Ball-playing central defenders slice footballing opinion through the core. Even within the parameters of a modern game which typically champions a possession-based, aesthetically appealing and, for some, moral tactical approach, defenders who stubbornly push the ball forward on the turf are often ostracised for their preferred style.
And no, the traditionalist school of thought spearheaded by kick and rush masterminds Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis is not the only one which refuses to open its doors to the progressive defensive minds of the footballing world.
Sir Alex Ferguson, the most successful manager in Premier League history, sanctioned the sale of Gerard Pique in 2008 after making just five league starts in the season which preceded his departure. Eleven years later, the 32-year-old stands out as the most successful ball-playing defender of his generation.
Pique has won seven La Liga titles, four Champions Leagues, one European Championship and one World Cup. He’s also married to Shakira; things have turned out pretty splendidly since he left Old Trafford.
Didier Deschamps, meanwhile, for one reason or another, simply refuses to select Aymeric Laporte, Man City’s first-choice centre-back and a close contender to Virgil Van Dijk for the Premier League’s best defensive enforcer, for the France national side.
Jerome Boateng was discarded by Man City just one year after joining the club, but his talent was recognised, nurtured and perfected at Bayern Munich under a manager in Pep Guardiola who was willing to trust in his technical ability.
I could go on. The point is this: ball-playing defenders require levels of patience which are scarce at every level of the modern game. Patience is seldom afforded to players lacking experience because they are notoriously those who are most prone to mistakes. Mistakes are inevitable; mistakes in the defensive-third often lead to major goal-scoring opportunities; mistakes can represent the fine margins on which games are often decided. So why bother risking it?
But the age-old mantra with perennial relevance to ball-playing defenders claims that it’s only possible to learn through making mistakes. That virtue is one which is not wasted on Mauricio Pochettino.
The long-term project is greater and more manageable than the short-term lust for silverware in the eyes of the Argentine, so it appears from an outsiders perspective, at least.
Blooding young players into the senior squad is a staple of his philosophy. The latest emerging talent to reap the benefits of his endeavour to promote from within is Juan Foyth.
One of the 21-year-old’s first idols in the game was Rio Ferdinand, a player who shifted perceptions with his comfort and bravery in possession of the ball. That idolisation of the former England international was displayed when Foyth swivelled away from danger just a few minutes into his Champions League debut against Borussia Dortmund.
In that fleeting moment which sat somewhere on the tipping point between commendable bravery and downright stupidity, depending on whether you’re an Allardyce or Guardiola of this world, it became abundantly clear that Pochettino has laid the foundations for Toby Alderweireld’s successor.
Some context is needed here. The act in itself was defined by Foyth’s immeasurable belief in his ability, but history would suggest that his confidence should have been crushed before Dortmund stepped out at Wembley.
The inexperienced defender was handed his first start in a north London derby on December 2nd 2018, with Pochettino giving him the nod over Alderweireld. An otherwise accomplished performance was tarnished by a fatal second-half error which allowed Arsenal to re-take the lead on their way to a 4-2 victory.
Alan Shearer led the way in the scathing criticism of Pochettino’s decision to go with youth over experience while speaking on Match of the Day, via Daily Mail.
“If you are Aubameyang and you see that Tottenham team sheet who do you want to play against – Foyth or Alderweireld? There is only one there for me.
“He is their best defender, their leader and their organiser at the back. He pulls everyone together. They were all over the place today. It is a poor mistake.”
Twitter’s myriad of football experts brought their predictably reactive, short-term analysis to the table to spread the feeling of animosity towards Pochettino’s decision.
But it’s best to view Foyth’s performance that day and his various showings throughout the season through a lens which views his mistakes in isolation. Overall, his performances have been excellent for a player of his limited experience, and his errors have merely arrived as a consequence of his desire to abide by the principles which he and his manager hold in common.
Without a manager of Pochettino’s refreshing mindset and unique approach to football management, Foyth would be clearing the ball into touch in pressurised situations and failing to fine-tune the attributes which make him the outstanding talent he is.
Those who are more sympathetic towards this point of view would be well within their rights to draw comparisons between the formative stages of Foyth’s career at Spurs and the difficult opening John Stones endured at Man City.
The media vultures swooped in to destroy the £47.5 million defender following his unconvincing opening to life at the Etihad Stadium. Francis Lee’s claim in 2016 that Stones has the ability to rise into the same class as Bobby Moore would have been met with hysteria back then; now the weight of substance behind it would crush the most vehement criticism.
A similar script could well be in the offing for Foyth thanks to the state-of-mind which Pochettino has installed into the Argentina international. Just as Stones has seamlessly stepped into Vincent Kompany’s shoes at Man City, Alderweireld will pass the proverbial baton to Foyth and silence the nay-sayers who fail to appreciate the bigger picture behind his auspicious development.