The role of the defender has probably changed more than that of any other player on the pitch over the last decade, and it has brought to a head stark differences in teaching the defensive arts. The way a team utilizes its defenders has become one of the main characteristics of a club and a manager. That phrase “the way a team utilizes its defenders,” as opposed to “the way a team defends” is at the crux of the issue. It is something that the best managers and coaches and the most forward-thinking clubs put into practice early in the development of talent. So, what is the difference, and what are the key things that prevent it from being put into practice?
The Changing Face of Defending
You only need to look at the top clubs in European football to see that those that place an emphasis on defending — and doing so in the way we will go into detail here — are the ones that are successful. Oddschecker shows the clubs that are the favorites for the Champions League, three of the top four, and perhaps even four of the top five have concentrated on their defense to propel them to the next level. In the EPL alone, the so-called big five (Manchester City, Manchester United, the Spurs, Chelsea and Liverpool) have spent over £410 million on defenders since 2017. Manchester City alone — the side viewed as one of the most attacking sides in world football — has spent more than £175 million on defenders in that time.
In the same way that forwards expect to get back and defend, and goalkeepers are to use their feet almost as much as their hands, today’s successful defender needs to have an offensive side to his game. And not only in the traditional way.
Pacey fullbacks with the ability to cross the ball have been a part of the modern game for decades. What Liverpool and especially Manchester City have, though, goes a lot deeper. For Pep Guardiola, the acquisition of specialized fullbacks has allowed two crucial factors that, as predicted by some at the time, have turned his team’s fortunes around. The first of those is that the fullbacks stretch the pitch by hugging the touchline. That pulls players out of position but also, creates space further upfield that they can then exploit.
The other thing that has changed at City and is crucial to the way that Guardiola wants his teams to play is the speed of transition. If you have the blessing of the pace of a Kyle Walker, you can achieve that with flying sorties down the wing. Not everyone is, of course, but instilling into the fullbacks and those players in front of the back three, four or five is crucial in successfully turning the defense into a potent attack. It is a change in mindset and one that needs instilling in all the players on the pitch. It also requires concentration and the elimination of the coaches’ biggest bugbears, that of ball watching. Then and only then can the team play the fluid back-to-front game that is not only a delight to watch but an absolute nightmare to defend against when encountered.
Not All About the Fullbacks
The biggest evolution at Manchester City, however, has not been with the fullbacks. Eyebrows raised when Guardiola put so much money and faith in John Stones. In typical English style, many deemed the young Stones as a player with obvious talent but having too many mistakes in his locker. Stones though, and his partner at the back, Aymeric Laporte, have changed the way that people view center backs. Ball playing center backs are not unique, but a significant role of these two is once again that word transition. They not only have to win the ball but also set up the overload that is so much a part of City’s effectiveness as an offensive unit. It is that ability, both to recognize the opportunity but also, to carry it out and crucially carry it out quickly, that sets the new breed of ball playing center back apart. It is because those characteristics that Guardiola paid so much for those specific players.
It is a fine line though. All that would be of little concern if the defenders were not able to carry out the defensive side of their duties. Ultimately, many judge defenders by the number of goals their team concede, but rapidly that is not enough. Not everyone will have the skill set to spot the perfect ball, much less to deliver it. A coach can instill in his defenders, but the mindset that their role does not end when the ball hasn’t crossed the line or reached the opposition striker. Therefore, it is the job of a defender to not only defend but to transition a defensive position into an attacking one, and that is something that every player, regardless of ability, can at the least learn.