The decline of the classical defender

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© Getty Images

The decline of the classical defender

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Sooraj Kapur


This past summer, many of the European clubs scrambled over to sign defenders for huge transfer fees and that too when most of them were untested on the big stage. What has brought about the demise of the modern defender that forces clubs to pay inflated fees for them.

This past summer, as Antonio Conte looked to bring about some changes to a tattered Chelsea squad that embarrassed itself in their title defence last season. The area that needed improvement was glaringly obvious-- Defence!  Jose Mourinho, the man at the helm of the aforementioned title defence,  now in the bright red of Manchester United, wasted no time in buying a new spine for his new club. Marquee signings like Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic were made to beef up an insipid attack. A defender was all that was left. The ex-Chelsea boss spent £30 million-odd of Eric Bailly from Villareal, a huge price for someone so relatively untested. Across the town, Pep Guardiola looked to stamp his authority in City’s defence, shipping off Joe Hart and buying John Stones for £50 million.

United's 30 million-odd buy of talented but inexperienced Eric Bailly indicates the shortage of quality defenders on the transfer market © Getty

Conte’s hunt for some defensive solidity was the most farcical, with a £60 million bid for Napoli’s Koulibaly rejected. He got the same response to a £35 million bid he submitted for AC Milan’s young Alessio Romagnoli, and after briefly eyeing PSG’s Marquinhos, he had to settle for a £35 million fee for David Luiz. Elsewhere, Bayern snapped up Dortmund’s defensive bedrock, Mats Hummels while they too have struggled to replace their talismanic captain, bringing in Marc Bartra from Barcelona. Dortmund’s defence this season has looked shaky (injuries haven’t helped either) and Bartra, while reliable, is no Hummels.

There’s been a common theme in this and the past few windows- Defenders. Everyone wants them. A recurring narrative in the past few transfer windows has been some exorbitant amounts paid for defenders. Never before has the market for defenders been so inflated, and all of a sudden there’s a massive scramble to find quality center halves. So what has driven the sudden demand for defenders? How have clubs agreed to shell out big money for quality at the back?

It’s simple. The law of demand and supply states that “All other factors being constant, if supply of a commodity falls with demand being unchanged, prices must rise.”  The major dearth of quality defenders has forced clubs to overpay for defenders, and the overall quality of them is waning, too. There’s only a handful of quality defenders out there, and they’re already established or in the process of establishing themselves for the big clubs. Why else would Napoli reject a £60 million bid for a good, but not spectacular defender? The market is thin, and there’s gaping holes in many defences. A club with a quality defender, be it a center-half or a fullback, is in a position to command a hefty fee when the big clubs come calling. The question this begs is: Where have the defenders gone?

The no-nonsense defenders of the early Premier League era are long gone. © Getty

To answer that, we have to see how football itself has changed over the decades. The days of the Italian Catenaccio are long gone. The rugged, no-nonsense defending that was the hallmark of several English teams, too, has evaporated. Modern football is more reliant on the technical skills, even from the defenders. Cruyffian principles of total football, though modified, are the fad. Teams like Bournemouth, whose main aim is about Premier League survival, play eye-catching football based on solid shape and ball retention. Defenders are now expected to pass it out of the back, be able to glide past people, ping accurate passes, and be unflustered under pressure from the opposition. The days of "giving the ol pigskin a good ruddy hoof" are history. Defenders spend a lot of time working on the on-ball skills, which naturally leaves far less time to focus on defending.

Defenders have to organise, lead, communicate, read the game, tackle, intercept, be aerially dominant and now, also be technically proficient. It’s far too much for most players, and naturally, some aspects of their game take a hit. The hardman that once bullied attackers now has been replaced with one with more finesse, intercepting and passing with a certain languid grace. Full backs too, now focus primarily on the attacking side of their play, often disregarding their defensive duties. In fact, wingers being converted into fullbacks is becoming increasingly common (Antonio Valencia, Florenzi, etc). These players naturally are defensively deficient, and that has reflected in the overall quality of defenders in the transfer market. 

The modern-day fullbacks lack defensive abilities and are more focused on their attacking skills. © Getty

Another reason for the dearth of defenders could be the simple fact that defenders are an underappreciated, heavily-criticized lot. There’s no glory in being a defender. An excellent tackle or a goal-line clearance is no match for a goal, or an assist. Defenders are like janitors, they’re often cleaning up messes. If your loo is clean, you aren’t going to laud the janitor. On the other hand, if it isn’t, the janitor’s getting an earful the next day! Individual awards, too, are almost always swept by attackers. The only instance of the World Payer of the Year/Ballon d’Or was in 2006, with Fabio Cannavaro winning it after captaining Italy to the World Cup that year. There’s simply no glory in being a defender. Kids grow up wanting to be Messi and Ronaldo. Very few want to be a John Terry, or Sergio Ramos. Full backs, too, they shuttle up and down tirelessly and are rarely given the credit they deserve, unless they provide a vital assist or whip in a quality cross at the attacking end. It is a thankless task, is defending, and there aren’t just too many takers out there for the job. 

Football has inevitably and fortunately moved away from the days of rugged defending and long balls aplenty, but the art of defending has taken a hit. The quality of defenders in the sport is at an alarming low, but there is always hope. Young talent must be nurtured, and allowed to make mistakes, even though there is no scope to make an error as a defender. Regularly blamed for their mistakes and not lauded for their talents, defenders must be encouraged to learn and grow, so that they can flourish and football can be about good defence and offence. A good 2-1 or 1-1 game with good defending is far superior to the scores of 5-3 or 4-2 where defence takes a back seat. Watching good defending is a good show, and as they say, ‘The show must go on’.

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