Paolo Maldini once famously said: “If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake.” Consider the weight of such a quote and the power behind those words, especially in an era of football where defending is regarded as a team effort and the heralded bulls of the backline are often referred as figures who have long since hung up their boots. It’s true, the modern game may over-value and emphasise attackers more than defenders.
Maldini’s words are powerful, but they speak to the artform of defending, which he personified over a long and successful career. This is a man whose approach to the game and to his position was so detailed and infused with excellence that his aim was not to tackle but to play and mark the opposition out the game.
Maldini was more than a defender. He was a titan. There is a reason why people compare the best defenders in the world to his play – and with respect, nobody has even come close to the consistent quality that he displayed year after year.
Watching the likes of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, to name just two attackers, fly through tackles and score highlight-reel goals each year draws people in. This is why football celebrates attacking play. Strikers and playmakers garner the credit and bag scores of individual honours – and rightly so. However, when it comes to the best defender, perhaps of all-time, for me one man stands resolute in commanding the place atop an illustrious list: Paolo Maldini.
Players like Maldini are a once-in-a-generation sight. His level of defending, awareness on the pitch, leadership for AC Milan and internationally for the Azzurri, not only became the standard of team and individual defending, it remains the standard. As a player, Maldini was a one-club man with Milan – yet another increasing rarity in modern football. His success with Milan is well-known and documented. What sets him apart, away from a distinguished list of awards at the club, international, and individual level was his approach to defending.
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Italian football is known for producing players who are proud to be defenders and who approach the position with a dutiful purpose, regarding this aspect of the game a true art form. Maldini not only fit that mould as a player but he continually improved through every stage of his career, especially at club level, where his Milan side won every major domestic and European honour.
Through the first decade of the 2000s, Maldini and Milan captured seven major trophies, including a league title and two Champions Leagues, and very well could have been three, save for Liverpool’s magnificent comeback in Istanbul. Maldini also placed third in the 2003 Ballon d’Or race, behind Pavel Nedvěd and Thierry Henry, two attacking players in their prime. During these years, Maldini also captured several performance-based honors and awards for his consistency at Milan.
His greatness is captured in more than accolades and silverware, something modern football and its fans, media and critics tend to ignore with increasing eagerness each passing year. His ability on the pitch in a pure footballing sense remains the pinnacle standard for modern defending both in one-on-one scenarios and in a variety of defensive systems.
Maldini’s conduct and professionalism off the pitch, at a time when calcio was mired in controversy and scandal, is often overlooked as there is no trophy for being a class-act while a storm of corruption rages around you.
During this era, a new generation of attacking talent was beginning to emerge and an experienced Maldini continued to fine-tune his excellence on the pitch, even as he aged. To a man, he had everything needed in a quality defender. His quickness of foot and mind, combined with his versatility, showcased an ability to be dominant as a left-back or centre-back. Maldini also possessed excellent strength and balance in the tackle. It can be argued that no player timed tackles better than Maldini, barring perhaps the only man who genuinely competes for top honour on the all-time great list, Franco Baresi.
Revisiting his most famous quote – “If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake.” – speaks to the mindset of a man whose pursuit of excellence has less to do with clattering into an opponent and more to do with expert timing of stepping in to cut out passes. During his = career, Maldini was more than defender – he was a footballer. He could destroy as much as he could create. He knew when to attack and when to keep the ball. Aerially he was dominant. Physically he was hard as nails.
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Describing not only the impact but the depth of the career for Paolo Maldini is no easy task. His collective and personal achievements speak only to what was recognised. But his impact on the game is nothing short of a remarkable achievement in and of itself.
Maldini made his debut for Milan at 16 as a substitute in the 1984/85 season. In the subsequent years, he solidified his place in the first team in a defensive unit that included Alessandra Costacurta, Mauro Tassotti and Baresi. By 1988, Milan won the Scudetto and the Supercoppa, and Maldini was part of a defensive unit that Arrigo Sacchi constructed to bolster the glittering Dutch trio of Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard. Maldini would stay at Milan, while managers, teammates and fan sensibilities would come and go. He remained a rock, anchoring it to a higher standard on the pitch, even when fortunes dwindled.
Perhaps the mystery with a player like Maldini is the way he played was deceptively attractive. The football fan’s eye is often trained to notice what’s happening at the moment it occurs. But to the more indoctrinated, there’s a different game taking place. This game within the game hearkens back to Maldini’s quote about making tackles, which he could certainly do. His intelligence and starting position in defence was otherworldly. If he was playing today, he would still be the world’s best defender.
Many will argue that Maldini didn’t face the best on offer today. It can also be argued that the best attacking players have the luxury of not having to face Maldini. In him, they would find a relentless, intelligent and immovable defender who does not stop, does not flop, and will not relent until the final whistle. In a word, he was a Terminator on the pitch. Today’s attacker wants none of that.
Maldini’s ability to ghost an attacking player to the point they didn’t even make runs behind or check to receive the ball at their feet is less of a knock or criticism of theirs, and more of a testament to the relentlessness of his ability to close time and space with ease over and over for an entire match. And he did this from 1985 to 2009, still collecting defensive awards at the age of 39.
The man was a wizard on the field. Positioning was his potion. His man-marking and tackling were spell-binding exhibitions of power and precision. Players like Maldini are rare and we may never see the standard of quality he possessed in his playing days ever again. For those who saw him play, count yourself lucky. For the younger and uninitiated, go back and watch highlights. Study his play, because that standard in defence is a rarity. There’s a reason people who’d seen him play would joke, “If Paolo Maldini was the Minister of Defense, no country would want to attack Italy.”
By Jon Townsend @jon_townsend3