Defenders think they are different. No, actually, that is not right. They know they are different.
They look up the field towards their attacking and midfield colleagues and see men who can take a break – have a rest in between one attack and the next, letting the defenders do their job.
Of course, not a complete rest – we haven’t got to the stage of seeing camp beds out on the pitch – but in essence when the opposition has the ball and is moving forward, all an attacker can do is run at modest pace (so as not to draw attention to himself) to find the gap into which he can accelerate when his defence regains the ball and looks to move it on quickly.
But not only does the defender have to be on high alert all the time, these days he also has to be the great tactician, not just getting the ball but also passing it out of defence with a single movement that turns the entire game around.
It is, in fact, all about the ball and what you do with it, when you have it. The two yard passes that Gilberto used to do once he had undertaken his “invisible wall” act aren’t on any more.
Now defenders have to deliver passes that instantly create attacks. Which is why when you take a look at the pass completion rate tables there is invariably one defender in the top three these days. In fact, if you want to see who is going to win the Premier League title in Betway‘s latest football betting markets – look for the club with the defenders who know how to pass.
In short, playing out from the back is not an option. It is the only option.
As a result the notion of the keeper collecting the ball and then thumping it up the field in the hope that the midfielders can knock it down for an attacker to run onto is as out of date as paying 50p to watch a first division game on the terraces. Now it is all about playing it out from the back along with the ability to deliver a sudden upturn in the pace of the game.
Of course the quality of the pitches in the Premier League has been a major factor in making this possible. The pinpoint passing that is now a central feature of the game simply cannot exist if the ball is liable to get stuck in the mud.
Thus what we have now is a game built on individual talent and skill – the talent and skill to move the ball forward accurately and at speed. The notion of collective discipline which was at the heart of the game during the era of George Graham is now just a relic of the past.
And of course these changes in the approach to defending have affected all other parts of the pitch.
Clubs previously played with two strikers, each sharing the task of bearing down on the opposition keeper with the ball, or lurking in the box ready for a lobbed cross that could be headed down.
Now we have false nines who have no interest in a bullying match with the defenders, but are much more interested in the pinpoint pass which is beyond the lumbering centre half before he has a chance to turn.
As a result, managers are no longer on the lookout for the tough hardman centre forward who was going to take on the centre half man for man. Think Malcolm Macdonald, think John Radford, and if you know your Arsenal history, think Ted Drake. Wonderful players all, but now their time has past.
This new breed of attackers contains players who are phenomenally skilful, clever, talented and intelligent. Being a big defender who can intimidate the attacker might help in League One, but it is most certainly not going to work when one is faced with the likes of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp or indeed Pierre Emerick Aubameyang.
For defenders skill is, most certainly, as important as strength. If not more so. Welcome to the new world.
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