Defenders are becoming more adept with the ball on their feet and confident going forward, as compared to the previous generation.
Gone are the days when the position of the centre-backs only required towering physicality and when players in the said position could be termed as good defenders by simply overpowering the opposition with strength and aggressiveness. The advent of modern football has significantly changed the role of a centre back or more traditionally, the sweeper back.
The ever-changing approach towards the game demands more and more from the players regardless of their roles on the pitch. A striker needs to defend too, a defender needs to attack and play penetrating passes from the back, the full-back has more attacking duties than before and the goalkeeper needs to be more composed on the ball while keeping possession. All these "extra" requirements were absent, say roughly 10-15 years back, when roles/positions on the pitch were more rigid and specific.
Focusing on the centre-back position, it can be observed that the transformation of this role has caused alterations on both on and off the field. Now, a centre-back has the added responsibility of starting attacking moves from the back rather than the goalkeeper kicking the ball up the field towards the halfway line. Managers like Pep Guardiola and Unai Emery are advocates of this style and demand their back line to exchange more passes between them even sometimes making upto 8-10 passes inside their own box. This tactic makes the opponent press higher-up which allows gaps in the midfield that can be exploited.
Manchester City center-backs play the ball from deep inside their own box as shown above
Keeping our lens on Manchester City here, they have a custodian like Ederson who is exceptionally composed on the ball and more often than not releases stoppers like John stones or Aymeric Laporte in spaces where they can be seen galloping with the ball in the opponent's half. Whereas before, centre-backs were primarily meant to simply provide support and stayed deep in their own half while their team attacked. The modern-day centre-back now is an active part of the attacking unit and plays in through balls in the final third.
Manchester City stoppers played higher up against United to contribute in the attack
Managers today put their faith in centre-backs that are better on the ball. Point in case is Phil Jones at Manchester United, as his composure on the ball makes him a more preferable option in the lineup than someone like Marcos Rojo, who is although physically more adept but lacks the ability to stay composed and play accurate passes.
Stats also tell the same story, as Jones has a pass success rate of 92.7% as compared to Rojo's 84.8%. Infact, the stats suggest that the top-rated defenders today are mostly exceptional passers of the ball, example Sergio Ramos who has a pass success rate of 92.6%. Other defenders like Jerome Boateng (87.2%), David Luiz (88.6%) etc are also good passers of the ball. While some centre-backs may have better pass success rate than above-mentioned players, it's the forward passes that are crucial and this is where the modern centre-back excels.
Contrary to common belief, the centre-back position is less about physicality and lunging towards attackers but more about anticipation, observation and the ability to read the gameplay, filling the gaps, covering for full-backs/wingers and intercepting through balls.
The changed approach has also led to the change in the conditioning of players off-the-pitch. Many of the top-rated centre-backs today are not the biggest or the heaviest. Players like Victor Lindelof, Rafael Varane, and Thiago Silva to name a few thrive on their ability to read the gameplay and anticipate the attacking moves of the opposition. Earlier, players like Jaap Stam, or more recent ones in Vincent Kompany or Kurt Zouma bank on their strength to dominate, but the increased pace of the game demands the stoppers to be faster who can outrun the pacy attackers and that's where some centre-backs remain lacking. This is where the centre-back position has gone through a significant change as far as the conditioning of the players is concerned.
Defenders, particularly the stoppers today are leaner than before, but not necessarily weaker. They play higher-up the field and have the speed and stamina to track back in case of a turnover of possession. Sandesh Jhingan is one of the fastest stoppers domestically and is rarely outpaced by the strikers. Perhaps, Marc Bartra of today may not get outpaced by Gareth Bale.
The modern centre-backs/full-backs are as fast as the attackers - here are some instances
It is rather interesting to see how a different approach on the field can be attributed to a change in approach off of it. It goes to show the importance of the coaches and the support staff who perform the pivotal role of preparing the players for the myriad of roles they perform on the pitch.
However, considering all the changes that have taken place, the fundamental qualities that the centre-back position requires remain unchanged. The ability to have unwavering concentration, composure and being aggressive are still prerequisites for any upcoming stopper and self-confidence is the key to success in the long run.
After a nerve-wracking 5-3 win over Chelsea on Wednesday (July 22), Liverpool lifted the Premier League trophy. Late evening in front of empty stands at their home ground, Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp joined his players at the sanitised silverware presenting ceremony.
Around the world, millions of football fans hailed Klopp’s unwavering ambition to produce aggressively beautiful football. Even among the neutrals there was excitement in the triumph of Liverpool’s eye-catching style that embodies the German coach’s attacking football philosophy based on “gegenpressing”.
For some time now, in football fan chat rooms “gegenpressing” has replaced “tiki taka” as the favourite word to flaunt one’s deep understanding of the game.
Literally, it means counter-pressing in German. But counter-pressing is not to pressing what counterattacking is to attacking. It’s not countering a press — on the contrary, it’s pressing a counter.
The fundamental principle is to start pressing as soon as you lose the ball, so that you could regain possession. Usually, when teams concede possession, especially in the opposition half, they retreat to reorganise their shape, bolstering the defence for the offensive onslaught. But Klopp’s men, be it Liverpool or Dortmund, begin to swarm the person with the ball, cutting his ball-distributing channels, crowding him out and intimidating him, so that he falters and surrenders the ball to them.
To use Klopp’s words, “gegenpress them to death.” Once his men reclaim possession, they buzz away like sparkling red wasps.
The fundamental principle of gegenpressing is to start pressing as soon as you lose the ball, so that you could regain possession. (Representational image; the red dots are Liverpool)
The tactic, ironically, has English roots.
A cruder version was prevalent in the 1960s in England, but it was systematically seen first in the Dutch league, where Ernst Happel’s Feyenoord and Rinus Michels’ Ajax Amsterdam deployed it occasionally. The Total Footballers under Rinus Michels borrowed certain principles of it in the 1974 World Cup. But it was not the defining theme of these teams, but one of their facets.
Later, Italian strategist Arrigo Sacchi wove the tactics of gegenpressing into his highly successful Milan teams of the late 1980s and 1990s to counter the ultra-defensive approach of Serie A rivals at that time. So defensively structured were the Italian teams that he realised that regaining possession higher up the pitch was the only way they could create more goal-scoring opportunities.
But it was Klopp who refined the idea and morphed the pressing game into an ideology, as a way of playing football rather than as a means-achieving method, during his early coaching days with Mainz. The pressing game always existed, but gegenpressing began with Klopp. In Germany, it’s often lauded as the first German tactical innovation after Franz Beckenbauer redefined the role of sweeper in the 1970s.
How does Liverpool employ it, and how is its gegenpressing different from that of Dortmund’s?
Liverpool’s gegenpress manual is different from the Dortmund blueprint.
Klopp, a pragmatist rather than a fundamentalist, was quick to realise he had to tinker with his tactics, depending on the football culture of the country and the men at his disposal. In Dortmund, he had an exemplary hold-up striker in Robert Lewandowski; so he shaped his side into a narrow 4-2-3-1, with his men pressing uncomfortably close to their opponents. The fullbacks would often track back rapidly to regain the defensive shape.
But at Liverpool he doesn’t have a conventional striker of Lewandowski’s pedigree, so he usually forms a 4-3-3, deploying Roberto Firmino as a false nine, flanked by pacy forwards Mohammad Salah and Sadio Mane, who like to run deep and receive the ball in space. So Firmino drops into the hole between the opposition defence and midfield, acting like a link-man of sorts, distracting the defenders and providing space for the wing-men.
Moreover, Klopp found the English league more defensive-minded—defenders were happy passing the ball among themselves rather than panicking when pressed. They were so efficient at hoofing the long balls that Liverpool was more vulnerable to counterattacks. So he decongested the press and moved it more towards the centre of the field (the Dortmund heat-map was always on the wings and extremely clustered). But at the same time, his hyper-adventurous fullbacks wouldn’t drop back as deep as the Dortmund counterparts.
The core though remains the same—robust central midfielders and fast defenders, adept at quick offensive and defensive transitioning. In effect, Liverpool’s is a more intelligent and versatile version of gegenpressing than Dortmund’s.
Pressing is fundamental to both. For Liverpool, it’s their lifeblood; for Barcelona under Pep Guardiola, it was their life-support.
Both press to regain possession, but while Liverpool charges forth with snappy counters, ratcheting up the tempo, Barcelona used to decelerate and resume their passing game and keep possession for long periods, restructuring themselves. In the words of Guardiola: “Without the ball, we are a disastrous team, a horrible team, so we need the ball.”
While Guardiola’s style of play was defensive, Klopp saw it as an attacking outlet.
“Gegenpressing lets you win back the ball nearer to the goal. It’s only one pass away from a really good opportunity. No playmaker in the world can be as good as a good gegenpressing situation, and that’s why it’s so important.”
They pressed differently too.
Guardiola’s men would press conservatively, with one man (usually Lionel Messi) pressuring the opponent on the ball, and others cutting off passing angles. Aware of Barcelona’s porous backline, he was cautious about not committing too many men on the ball. His teams were so structured that he disliked the chaos of a gegenpress situation.
But Klopp was a radical—his men would converge onto the ball-carrying opposition player. It’s the reason his midfielders predominantly operate centrally to compress space, and not through wide channels. Horizontal compactness is so central to his style.
At the same time, Klopp has of late in the big games, embraced the passing game, inclined to keep more possession than he usually does. It’s not quite passing in triangles like tiki taka, but more of a wearying-out-the-opponent plan. So there’s so much common and so much distinct between the two styles.