these players is that they represent a new breed of central defender, one in tune with the tactical developments of the game over the last ten or so seasons. Where some have bemoaned the lack of great central defenders in the game today, now we’re seeing the role catch up to the rest of the pitch.

Players, especially defenders, are increasingly expected to be less specialised in their roles and to contribute to all phases of the game. Watching Van Dijk, de Ligt, Koulibaly, Piqué and their contemporaries outlines the evolution that the central defender is currently in the midst of.

Gone, seemingly, are the days of defenders either being enforcers or creators – at least if you want to win at the highest level. Defenders are now required to fill both roles, to be both warrior and poet. Whether this trend remains or not is a separate debate, but this evolution has given rise to an impressive crop of central defenders who we should admire and enjoy.

By Michael Gallwey @michael95angelo

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