World Class Defenders Are Lacking In Number At The Top Level

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By Graham Ruthven (@grahamruthven)

The Champions League certainly delivers in excitement. Take this season’s quarter-final first leg between Paris Saint-German and Manchester City. Four goals were shared, with the tie left balanced on a knife-edge ahead of the return leg. Excitement doesn’t always translate into quality, though. This match was a stark illustration of that.

Whether it was David Luiz or Fernando or Marquinhos or Nicolas Otamendi, the showcase of defensive ability at the Parc des Princes was downright shambolic. Fernando’s mistake in particular was astonishing, losing possession on the edge of his own box from a Joe Hart pass to allow Zlatan Ibrahimovic to score into an empty net.

Ultimately the error - one of the worst witnessed in the Champions League for a number of years - didn’t cost Man City, with the Premier League side making the semi-finals with a 1-0 win at the Etihad Stadium a week later. But with City and PSG considered two of the finest teams in Europe questions were asked of what such a dismal defensive display by both sides said about the continental game. 

It’s true that the sport at an elite level is suffering something of a defensive shortage. The game’s biggest and best clubs are scrambling for top tier centre-backs because there are so few out there. Between City and PSG over £140 million has been spent in recent years on finding such players, and they still managed to put on a performance like the one seen in the Champions League meeting. 

It’s not just centre-backs either. The modern full-back is something of a position in its own right, with the role something that it wasn’t a decade or so ago - they are attackers as much as they are defenders. Marcelo, Dani Alves, Jordi Alba and David Alaba are among those most adept at playing in the position, but in every case their defending leaves much to be desired.

At both centre-back and full-back there is a shortage of archetypal defenders. There is certainly no lack of defenders who can stick the ball in the opposition net, but very few who are solid in preventing it from finding their own net. The problem is summed up by Barcelona’s transformation of Javier Mascherano since joining from Liverpool nearly nine years ago. The responsibilities of a modern defender are now best performed by a midfielder. 

Perhaps the lack of truly exceptional centre-backs and defenders is the by product of the sport’s modern push to promote those most comfortable with the ball at their feet. The zeitgeist at present is to favour those who like to play out from the back, with someone like John Stones even charged with starting attacks from his position in central defence. 

Even the likes of Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique - seen as two of the best centre backs in the sport at present - are prone to mistakes of catastrophic consequence. Even the best aren’t that good, particularly in the context of the game’s defensive greats. Where is the next Alessandro Nesta? Where will the next Jaap Stam emerge? Even John Terry is coming to the close of his career.

Soccer is a cyclical process and so it won’t be long until emphasis is once again placed on defensive strategy and strength. Tiki-Taka will fall by the wayside as Catennaccio makes a return - we might have already seen a glimpse of that in Leicester City’s recent surge to the top of the Premier League table, with a series of narrow 1-0 wins keeping their noses ahead.

Good centre backs and defenders in general will return to the top of the European game, but for the time being we’re forced to ask - where are they all hiding?