Central to the Defence, and the Attack too — Challenging the dated taxonomy of Football’s Central Defender.

I remember it vividly. Up stepped the giant Danish International Jannik Vestergaard: Wednesday night under the lights, Third Round FA Cup replay Penalty Shootout between Southampton FC and Derby County.

However, more than the penalty itself (which, for what it’s worth he scored) being the salient moment. It was in actual fact the background commentary of BBC pundit Danny Murphy, maligning how a mere “Centre-Half” could have the temerity to step up so early in the proceedings, that resonated deeply.

Truth be told, whilst Murphy’s somewhat bizarre rant is potentially only an example of one man’s (Conservatism) bias. It does present a fine opportunity to pose the question: is there still a tendency to undervalue the technical ability of, and moreover the role, that Central Defenders have on the attacking phase of the game?

Fact or Fiction?

Whereas large swathes of both football punditry, and at times journalism as well continue to purport cliched stereotypes. The rough and rugged, “safety first” Central Defender, is more than anything nowadays a dated footballing taxonomy of position.

The value of a Centre-Back to the Attack, empirically speaking at least, has in reality continued to grow alongside that of the game itself.

Therefore, it would be apt to conclude the tendency to ignore Defender’s relevance in the build-up. Probably sits somewhere within footballing Functional Fixedness — or simply just the Ostrich Effect. Rather than a consistent view indicative of the wider footballing community as a whole.

For example, the trend in say the Premier League has seen a consistent progression in terms of the impact central defenders have on their team’s passing. Opta’s data by in large reinforcing this conclusion and highlighting the depth of their involvement.

Data from @WillTGM’s Opta report the past seven and a half seasons, displaying how the average Premier League centre back has been increasingly involved in their team’s possession phase.

Yet still when watching a typical 90 minutes broadcast, you ‘d invariably find any number of examples in the commentary that distorts the perception of the influence a defender, could and indeed *should* have on the attacking phase. It’s not hard to spot, it’s usually underpinned by a narrative that grossly over-simplifies the position’s raison d’être as solely to defensive duties.

What’s fueling the current Centre-Back shift?

Having central defenders who are heavily involved in, or even chosen with primarily attacking functions in mind is (much like a lot of football) not a new trend. Perhaps, as is usually the case, it is just something that seems that way as it was forgotten/ignored for so long.

In fact there are countless managers who have through their teams championed such a proactive, holistic cause for over a decade now.

As previously highlighted by Marcelo Bielsa back in 2010 — One of the reasons for the aforementioned increase in the propensity to pass from the back, has been the modern-day shift of a greater number of teams being able to press the ball far better nowadays, for longer periods.

This in turn, has as equally noted then placed greater value on the time, space, and even privileged field of vision afforded to many Central Defenders. (Notwithstanding said pressing shift has also adapted the role of the central midfielder.)

Concurrently, it’s a broadly established tactical convention that when the ball is at the centre of the pitch this is far more difficult to neutralize (from an opposition’s defensive perspective). Therefore, the options a defender can have, and how they affect the build-up are significant. Some of the which are easily discernible to even the untrained eye.

A visual breakdown of the tactical concepts the then Mexico boss Juan Carlos Osorio discussed on national TV back in 2016.

Juan Carlos Osorio’s explanation in the above video is, for my liking one of the most allegorical on this topic. In that, even setting language barrier aside, he efficiently outlines a few simple, yet vital concepts with respect to the relationships his left sided defender, on this occasion Hector Moreno, could have throughout the course of the game.

Plus, how they can be potentially executed to influence the attack, through:

The “Near Side Player” — the Central midfielder: for this I’ve used “El Tri’s” Miguel Layún).

The “Intermediate”— So the Interior Midfielder: Andrés Guardado.

The “Far Side” — Winger (Carlos Vela), which provides the depth as well as width.

Whist the current Paraguay, and former Mexico boss focuses specifically on the passing impact. Setting to one side the undoubted importance having a defender who can dribble with the ball to break lines.

In said discussion, Osorio purposely ensures to wax lyrical on both the significance said player has in beating the press. As well as the often overlooked benefit that having a defender playing on his natural side generates.

The “Pep Effect”

To relate back to the initial Premier League shift, arguably one of the foremost exemples of Bielsa and Osorio’s musings in action would come from Aymeric Laporte. A player given his first team debut by “El Loco”, and who has unsurprisingly continued to flourish under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City.

In this presser, Pep on the one hand is keen to emphasize the value of having a naturally left footed player playing as the left Centre-Back.

Doing so both in terms of the ball circulation speed especially. Not to mention, the fact that by natural sided Central Defenders playing with an open touch, the area opponents will have to Defend is invariably much wider/larger.

He is also, similarly keen to stress that this is not always intrinsically linked to playing on your strong side of course. As the technical qualities and team (collective) movements are key components too.

The accompanying footage taken from Laporte’s first game for City against West Bromwich Albion, further supports Osorio’s explanation of the involvement needed from the Near Side Player (I.E in this scenario the Brazilian Fernandinho) to help attract the opponent.

Plus how this underpins the successful ball circulation needed to beat the opposition’s press.

A “PlayStation Player”, or simply misunderstood-misused?

It would of course be a false dichotomy to advance that David Luiz’s ability as a defender is defined by either or any extreme(s).

However, the Brazilian libero’s re-conversion back to a central defender within a back 4 under Maurizio Sarri. Has in truth, been the best example in the Premier League of the Defender come “Playmaker” paradigm. Yet perhaps most crucially, also one that highlights that to do so a defender may not need to exclusively play on their strong(er) foot.

Under Sarri, Luiz has been an outstanding attacking weapon for Chelsea. Helping afford the team different solutions to unlock the most stubborn defences. As well providing a go to option on the infrequent occasions his side have been pressed.

So, while Messrs Luiz and Laporte act as the perfect ambassadors as to why Opta’s data highlights the Big 6 leading the amount of central defender involvement in their club’s passing. This doesn’t mean this need be the exclusive provision of the top teams. But instead hopefully act as a lighthouse for a changing tide for football to contemplate from.

“I’ve finally accepted myself for who I am: a beggar for good football. I go about the world, hand’s outstretched… & when it happens, I give thanks for it!”