Is Defending a Lost Art?

Written by Andy Wood

When John Stones moved from Everton to Manchester City over the summer, for a fee of £47.5 million, he became the most expensive English defender of all time despite only being 22 years of age. Lauded as the British answer to the increasingly popular continental style of ball-playing defender, he seemed at the time a perfect fit for Pep Guardiola’s system. On more than one occasion, however, he has been embarrassingly dropped to the bench including most recently against Arsenal. The decision to leave out such a landmark signing and opt for Aleksandar Kolarov – traditionally a left sided player – during such a big match speaks volumes about Stones’ underwhelming start to life at the Etihad.

This isn’t an article made to chastise Stones specifically – the fact is there seems to have been a spike in defenders making routine errors leading to goals. Overall there has been an average of 2.78 goals per game in the Premier League so far during the 2016/17 season – a sharp increase on last season (Average: 2.70) and the season before that (Average: 2.57). Indeed, in only 4 seasons since the re-branding of the Premier League in 1992 has there been a higher average, and this is during a time where top quality strikers generally play in other leagues.

So a number of questions stand; Are defenders getting worse? Are strikers getting better? Or is there simply nothing to read into the trend?

 

The quality’s not there anymore

The Premier League has, over the years, been blessed with some of the greatest defenders of all time. Over the last couple of years we’ve gradually seen the old wave depart, with Manchester United’s infamously solid back line of Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra all retiring or departing, Liverpool stalwart Jamie Carragher hanging up his boots, Arsenal ‘invincibles’ member Kolo Toure moving on, and long-serving Chelsea duo Ashley Cole (departed) and John Terry (slowly leaving the picture) no longer a unit. These were all world class defenders on their day, uncompromising and strong minded individuals who understood that first and foremost their job was to stop the ball going towards goal, and they achieved this spectacularly.

Such consistently recognisable and solid back four units are in much shorter supply nowadays. United’s attempt to replace that famous defence from the Fergie era has seen Daley Blind, Luke Shaw, Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Matteo Darmian brought in to mixed consistency at best, Liverpool have used Mamadou Sakho, Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip to similar effect. Chelsea were reduced to re-signing (expensively) the previously much criticised David Luiz, such is the shortage of talent going right now. Manchester City, with enviable riches at their disposal, have mustered up Stones, Nicolas Otamendi and Eliaquim Mangala. It begs the question of why world class defenders aren’t playing in this division anymore.

credit Julian Mason

One response to this would simply be that this issue goes beyond defenders, and that it’s simply the case that world class players in any position just don’t come to the Premier League anymore. Indeed, counting the number of world class forward players in the league can probably be done on one hand (unless you’re highly generous) major European and international awards consistently recognising a wealth of talent in other European leagues. With a notable lack of home-grown academy talent supplementing teams any more we continue to see fairly average acquisitions come in without ever really developing their game, and as such the standard cannot raise itself to a level comparable to that of previous years.

The alternative response would be that, defensively speaking, the problem extends beyond this division and in fact the defenders in world football just aren’t as good as they used to be. I would boldly suggest that there are maybe two ‘great’ defenders still playing at a truly high level in today’s game – Sergio Ramos and Giorgio Chiellini. Of course there are still a number of extremely talented players but too many of them have notable flaws to their game, or are susceptible to errors all too often. This is exemplified by the issues many of the major teams have in bringing in quality in that position, leading to unjustifiably expensive purchases of players who don’t fit the price tag.

credit RCuerda29

Are modern tactics hurting defenders?

The main attribute that sets John Stones out on a domestic level is his style as a ball playing defender. Technically, he has the attributes of a central midfield player, capable of receiving the ball in a tight space and playing his way out of trouble, relieving the pressure with an astute forward pass or simply dribbling his way out of the defensive third. This style should not be completely frowned upon, as his level of technical craft is highly impressive and we may well have performed better as a nation in tournaments if a few of our midfielders had the same capabilities.

The problem is that without some clear direction and smart decision making to pull it off. There are occasions during a match where a defender carrying the ball out of defence is a useful dimension to have, but at the same time it can quite often lead to a ‘heart in the mouth’ moment when done too casually or if it’s forced through a style of play. Guardiola’s Man City actually managed to exploit such a thing in their best performance of the season, a famous 3-1 victory over Barcelona, achieved by harrying the Barca defence and especially targeting Samuel Umtiti, who looked uncomfortable trying to adopt the famous passing football of the Catalan side.

credit Roger W

Football is an increasingly attacking game, with full backs now making up the numbers as extra wingers and midfielders judged far more than ever on their goal tallies. Even though the concept of defender who can ‘play the game’ is nothing new – look back to the styles of Franz Beckenbauer, arguably the greatest defender of all time – it only ever used to be an exception to the rule, a unique style of player who would be viewed as something different to the mould. The shift has gone pretty full circle nowadays in that you could expect to hear a commentator describe any rugged, uncompromising centre half as an ‘old fashioned’ defender. The pre-requisite now is for every player on the pitch- sometimes even the goalkeeper- to be comfortable receiving the ball and making some creative use of it. As with any style, some do it better than others, but for a generation of defenders taught to stop attackers it’s certainly a culture shock.

 

Is there really anything to be made of stats?

The use of the goals per game statistic might seem like a trivial matter to many. In fact, for three seasons between 2010 and 2013, the average was higher than it is now, reaching at least 2.80 goals per game each time.

credit Ben Sutherland

The statistic never even reached 2.7 at all between 200 and 2009, a period a lot of the old defenders mentioned earlier in the article were playing in their prime. These players were beginning to reach their wilderness years in the 2010-2013 period, and this combined with the presence of top forwards such as Luis Suarez, Gareth Bale, Didier Drogba and an in-form Wayne Rooney, none of whom we have now, I think justifies the spike in numbers. Therefore I ultimately do believe that we are seeing a decline in defensive quality, and in all honesty it’s not going to get any better going forward.

Do you think the defending overall is getting worse? Why could this be if so? Let us know in the comments below!

featured image by Paul