Where will your centre-back be next season?

This article is not a slight on the perceived fickle nature of today’s players. Everton fans should not take this as an intentional attempt to drag up memories of Joleon Lescott’s departure. I do not seek to address where defenders will be in terms of transfers next year, but where on the pitch.

There is a definite shift in a centre-backs current role in world football, of which there are various examples. I suppose it would be appropriate for the first example to fall in the feet of Gerard Pique. He’s certainly a great player (and perhaps my favourite in football) but it is not for the simple reason of his obvious ability.

Asking yourself why he didn’t succeed at Manchester United is ultimately pointless, the difference between a Manchester United centre-back and a Barcelona centre-back is huge. The true reason why players like Pique are well liked by football fans is because Pique doesn’t just do something for Barcelona, he does something for football; by evolving it.

The centre-back is fast becoming a player that has found responsibilities further up the pitch in attack and perhaps, in few cases, has found responsibilities that entail threatening the opposition’s goal. This is especially (if not exclusively) true for a centre-back in a 4-4-2.

I think the offside rules constant revision has made a big contribution to the way centre-backs, and backlines in general, have acted in the past. The latest altering of the offside law has meant no attacker can be trusted as being definitely offside as he may be perceived as inactive which has meant the defensive line is deeper, and the offside trap almost defunct.

But this change does not explain why centre-backs have started to attack more; it only explains how they act when the opposition has the ball.

Centre-backs have started to attack more because they no longer have a forward to mark, or to mark them in return. This is best represented in teams who play two centre-backs against those teams who play a single forward. A 4-4-1-1 versus a 4-5-1 or Mourinho-style 4-3-3 is a good example, but as long as there are two central defenders it doesn’t matter what the formation.

While the full-backs pick up those out wide on the right and left and one centre back takes care of the opposing forward, what is the other centre-back to do? The process is reversed when this defending team launches an attack. One centre-back has the freedom to go forward almost constantly if he wishes, unless picked up by a midfielder or deeper-lying striker.

You can bet that if it is Gerard Pique who’s involved, the opposition will be so preoccupied with reinforcing their midfield and defence against Messi and co. that he’ll get all the freedom he needs. With his range of passing the space he is allowed can be deadly to the opposition.

There are claims that Pique is a resurrected sweeper, but I don’t think that’s the case, certainly not defensively. The way he carries the ball up the pitch has earned him the portmanteau-nickname ‘Piquenbauer’ after the fabulous sweeper Franz Beckenbauer. But Beckenbauer was chiefly part of a back five in his playing days in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and had the luxury of being an auxiliary player in both defence and attack.

Pique still has a defensive duty to do however limited those duties are because of thin forward lines. It’s obvious the more attacking players a team fields against Barcelona, the more Barcelona struggle. Their game at the Mestalla this season was a great example of this point. This also reveals how important Pique’s job is in the development of attacking play at Barcelona.

I suggest (and hope) that we will see more of Pique’s breed as long as the decline of a two man frontline persists. It’s a shame for fans of classic strike partnerships but a think its good news in general for football itself as build up play becomes more diverse. I would be genuinely pleased to hear suggestions of a two –man front line playing in the world at a high-level today (not because I think it can’t be done, I would be genuinely interested).

 Thin forward lines are something which is not exclusive to teams playing against the like of Barcelona and Chelsea (watch John Terry, he’s also started to push up the field during Chelsea’s attacking phases), the art of playing without a convention striker is slowly gaining pace. Soon, perhaps both centre-backs will have no one to mark. Two obvious examples revolve around Roma. Luciano Spalletti’s 4-6-0 (about which I have found a surprising amount of people who either know nothing or simply laugh it off as ludicrous) was a definite step in a striker-less direction.

Born from necessity, successful almost by accident, the 4-6-0 deployed Francesco Totti as a lone-striker, it was Totti’s inclination to drop back to his familiar trequartista role that gave the formation fluidity. When Totti did this there was space for those marginally behind him to come forward, the word ‘vacuum’ best explains that space.

Manchester United used this formation also, directly borrowed from Roma, and really improved on Spalletti’s idea but now Ronaldo and Tevez have left it appears that brief experiment is now over. The experiment had perhaps its best result against Roma in fact, with a 7-1 victory against them at Old Trafford in 2007.

David Moyes also had the problem of no fit strikers last season, so fielded two players who would drop back like Totti, but alternatively, in Fellaini and Cahill. I think Moyes’ version is the most intriguing, and maybe the more practical. The idea revolves around a defenders confusion as to whether to follow the forward player up the pitch as he retreats, or pick up the player who is advancing in the space. It makes the 4-6-0 very hard to defend. But given that 4-6-0 has only found a home in teams with injury-hit squads it has a very limited shelf life and no one appears tempted to take it on full-time.

Manchester United were the first to take up the formation by choice, but do not have the players to replicate it any time soon. It does seem to be becoming a recognised option however, and Moyes have proved this.

To summarise, I don’t think many formations will contain a classic front two for some time and this has certainly been reflected since the beginning of the 21st century. Fabio Capello has stated he feels all modern formations are a something like a 1-9-1. Including the goalkeeper, Capello states that there is always one player with only defensive responsibilities (the goalkeeper), always one player with only attacking responsibilities (the lone striker) and the 9 in between have mixed roles to both attack and defend. A good example is Spain: Casillas-everyone else-David Villa.

If these trends are to carry on then, as I said before, Pique’s model will be one that is followed. I’d like to draw on the example of Pepe’s goal against Turkey at Euro 2008 as perhaps a glimpse into the future. The ideas success depends on a manager’s confidence to implement that ‘creative centre-back’ role effectively, and also the technical ability of the player in question. For now it will be the bigger teams who use this role more effectively but I’m certainly hoping it will spread down.

One thing is for sure, assessing the evolution of football formations is a dangerous game. A sudden gust could change the whole direction of the prevailing wind. The possibility of a centre-backs wandering more and more up the field in a very plausible one although it’s only in its most earnest forms. However formations evolve in the coming years, in terms of centre-backs, I’d advise you to watch this space (pun intended).

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    • Ahmed Bilal 3 December, 2009
  1. EddieMunro 4 December, 2009
  2. Simon 8 December, 2009