Defenders are becoming more adept with the ball on their feet and confident going forward, as compared to the previous generation.
Gone are the days when the position of the centre-backs only required towering physicality and when players in the said position could be termed as good defenders by simply overpowering the opposition with strength and aggressiveness. The advent of modern football has significantly changed the role of a centre back or more traditionally, the sweeper back.
The ever-changing approach towards the game demands more and more from the players regardless of their roles on the pitch. A striker needs to defend too, a defender needs to attack and play penetrating passes from the back, the full-back has more attacking duties than before and the goalkeeper needs to be more composed on the ball while keeping possession. All these “extra” requirements were absent, say roughly 10-15 years back, when roles/positions on the pitch were more rigid and specific.
Focusing on the centre-back position, it can be observed that the transformation of this role has caused alterations on both on and off the field. Now, a centre-back has the added responsibility of starting attacking moves from the back rather than the goalkeeper kicking the ball up the field towards the halfway line. Managers like Pep Guardiola and Unai Emery are advocates of this style and demand their back line to exchange more passes between them even sometimes making upto 8-10 passes inside their own box. This tactic makes the opponent press higher-up which allows gaps in the midfield that can be exploited.
Manchester City center-backs play the ball from deep inside their own box as shown above
Keeping our lens on Manchester City here, they have a custodian like Ederson who is exceptionally composed on the ball and more often than not releases stoppers like John stones or Aymeric Laporte in spaces where they can be seen galloping with the ball in the opponent’s half. Whereas before, centre-backs were primarily meant to simply provide support and stayed deep in their own half while their team attacked. The modern-day centre-back now is an active part of the attacking unit and plays in through balls in the final third.
Manchester City stoppers played higher up against United to contribute in the attack
Managers today put their faith in centre-backs that are better on the ball. Point in case is Phil Jones at Manchester United, as his composure on the ball makes him a more preferable option in the lineup than someone like Marcos Rojo, who is although physically more adept but lacks the ability to stay composed and play accurate passes.
Stats also tell the same story, as Jones has a pass success rate of 92.7% as compared to Rojo’s 84.8%. Infact, the stats suggest that the top-rated defenders today are mostly exceptional passers of the ball, example Sergio Ramos who has a pass success rate of 92.6%. Other defenders like Jerome Boateng (87.2%), David Luiz (88.6%) etc are also good passers of the ball. While some centre-backs may have better pass success rate than above-mentioned players, it’s the forward passes that are crucial and this is where the modern centre-back excels.
Contrary to common belief, the centre-back position is less about physicality and lunging towards attackers but more about anticipation, observation and the ability to read the gameplay, filling the gaps, covering for full-backs/wingers and intercepting through balls.
The changed approach has also led to the change in the conditioning of players off-the-pitch. Many of the top-rated centre-backs today are not the biggest or the heaviest. Players like Victor Lindelof, Rafael Varane, and Thiago Silva to name a few thrive on their ability to read the gameplay and anticipate the attacking moves of the opposition. Earlier, players like Jaap Stam, or more recent ones in Vincent Kompany or Kurt Zouma bank on their strength to dominate, but the increased pace of the game demands the stoppers to be faster who can outrun the pacy attackers and that’s where some centre-backs remain lacking. This is where the centre-back position has gone through a significant change as far as the conditioning of the players is concerned.
Defenders, particularly the stoppers today are leaner than before, but not necessarily weaker. They play higher-up the field and have the speed and stamina to track back in case of a turnover of possession. Sandesh Jhingan is one of the fastest stoppers domestically and is rarely outpaced by the strikers. Perhaps, Marc Bartra of today may not get outpaced by Gareth Bale.
The modern centre-backs/full-backs are as fast as the attackers – here are some instances
It is rather interesting to see how a different approach on the field can be attributed to a change in approach off of it. It goes to show the importance of the coaches and the support staff who perform the pivotal role of preparing the players for the myriad of roles they perform on the pitch.
However, considering all the changes that have taken place, the fundamental qualities that the centre-back position requires remain unchanged. The ability to have unwavering concentration, composure and being aggressive are still prerequisites for any upcoming stopper and self-confidence is the key to success in the long run.