Defending and its place in the modern game has spawned a quagmire of critical debate. Back in 2014, when Gary Neville’s article in the Telegraph declared the death of the ‘proper defending’, his words represented an ever-growing grumble about the League. The emphasis on blindingly fast attacks seemingly leave no place for the old-fashioned ‘stopper’: a physically-imposing, no-nonsense defender whose purpose was to block, tackle and clear, if stuck with the ball. Whilst the demand for these stoppers has certainly diminished in recent times, alongside a rugged approach to defending, this is not to say that they have lost their important role in the modern game.
The physicality of football, particularly in England, has always been present in talk about the game, from its nascent years up to present. The sturdy centre-back perhaps best embodies this, in a role that relies on intimidating forwards and throwing themselves on the line to prevent goals. In Jonathan Wilson’s 2008 book Inverting the Pyramid, he notes the conception of the central defender from Herbert Chapman’s formative W-M formation. The centre-half became the first player on the pitch, besides the goalkeeper, with solely defensive duties in mind, revolutionising the game and dawning an era in the interwar period of defensive and often proclaimed, negative, football.
Since, meanwhile, the role has blossomed into one that was tactically crucial to the game. Instead of one centre-back, teams began using two, or three. Whilst individual technical ability developed alongside tactical nuance, the stopper remained an indefatigable figure. The hard-men of the 1970s, such as Tommy Smith, Ron Harris and Norman Hunter, were phased out in the 80s, 90s and into the early 2000s, with the stopper role best represented by strong, tall players such as Tony Adams, Jaap Stam and Sol Campbell. These centre-backs were not only fearless but also tactically aware; as the FA’s judgment of fouling grew stricter, players began taking more responsibility in watching a forward’s movement and timing the tackle for a clean dispossession.
Managers were aware that fielding two stoppers was not always tactically necessary, leading to a now-traditional approach of, in a 4-at the back scenario, one stopper alongside a ball-player. Whilst both were adept in their defensive duties, the centre-back who could stride forward and spray passes was always covered by his fearless partner. This coupling proved successful in English football during the 2000s, as partnerships such as Terry and Carvalho at Chelsea and Vidic and Ferdinand at Manchester United highlighted a balance that worked. Arguably, the no-frills, stopper centre-back was indispensable, even as the game became faster and more technically impressive.
Back in the present, however, several pundits have noticed a change in the water. Writing for the Guardian in August this year, Jonathan Wilson claims: ‘Intimidation has all but vanished from the game (…) There’s not merely an expectation now that defenders should be able to pass, but a growing acceptance that if they can pass it may not matter too much if they aren’t especially good at more traditional defensive skills such as heading, marking and tackling.’ Whilst Wilson doesn’t encourage a thuggish, old-school style of defending that was thankfully phased out, his views challenge the sudden emphasis on centre-backs who are more confident in possession than when facing an attacker. Defenders such as David Luiz and, the perennial piñata for the English game, John Stones, are more renowned for their time spent on the ball rather than their work in gaining it back. Stones has been criticised more than once for his attempts to bring the ball out, even under Guardiola’s tutelage, whilst Luiz’s recent red card for slicing Arsenal’s Sead Kolasinac was a poor decision, made after attempting to dribble past the halfway line and, according to Ray Wilkins, likely forced from fear.
This does not mean, however, that the stopper is no longer present in the Premier League. Leicester City famously won the title in 2015-16 with Wes Morgan and Robert Huth playing at the heart of the defence. Neither were fast or technically brilliant, however they were both physically imposing, heading away crosses and stepping in front of shots to help the Foxes become champions. Despite their ages, both Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka have made a name for themselves as captains of their respective clubs, playing with passion and throwing themselves on the line to keep the ball away.
It’s likely that Wilson, Neville and co are right; the standard of no-nonsense defending has slipped. Problems with Liverpool, Everton and Manchester City, in particular, all seem to begin at the back. Yet, although the art of fearless but clean defending has diminished, it’s yet to finally disappear from the English game. So long as goals win games, there has to be players willing to put their body on the line to prevent their team from losing.