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There is a commonly held view that central defenders are nothing more than brutish behemoths, doing anything and everything necessary to keep the ball out of their net. This is not an unfounded notion, as some of the greatest center backs to have graced the sport fit this exact description;1 but the game is changing. More emphasis is being placed on “skilled” central defenders, players that are comfortable with the ball at their feet and can pick out passes up the pitch. These players can act as an extra midfielder in playmaking situations, and often hold the key to unlocking a tightly-organized defense.
While there are a number of fine playmaking defenders scattered throughout the professional leagues, I will use Bayern Munich’s Jérôme Boateng to illustrate the considerable impact a “skilled” center back can have on a team’s play style and chance creation. Boateng is considered one of the top defensive talents in all of soccer. However, what is frequently overlooked is his remarkable ability to control the game from the center back position. On a Bayern Munich club overflowing with playmaking talent, Boateng often finds himself venturing forward with the ball at his feet and sparking an attack with an inch-perfect pass.
The most fundamental benefit of a “skilled” central defender is the ability for that player’s teammates to rely on him as a dependable passing outlet when under pressure.
As David Alaba is pressured by a charging Borussia Dortmund midfielder, Boateng makes himself available to receive a pass. He has the composure and dribbling skills to evade an opposing forward and maintain possession before finding a teammate further up the pitch. It looks simple, but many defenders are not comfortable handling the ball when pressed by the opposition. In fact, many have forced a non-optimal pass to a closely-marked teammate, likely losing possession for their team or, at worst, placing their midfielders in harm’s way as tackles come flying in, thanks to the error-laced 50-50 ball.
A central defender that is comfortable moving forward with the ball can also force opposing attackers to press, pulling them out of position, which creates passing lanes to exploit.
Rather than putting his teammates under pressure with a dangerous short pass, Boateng pushes upfield and draws two opposition players out of position. His movement opens up a direct lane to the attacking third, allowing Boateng to slot a through ball to a waiting teammate. This exchange highlights a key tactical benefit that comes from a center back advancing up the pitch: the forward movement puts immediate pressure on the defensive structure of the opposition and pulls opposing players into positions they do not want to be. This opens up pockets of space for the marauding defender’s teammates to position themselves in anticipation of a pass to their feet. This type of forward run is especially effective against an opposition that is man-marking in the midfield.
In most man-marking situations, a team will task only one of their forwards with marking both center backs, making it relatively easy for a skilled central defender to break past the opposition’s front line. This creates a numerical advantage for the team with the ball. In order to stop the advantage, a midfielder from the opposition must leave his man and close down the advancing center back. Unless executed perfectly, this will leave a man in the midfield unmarked and with ample room to receive a pass and continue the attack.
Boateng is essentially a creative midfielder situated along the team’s back line due to his immense defensive skills and physical presence. In a way, his playmaking ability is more valuable in his current role as a central defender than it would be if he occupied a role in the heart of the midfield. He is routinely offered more time and space on the ball than he would be given anywhere else on the pitch, allowing him to distribute the ball to teammates in any position.
The German defender is afforded plenty of time and space after receiving the ball and bypasses the congestion of the midfield by pinging a diagonal ball to an open Toni Kroos. However, this is not any ordinary ball, as the weight, speed, and trajectory of the pass had to be absolutely perfect to give Kroos the chance to take a comfortable touch without allowing the nearest Czech defender to intercept the pass.
Unless a defense is perfectly drilled, there is very little chance they stay compact and perfectly organized for an entire 90-minute match. There are two main situations in which a defensive line is increasingly vulnerable to being out of position: 1.) When the ball is controlled by an opposing team’s defense, and 2.) When possession is lost in the midfield. A central defender with top-tier vision and passing abilities can take advantage of both scenarios.
Scenario 1: When the Ball is in the Other Half of the Field
A defensive line tends to stay most focused when they are under direct pressure from an attacking team, as should be expected. They are more prone to complacency and lapses in focus when the ball is located on the opposite side of the pitch, opening up opportunities for deep-lying playmakers to take advantage and catch them off guard.
The Czech Republic defensive line is not well organized when Boateng receives the ball, and does not improve by the time he has carried the ball towards the midfield line. The placement of the two central defenders allows the German attacker to stay onside while placing himself behind the man most closely marking him (the Czech right fullback), offering him an unimpeded path towards the goal. Boateng picks out an unbelievable pass, bypassing the entire Czech midfield and defense and sending his teammate through on goal.
While few central defenders are blessed with the vision and technical ability to execute such a difficult pass, playmaking defenders like Boateng remove the need to delay an attack by playing through a congested midfield and can take advantage of the defensive disorganization with a decisive pass of their own.
Scenario 2: On the Counter
At no point during a match is a defense more out of position than when the team loses possession in the midfield. As a team initiates an attack, their back line presses up the pitch in order to maintain the team’s shape and provide pressure-relieving outlets for their teammates further up the pitch. However, if the ball is lost while the defensive line has pressed up the field the opposition has a clear opportunity to counter-attack and catch the defense out of position.
When Boateng neatly nicks the ball from a Dortmund attacker, the entire Dortmund team has pushed up the field and are now well out of position. Rather than choosing to send Robben down the midfield seam as a less-talented player would be forced to do, Boateng executes the killer pass himself, allowing Robben to the opportunity to make a forward run and catch up to the attack. By circumventing the midfield, Boateng executes the quickest possible counter-attack and ensures a more prolonged numerical superiority for his surging teammates. These examples should help illustrate the tactical nightmare that a playmaking central defender like Jérôme Boateng can present to every opposition side.
It should be noted that Boateng sets the standard for all defenders in the sport. The ease with which he executes passes that midfield maestros Andrés Iniesta and Andrea Pirlo would be thrilled with is remarkable, and truly unparalleled among central defenders. However, as a greater emphasis is placed on making the most of possession rather than keeping possession for possession’s sake, defenders with superior passing abilities should continue to increase in number, changing the genetic makeup of the center back position for good.