The Lost Art of Defending

Originally posted on Goonersphere

Bruce Lee once famously uttered – ” Don’t think. Feel. It is like a finger pointing away to the moon. DON’T concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all the heavenly glory “.

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This quote is open to interpretation, and you never need an excuse to paraphrase the great man – but I think it handily summarises the contrast between good defenders – and great ones. Defenders who aren’t simply reaction merchants. Defenders who can dissolve trouble before it even materialises. These backline Knights sometimes appear to the unfocused eye to be lackadaisical.

That is simply because they have already dealt with the problem rather than running after an attacker’s shadow.

These men who have perfected this ‘art’ are few and far between. In the heyday of Italian football in the early Nineties, Serie A was awash with this type of defender. Players who could sniff out an attack prior to the move being implemented. This art renders age a moot point to a degree, as pace is an asset that isn’t required. Age grants more experience which only refines the ability which these men utilise so effectively.

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Paolo Maldini is perhaps one of the finest modern day examples of this lesser-spotted technique. The fact that Maldini retired at the age of 41 is testament to his reading of the game. Even in his latter years, his faltering physique – although it would still put the majority in the shade – never proved an obstacle. The reason why is that the many years plying his trade in Serie A, in the Champions League, for the Azzurri, meant that Maldini could position himself adequately so his flank was protected. His job was satisfied. Of course, his trademark runs up the left hand side weren’t as rapid as previous years, but his defensive leanings were never found wanting.

John Terry, despite his questionable character off the pitch, is another who hasn’t let age get in the way of protecting his goal. The sheer amount of times he has blocked the ball is pure evidence that he has seen the threat and acted accordingly, rather than just reacting when the ball and opposing player enter his zone.

Reacting leaves spaces. Spaces can be utilised. The proactive man will be where he needs to be quicker than the reactive player, regardless of level of pace.

This art these schooled defenders all share cannot be read in a textbook. Much like another Bruce Lee adage – ” Be like water ” – it means that adaptability is another cornerstone of this fabled way of defending. Occasionally the defender must go to the man rather than position himself in a sentry-like manner. Sometimes he must put in a few yards. What is a requirement for this type of defending to be used successfully, is a partner, or set of partners, in your defence that can act in a synchronised manner.

If this is not the case, then I refer you to the moment Per Mertesacker was sent off against Chelsea earlier this season.

The offside trap was set, Arsenal were in the ascendancy – which is the script our team have read from for far too long when we play them – and we were meticulously probing. Then, possession switched hands and the trap we had lain would be put to the test.

When one link in the chain is weak, then the whole chain is at risk – and so it proved. Laurent Koscielny, so often our hero and a proven big game player – was the man who was playing Chelsea onside, but it was our towering German who had to take the fall for the team.

Some will say that if Mertesacker had pace, then he could have dealt with the problem, but at the fulcrum of this argument is one salient point – it should never have got to that point.

The tack Arsenal had taken was the offside trap, and Koscielny had made the mistake. Ever a team player, Mertesacker knew he had to do something, so he took one for the team. Even his telescopic limbs couldn’t reach the ball. The moment he began to stretch, he knew he was going to go.

Mertesacker is another who is well versed in the true art of defending. His positioning and his innate capability to take the ball before players start to run is fantastic to watch. His passing accuracy is second to none, and it is his organisational skills that underpin all of his talents.

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Alongside Koscielny, we have two players who make up a whole. A ying and a yang. One deals with danger before it begins, another snuffs out threats that manage to evade the wide net cast by the first. Koscielny is the safety net who has the speed and excellent tackling skills to negate any who slip past the big German. It is the perfect combo, and one of the reasons why Campbell/Toure and Adams/Keown worked so well – although I hasten to add that Martin Keown was so much more than a safety net!!

The problem with these types of defender though, is that when a mistake is made – seeing as they are the at the vanguard of the defence – it is far more obvious. It looks as though they have left all of their responsibilities behind with one rash move. Unfortunately, the stigma sticks, and now we have a huge amount of people who are of the opinion that Mertesacker isn’t fit to wear the shirt.

Remember one of the goals in the horror show that was the first leg Vs Monaco in the 2014/15 Round of 16 in the Champions League? Mertesacker lunged in and left the whole pitch behind him when he failed to get the ball. If you inspect the scene closely though, he had a fair chance of nicking it and if he did, then we were primed to attack – which we needed to do as we were already two goals down.

He was proactive and tried to tip the boat a little in our favour. It needed a jolt from external sources and Per tried to provide a quick turnover. Unfortunately, Monaco kept the ball and punished us. It looked to all and sundry that Mertesacker had failed us.

Mertesacker reads the game far better than any defender we have, and if he can take Chambers under his wing, then we have a fine understudy who will undoubtedly flourish. He is needed in our defence to provide the iron spine in our backline which we require so badly.

The art of defending is all about looking at the big picture. zoning in on the player who could potentially strike the killer blow – but before he even knows he has the knife in his hands. Interceptions, blocks are part and parcel of it, but positioning and adequate organisation are all pillars in the temple of the art.

Just like a finger pointing at the moon – DON’T concentrate on the finger……..or you will miss all the heavenly glory.

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