With the standard of defending in the modern game slipping to an all-time low Andy Robinson attacks the indefensible.
Currently one of the most talked about area’s in the national game is the art of defending or in the views of the pundits on our TV screens, the lack of it. Every week either on Sky or Match of The Day the viewing football public get to hear Neville, Carragher, Keown and the others lambast and criticise the poor defending that is almost always on show. Seeing as I haven’t got a fancy TV studio with all the latest gadgetry and technology to sit in and illustrate my point (that’s probably a blessing as I would most likely break the equipment) I am going to address the issue from the most unusual of starting points. I am going to use the example of Vincent Kompany.
Now I am a City fan and I just love Vinny. He is articulate, accomplished, a leader of men and clearly head and shoulders above every other defender in the premiership right now. Most observers and judges also have him in perhaps the best three or four defenders in the world alongside perhaps Thiago Silva of Paris St Germain and Brazil and Ramos of Real Madrid and Spain. I do as well. The thing is though if I was choosing the best ten defenders I have seen in the premiership since it started a little over twenty years ago; Vinny just scrapes into my top ten. So if that’s my take on Kompany as the very best where does it leave the likes of Chris Smalling and why has defending become so poor?
Tactical and rule changes since the early days of the premiership have seen the introduction of the straight red card for the professional foul and then later on came the clampdown on the tackle from behind so the job did indeed become a little harder but this was compensated immeasurably by the great tactical change of the early nineties which saw the role of the holding midfield player come into the game. Some sides successfully deployed two of these players. With extra bodies in front of them the defenders became lazy and began to lose their fundamental skill set of good positional play and marking and most of all timing both in the tackle and in making interceptions to the play. The hard work was being done for them. One excuse for the decline often offered is a lack of communication. With the premiership being littered with imports from abroad you can often see a back four line up with four defenders from four different nationalities. This theory however can’t hold up when you consider the last three title winning sides – City twice and United the once have contained players from seven different nationalities and only the two Englishmen.
The most fashionable defensive debate at the moment with the viewing public and the commentators appears to be the constant wrestling at corners. Introduced to this country by Ricardo Carvalho of Chelsea around a decade ago it quickly spread to his contemporaries, Vidic at United and Carragher at Liverpool and then throughout the game. It is only now after constant replays on Match of the Day that the referees are waking up and smelling the coffee. One of them even gave a penalty last week.
The latest development that is allowing our defenders to be rubbish and get away with their constant sloppiness is the foul that takes one for the team. The absolutely brilliant and wonderful Gareth Barry and his big fat arse may be the one responsible for introducing this. Sides are on the verge of building an attack and across steps Gareth, a booking ensues but play is stopped and the defenders get another chance to retake their position and organise as a group. Shirt pulling and the blocking off of a forward runner with momentum are now common place and the most recent “event” game televised Chelsea and United was littered with incidents like these. Although these incidents are nearly always punished with a yellow card and the referees to be fair don’t actually miss many of these – the yellow card is these days little more than the slightest of taps on wrists. All the major leagues in Europe allow up to five or six yellow cards before any sort of a ban and on top of this the players can get an amnesty if they get past Christmas with just four and then again less than nine by around Easter time. I genuinely believe it is on this point that our game could change. As far as I am aware the FA and not UEFA or FIFA are responsible for the governance and discipline in the domestic game. Actually, in view of some of the more ridiculous decisions and judgements they come out with they have to be. The FA could steal a march here and help both the domestic game and our woeful national side. Turn the clock back to the days when it was three bookings and you miss a game. Even better, make it two bookings and we could see our defenders once more regain the skills where they mark a man from a free kick or a corner and they stay on their feet and they don’t wander out of position constantly (yes, I mean you Leighton Baines). Let’s see a return to a decent standard of defending.
I don’t think anyone would miss the constant interruption to the game of the dishing out of yellow cards and the football public aren’t stupid enough to think the game is all about great goals. The middle aged amongst us miss great defending. The only drawback I can see to my idea is that my own personal favourite Pablo Zabaleta may just be a little too old to change and City may have to force him onto a pay as you play deal. Still you can’t have everything.