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Evolution of the center back

The center back sits at the heart of the defense. Most systems play with two, though three-back systems do tend to play three central defenders in between a pair of flying wingbacks. Their job is simple: organize the side defensively and prevent goals. These are players who love a good tackle more than scoring a goal, who live to see clean sheets be recorded. They are often the captain of the side as a result of carrying a large vocal presence, such is their vision from the rear of the team that allows them the ability to see the field in a more big picture manner and organize the side. Center backs must also be good on the ball, as I shall discuss in more detail later; in short, with modern managers preferring to possess out of the back and move forward as a more cohesive unit rather than simply lumping the ball long to the striker, central defenders need to be able to keep the ball reliably in possession. These players tend to be very physically imposing, or at the very least taller than the average footballer. They must be able to dominate opposing strikers in the air defensively, and this plays to their advantage in the attack as well; most center backs score a few goals per season off of corner kicks using their physical size and strength. Overall, the center back is the defensive lynchpin of the team, and serves in a number of roles as a result.

As always, we begin with a look back at the history of the role in question. Just as in the case of fullbacks, the old school edition of a center back was a tough-as-nails, defend-first player. This guy would break his own neck or someone else’s to prevent being scored on. These players typically had a misshapen nose as a result of breaking it far too many times while butting heads (literally) with our good friend the old fashioned number 9 striker. See Giorgio Chiellini, one of the only remaining gladiators in the modern game, for a prime example.

Chiellini actually works well as a transition here, because the Italians are especially famous for developing the defenders famous for stopping at the expense of nothing to keep a clean sheet. Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta, Marco Materazzi, Leonardo Bonucci and Gaetano Scirea are just a few of a host of Italian hard men who gave rise to the stereotype of Italian football as a boring, defensive game. That AC Milan team I mentioned last week, which won the league by scoring 36 goals all season? They started Costacurta, Maldini, Baresi and Tassotti across the backline, all legends. In truth, I would be amiss if I did not admit my bias for this style of player.

Today, we see far fewer examples of the old school hard men of defenses gone by. Sean Dyche’s Burnley side are trying their best to keep the spark alive, playing a form of defensive football most ‘80s Italian sides would be proud of, with Ben Mee and James Tarkowski at the heart of their success in the Premier League. Elsewhere, Pepe is still going strong at age 38, bullying strikers at Porto in Portugal. His former Real Madrid central defensive partner, Sergio Ramos, also loves a hard challenge, and currently plays at PSG. There is, of course, the remaining contingent of Italians at Juventus, Bonucci and Chiellini, but both are aging out and fast with the former 34 and the latter hardly in the team anymore at 37. The fact these are the only names that come to mind among the entirety of top flight football indicates the old school center back to be a dying breed.

Perhaps the antithesis to the old school center back, the modern game has moved toward employing defenders who take on a larger share of responsibility in possession of the ball. These players have technical skill as a higher priority than in generations past, and can make upwards of 100 passes a match when playing in possession-heavy sides. Take John Stones at Manchester City. Though he has improved in years gone by, he cannot touch the likes of Baresi in terms of defensive tenacity. However, that is not his role. In Pep’s Manchester City side, he touches the ball more than any player on the pitch, must be able to hit long balls over the opponent’s defenders’ heads as well as play short to midfielders and is required to never turn the ball over.

These are the defenders of the 2010s and beyond. Even more traditional defenders are being made to transition their game to be more based in attack. Bonucci, for example, is taking up a similar role at Juventus in recent years as his managers seek to establish the team as a more progressive side. The emergence of the three-back as an ever-increasingly popular system has brought this change on with greater intensity as well. In this system, the ability to simply dump the ball to a fullback are gone, replaced with the necessity to spring wide and possess the ball in space for the wider central defenders.

As a result, attacking sides are becoming more and more potent; by essentially delegating a portion of creative responsibility to central defenders, teams are able to push the fullbacks into the attack (see last week’s section on attacking fullbacks) and overwhelm opponents’ defenses numerically. What this does create, however, are softer defenses. Players more keen to become creators are less likely to have the older generation’s grit defensively, and when paired with attacking fullbacks who are more prone to leaving gaps in defense, this effect is exacerbated.

John Stones will never be able to touch someone like Maldini, because that is not his job nor his skillset; he plays alongside fullbacks who don’t want to defend, and is told he should focus on passing rather than defending. Sure, City’s defensive record passes the eye test as they win games, but this is only when they can keep the ball with ease against inferior opposition. Pep struggles in the Champions League because he employs defenders like Stones who, when tested by the best in Europe, are suddenly forced to actually defend, which they cannot.

Perhaps I hold too much of a bias against ball playing defenders, or perhaps not; what is certain is they do not hold a candle defensively to generations past.

Naturally, managers being paid millions have also recognized what I have just laid out. Thus, players are now coming through who seem to have a balance of both technical skill and the willingness to kill to win. Stones’ partner, Ruben Dias, is one such defender. Already captain of the Cityzens, he has drastically improved the side’s defensive record, while slotting seamlessly into the possession machine Pep has created. Sergio Ramos is another such case; his record a goal every six matches for Real Madrid speaks for itself, and he is still regarded among the best defenders in history as he approaches retirement at age 36. Finally, one cannot discuss hybrid center backs without discussing the man mountain that is Virgil Van Dijk. The Liverpool center back is a colossus at the back, striking fear in the eyes of attackers, and also has the ability to play a long ball Paul Scholes would be proud of. So perhaps all is not lost as we progress toward a preference for defenders who can pass the ball like midfielders; they just need to remember they are defenders for a reason.

As I may have alluded to, the future seems to lie with the hybrid destroyer/passer center back, the player who is as willing to play a 90 yard ball to the feet of his teammate as he is to break an opponent’s knees to keep a zero on the scoreboard. I must admit, I myself am slightly disappointed to see the era of older defenders coming to an end, but I am a self-confessed fan of vintage soccer in every right, one of those “the game has gone soft” fellows who modern fans tell to piss off. A quick look at top sides will tell you that the hybrid defender is in fact highly effective. With Ramos, Real Madrid won 4 Champions Leagues in 5 years; with Van Dijk, Liverpool went to two Champions League finals, winning one, and reclaimed the league title for the first time in 31 years; Bonucci was at the heart of Italy’s Euros winning side. If this is the way the game is headed, then I suppose I can come to terms with it.