The importance of a central defensive partnership

The best defence is a good offence is an infamous adage that has been used in the military field for some time in order to pre-occupy the opposition and, in due course, harm them. And while it is easy to relate the term to board games such as Risk, applying it to football can easily be justified.

When it comes to the beautiful game, out-scoring your opponents was always the philosophy of former Argentina World Cup winner and Tottenham manager Ossie Ardiles and it is barely a shock when he was fired from his role. The prospect of a game containing goals, goals and more goals may excite the fans but be a nightmare for the owners, which is why the Argentine was given the boot in 94 and managed a monumental 14 clubs in 19-years.

The basis of playing a game where ‘you outscore your opponents’ is a platform for disaster. The fact that remains is that a solid back-four is the foundation of a winning team. And perhaps, more importantly, a recognised and consistent central-defensive partnership. Great teams in the past have been reliant on the on a formidable duo commanding the defence and ensuring the goalkeeper behind them is rarely tested.

From Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol of today’s triumphant Spain and Barcelona sides, to Alessandro Costacurta and Franco Baresi of the excellent 1989 AC Milan team while who can forget Jackie Charlton and Bobby Moore in 1966, the foundation of any great side is based on the two players that can lead the back-line to success.

In today’s modern game, it is important to have two defenders of completely different physical attributes. In the past, the two centre-backs were required to be the bruisers of the team, along with one or both of the centre-midfielders, but since then, only one of the two is seen as the man to put his head in where it shouldn’t, physically rough up the opposition front-men and, of course, commandeer the back-line as if it was their last game.

Now, at least one of the defenders has to be a ball playing one in order for the back-four to be considered a success. The accomplishment of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, from 2006, with Manchester United has to be the foundation for the cotemporary defensive partnership. Serbian Vidic was considered the half of the duo that will repel every attack with minimal ease ensuring anything thrown towards the United 18-yard box was easily dealt with.

Meanwhile, Ferdinand is the one who can play the ball out without having to hoof it 70-yards up-field. The player who can start an attack from the back while the England man’s adaption and positional sense was, on his heyday, second to none. Many clubs have since followed the blueprint laid out by Sir Alex Ferguson and adopted his defensive approach to their respective teams.

Chelsea, for example, will play John Terry alongside David Luiz due to their contrasting abilities, Liverpool the same with Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger. Across Europe, the aforementioned duo of Pique and Puyol works for Barca, Borussia Dortmund currently pair Neven Subotic and Mats Hummels together and AC Milan rely on Alessandro Nesta and Thiago Silva to shut out the attacks.

The perfect formulaic solution is one who heads the long balls away paired with a team-mate who can read the game and has enough pace to recover should one or the other make a mistake. Two ‘warrior’ defenders don’t work together, I reference to the 5-1 humbling Manchester City gave Tottenham back in August and who started for Spurs? Michael Dawson and Younes Kaboul. Two defenders who can’t read the game well but can certainly win an aerial threat or two. However, it isn’t ideal when one of the duo can’t read the game as well as, say, teammates Ledley King and William Gallas can.

If you needed anymore proof that two of the same defenders don’t work in the modern game of football, that Premiership encounter is more than enough evidence. Furthermore, when it came to Inter Milan at the beginning of the season under Gian Piero Gasperini, of whom tried to implement a 3-4-3 with the Nerazzuri, it perhaps stood a better chance of success if Inter if the centre-backs weren’t as particular ‘wooden’ as they are. Walter Samuel, Lucio and Andrea Ranocchia aren’t three defenders that are going to outpace the likes of Robinho, Bojan Krkic and Edinson Cavani.

When opponents lump the ball in the air, fair enough the trio would be able to deal with the danger effortlessly but, against teams who enjoy the pass and move game, the trio were struggling. Now, under Claudio Ranieri, the Italian has re-instilled a consistent back-four, of which Samuel and Lucio were accustomed to and worked extremely well under Jose Mourinho and it is no surprise they currently find themselves back in fifth after a shambolic start to the season. With the game ever changing, players becoming fitter and faster by the season, a need for the right balance in the back-four has never been more essential.

Ben McAleer

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