“Defending is a dying art,” proclaimed Sean Dyche last year. “You can ask coaches across the country, the one thing they are struggling for is defenders who can defend and want to defend.”
He isn’t the only one to fear that this noblest of footballing arts is taking its final, rasping breaths. “Premier League football is witnessing the death of defending as I knew it – and it's not coming back,” announced the headline of a Gary Neville Telegraph column in 2014.
And that's not to mention other pundits who have joined him in the refrain.
Bobby Moore, Franz Beckenbauer, and Franco Baresi are the players who are consistently at the top of the list for history’s greatest central defenders.
So what made them so great, and have the modern breed lost these talents?
Old matches are fuzzy. Players are, for the most part, blurs. Square aspect ratio keeps them off-screen for most of the game.
But bits and pieces of useful footage exist. And from the odd games available, it’s clear that Moore was magnificent.
His ability on the ball is immediately noticeable. His touch was good and consistent under pressure; he was, for the time, relatively two-footed; and his range was superb. These are only a handful of clips.
Moore was also pretty ‘modern’ in the positions he took up when his team had the ball.
Take this clip from the FA Cup final of 1975, where he’s playing for Fulham – they lost, against Moore’s former club West Ham United, 2-0.
The short exchange of passes and movement opens up the other side of the pitch for the Cottagers. A less aware player would have stood still after laying off the first pass. The movement is something that, nowadays, we’d credit a coach like Pep Guardiola instilling into his defenders.
But this is all talking about possession and not the defending itself.
Moore’s understanding of when to fill the space just in front of the defensive line would be put to better use today, rather than in the 1960s and ‘70s when defences backed off heavily.
However, if he was a John Stones on the ball, he had a touch of Nicolas Otamendi off it. The Englishman stuck closely to the back of strikers if they dropped to receive a pass, sometimes to good effect, but sometimes not so much.
The collection of clips below is a side of Moore that history tends not to remember; fouling or otherwise failing to tackle opponents.
This isn’t the defender of whom Jock Stein said: “There should be a law against him as he knows what's happening 20 minutes before everyone else”.
If you’re going to talk about whether the art of defending has been lost, you need to be honest about one of its best practitioners.
Although, when he did succeed in making a tackle, it could lead to sequences like this, which is magnificently avant-garde for a centre-half.
Ah, Beckenbauer. The best way to imagine Der Kaiser as a centre-back is to imagine Andrea Pirlo had been moved back alongside the (proper) central defenders later in his career.
Beckenbauer wasn’t a bad defensive player but it wasn’t his primary function, and any list of the best defenders that includes him is a bad one.
A forward-thinking midfielder turned glorified six-yard box patrolman, the split of the German’s attack/defence balance is epitomised by a YouTube clip called ‘Franz Beckenbauer — the art of defending’ where the sum total of Beckenbauer’s defending is picking up a loose ball and calmly flicking it away to a team-mate.
Perhaps the next in the series will be ‘Muhammad Ali — the art of boxing’ where the heavyweight legend spars with a punching bag.
Franco Baresi (and his Italian buddies)
Watching the greats of central defending throughout history involves watching a lot of AC Milan. Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta and Alessandro Costacurta are all considered some of the greats who played for Milan in their era of dominance. And that's not to mention non-Italians like Jaap Stam or Marcel Desailly.
Given the stereotype of boring Italian defending, it's surprising to see a certain mad chaos about the team at times.
Here’s Baresi rushes out against Real Madrid and the gap he leaves means his partner has to pull the opposition forward down and take a yellow.
Throughout the 00s, Gennaro Gattuso took this on almost all by himself. Every Milan centre-back benefitted from him, and others, doing a lot of leg-work in front of them.
Oh, and Maldini’s lack of tackling — at least in the English understanding of the word — is a myth anyway.
At age 39 Maldini had 3.88 padj tackles per 90 (on an elite team). Same myth exists about Xabi Alonso. People like football myths
— Ted Knutson (@mixedknuts) January 7, 2017
3.4 per match at the Euros and the World Cup finals. Definitely a myth. Not as bad as Zidane never having been caught offside. @mixedknuts
— Orbinho (@Orbinho) August 15, 2017
Maldini was good, but Baresi — being further removed from the present — deserves a bit of time spent on him to understand why he was great.
His footwork was superb. Look at how he glides, absolutely effortlessly, between his feet and hips facing one way and then another. That's a lot harder than it looks.
Good footwork means defenders can react quicker, whether that’s to tackle, to intercept, or to keep pace with a striker.
There's no use reading the game if you can't move your feet, and Baresi's footwork meant he could react quicker than anyone else.
The similarities between the greats
The graininess of video available, and differences in styles of football, make it difficult to judge some defensive qualities.
Most defenders nowadays get found out when elite strikers are making runs around them, and it’s the awareness of modern centre-backs in these situations that makes them stand out.
The long-ball football of decades gone by, combined with the low-quality footage, lack of replays, and square aspect ratio makes looking for moments of defensive awareness into gold-dust, though.
The clearest example of any of the games viewed was actually a moment of it being lacking, or perhaps Beckenbauer just wanted to boot a Dutchman.
Good footwork is a thread through all of the greats, and so is a really good understanding of what space on the pitch needs filling.
Sometimes this is in front of them, plugging a hole between the lines; sometimes it’s a sweeper role; sometimes it’s in possession, charging forward to give some impetus to their team.
This makes sense. Football is a game of space. Which team controls what space dictates who can advance towards goal, who can get into dangerous positions, and, in the end, who can score.
Understanding space is the essential mental factor; good footwork (and general fitness) is the essential physical part.
So is the art of defending really dying?
Let’s go back to that 2014 Gary Neville column. Although the headline prophesied doom, the article itself was a lot more measured. Neville considered a changing emphasis in training, technical minutiae, a declining consistency among starting line-ups, the effect of rule changes, and a resurgence of attacking football in general.
He’s absolutely right. Any Golden Age of defending was more about the sport as a whole than it was about the individual players.
Tactics take some of the blame for making modern centre-backs look bad, though. We’re living in an age where teams are ordered to be more compact than ever, with as little space between front and back lines as possible.
On the contrary, look at this passage from the European Championship final in 2000. That's a left-back tucking in making the challenge, with Laurent Blanc, the centre-back, just on-screen at the end.
Football wasn’t like this across all of time and geography — the early Premier League was far more compact, for example — but it tended to be like this in the eras the legends played in.
It’s no coincidence that several of the ‘all-time greats’ played sweeper roles. It’s easy to look good when you glide in to clear up the messes of others; it’s much harder to look good when you’re the one having to make all the challenges.
So Dyche was wrong?
Let’s be fair to Dyche’s comments that managers can’t find defenders who want to defend. At the level below the very top, where Dyche rather than Baresi is operating, there could be more of a problem.
While all of the greats were fantastic on the ball, the midfielderfication of football might have influenced decisions at academy level.
Maybe, on a mass scale, defensively-limited but skilled ball-players were being picked over defensively-skilled youngsters who were limited on the ball. The assumption might have been that it would be easier to coach defensive skills than technical ones.
Coaches would be best placed to know whether this is the case but they might also have a vested interest in making it seem like finding good defenders is difficult nowadays.
However, at the top of the game, the quality of the players are much the same as they’ve ever been. Long live the art of defending.