With the group stages of the World Cup now over and the gushiness of how outstanding the tournament has been finally gets a rest day it’s a good time to look into a point made on the BBC during punditry of one of the games. As everyone has been loving the amount of goals being scored so far, has the art of defending diminishing in the modern game?
Before we have a look into it, let’s not take away from the incredible attacking displays and mind-sets of plenty of the teams in the World Cup so far. It’s been refreshing that teams at every level have tried to win games and it’s even better that it’s working because it has certainly helped create one of the greatest football tournaments in recent memory.
However, the amount of poor defending so far has been pretty alarming. There are three teams that have managed to only concede once and the list may surprise you, Mexico, Costa Rica and Belgium. In fact, 18 of the 32 participating teams conceded four or more over the course of three games which when you look at it like that is pretty outstanding.
The point that was made by Martin Keown and Phil Neville is that teams are looking for defenders more comfortable with the ball at their feet and that’s true, there is a tendency to overlook a player’s defensive frailties when he can be good on the ball. They also pointed out that there aren’t many players like Vincent Kompany which is again true, many defenders in these teams have that commanding presence, positional awareness and ball skills as the Belgium captain.
The issue should be pretty clear when teams play, they have a tendency to start centre backs that are good footballers first and foremost and while that shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a bad thing, the fact that they aren’t defenders first is worrying. In the faster game of today, a player with an awareness to react to a game is vital and that should take priority over avoiding the old lump up field, a player’s mind is much more difficult to mould.
Full back play has also completely changed, almost to the point where some are essentially extra wingers. The very best young left and right backs coming through are capable at both ends, which is good to see as the longevity of the forward-thinking wing back seems to be a lot shorter and have much more shortcomings than if you can find, or teach, someone to be good for both sides of the game.
There have been some positives, Kompany is a good example and players like Mahmado Sakho have performed well but there’s been a few good team performances on the defensive end. Both Iran and Bosnia played almost perfectly against Lionel Messi, closing him down at the right times and applying the right pressure to get a tackle in and get the ball back. Most of the best displays defensively have been from taking the attacker out the game by cutting the supply and that’s helped shield some average defenders.
Overall, if we want to see more excellent defenders in the future we need to focus the coaching at what they are weakest at early. Are they good at getting forward? Teach them how to successfully get back and why it’s worthwhile to the team. Are they good on the ball from the back? Teach them in how they should use their brain to be in the right position to react quickly to danger. As always, the most gifted will have all the right attributes, like all the great defenders do, but at the same time teams should be trying to improve their players every day. If they do, you’ll have a greater depth both at club and international level that, in turn, might even make the attackers step up to the next level.