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Are Center-Backs Worse or Are Tactics Changing
If you have paid attention to the game over the last few years, you will have noticed a startling development. It seems like every team in the world needs a center back, and there does not seem to be quality options available anywhere.
Since 2014/15, Manchester City has spent 357 million on six center backs in those six years. Bayern Munich, European Champions, have spent 181 million on the position and went as far as to convert David Alaba from left-back to center-back. Manchester United have spent 218 million on center-back, including a record 96 million on Harry Maguire, only to see him torn apart on social media every game day.
I had bought into the hype. Maybe this was just a sub-par generation for center back play. After all, pundit after pundit would get on national TV and moan and groan about how great their era was. Telling us how the Sol Campbells, John Terrys, Rio Ferdinands, Jamie Carraghers, Carles Puyols, Fabio Cannavaros, and Nemanja Vidics of the game were long gone, replaced by a new generation of soft, inadequate center backs.
Then something dawned on me as I watched the last month of post quarantine soccer.
It started with seeing Barcelona lose 8-2 to Bayern Munich.
Then this last week, I saw that same Bayern Munich team lose 4-1 to Hoffenheim in a game where they could have lost 6 or 7 to 1. That same weekend Manchester City conceded 5 to Leicester City.
Then Sunday morning, it all came crashing down. First was Manchester United's shocking 6-1 loss to Tottenham. Once again, Harry Maguire was at the center of most of the criticism, but I figured hey, they were doing fine until they got a red card, and it is hard to play most of a 90-minute game with fewer men.
Then came the result that shocked the world.
2019 relegation candidates, Aston Villa 7 - 2 Defending Champions Liverpool
That is when it dawned on me. Virgil Van Dijk, the man universally regarded as the best center back in the world, the man who finished second behind Messi in the 2019 Ballon d'Or voting, that man was on the field for all 90 minutes as Liverpool gave up seven goals.
If Van Dijk can be part of a performance like that, then what hope is there for teams who are still looking for their center-back?
Turns out, it is not a center back problem, it is a tactical problem.
Center backs today are not any worse than they were a decade ago. Coaching and a tactical revolution have just started asking center backs to do the impossible.
Ten years ago, the job of a center back was to be dominant in the air, read the game relatively well, clear the ball down the field at every opportunity, and be strong in the tackle. That was it; the task was relatively simple.
Today, center backs are asked to do all of those things and also, be able to play any pass on the field, have the composure to successfully pass out of the back against the press, plus, have the skill to defend a forward 1 on 1 in 50 yards of open space so the team can keep numbers up the pitch. And oh, by the way, they must be equipped with the pace of Usain Bolt so the team can play a ridiculously high line.
Does that sound about right? It is impossible to find a center-back who can do that, and opposing teams have started realizing that.
It is how a team like Hoffenheim can embarrass a team like Bayern Munich 4-1 with both of their first-choice center backs on the field.
It is how a team like Aston Villa can score seven goals in a game where the best center back in the world looked powerless.
What coaches are asking center backs to do in this new era of ultra-attacking attractive football is impossible.
It makes me think of Dejan Lovren in the 2018 world cup. Before the world cup, the Croatian had lost his place in the Liverpool team.
The most embarrassing moment came on October 23rd of 2017, just eight months before the world cup. In an early-season matchup with Tottenham, Jurgen Klopp substituted Lovren from the game 31 minutes into the first half after a rough start that led to two goals. An embarrassing moment in a sport where it is rare to see a player replaced before half time. He and the rest of the Liverpool team were exposed as Tottenham broke through their high line time after time.
People laughed at him, memes littered Twitter, and it looked like his time as a center back anywhere near the highest level of the game was done.
Then came an important plot twist, Croatia and head coach Zlatko Dalic. A team and a system that employed a more traditional style of soccer, a setup that simplified the job of a center back and restricted the use of a high line to extreme situations. A tactical base where center backs could succeed.
On July 15th, 2018, almost nine months to the date of his incident against Tottenham, Dejan Lovren was starting in the most significant game in all of sports, the World Cup final. Lovren was a vital part of Croatia's shocking run to the final. He looked like one of the best center backs in the world, a far cry from that game at Liverpool.
It is not as if Lovren had become a new player over that period. It came down to the difference in playing styles between Croatia and Liverpool. One demanded the impossible from its center backs; the other simplified what was required.
Lovren came out after and rightfully declared that he felt as if he was one of the best center backs in the world. How did his next season at Liverpool go? He played just 13 games in the league and 18 out of 53 possible in all competitions.
It brings us to today where Manchester City have bought yet another center back. Harry Maguire's reputation has been destroyed all over social media. Players turned pundits have once again been on their rants about the poor state of center back play.
But the truth is players like John Terry, Nemanja Vidic, and Jamie Carragher would not be deemed good enough to get into any of the top 4 teams. They would not be good enough on the ball, or quick enough to play in a high line. They would have looked like incompetent players and, social media would have had a field day at their expense.
It should serve as a reminder that center backs are not any worse today than they once were. If we want to be honest, they might be better due to the technical ability required to play the position at the highest level now as opposed to prior decades.
It is no coincidence that the teams who seem fine in the department, teams like Juventus and Real Madrid, employ a more traditional style of play that emphasizes defensive organization while restricting the use of a high line. These teams do not ask their center backs to defend at the midfield line with 50 yards of space between them and the goalkeeper.
It is time we stop looking at the players and, we start looking at the coaches that are leaving their center backs exposed due to their tactical approach.
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