This question gets asked every so often and although I’ve answered it a few times – and Gary Neville gave a very similar view in a recent column for the Telegraph – it’s probably worth putting a short post up that explains why it appears there aren’t as many top-class defenders around today as there were in eras past.
While many pine for defenders like Franco Baresi, Alessandro Nesta, Fabio Cannavaro, Sol Campbell and Carles Puyol, the reality is that none of those players would look as good playing elite-level football in 2014 as they did in their respective eras. The job they had to do was relatively easy compared to the one defenders have today.
Football has evolved a lot in a short space of time and the way in which teams attack has changed almost entirely. Given that defending is essentially reacting to attacks and preventing their success, if the method of attack changes then the method of defending has to as well.
When the universal method of attack goes one further and changes into something totally new almost overnight – and the players who are carrying out these attacks are better than ever – then defenders are left at a significant disadvantage. For a few years even the best will be made to look stupid on a relatively routine basis. This is why we have seen such a rise in the number of ridiculous scorelines in big matches in recent years.
For centre-backs who grew up playing in a deep, rigid back four, always having a full-back alongside them and occasionally a holding midfielder in front, modern systems – in which the line is positioned much higher up the pitch, the full-backs play as wingers, holding midfielders don’t exist and most box-to-box midfielders neglect their defensive duties – more or less leave them high and dry. There’s simply too much space to cover and most attacks they face are just too fast and, crucially, well-structured.
Whereas coaches used to take their teams through hours and hours of defensive coaching, drilling them on collective positioning and running through scenarios they were likely to face on the pitch, this majority of time tends nowadays to be devoted to organising surgically precise Dortmund-style attacks or working on rotational movement to enable pass-and-move combinations to dominate possession.
The basic quality of the centre-back hasn’t changed. The likes of Sergio Ramos, Pepe and Thiago Silva aren’t significantly worse than the defensive demigods of yesteryear. It’s just that the game has changed, and the world’s centre-backs are still in the process of catching up.