The rise of the defensive enforcer

All great sports teams need to build from the back. A title-winning side is often defined by the confident figure between the posts and an even more reliable group ahead of him. But the Premier League, or England as a whole, is dominated by the assumption that every team needs a powerful character at centre-half who possesses great leadership qualities.

Arsenal can’t run away from people continually suggesting that the team needs a “proper” defender, despite Arsene Wenger bringing in three good, first-choice centre-backs over the past three summers. They might not be the enforcer that Manchester City have in Vincent Kompany or that captain at Chelsea that we don‘t mention by name, but each are capable of combining for a very good defensive partnership.

But maybe it’s the craving that we need to see last-ditch tackles by a fearless 6ft3 individual in the pouring rain. Strength and size is what clubs need in order to feel comfortable. It’s also a huge bonus if he’s capable of convincingly wearing the captain’s armband. Oh and fast! He needs to be lightning quick to be considered the full package.

However, I’m not buying it. Sure, I’m hardly going to protest my club buying a player like Vincent Kompany or Nemanja Vidic—two of the leading centre-backs in the country—but no sleep will be lost over a group of players who aren’t labelled with the “enforcer” tag.

England needs crunching tackles and no nonsense defending, it defines the game in this country. But players like Kompany or Vidic have been around for a long time. Maybe it could be argued that they’re a dying breed, or at least not so heavily pursued. A strong centre-back is indeed a necessity, but not really a “stay at home” kind of defender.

Barcelona and Real Madrid have built two successful defensive partnerships, and none of the four individuals are what you’d consider “enforcers.” Carles Puyol is one of the best centre-backs and leaders of the last decade, yet he doesn’t come with all the characteristics that would allow him to thrive in England. A lack of height is perhaps his greatest flaw, or at least it would be to an English audience.

But instead, players like Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos—who are going to be the mainstays in their side’s defences over the long-term—are defined by their ability to play out of defence. They’re technically excellent ball players, and they have the confidence and ability to launch attacks from deep. They are also exceptional defensive players, but their art is in their ability to form another part of the attack.

Their partners are also hardly the no nonsense defenders we’ve come to see in England. Yes, Pepe can be a nuisance for a large part of the game, but he’s also a smart defender who uses his knowledge and reading of the game to eliminate attacks.

In contrast, English fans love the saving tackle off the line—something for the cameras. But is it really necessary when you can have players whose intelligence of the game far outweighs the need to pull off a bone-crunching tackle?

Again, Arsenal are always brought up as a team lacking in the defensive department. Yet Laurent Koscielny is an excellent reader of the game and someone who can play his way out of trouble. He’s deceptively strong and very quick, but very few beyond Arsenal fans recognise him as one of the better defenders in the league.

Gary Cahill is another that seems to excel at both ends of the pitch. He’s confident in his attacking game but can also be an asset in his own half. It could be argued that he has the safety net of others around him, but he’s able to combine both aspects to his game.

A big, powerful enforcer at centre-half is something that has been around for many years, although I don’t see the persistent need for a player of that quality. Yes, it helps to combat the strength and size of certain strikers, but the much more clever defenders have been able to compensate for a lack of size or pace with outstanding reading of the game.

Alessandro Nesta has pushed on to an age where he was deemed dispensable by AC Milan this summer. But the centre-back—another who is rightly considered one of the best of the last decade—performed exceptionally well against Barcelona, and Lionel Messi in particular, last season. The Argentine forward is phenomenally quick, but Nesta played like an experienced veteran of the game should. It highlights the way that better defenders can compensate.

I will reiterate my opinion that it’s not wholly necessary for a good team to be a great team with an enforcer in the defence. Instead, the rise of the ball-playing defender is something that should be considered. Indeed, many of them are strong and are excellent tacklers, however, their strengths are in their ability to start attacks from the back. They are very good positionally and play a key role in the retention of the ball. Their versatility is also something that separates them from the rest.

With attacking football moving into a new era led by teams like Spain and Barcelona, it’s also important for the defensive aspect to catch up and play a similar and equal role.