Why Premier League centre-backs no longer just need to defend

Full-backs are inverting, goalkeepers are playing like NFL quarterbacks, while centre-backs now have to do just about everything for a progressive football team. Indeed, Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher recently described centre-back as “the most demanding position on the pitch” and admitted he would have struggled to cope in today’s game.

Being able to mark, tackle, and head the ball — prerequisites of the traditional defender — make up just a small percentage of the modern job description. Today’s centre-backs have a list of tasks that require them to transition between defence and attack, step into full-back and midfield, play out from the back under pressure and dominate in the air and in one-on-one situations.

From playing with finesse to defending with intensity, in the era of data analytics and sophisticated systems, centre-backs are now charged with a very different set of responsibilities. This is how modern centre-backs have evolved to redefine their position.

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The timeline starts with a role that was only held responsible for protecting their goal. In the 1990s and beforehand, it was: Head it, kick it, get it away from your own box by any means necessary. Simple. Expectations on a central defender’s tactical flexibility and passing range were limited.

“As recently as the 2000s, clubs wanted traditional attributes for centre-backs — good one-vs.-one, aerial dominance, and defending the box,” said Tor-Kristian Karlsen, a former chief scout, sporting director and CEO, who now works as a columnist for ESPN. “Now clubs want the complete defender. Someone who can play in two phases of the game: defending and attacking.”

The genesis of playing out from the back in the Premier League can be traced back to the introduction of the back-pass rule in 1992. Defenders were suddenly unable to escape pressure with a simple sidefoot back into their box because the goalkeeper was no longer able to pick it up. If you burdened them with a pass, you were relying on their ability to handle it with their feet like an outfield player. In today’s game, that’s par for the course; in the ’90s, it was like rolling a hand grenade into a phone box.

“I remember when the backpass rule came in and I nearly had a heart attack!” legendary goalkeeper David Seaman told the Arsenal website in 2016. “It was hard to adapt for us, but now goalkeepers are taught to control it and distribute it with both feet. When the rule came in, first of all, you went to the safety route. If someone passed it back to you, you just booted it. You just had to make sure you got good contact on it.”

In 1996, French manager Arsene Wenger arrived at Arsenal with a raft of nutritional changes, new ideas, and a plan to teach defenders how to play with the ball at their feet.

“We were playing triangles around their centre-forwards, which in those days wasn’t done. We rotated — I went and played in midfield sometimes, and [midfielder] Manu Petit played centre-half,” former Arsenal and England defender Tony Adams told the Coaches’ Voice.

As things began to take shape, the Premier League centre-backs like Leeds United’s Rio Ferdinand began to emerge. After a record £29.3 million move to Manchester United in 2002, he became the first defender to break into the top 10 for completed passes (1,662) in the Premier League during the 2006-07 season, while Arsenal’s Kolo Touré clearly embraced the Wenger philosophy as he sat just below Ferdinand in 10th, alongside eight midfielders.

A decade later, Pep Guardiola arrived in England to take charge of Manchester City just one year after Jurgen Klopp had joined Liverpool. Their rivalry would come to define an era and their tactical philosophies, positional play, and gegenpress would create a new breed of centre-back.

Klopp’s aggressive counter-pressing system suffocates the opposition high up the pitch, forcing errors and therefore creates goal-scoring opportunities in dangerous areas. Stats on FBRef show that Liverpool have won more final-third tackles than any other team since analysts started collating this data during the 2017-18 season. Evading this pressure requires a level of guile and passing precision more akin to a midfielder.

Hence the reason Guardiola consistently deployed midfielders such as Yaya Touré, Javier Mascherano and Javi Martinez — all players capable of navigating the onrushing pressure — at the heart of his defence while he was developing his style of play at Barcelona and Bayern Munich. In this system, centre-backs combine with the goalkeeper and midfield to create a numerical overload against the chasing pack.

Opponents are left to choose between two perilous choices: press the ball and risk leaving space in behind or sit off and invite them to build from the back.

“You’re trying to make the pitch as big as possible,” says former centre-back Nedum Onuoha, who made 188 Premier League appearances for Manchester City, Sunderland, and QPR and is now an ESPN analyst. “The centre-backs and full-backs will split, and one midfielder will drop in to create options for the player in possession.

“The front three pin back the opposition’s back four, creating space in the midfield area. If the opposition overcommits in an attempt to win the ball and you bypass them to your midfielder in space, you create a four-vs.-four in the final third.”

Teams with defensive discipline resist the bait, challenging the team in possession to pass through a congested area or hit a predictable long ball. This is why you see centre-backs standing still, with their studs on the ball, luring the press to jump into action. If the centre-back has to shift the ball left or right, they can use their skills to get away from would-be tacklers. It sounds simple, but it’s risky.

“Misplacing a pass at the back is weighted far differently than somebody misplacing a pass up front,” Onuoha says. “It could cost the team a goal, even though it’s the same sort of pass.”

Duties in possession extend beyond building from the back. As players rotate around the pitch, centre-backs are required to plug gaps and get on the ball to help break down defensive barricades. They can’t just operate in their zone and disengage once the ball has moved into the opponent’s half.

“Centre-backs need superior tactical intelligence,” explains Edu Rubio, who has worked as a first-team coach for Wolves, West Ham, and Crystal Palace. “With full-backs pushing high up the pitch or inverting, centre-backs need to provide cover in wide areas. They need to be comfortable stepping into midfield to squeeze the space and make the pitch smaller for the opposition to play out. Offensively, it creates overloads to help work the ball into the box.”

Centre-backs having to keep things compact and participate in the build-up play is reflected in the Premier League’s passing stats this season.

In 2007, there were two defenders in the top 10: Ferdinand (1,662) and Toure (1,540). Halfway through this campaign, there are already seven centre-backs in the top 10, two of which — Brighton’s Lewis Dunk (1,989) and Arsenal’s William Saliba (1,771) — have already completed more passes than their counterparts did 17 years ago.

The increased technical and tactical demands have had a ripple effect on the athletic and defensive requirements. Implementing a high block leaves centre-backs exposed, often in one-vs.-one duels, with players built to excel in close-quarter battles. The likes of Arsenal and Liverpool are happy to leave Saliba or Virgil van Dijk in these predicaments because of their pace and positioning skills, but the likes of Aston Villa are trying to catch opposing runners in their offside trap. Indeed, Unai Emery’s team have done so 116 times this season, 41 times more than Tottenham, who rank second in the Premier League for offsides.

“Villa play a very high line and press the opponent, forcing them to play long with the defenders leaving forwards in offside positions,” says Rubio. “There will be moments in the game where the opposition beats the trap, and you have to chase back. Sometimes they will score. That’s the risk. VAR is also asking more of defenders. If you want to play offside, the defenders have to be more aware of their surroundings and have better communication.”

That’s where speed is not just a requirement for a centre-back; it can be the difference between conceding a goal or not.

“Defenders never used to get in that position because they were very good at organising people around them,” Onouha says. “They wouldn’t have been comfortable standing next to someone who they knew was quicker, stronger, and had the ability to embarrass them. In the modern era, you might get left on an island and you’re trusted to handle it.”

All of these elements have impacted the profile of the player which clubs are recruiting, down to the intricate details of how that centre-back is going to pass and tackle. Pairing right and left-footed defenders had never been a consideration before; it was just a case of putting the two best players together. But getting the right combination is vital in the modern game.

“When you’re pulled into the wide areas, you have to tackle or block with your stronger foot,” Karlsen says. “Players also prefer to turn with their stronger foot. Some coaches have even been successful with a left-footed player on the right and the right-footer on the left because it’s easier to play the ball more precisely inside with your stronger foot. Decisive moments are decided in a flash. You have to be mentally sharp to manage those situations. It’s like playing speed chess.”

Strikers will argue that putting the ball in the back of the net is the most demanding job in the game, as well as linking play and defending from the front. Full-backs also have a claim as they need the speed and endurance to get up and down both ends of the pitch to defend and create in equal measure, as well as the tactical acumen to know when to join the midfield.

Arsenal’s No.1 David Raya made his case for goalkeepers to ESPN, outlining the radical changes their position has undergone and how they now play as an outfield player in possession. To say centre-back is the most demanding of the lot is subjective, but one thing is clear: it’s a role that has changed beyond recognition, impacted by rule changes, technology, data, and tactics. One small miscalculation, and you will be punished.

“It’s the position that draws the most criticism because of how much it has changed,” Onuoha says. “There’s a 10-point checklist for recruiters, and No. 1 isn’t the ability to defend, which shows how much the fundamentals have changed.”

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