Assessing defenders is a difficult task in football.
Traditional statistics record tangible events such as tackles, interceptions and clearances, but the role has a deeper definition – and, after all, a desperate, glorious last-ditch tackle is not necessarily the indication of a defender’s qualities if the attack could have been stopped by better positioning without the ball or by communicating with fellow teammates.
Positioning and communication cannot be quantified but can still be appreciated. They are two qualities that are the hallmarks of one of this season’s best partnerships, Nigel Boogaard and Nikolai Topor-Stanley for Newcastle Jets.
The veteran centre-backs have started 18 of 19 games together this season. Centre-backs often rely upon a great partnership, as the position demands constant communication to be aware of a variety of attacking threats.
Communication includes those moments of non-verbal understandings – such as a look between two to acknowledge a change in marking responsibilities or a quick point to indicate the position of an unseen threat – that can only develop from time spent playing together.
As a key part of the competition’s second tightest defence, Boogaard and Topor-Stanley (BooStanley? Toporgaard?) continue a fine A-League tradition. Many previously successful teams have contained a formidable centre-back pairing.
Sydney FC currently has Alex Wilkinson and Jordy Buijs, while Graham Arnold won a championship with the Central Coast Mariners’ combination of Patrick Zwaanswijk and Trent Sainsbury.
Ange Postecoglou’s all-conquering Brisbane originally had a supreme pairing of Milan Susak and Matt Smith in that record-breaking season, while going all the way back to the inaugural double winners, Melbourne Victory in 2006-07, reveals ever-presents in Adrian Leijer and Rodrigo Vargas – and also Kevin Muscat, albeit as part of a back three or at right-back.
Great centre-back partnerships often emerge from great teams because they are well protected by a strong defensive organisation. In Sydney FC’s current set-up – a very similar system to what Arnold used at the Mariners – the two central midfielders constantly occupy the space in front of the back four, preventing the opposition from getting players on the ball in dangerous playmaking positions between the lines.
This is also crucial when attacking high up the pitch, because the protection from the defensive midfielders means Sydney are rarely overloaded against counterattacks if they turn the ball over and therefore the centre-backs are not exposed to one vs one situations.
Brisbane’s style of play focused on aggressive pressing high up the pitch. Although the dynamic of the team was different, the protection for the centre-backs was similar. The front three and midfield pressed collectively to restrict gaps for opponents to play through, with Erik Paartalu as defensive midfielder screening and covering in front of the back four.
The key in both teams was the compactness from back to front. There were never large gaps in front of the back four. Ultimately a defender’s job becomes more difficult the greater space and time opponents have to attack, so great defensive teams minimise that risk for their defenders.
In this regard, Boogaard and Topor-Stanley have benefitted from Ernie Merrick’s use of a 4-2-3-1 and preference for physical, mobile players such as Ben Kantarovski and Stefan Ugarkovic in central midfield. Kantarovski and Ugarkovic cover a lot of ground, screening playmakers behind them while also stepping forward to press their direct opponents in midfield.
If the midfield protects this zone, it means the central defenders don’t have to step forward out of the last line, which can create gaps in the back four exploited by forward runs.
An interesting quirk of Boogaard and Topor-Stanley is their preference for holding a high line. In the weekend’s match against Melbourne Victory, they were happy to leave striker Besart Berisha five metres behind them in an offside position – something the Albanian often does to lure the back four into a false sense of security before darting back onside to then get in behind again.
Both Boogaard and Topor-Stanley were aware of this, however, and actually tried to step forward as a unit to make it difficult for Berisha to return to an onside position. This ties back to the aforementioned qualities of positioning and communication and emphasises why familiarity is important.
Ultimately there is no magical formula to the success of Boogaard and Topor-Stanley or of Newcastle Jets as a whole this season. It is a combination of good recruitment, a simple yet effective style of play, and the development of familiar partnerships.