Back at school it was the ‘hard man’ position, the position that the tallest kids were put in, the kids that didn’t care if they lost teeth, as long as you didn’t lose. But, in 2016, what is this position? It’s almost a lost art form.
There was a groan in my household on Saturday morning as the teams were announced for Arsenal’s trip to West Ham: Gabriel and Koscielny vs Andy Carroll. A mismatch in almost every sense of the word. The groan was one of predictability, one that signified my knowingness that Arsenal would concede a minimum of two. Carroll is arguably the last of a dying breed, but he is, to all intents and purposes, the classic old-style centre forward: a presence in the air and a lover of the physical game. Whilst it could be easily argued that centre halves will not have to face Carroll every week, when they do, they must put up a fight.
Carroll must have been licking his lips at the thought of World Cup winner, Per Mertesacker, on the bench and his dominance throughout the game was not just summarised by his 10-minute hat-trick. At the beginning of the second half Carroll rose for a header with Gabriel and caught him accidentally with his elbow. Whilst I have absolutely no doubt that an elbow from Carroll would hurt, the amount of time spent of the floor by Gabriel was the end of the contest and it was evident. Carrol had won the psychological battle and Gabriel couldn’t wait for Carroll to peel off onto Bellerin for his third goal.
This modern centre half has been born as a result of the modern game, a myth that football needs a minimum of one ball-playing central defender. Even when we look back at Wenger’s successful title-winning sides, there are stoppers that any team would want: Adams, Bould, Campbell, Keown, and Toure. Central defenders who defended first and played second. All of those five would still be classed as top players with the ball, all could pick a pass, all could get a goal, all had other uses, but they all defended.
Nothing has helped to support this viewpoint more than Leicester’s current fairytale. A 4-4-2 formation in which everybody knows their role, most notably the centre half pairing of Robert Huth, costing a minimal fee, and Wes Morgan, a player who has spent almost his whole career in the Championship. Both players currently sit joint second in clean sheets for the current season. Whilst that may be obvious with them both being in the side that is top of the league, what is probably more remarkable is that between them they have only amassed a mere 58 fouls, only three more than Erik Lamela has individually. Morgan, who has committed 27 all season, is even below the likes of Wayne Routledge on the list.
Studying the stats, neither Morgan nor Huth are even in the top 10 for blocks made, but with 12.9 clearances per game between them, they are a pair that know when a no nonsense approach is required, such has been the rule of thumb this season.
When we look back at the great Premier League winning teams of past seasons, almost all are built on the foundations of top, top centre halves. In 04/05, Chelsea battled to the title with John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho; Manchester United have led the way with the more recent Rio Ferdinand, Jaap Stam, Nemanja Vidic and Ronny Johnson, to the ‘I’ll-head-a-brick-for-you-gaffer’ stalwarts of Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister and Paul McGrath. The sides without as much consistent success have shown their defensive stability with Colin Hendry (Blackburn Rovers) and Vincent Kompany (Manchester City) leading their teams to triumph in 94/95, 11/12 and 13/14 respectively.
Manchester City’s reliance on Vincent Kompany has been well documented over the course of the past season and their defensive frailties have been clear for all to see, with Otamendi, Demichelis and Mangala all forming questionable pairings as City cling on for a Champions League place.
Although nobody in England wants to return to a time when all defenders were expected to do was hurt people, the lack of elite of centre backs in our country – foreign or homegrown – is all too clear for people to see. Gone are the days of taking eight defenders to the summer’s major tournaments. Debates are now being had in stadiums and pubs up and down the country as to whether Roy should even take four central defenders.
Hopefully the 2015/16 season is not only the year that Leicester complete their fairytale, but also the year they helped the country rediscover what it was to defend.