Our European guru educates and enlightens
Philippe Albert’s first touch wasn’t great.
The ball rolled too far to his left but there was plenty of space and he had time to notice the keeper was out of his goal before he accelerated towards the penalty area and, from 25 yards out, chipped the ball over two defenders and Peter Schmeichel to score the goal of his life.
Albert’s chip for Newcastle against Manchester United in October 1996 wasn’t just sublime, it was 15 years ahead of its time.
The centre-back is being surreptitiously, radically reinvented.
One day, maybe, all centre-backs will be expected to score goals like Albert’s – even if they will also be expected to defend like Franco Baresi.
Going spare at the back
The tactical rationale behind this reinvention has been explained, with characteristic eloquence, by Jonathan Wilson.
Simply put, the rarity of 4-4-2 and the changing role of the striker mean that one centre-back in the traditional back four is effectively spare.
As Wilson says when predicting the return of the sweeper, “The history of tactics is the history of the manipulation of space” and this underworked centre-back may now have the most space on the pitch.
If that centre-back could – as Philippe Albert, Klaus Augenthaler, Franz Beckenbauer, Ronald Koeman and Ruud Krol have all done – play with the confidence of a libero and take the ball into midfield, starting and finishing attacks, they could transform their team’s prospects.
With one centre-back redundant, you might expect more teams to play 3-5-2.
But redeploying that spare centre-back into the congested midfield actually throws away the space and leaves your remaining centre-back with less cover.
It's far more likely that, under a 4-5-1, 4-4-1-1 or 4-3-3, the spare centre-back becomes an attacking central defender who can swap roles with the defensive anchormen.
Ideally, both central defenders and both anchormen would become interchangeable.
Centre-backs can then make the most of the space in front of them and, by running from unexpected areas, confuse and vex opposing midfielders.
These libero-style centre-backs will need the intelligence to read the opportunity when it arises.
Beckenbauer was a master of this. In September 1965, the Kaiser seized the initiative in a vital World Cup qualifier against Sweden.
With the Swedes unsettled by an equaliser, and West Germany needing to win, his sudden run into midfield created the winner for Uwe Seeler.
And in England the following summer, Beckenbauer scored more goals than Bobby Charlton.
Andy Roxburgh, UEFA’s technical director, sees the redefinition of the centre-back as the latest stage in an evolution which has transformed the roles of goalkeepers, full-backs, wingers and strikers – who have all, to differing degrees, become more multi-tasking.
The buzz word is “universality,” which Wilson explains by drawing an analogy with table football: “Get beyond a certain level and the key attacking players become the back two because they have time and the space behind them to line up a shot; the three forwards take on a function as blockers.”
Defence is the best form of attack
The complicating factor in all this is, as ever, the player.
Many attackers can defend but only a handful of central defenders – Gerard Pique and Lucio are the most obvious – have what it takes, at the very highest level, to attack.
The dearth of attacking centre-backs may be the most underrated skill shortage in football today.
The visionary coaches who encouraged the kind of fluidity that typified Total Football – Valeriy Lobanovskiy and Viktor Maslov at Dynamo Kyiv, Rinus Michels at Ajax and Arrigo Sacchi at Milan – were all great dictators who developed young teams.
In the case of Michels and Sacchi, they were also empowered by being hired in a crisis.
The most recent of these autocracies – Sacchi’s – only lasted four years and even Sacchi’s pupil, Fabio Capello, felt obliged to redesign the master’s system, making the Rossoneri more functional.
Today, in an age when footballers are celebrities and sportsmen, it will be much harder for coaches to systematically develop such universality.
Under Michels at Ajax, Krol could occupy any position in defence and midfield – and was happy to do so.
But in today’s game, where a multi-millionaire central defender is advised by agents, flunkies and sycophants, players might be less willing to take the risk.
After a few off-days in an unfamiliar role, it's easy to imagine an international-class defender lobbying against this approach in the dressing room, on the training ground and even through plausibly deniable whispers to the media.
A Belgian conundrum
Managers may find it easier to buy central defenders who can play a bit or train as much flexibility as they can into talented youngsters with the hunger to succeed.
Or they could just hang around Ajax youth games to see if they can spot the next Thomas Vermaelen, a versatile attacking centre-back who, like Albert, happens to be Belgian.
Given that Belgium has one of Europe’s most defensive football cultures (as one Anderlecht fan put it: “Every team plays like it is terrified of losing”), I’m not sure if the likes of Albert and Vermaelen have risen because of or in spite of the kind of football they grew up with.
Besides, Vermaelen never played professionally in Belgium but emerged at Ajax, which has nurtured such goalscoring centre-backs as Krol, Koeman and Frank de Boer.
Certainly his second goal against Wigan, an attack he started and finished, was worthy of Krol.
And in Arsene Wenger he has a coach whose approach resembles the autocratic visionaries of yore.
Football often evolves by harking back to its dim, distant past.
Under the old 2-3-5 system, centre-halves were deep-lying central midfielders. (Indeed, in Argentina, the No5 shirt is usually given to central midfielders.)
But in October 1925, Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal, partly in response to recent changes in the offside law, switched to W-M with Jack Butler told to play as a stopper.
Butler was too creative – and defensively vulnerable – to prosper in that role for long and he was replaced by Herbie Roberts, a gifted youngster from Oswestry Town whose genius, Chapman’s No.2 Tom Whittaker said, “came from the fact that he was intelligent and, even more important, did what he was told."
Roberts’ heirs will still be stoppers, but if they are to flourish they will need the central intelligence of Butler, Beckenbauer and Albert.
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The players that could be classed as 'modern-sweepers' today are Lucio, Pique, Vermaelen and perhaps Agger.
Out of all those, Lucio is the most adept. Pique was never trained to play that way at Man Utd, only since he has been with Guardiola. Vermaelen I must see more of to judge. Agger is also adept although with Johnson in the team now he may lose some of his license to roam forward.
Advancing centre backs I would call them. I am skeptical of the resurgence of the libero (sweeper) because it relies on extraordinary mental abilities. Like a Fabregas who can defend.
Rather I see with the increased universality of players, defenders will be more athletic and better technique and will alternate in their moments to get forward.
Yet another five-star blog by the Paul Simpson - fantastic thought and insight onto an interesting topic. I agree with much of what's been said so far and would only like to humbly throw one other name into the ring for consideration - that of one DANIEL VAN BUYTEN. As this blog was evidently inspired by the decisive playmaking of a Belgian center back of a bygone era, its a bit ironic that the "Big Belgian" hasn't been mentioned. Lucio and Pique aside, he's probably the best goal scorer in the world at his position, with the aptitude and intelligence for progressing the ball up the field at the right time. Granted most of his goals do come from set plays (headers, numerically), but he has has an incredibly high attacking IQ in general. Everytime I see him play I think to myself - wow - Byern Munchen is squandering something really special here. This is a man that should be allowed to rove at will, reinvigorating the moribund stopper position. Byern are kind of weak in the middle anyway (Temuchuck - pardon the spelling) isn't getting the job done. With Van Buyten coming forward to support on his own intuition - Byern would have a sure fire formula to disrupt most any defense in Europe me thinks.
Step forward Micah Richards...
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