I’ve been saying for more than half a century that I’d never live long enough to see a Chelsea defence quite as bad as the one I played with in the late 1950s. So I ticked another one off the old ‘bucket list’ when the Blues lost 5-3 at home to Arsenal. Their defending reminded me of some of the jokers I used to play with when we scored 90 goals a season – and still finished in the bottom half.
Apparently Ron Harris, the man who added steel and psychosis to the Chelsea defence after I left the club, was at the Bridge to watch last month’s debacle. I’m not sure whether old Chopper would have been laughing or crying. Ron’s motto was: “The ball may get past me, the player may get past me – but the player AND the ball will pass over my dead body.”
It’s not just Chelsea, of course, but Premier League football in general which has become a defensive circus – and great entertainment for all of us who can sit back and watch it. How I’d love to have played in the modern era in which full-backs have never learned to defend, centre-halves think they are Pele, defences chop and change every week, linesmen are far more liberal and tackling is virtually outlawed. In fact, I’m not entirely convinced I couldn’t score a few goals now at the age of 71, with two replacement knees.
I’m convinced Manchester City will win the title – and while everybody has been rightfully drooling over the attacking talents of Sergio Aguero, David Silva, Mario Balotelli and Co, Roberto Mancini’s men will win it because they have the best defence. In fact, I can’t remember a season in which the team with the best defence didn’t win the league. Players like Vincent Kompany and Micah Richards look like proper defenders. By which I mean, they do not tend to complicate things. They concentrate on defending, rather than trying to pick out an eye-catching 40-yard cross-field pass.
As a striker, I always knew I was in for a tough afternoon when I was up against a big, mean and moody defender who was intent on stopping me from looking good, rather than making himself look special. Probably the best back four I ever played against was the Brazilian World Cup-winning defence of 1962. Most accounts of that team rave about the samba soccer, the Beautiful Game, about the incomparable Garrincha (who was every bit as good as Pele) and about Didi, Vava and Mario Zagallo.
Yet they had the meanest bunch of assassins you could ever wish to meet strung across their back line. Nilton Santos, Djalma Santos, Zozimo and captain Mauro Ramos were immense – big, burly men with legs like tree trunks and no inclination to indulge in any samba. They would win the ball, play the easiest close-range pass and allow wizards like Pele and Garrincha to play the football.
I don’t see many defenders of that brilliant simplicity in English football today. As much as I’ve always admired Rio Ferdinand’s ability on the ball, I’d have fancied myself to score against him because he seems to spend too much time looking up – and not necessarily in the right direction. John Terry looks too slow now, while Ashley Cole is typical of the modern lightweight full-back, who is great going forward but suspect in defence.
You simply don’t seem to get back fours like that of Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn, Tony Adams and Steve Bould or Martin Keown any more. That’s partly because it’s a lot more dangerous to play an offside trap with the modern interpretation of the offside law and with linesmen far more able and far less likely to give them the benefit of the doubt. But also because managers insist on squad rotation. While that may be a good thing for forward players in the modern game, it seems daft to me to chop and change in defence – where players cover fewer yards and where stability is the key.
Andre Villas-Boas could do worse than looking back a few years for some secrets on how to defend properly. Just not as far back as Stamford Bridge in the late 1950s.