How short centre-backs have a big influence - 2023 Advent Calendar Series

Celebrate Advent with excerpts from Scott Martin's top articles on Total Football Analysis. Head to or Scott's LinkedIn profile each day through December 24th for the next installment. 

Today's featured excerpt comes from the September 2022 magazine. It's called, "Tactical Theory: How short centre-backs have a big influence.”

Football has a rich history of undersized centerbacks. One of the poster boys is the Englishman, Bobby Moore, who stood at 182 cm tall. The legendary, two-time Ballon d’Or winning German, Franz Beckenbauer, was 180 cm tall, and fellow Ballon d’Or winner Fabio Cannavaro also stood at just 175 cm tall.

Defending against flighted balls and tussling with target men are not new concepts. They’ve been around the game for generations, if not from the start. While the game has evolved, football’s rich history not only points to several great, undersized centerbacks, but also shows us the best centerbacks in the history of the game are considered short.

This tactical analysis goes out to the centerbacks who stand at 186 cm or shorter. We’ll show how top undersized centerbacks in the modern game use their size intelligently, consistently gaining an edge on the opponent.

Dealing with Aerial Duels

When it comes to aerial duels, positioning is key. Before the players even go up for the ball, a battle is taking place. It starts with the two players reading the trajectory of the ball and getting close to the anticipated endpoint.

We say close because the battle has only begun. As the two players slide close to the landing spot, the physical battle starts. The universal truth is that each player is trying to block the other’s path to the ball’s endpoint. That’s as true for Martinez as it is for Virgil Van Dijk. The only difference between the two is that the Liverpool star has much more leeway given his height. He can high-point his header at an earlier spot on the ball’s downward trajectory, which makes it increasingly difficult for his opponents to win the aerial duel.

Undersized centerbacks don’t have that luxury. Blocking the opposition’s path to the ball’s landing point is all the more important. That’s exactly what we see in this first example, featuring Chelsea’s Silva.

One of the keys to winning this aerial duel is the way he blocks Diogo Jota’s backward movement. But that’s not the only key to this aerial win. Look at the postures of the two players. Jota’s center of gravity is behind his feet, limiting the amount of force he can apply to Silva. Meanwhile, the Chelsea centerback is in a balanced position with his knees bent and a forearm in Jota’s mid-back. In fact, Silva’s knee bumps into the back of Jota’s knee, making the knee buckle. This is part blocking the opponent’s path to the ball and part putting him off his balance with the contact. It’s textbook defending.

As the moment to jump arrives, it’s very important to note that Silva goes first. Not only does he jump first, but his right forearm slides up Jota’s back. That gives Silva more leverage for his jump and also prevents the Portuguese from getting in the air.

If you’re speaking to the computer screen and pointing out that this is a foul, it’s a good time to remind you that it’s only a foul if the referee catches it. Silva does well to disguise his action, not making the contact obvious by putting open hands-on Jota’s back or shoulders, as well as making sure he doesn’t jump over his opponent’s back. These subtleties set top defenders apart.

Awareness and aggressive actions

Much like the previous section, we’ll address universal topics of defending here. What makes these so important for short centerbacks is the margin of error that was just mentioned. Make one mistake and the consequences are often more severe.

So, as we address awareness and aggressive actions, which will revolve largely around both dynamic movements and physicality, these are ideas that larger centerbacks can and should use, but, once again, typically deliver larger consequences to the undersized centerback who gets it wrong.

The first trait we’ll look at is anticipation. Again, a universal skill for all players, especially for those at the end of the formation. Understand the threat and your odds of ending it improve. This is especially important for small centerbacks, who typically play in teams with high lines. Mobility is a key trait for undersized centerbacks. They’re not suited for low-block defending, but they are often the best candidates for teams that defend primarily through a high press.

As an undersized centerback in a high-pressing team, anticipating passes played over or through the backline is critical to the team’s success. That’s what we find in this Sergio Ramos example against Villarreal. As the Yellow Submarines look to play over the top, Ramos is two steps ahead of them. Looking over his right shoulder, he saw the run of the targeted attacker. Seeing the run and having several yards on him, Ramos was already backtracking by the time the first attacker put his head down to deliver the ball over the top.

Ramos claimed an uncontested header, regaining the ball for his side. Don’t let the ease of the final action take away from the brilliance of Ramos’ awareness and anticipation. Since the first attacker had time to pick up his head and identify runners higher up the pitch, Ramos naturally assumed that the run was coming. Without his shoulder check and early retreat, his opponent gets on the end of this pass.

While that example covers a ball played behind the backline, this next one returns to an idea mentioned in the vulnerability section, aggressive movements into midfield. You’ll recall the vulnerabilities attached to this movement are overconfidence and failing to adapt to faster opponents.

The strength of the action is that, when timed well and executed, it ends a threat before it fully develops.

Take this Ramos sequence in the four-in-one image as an example. In the first frame, he identifies that the pass is coming central. Notice the timing of his movement. The pass isn’t even in motion, yet Ramos has already identified that that’s where the ball is going and is en route to his first defender role. That arched line in the first frame shows that the first touch popped up, largely due to the pressure Ramos put on the first attacker.

In frame two, Ramos outmuscles his opponent and gains possession of the ball, then dribbles up the pitch to lead the counterattack in image three. The sequence ends with Ramos getting fouled on the top of the 18 to earn a penalty kick for his side. That turned out to be the game and title-clinching goal of Real Madrid’s 2019/20 La Liga campaign.

As a former right-back, Ramos’ instincts took over as he streaked up the pitch. The underlying physical qualities we see are his acceleration that compliments his read of play and the explosive speed to cover the ground and create the 1v1 higher up the pitch.

For undersized centerbacks, exceptional mobility is often as important as reading and responding to the flow of play. As those physical attributes decrease, the tactical acumen must increase.

Even as the physical skills gradually diminish, mobility is still key for undersized centerbacks, especially if they’re playing in a back four in a possession-dominant side. With the outside-backs pushing high up the pitch, the expectation is that the two centerbacks can manage both the space between themselves and the goalkeeper and the width of the pitch. An early read of those plays certainly helps, but the mobility to arrive first is still important.

For the full article, which offers far more insight into how undersized centerbacks maximize their talents, head to Total Football Analysis.

Here's the link to the article.

Read and share with someone who would find this analysis interesting.

Come back tomorrow, either on or my LinkedIn profile for the next installment of the Advent calendar.

Day 1 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite attackers

Day 2 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite midfielders

Day 3 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite defenders

Day 4 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite goalkeeper

Day 5 - Superiorities-based training for possession dominant teams

Day 6 – Cues for progressive actions

Day 7 - Data Analysis: The art of overachieving

Day 8 - Data Analysis: The art of underachieving

Day 9 - The re-emergence of man-marking in a high press

Day 10 - The Regista: How to control a football match

Day 11 - Identifying the best moments to engage opponents

Day 12 - Exploring innovative throw-in routines and principles from Europe’s best

Day 13 - Ideologues vs Tacticians: The battle for domestic and continental titles

Day 14 - Resurrecting football's 2-3-5 pyramid

Day 15 - Timeless lessons in defending from Paolo Maldini

Day 16 - A comprehensive guide to direct possession

Day 17 - Do Golden Generations live up to the hype?

Day 18 - Training runs behind the backline in a three-forward system

Day 19 - Training runs behind the backline in a two-forward system

Day 20 - How short centre-backs have a big influence