Sat | Mar 24, 2018

Oral Tracey | Defending: Football's lost art

Published:Tuesday | December 12, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Juventus' Giorgio Chiellini (right) challenges Bayern Munich's Arjen Robben during a UEFA Champions League quarter final match in Munich, Germany on April 2, 2013.

I stand one hundred per cent behind my pronouncement last week on the morning sports show Sports Explosion on HITZ 92 FM that modern defenders are poor compared to the defenders of 25, 30, or even 40 years ago.

Defending is rapidly becoming the lost art of football, and the pure, high-quality complete defender is becoming an endangered species, falling victim to the offensive evolution of the game.

Modern defenders no longer focus exclusively on the core functions of defending. They are now much more rounded players, well cultured in other skill sets such as passing and dribbling and are generally now better users of the ball. That evolution has come at the price of a compromise of the defensive fundamentals such as marking, tracking, anticipating, intercepting, and tackling. The fact that the average defender of today plays much higher up the pitch also means that inevitably, defensive positioning is compromised, thus they get caught out of position more often and are more prone to fall short on defensive assignments.

It should, therefore, not come as a surprise the number of basic defending errors that are committed by supposedly top-class defenders. Modern defenders have become casualties of a major philosophical shift in the game. This is partially the reason why so many players can make the transition so easily from being midfielders to becoming defenders as ball-handling skills have become the first pre-requisite for playing a modern defensive role and not defensive prowess.

When you flash back to defenders such as Italian greats Paolo Maldini, Giuseppe Bergomi, Franco Baresi, and Claudio Gentile, as well as Argentine general Daniel Passarella, German legend Franz Beckenbauer, and Brazilian Maestro Carlos Alberto, who of the contemporary stars of the game the likes of Sergio Ramos, Gerald Pique , Giorgio Chiellini, Eric Bailley, Vincent Kompany, Laurent Koscielny could displace any of the aforementioned from the previous era from any of their respective teams?




Subsequent to making my observation, I learnt that I was not alone in my thinking as Italian international defender Giorgio Chiellini recently opined that Pep Guardiola, the man credited with ultra-revolutionising the modern attacking game, was ruining defenders with his style of football. Chiellini said that Italian defenders can now spread the ball but have forgotten the basics of the role such as marking. He added that as Italians, they are losing their DNA, which were the defensive characteristics that made them excel in the game.

This is more of an observation on my part than a criticism of the modern game. The notion that we cannot, or should not, seek to compare players across eras is ludicrous. Those of us who are privileged to have seen at least some of the legends of the past, as well as the entire current crop of defenders, absolutely make the comparisons and come to a reasonable conclusion, which is exactly what I have done.

In making this particular observation and in coming to my conclusion, the furthest thing from my mind was to try and belittle the extraordinary goal-scoring records of modern superstars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Both players have consistently scored over 50 goals per season over the past several seasons. It is, however, quite reasonable to deduce that if the quality of today's defending is comparatively poor, then it must factor into the analysis of their goalscoring exploits. The fact that these two have excelled so far above their contemporary peers could simply be because they have that much more quality and talent, but it is also reasonable to think that Messi and Ronaldo's high-scoring returns are a combination of their superior individual brilliance and some quite ordinary modern defending by some quite ordinary defenders.