|The concept of sound defense winning titles is preached in almost every sport, from the junior game right up to the professional level and one which can help mould a style of football on the pitch. However, with the likes of Barcelona creating ‘a new breed of football’, can the foundations of defence over attack be applied in today’s game?
The principles of defending haven’t changed since the sport became what it is today, but what has changed is the game itself. The modern game is visibly quicker, more fatiguing (an average of 32% more games played now than 15 years ago) and some argue, more psychological. What this implies is that traditional tactics are changing, and with that, the type of players who fulfil various roles.
Is defending the sacred ground for winning championships? The statistics would have you believe they are. If you look at the last three years of clubs winning in their respective countries of England, Spain, Italy and France, you will note a ringing truth, fewer and fewer goals are being conceded.
So what’s the cause for this? If we were to look at the tactics, then the answer is not so simple. The traditional 4 – 4 – 2 required little to no attacking play from the centre backs. Attacking if any, from the back would come from corners, where a defender’s general height and strong heading ability would come into play. Movement was mainly lateral with only the wing backs bringing play forwards directly from the keeper.Today however, a defender has to be as versatile as a Swiss army knife. Comfortable with the ball at his feet, he needs athletic ability to bring the game forward, quickly and consistently from the keeper. Fullbacks are used more frequently providing runs, crosses and overlaps, and centre backs are no longer the nose bleeding sufferers if they venture past the 30 yard mark. Possessed with greater physical and technical ability they are makeshift playmakers on counter attacks.The partnership of the Milan centreback duo last season was a pleasure to watch. Both Alessandro Nesta and Thiago Silva contributed to this level of play. In the final Milan Derby last season, they played a high line to nullify the threats at ease and to launch easy counter attacks.
|What about goalkeepers? They are after all the ‘extreme defender’. Gone are the days of ‘vanilla’ goalkeepers, now you have to be a ‘sweeper’ goalkeeper. Distribution is the key and releasing the ball quickly and accurately, both with hands and feet is even more important today than when the back pass rule was introduced. A good release and you allow the team to quickly build momentum, retain possession and expose space. A late or misplaced pass can come back to bite you. One may consider Víctor Valdés, Edwin Van der Sar or Iker Casillas as the best exponents of the quick pass.
To conclude, the modern game leaves gaping holes in defensive capacity rather than add to them.
The Bigger Picture
Defense doesn’t end or rather begin with the players nearest the keeper; if you analyse any match in the modern game, the defence begins in the middle of the park. If you don’t believe me, think of the space between midfield and defence, and ask yourself, why are midfielders more exposed to overloading defensive duties?
The modern approach to allow the full backs full freedom to go up and down the pitch as much as possible requires that you have at least one midfielder providing suitable cover that opens up when either central defender goes to cover the full back, effectively creating a fifth defender, but one that evens the playing field when faced with a counter attack.
So the conclusion is defending has become something of a united focus rather than a single tactical instrument in a match. The question then remains, ‘does a good defence really win you leagues?’
If we go back to my earlier example of all the teams in those 4 leagues, yes, they all had a low number of goals conceded, but they also had very high goals scored. So strikers, creative midfielders and yes, even defenders are earning their money in getting the goals to win the coveted titles at the end of the season.
But this is where the beauty of the modern game lies. No longer are talented defenders limited to clearing attacks. They are becoming responsible for them. They can dictate rhythm, pace and orchestrate movement throughout the game. The technically able can provide passes through the middle of the park. The physical defenders can provide further attacking options whilst possessing the ability to track back and stop play from building and the tactically minded ones can read the game from the back and implement changes.
So does defence win leagues? Yes, a disciplined defence can win you leagues, but by being better in attack….if that makes sense!
Gino de Blasio studiously analyses Italian and English football. He has recently become a qualified coach and talks tactics until the cows come home. You can follow him on twitter @ginodb