Defensive tactics have changed drastically over recent years. In the 1970s the sweeper was a key feature in a lot of top European sides. Franz Beckenbauer was the archetypal sweeper, great technique and vision as well as a wonderful range of a passing. The sweeper would not only literally ‘sweep’ things up sitting behind the other defenders, but would also look to create from deep. With a movement to the modern day version of the off-side rule in the early 90s the role of the sweeper became redundant, the almost deep-lying play maker had no purpose now as teams opted to push defenders up the pitch in order to play rival forwards offside.
The death of the sweeper brought about huge changes in the way defences set up. Teams began to use deep-lying midfield play makers instead and the emphasis on defenders ball playing abilities were lost some what. The great English defences of the 90s is testament to this, George Graham’s Arsenal were one of the best around and used two big physical centre-backs in Tony Adams and Martin Keown, neither renowned for their ball playing skills but were more than capable in a purely defensive capacity.
Another thing that has led to this is the fact that now teams look to win possession all over the field, defenders find themselves with increasingly less time in possession as even strikers look to ‘defend from the front‘ for their respective teams and pickpocket defenders which led to defenders needing to become more technically proficient and be able to distribute the ball much quicker.
The top teams in World football such as Barcelona and Spain play a possession game which involves their defenders being technically gifted. Puyol and Pique have good ball retention and the ability to pass it around comfortably. A team that spend so much time on the ball need every player to be technically competent. In fact both defenders are involved in a significant number of Barcelona goals. Pique’s semi-final goal against Inter Milan in the 09/10 Champions League is a prime example of this, arguably modern day defenders are more than capable of performing the roles of more advanced players.
One thing that highlights the importance of technique for defenders at Barcelona was the failed signing of Shakhtar Donetsk captain Chygrynskiy who cost over £20 million. Chygrynskiy’s defensive abilities were never in question, a good aerial player who was strong and a good tackler, but he lacked the technical ability of his Barcelona colleagues and often missed opportunities to form quick counter attacks because of his inability to pick out good long range passes. What this example shows, especially at a club that rely on technical play as much as Barcelona, is that to be a top defender requires more than being good in the air, or being able to win tackles, the modern day defender must also be a good ball player. Chygrynskiy was later sold for half what Barcelona paid from him.
|Rank||Player||Pass accuracy||Average passes||Long balls|
Of the top 20 passers in Europe in terms of pass accuracy we can see here that five are centre-backs. Thiago Silva’s stats in particular are impressive due to the high number of long balls he attempts which demonstrates his technical quality. Further to this 3 of the top 20 passers in terms of passes played per game are centre-backs (Dante, Ashley Williams and Badstuber). If we think of the traditional English centre-back as being physical the modern English defenders are quite the opposite, three of the top 25 passers are English.
Interestingly of the top 20 passes in Europe in terms of pass accuracy 5 of the players are centre-backs all with an accuracy of over 90%. The Euro’s have been no exception to this rule. For example the German side that narrowly beat Portugal were for the majority of the game dictating the play against what was, until the end, a reactive Portuguese side. As a result Hummels and Badsuber saw a lot of the ball with 89% possession and 93.2% respectively. Hummels actually completed 72 passes in this game, a remarkable number for a centre-back.
We also witnessed four centre-backs take penalties in the Spain/Portugal game with three scoring including this unbelievable chip from Ramos:
Ramos also completed a large number of passes with 62 per game as well as having an accuracy of 92.1% which made him the 10th highest passer at the tournament. Six of the top twenty most accurate passers at the Euro’s were also centre-backs which further demonstrates this growing trend, with teams being required to keep the ball more the centre-back is becoming increasingly important.
When top European clubs look to dip into the transfer market for defenders they will look not only for a good reading of the game but for good technical ability that fits in with possession based football as the defender has changed into a technically advanced role over recent seasons.
Euro 2012 highlights this trend with an array of brilliant technical defenders on show. The days of the rough and ready centre-back like Adams are long gone as defenders are now required to play the ball as well as they can win the ball. The technical prowess of Thiago Silva for example is probably a key contributing factor as to why so many top clubs are after him and equally why AC Milan are so keen to keep hold of him. Being able to win the ball and win headers is now becoming the bare minimum for top centre-backs. Perhaps we will soon give defenders the credit they deserve for their superb technical ability and range of passing.
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Stats are as always from whoscored.com