The rise of ball-playing defenders in the A-League

One of the biggest tactical developments of the past decade is a re-emergence in central defenders highly technical and comfortable on the ball.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has spoken at length about this issue: “In the modern game, the two full backs are marked by two wingers or wide midfielders and the first available player are the centre backs as they are playing two against one. That means the importance of that technical quality is much more important. Even if they are less good defensively, they have less to deal with than two against two – they are always in a two against one situation. The start of the game is with the centre backs nowadays, and that’s why that technical ability has suddenly become important.” He is of course, linking this change to a wider use of formations with three man midfields, rather than the usual two.

Image one depicts a traditional 4-4-2 battle, whereas image two shows the more prevalent clash of formations

Both diagrams show the fullbacks as ‘free’ players, but their position on the field limits their view of the game, while sometimes wide midfielders will push forward and put them under pressure. Certainly, fullbacks can be the source of creative passes from defence, but inevitably, in an era of where there is an emphasis on both superb defensive organisation and passing football, the central defender now has to be both a good defender and a good passer. That’s a trend that can be observed, to name a few, at Barcelona, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, PSG and Arsenal. There are countless examples of both club and international sides selecting centre-back partnerships featuring pass-minded defenders and more defensively minded defenders.

That is a trend also observable in the A-League. As Brett Taylor notes, “Thwaite, Bosschaart, Topor-Stanley, Milligan, Colosimo and Durante are all examples of the passers in their pairs.” In fact, Thwaite, Topor-Stanley and Milligan were all targeted by their respective coaches for their ability to play out from the back.

The majority of sides in the A-League play with one striker formations, which generally sees a formation battle similar to the image on the right, where one centre-back has the freedom to move forward, with his partner often accounted for by the opposition’s lone striker. That scenario occurred in last week’s match between Adelaide and Western Sydney, where Bruce Djite pressured Topor-Stanley to playing sideways to the less technical Michael Beauchamp, whose limited passing range was revealed in the number of under-hit passes he played to put right back Jerome Polenz under pressure. Similarly when Central Coast played Perth, Billy Mehmet was tasked with closing down Zwaanswijk when he was in possession, which meant Trent Sainsbury saw the majority of the ball, and crucially played a superb long pass to release Daniel McBreen for the game’s only goal.

That event felt significant, if only for how neatly it summarised a rising trend in the A-League. In a league placing huge emphasis on ball retention from the back, the advent of the ball-playing defender will prove crucial.

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