What it Means to be a Defender
The art of defending is changing.
Historically defenders have been the toughest players in the game. Aggressive, not scared to make a statement about football being a contact sport and with a ruthless edge to win the ball, top defenders are uncompromising.
New Zealand has produced some excellent ones. Danny Hay (Leeds), Ryan Nelsen (Blackburn) and now Winston Reid (West Ham) have each played Premier League football and captained their country.
While these footballers are best known for their defensive prowess, often overlooked is their individual ability with the ball.
Everyone is a Defender
The skill of defending is an essential attribute for the modern day footballer. Regardless of position, every player needs to be able to offer the team support both in and out of possession. While all modern day footballers need to be comfortable in possession, equally important are their defensive qualities out of possession.
Across the top European leagues defence starts with the players in offensive positions, higher up the pitch. Barcelona, Manchester City, Liverpool, and Borussia Dortmund all play a pressing game. An opponent of those teams knows that when it does get possession it will immediately be put under pressure to retain it.
But to achieve a press that is hard to bypass requires a collective approach.
Effective defending is complex, no longer being the sole preserve of the back four and goalkeeper, with some support from midfield. Today the whole team supporting a system across the pitch determines collective defensive success.
Structure is key, as are communication and understanding between players.
Due to the fluid nature of positions when a team attacks or presses, players need to have a high level of awareness, anticipation, and athleticism to avoid conceding goals.
Equally important is the ability of a backline player to quickly transition to attack. As defence starts with frontline players, so too does offense begin when the ball is won and quickly distributed before an opponent can regain a defensive shape.
Lovren and Matip
Two players worth watching this season to understand the role of the modern defender are Liverpool’s central combination – Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip.
Lovren endured an edgy start to his Liverpool career but has cemented himself as a leader at the club.
His recent finish in the victory over Chelsea aptly demonstrated this technical ability – neatly side footing home a volley at the far post after staying onside from a deep cross.
Lovren has the traditional strength of the centre back with his aerial power but it is his passing that makes him a valuable asset for Liverpool. With a pass completion rate of 85% he is able to accurately link with Liverpool players higher up the pitch to launch counter-attacks.
Matip, recently joined from the German club Schlake 04, is also an excellent distributor.
He played over 200 games in the Bundesliga, the first two seasons as a midfielder. That positional experience is evident in the smooth style he has on field. Standing at 195cm Matip is a tall man but particularly comfortable with the ball at his feet.
His discipline is also excellent – he received just two yellow cards in his Bundesliga career and one red meaning suspensions were a once in a blue moon event.
How this partnership develops will be a strong indicator of the likelihood of Liverpool launching a title challenge this season.
Everyone Has to Learn
The defender is always balancing two emotions.
Intensity and competitiveness are needed to win duels for the ball. But players also need to maintain a state of inner calm in order to make the right decision at all times. The slightest mistake can cost a goal.
Defending is far from a lost art but it is taking on a new form – collectively and individually. Regaining the ball remains one of the most important parts of the game but today, more than ever, individual attacking flair and creativity must be coupled with defensive intelligence and tenacity.
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