The art of defending has undergone a rapid transformation over the last twenty years or so. Generally speaking, the quality of individual defenders has declined in the global game. In the 1990s, the likes of Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Nesta, Tony Adams, Jaap Stam and Marcel Desailly roamed footballing contours. In the early 2000s, Sol Campbell, Rio Ferdinand, Fabio Cannavaro, Lucio and Carles Puyol were in their prime.
I don’t think it is just misty eyed nostalgia on my part to suggest that there are few centre halves of this calibre in the world game today. Even Thiago Silva, considered by many as the finest centre back in the world, was dropped from his national side for being flakier than dandruff in decisive moments. I think this to be a result of a few separate, but distinct factors.
Coverage of the game has never been more besotted with the individual, yet the sport has evolved towards increasingly collective tactical structures. The move away from the traditional strike pairing has seen defenders engaged less in one on one duels with strikers. Many sides have a totally fluid attacking apparatus, which means the days of Alan Shearer and Tony Adams smashing up against one another like waves on a rock are gone for now.
In response to fluid attacking formations, defensive solutions have become less individualistic. More often than not, a team with two centre halves has one identifiable striker to deal with together with a college of onrushing runners and riders. The threat is more diverse and therefore, defensive approaches need to be more flexible to try to deal with them. In short, intelligent defensive systems and players canny or obedient enough to operate within them are more important than quality individual defenders.
In conjunction with this, the rules have changed to the benefit of attackers. Tackling from behind, tackling abrasively or raising a boot or an arm in anger are pulled up far more keenly in this day and age. The defender’s toolbox has been raided over the years, offering them fewer individual solutions to foil attackers. Time has been called on ‘the reducer’ as a valid tactic for foiling opponents. Successful teams have arrived at creative solutions to offset this handicap.
Portugal found success at the Euros this summer with a conservative unit, based on a deep block, discipline and hard work. Atletico Madrid adopt a similar approach in Champions League ties against Europe’s elite sides. Pep Guardiola used possession as the ultimate defensive weapon. Keeping the ball away from your opponents disarms their ability to pressurise the back line. Many coaches favour a high octane pressing game, energetically coaxing opponents into errors.
While I fully agree that Arsenal need a centre half, I think their defending requires just as much attention on the training ground as the transfer market. Arsenal simply do not defend collectively and I think that any individual centre half that they sign will almost certainly not be able to play to their full potential at Arsenal. The club’s recent record at developing young centre halves is indicative in this respect.
Philippe Senderos, Johan Djourou and Matthew Upson simply did not develop as expected. Once shorn of the reassuring presence of Sol Campbell, you could possibly argue that Kolo Toure did not either. The manager’s actions suggest that Calum Chambers might be heading into this graveyard of defensive promise. (#WelcomeRobHolding). It’s no secret that defending is not Arsene’s strength as a coach and that he does not consider it a huge priority. That might explain why, traditionally, his coaching staff has been constructed largely of ex-defenders.
Wenger’s teams are capable of defending well when he devises his team in a more disciplined manner. This is true of most teams; Tony Pulis has created many stubborn defences using modest materials because midfield and attacking colleagues are instructed not to isolate the defenders. The ragtag Arsenal back four that kept ten consecutive clean sheets in the 2005-06 Champions League did so because the rest of the team was set up to protect them.
Arsenal define themselves as an attacking team, which always means they will be a little open. That is fine to an extent; they have certainly been successful in this manner before. Ferguson’s United sides were constructed in much the same manner. Those United and Arsenal teams largely relied on great individual defenders; Adams, Stam, Campbell, Ferdinand. For the first half of his reign, Wenger was able to call upon the likes of Adams and Campbell to stitch his back four together.
He probably envisaged a similar sort of role for William Gallas, who proved to be a good centre half but a poor leader. Per Mertesacker is the latest appointment to the ‘professor of defence’ title that the manager bestowed upon Adams. Per is an excellent centre-half, but not quite in the same vintage as Adams and Campbell. But Per is also a victim of outmoded thinking in this crucial area. Collectively, Arsenal do not value defending enough. It is still seen as something that the centre halves do, with the defensive midfielder on standby with an additional hose in case the fire rages.
The level of defender that Arsene once relied on to fasten his back four together is no longer available because defending does not work this way anymore. I watched Philippe Coutinho’s second goal unfold on Sunday with a familiar sense of rancour. Liverpool strung 19 passes together in the build up to that move. They did not move the ball especially quickly or even precisely. This wasn’t a peak Xavi and Iniesta pushing the ball around the pitch like a hockey puck. This was Jordan fucking Henderson and chums putting together a fairly loose succession of passes and touches without challenge.
This move did not take place in the 88th minute with the team’s energy reserves sapped. This was the 56th minute, fatigue was not a factor. It was pure idleness off the ball and it is an all too common occurrence. Without the ball, Arsenal’s attack and most of Arsenal’s midfield either breaks into a light jog back towards their own goal, or else they stand with their hands on their hips watching their defensive colleagues attempt to hold off a firing squad with kitchen utensils.
Like Albert Camus’ Meursault, they consider themselves detached observers to this dark menagerie. A shift in this attitude is far more important to me than a new centre back. Were I an available centre half on the market; I would not relish the opportunity to join Arsenal. The level of exposure you will experience will prevent you from reaching your full potential and most observers will probably figure that it’s your fault. If you’re a central defender, joining Arsenal is a bit like being a chicken and joining KFC.
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