Defending isn’t sexy.
Slaloming past three players and smashing a rasping shot past a helpless goalkeeper – now that’s sexy.
As such, only three defenders have ever lifted the prestigious Ballon d’Or trophy in its 61-year history.
German Franz Beckenbauer claimed the title on two occasions in the 1970s while his compatriot Matthias Sammer earned the honour in 1996. Fabio Cannavaro won the award ten years later on the back of captaining Italy to a World Cup victory.
All three were outstanding players in their own right, though I’d argue only Cannavaro was an all-action, traditional defender, who relished nothing more than stopping great attacking players in their tracks.
Beckenbauer and Sammer were both artists – brilliant at reading the game, always one step ahead of their opponents, and also carried weight going forward. In essence, it’s reasonable to suggest even they can be filed in the section ‘sexy’.
Attacking play is often about individual brilliance. Defending can be too – but for 99 per cent of the time it’s about concentration, awareness and unity. Nobody plays one at the back – even if it has looked as though Norwich City tested the tactic this season!
A good defender making a block can be just as crucial in deciding the fate of a match as a striker scoring a goal and in my opinion, the quality of defending has deteriorated in this country – and not just those who don the yellow and green.
The benchmark in English football is the Arsenal back four of Adams, Keown, Winterburn and Dixon. During the same 90s era, over in Italy, arguably the greatest defensive unit of all time was strutting its stuff at AC Milan: Baresi, Costacurta, Maldini and Tassotti.
Both individually and collectively they were talented – but there was also an overwhelming desire to defend – and to defend well. They were coached brilliantly.
Their style of marshalling attackers could range from perfect organisation – akin to the Red Arrows – right through to targeting and destroying a skilful opponent like a swarm of fighter jets.
There was no weakness – neither technically nor mentally. And both defences formed the base for creative players to flourish and earn them multiple titles.
Of course, the Italians are still the masters of knowhow when it comes to defending, perfectly illustrated by Juventus’ recent clean sheets against Barcelona’s almighty three-pronged attack.
There’s much to be said of the old adage that ‘you build from the back’. I can’t think of many teams that have won silverware with a porous defence.
Fans are more likely to reel off their fondest attacking duos, trios or quartets than their defensive counterparts. Offensive players have always been paid and feted the most. They are cultured. They are the faces on television adverts, posters and computer games. They are the guys our kids pretend to be in the park.
After all, who wants to be Gary Cahill when you could be Cristiano Ronaldo?
Yet you can be cultured and still defend properly. Add, for example, the likes of Bobby Moore, Paul McGrath and Rio Ferdinand (amongst others) to the three Ballon d’Or winners mentioned earlier.
Take John Stones – an exceptionally gifted footballer. The general feeling is that he has all the hallmarks required to be the best defender in the world one day. There’s just one problem – he can’t actually do the basics of defending!
It strikes me that he’s never been taught how to defend and now he’s not in a defensive unit that allows him to learn.
Our very own Ivo Pinto is a prime example of a modern full back. He is expected to attack as much as defend. Ask him to drive forward, take a fellow full-back on and throw in a ‘Cruyff turn’ for good measure and he’ll do it. Ask him to head away a dangerous far post cross and he’ll probably fail.
All very exciting when he gets into his stride – yet he is as costly as anyone at the end of the pitch he is employed to protect.
I think Tottenham are one of the few teams who have been building from a solid defensive base but with a modern vision. I believe they will reap the rewards of that in the coming years, while others who have concentrated on attacking, flair players may falter. There has to be a balance.
Defending set pieces has been a constant menace to City in particular in recent years. This is something that, over time, should be drummed into players so they know their roles inside out. So why do we defend them so badly every week?
The quality with which a team defends seems to me to be an afterthought now. Perhaps rule changes had an effect on the overall quality of defending.
The offside rule is as hazy as it’s ever been and because of the grey areas, it makes it difficult to organise a defence, whilst grappling in the box is punished one week and not the next. Players appear more intent on hugging their opponent than attacking a corner.
However, a shift in the approach of managers and coaches is probably more telling. It’s become a game of possession. The academies in this country are churning out a conveyor belt of neat, mobile lads, used to perfect pitches and life’s luxuries. Yet there is a real lack of solid defensive players coming through.
Youngsters don’t want to defend – and those that do aren’t being taught how to do It properly. It’s the modern way to pass, pass and pass.
But what about doing the dirty stuff, or getting your head in the way of a dangerous cross where you might catch a flailing boot? It’s all part and parcel of football. Else, where’s the next John Terry going to come from?
And this brings me to our ramshackle defence. Franco Baresi would never sleep again if he started watching our lot dilly and dally their way around the 18 yard box every week.
He gets a rough deal from sections of our fan base, but I believe Russell Martin plays with a great deal of pride. I think he relishes a defensive battle. Whether he is good enough at it is another matter.
Apart from our captain, I don’t get the feeling any of the defenders on our books walk out on to the pitch, determined to lay everything on the line to fulfil their defensive duties. They don’t want to stick their head in where they might get hurt.
When was the last time Norwich City had a really good defensive unit?
I think there’s a real lack of capable young defenders in this country. But that shouldn’t be used as an excuse for the club not improving our defence over the years.
I don’t think those that have arrived in recent years have necessarily been poor players – but I don’t think they’ve been coached adequately enough to improve in their roles, and this desperately needs to change – regardless of who the personnel are next season.
Simply signing better defenders isn’t the answer – they need to be moulded into an effective unit.
There will undoubtedly be a big defensive clear out this summer. Some fans might be disappointed to see players who they wanted to stay end up leaving, but it’ll be for the greater good of the club. None of our defenders have covered themselves in glory – all are viable targets in terms of the exit door.
‘Building from the back’ is definitely what City need to do this summer. We have conceded 66 goals this season. We conceded 67 last campaign. That’s appalling – regardless of league status.
It is obvious to everyone where our shortcomings reside – and I include our goalkeepers in that too – so there can be no messing about this time. There must be no missing targets or avoiding the issue.
Football is a continuously evolving game, but defending remains a crucial aspect and one that the club need to focus on more than any other over the coming months. Not only in bringing fresh blood to the side, but making them work together as a defensive team.
There’s been much talk in the last couple of days of City courting Leeds United boss Garry Monk. We can talk about the pros and cons of him another day but it’s his star centre half, Pontus Jansson, that I’d be shifting heaven and earth to nab rather than the gaffer.
(Tomorrow gives us a chance to have a closer look at both).
We require a leader in the heart of the defence – someone who can inspire and defend – someone we can build a defence around. Jansson fits the bill in my opinion.
But whoever comes in, they need to be three things: good defenders, good characters and good leaders. We lack on all those fronts.
So good luck Mr Webber – sounds like you’ll need it.