|Neville, with added unnecessary graphics.|
The waspish talents of today's Premier League forward lines require military-level strategy to snuff them out and turn vain attempts at damage limitation into vital league points. As the concentration of coverage on rearguards increases, we begin to understand what really constitutes good (and indeed bad) defending:
One thing that defenders can do routinely, which excites the watching pundits immeasurably, is to "see the danger and deal with it." "Dealing with it" is allowed to consist of merely hoofing it into Row Z, as this is manfully regarded as no-nonsense. Whole Match of the Day montages can be formed from a cluster of rather straightforward interceptions, blocks and clearances, all rather greater than the sum of their parts.
A cardinal sin, especially at the top level, switching off is never a good idea. Many a goal has been caused by a defender's lack of concentration, and many defenders risk being associated permanently with being "prone to lapses of concentration". Corners have a particularly anaesthetic effect on defenders, who can "switch off" or "go to sleep" and allow a short one, after which only the angry clapping of a goalkeeper can wake them.
Reading the Game
A useful tool for defenders who are not the quickest, being able to read the game is invariably traced back to Bobby Moore, often purely on the basis of that tackle on Jairzinho. When the first half a yard is in a player's head, they never need to worry about getting beaten in a footrace (always a footrace in football, never just a race), apart from John Terry, whose pace is seemingly at more risk of repeated exposure than any other defender in history.
Incidentally, you very rarely hear even the most honest player admit that they aren't very good at reading the game, similar to the inordinate number of Big Brother contestants who declare themselves to be a "good judge of character".
Be it a last-ditch tackle, or a backs-against-the-wall performance, everyone appreciates heroic defending. If the magnitude of the game is sufficient, hyperbole over the victorious team's defending can include hailing the "immense" centre-backs or the "tenacious" full-backs. The presence of an attacking player in his own penalty box will be greeted with near-disbelief, causing the commentator to arrange a short conference with himself:
"And who's that back defending in his own area?! Wayne Rooney."
Being Comfortable on the Ball
For years, England supporters longed for a libero-style defender who was comfortable on the ball. The mid-to-late-1990s then saw the emergence of the ball-playing centre-back, for whom Rio Ferdinand emerged as the poster boy. Ferdinand's international debut in 1997 was observed with absurd wonder. Likened (inevitably) to Bobby Moore, his comfort on the ball had pundits salivating. Nowadays, these experts have gathered their senses and prefer to analyse that insignificant aspect of his game - his ability to actually defend. Sixteen years after Ferdinand's England bow, no self-respecting centre-half lacks the ability to bring the ball out of defence. Big deal.
All defenders live in fear of the defensive mix-up but are resigned to its inevitability. Often co-starring the goalkeeper, defensive mix-ups can, at worst, leave the opposing striker with the simple task of rolling the ball into the empty net. The post-mortem of a defensive mix-up will often conclude that the defender "needed a shout there". Handily, with glorious HD hindsight, the pundit will also point out that one of them needed to take charge and deal with it.
Alan Hansen's weekly critique of defensive performances on MotD makes careful use of appropriate adjectives. Not one to overreact, Hansen can be trusted to provide a faithful account of a team's defending. The consistency of his analysis has enabled me to develop the Alan Hansen Defending Continuum (AHDC):
The AHDC is a straightforward spectrum, but one on which no backline wants to register. The more culturally-aware pundit may refer to "Keystone Cops" defending, despite most of the watching audience being far, far below the age at which it would be acceptable to know who or what the Keystone Cops originally were. An even more mysterious reference exists in the form of "at sixes and sevens", the origin of which there seems to be no consensus on.
Defenders "don't like playing against pace". In fact, "if there's one thing defenders hate, it's pace". It terrifies them. Pace can be used to give them a torrid time, roast them, turn them inside out, expose them, or destroy them. Especially in a footrace. Even quick defenders may only have their pace expressed in relative terms - their adversary may be jet-heeled, but they are no slouch either.
Modern day defenders are unlikely to be able to get away with the bone-crunching tackles of yesteryear. In fact, any challenge that falls into the agricultural bracket is likely to be met with at least a caution. In such strict times, defenders must learn to stay on their feet, and not commit themselves by going to ground. Flying wingers can be frustrated simply by shepherding the ball over the touchline, the only act of shepherding in life that takes place in the absence of any sheep.
A close-quarters task, requiring the defender to get up his opponents backside and be all over him like a rash, not giving him a sniff. The last few seasons have seen an alarming backlash against zonal marking at set-pieces, with the clear implication that it's a fancy-dan foreign thing that doesn't suit the dynamic physicality of the English game. Pundits (perhaps justifiably) insist that footballers prefer the clear instructions of following a designated opponent wherever he goes, as opposed to standing in an area and heading the ball away.
Fouls are a standard occupational hazard for a defender, and fall into several categories. Cynical fouls are met with disapproval from commentators and a booking from the referee, while clumsy fouls (which are "clumsy more than anything") are always conspicuous by their bumbling lack of malice. Fouls that bring an opposing team's counter-attack to an abrupt halt, at the expense of a yellow card, are often rationalised by the understanding co-commentator: "he'll take that".
Fouls that generate the most distaste from the gantry tend to be shirt-pulling (something which has, of course, crept into the English game thanks to the foreign influx) or fouls against players who are going nowhere. Any foul from behind (ideally from a no-nonsense centre-half) within the opening half-hour of an expensive foreign signing's debut will be considered as his complimentary Welcome to the Premier League. This English top-flight welcome pack is completed by a Louis Vuitton washbag and a pair of Beats by Dre headphones.
As fouling becomes more and more part of the defender's repertoire, so too must the art of appealing. Different types of foul carry with them a different method of pleading for the referee's clemency:
- Cynical - Hands-up acceptance of one's fate, similar to a guilty plea in court. There's no plea-bargaining on offer, however - it's a cast-iron booking.
- Foul from behind - frantic gestures and hand signals. Language barriers are overcome by the universal symbol for "I got the ball, ref" - palms inward, performing a concave crescent with both hands, meeting at the top and bottom. Realistic attempts to approximate the size of the ball are not necessary. In fact, the more frenzied the appeal, the bigger the virtual ball.
- Clumsy foul - the guilty party here will often attempt to appeal not just after the foul, but during and even before. The accepted method is to raise both arms above one's head while bundling the opponent over. The wisdom behind this appears to be that if you don't use your hands to bring an opponent to the ground, then it cannot be a foul. An admirable attitude, but one rather at odds with the actual Laws of the Game.
- Professional foul - the red card isn't even out of the ref's pocket, but the defender knows his fate. Off he goes. Possibly by means of an unrepentant trudge, during which at least one item of clothing or accessory should be untucked or removed - a tradition possibly started by Kevin Keegan and Billy Bremner in the bad-tempered Charity Shield of 1974.
- Second yellow - a personal favourite. Realising the significance of his misdemeanour, the player sees the referee striding toward him, reaching for his pocket. Apparently, the arm-shaking and finger-wagging, combined with a face usually only pulled by a 3-year-old boy not allowed some sweets, is supposed to tug on the heartstrings of the official. It fails.