Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite defenders - 2023 Advent Calendar Series, Day 3
Celebrate Advent with excerpts from Scott Martin's top articles on Total Football Analysis. Head to scottmartinmedia.com or Scott's LinkedIn profile each day through December 24th for the next installment.
Today's featured excerpt comes from the December 2021 magazine. It's called, "Tactical analysis: The intelligent movements of elite midfielders."
What does intelligent movement look like at the centerbacks position?
I’ve studied some of the best the game has to offer in the hopes of helping my own players better understand the role.
Here’s what I found.
“If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake.” – Paolo Maldini
The underlying principles are that a centreback’s duties include directing the team’s defensive structure, sealing access to threats and valuable areas of the pitch.
There's also the understanding of anticipating the likelihood of where the ball will go next in order to make a play on it through an interception.
The Sun’s analysis of Maldini’s career claimed he “averaged only 0.56 challenges per game,” which is such an extraordinarily low number it’s difficult to even fathom. There must be something to his statement.
If a centerback knows where the next pass is going, odds are they can glean the second and third ones too.
Well-structured defensive presses should funnel play into pressing traps, limiting the number of outcomes for the second and third ball.
If that organization is intact, outcomes are much more predictable.
And that’s ultimately the objective of the out of possession team; make play predictable through your defensive organization.
Restrict access to one part of the pitch in order to funnel play into another. Once play is funnelled into the desired area, the team picks up their pressure on the ball carrier. That, in turn, will often limit the opponent to short and intermediate passing options.
Let's start with Maldini.
Back in 2008, 39-year-old Maldini locked 26-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic down in the Derby della Madonnina.
Maldini was so good that Ibrahimovic and Inter Milan attempted to avoid the Italian stalwart as much as possible.
Top takeaways: first, his starting position.
He's close enough to Ibrahimovic to contest any ball flicked onto the Swede, but he also has the inside track by a couple of yards, which was necessary since Ibrahimovic was significantly quicker than his Italian opponent.
Notice his body orientation as well. He can see the ball and his mark and is well-positioned to move either towards Ibrahimovic or towards the penalty spot. His stance is low with his quads activated, ready to move. Despite losing physical quickness he's easily 1st to the ball.
Ideally, centrebacks will consistently put in performances like Maldini's against Inter.
There were no extraordinary defensive actions, no last-ditch defending or heroic sacrifices in his box.
He did the little things well, so the grandiose actions were unnecessary. Many battles on the pitch are, first, a battle for positioning, perhaps none more so than aerial duels.
While most of the centrebacks in this analysis are 6’2” or taller, we do have an undersized centreback in Sergio Ramos.
Granted, 6 ft tall isn't too great a disadvantage for a centerback, but it means he does have to take care of the minute details.
That typically means he has to engage the attacker physically in order the secure his defensive action.
Top takeaways: reading the trajectory of the ball, boxing out his opponent, and maintaining physical dominance throughout the duel.
As the long pass is sent, watch Ramos engage physically. Like a basketball player boxing out for a rebound, Ramos protects his space.
In aerial duels, it's critical to win the positional battle, which, after the initial read of the ball's trajectory, becomes a physical duel.
Once the destination of the ball is known, the objective is to prevent the opponent from moving into that space.
The objective is to contest positioning rather than immediately position oneself for the 1st ball. Establishing early contact and blocking access to the destination, increases the chances of an aerial win. Control the opponent to keep control of the space.
Now let's look at the 2nd defender role.
Here we have Pepe playing for Porto vs Sporting.
Sporting developed their attack in the right-wing and were looking to make their move into the half space for a cross. The space is there and the run is on, signaling the pass.
However, 38-year-old Pepe, who starts the sequence in the central channel, identifies the run and anticipates the pass. Ultimately, he's successful in claiming the interception and touching the ball around the oncoming Sporting attacker.
Pepe gives us an excellent example of a player who excels in a coverage role, but what about offering coverage after a complete defensive breakdown? How do top centrebacks use intelligent movements to read the play, assess threats and offer coverage in a chaotic recovery?
We'll turn to Giorgio Chiellini.
Key takeaways: threat recognition, eliminating far post option, and timing of his movement.
In the lead-up to the cross, Chiellini does well to identify the greatest threats and take away the early far post cross.
Once Kroos has just the one option, Chiellini knows he can release the far post runners and contest Isco, the shot taker.
Chiellini's read of play in this instance showcases the intelligence that has allowed him to remain at the top of the position for over a decade.
Defensively, order and predictability are always preferable.
But it's impossible to play under those conditions for 90+ minutes. There will be a breakdown, so the response is key.
That's our next topic, brought to you by Virgil van Dijk.
A defender's worst nightmare is to have a pacey, agile attacker dribbling at them in the open field with no coverage. A foul results in a red card and if the opponent gets by they are through to goal.
So how do top defenders manage open pitch 1v1s?
Key takeaways: maintain distance, delay the attacker, limit space the forward can attack, and ensure body orientation prepares for the "when" moment of the recovery.
Van Dijk's defending is textbook. Even though Son gains a couple of steps, van Dijk is quickly up to full speed. Delaying confrontation allows him to focus on the timing of his challenge. As Son takes his prep steps for the shot, van Dijk regains those steps to block the shot.
There's much more to read in the full article. Ruben Dias is in there too, as is a breakdown of the attacking and defensive movements of outside-backs.
Read and share with someone who would find this analysis interesting.
Day 3 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite defenders