Timeless lessons in defending from Paolo Maldini - 2023 Advent Calendar Series
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.
Few players can boast the longevity to have matched up against both Maradona and Cristiano Ronaldo. In fact, only one player comes to mind.
His name is Paolo Maldini.
Though he played in a different era, Il Capitano’s brilliance on the pitch leaves us with timeless lessons in defending
This tactical analysis is part retro scouting report, part tactical theory. We’re going to dive into the core principles that made Maldini the defender he was, highlighting those characteristics for a contemporary audience. By the end, the goal is to have concrete ideas to take with us to the training ground, either as a coach or a player.
Before progressing to the article, know that Maldini is the only highlighted player in this analysis. When you see a player with a circle underneath him, that’s our guy. Further, since these are classic matches, the picture clarity it’s not at the level of current matches. That said, I’ve chosen games that generally have a higher picture resolution and wide tactical view. No Maldini vs Maradona in the analysis, unfortunately. Much better to watch that one on video than see the battle through still images.
Maldini famously said, “If I have to make a tackle, then I’ve already made a mistake.” According to The Sun’s analysis, only averaged 0.56 challenges per game during his storied 25-year career, which is such an incredibly low number it almost seems fabricated.
But that’s how good Maldini was.
One of Maldini’s best traits is that he was a true leader. Vocal and directive, his read of play and understanding of how he and each of his teammates fit into that dynamic was key to his impact. He’s the kind of player who was able to pan out and see the bigger picture then communicate clear and concise ideas to his teammates. Rather than focusing simply on himself, he made everyone around him better.
Centerbacks must use their deep positioning and expansive field view to constantly scan for threats and shift teammates into the right positions. Through vocalizations and hand gestures, they can improve the positioning of their teammates and the outcomes of sequences. Maldini, as is shown in the first image of this section, was constantly directing his teammates.
It’s one thing to direct, but another to know what information to communicate to your teammates. In the case of Maldini, his read of the game, especially his understanding of threats and vulnerabilities, as well as how to counter those dangers, was inherent to his impact.
So what was he looking for and how did he respond? Let’s look at a few ideas.
Returning to AC Milan’s Champions League fixture against the Real Madrid Galacticos, we have an instance of the La Liga side in an attacking transition and Milan caught out of position. Maldini took a quick note of the 1v1 behind him, the 1v1 in the wing, and the free player centrally. The first action was clear; recover into a position of strength to limit the greatest threats.
Maldini made an excellent recovery into the box, giving AC Milan a 2v1 centrally. As Real Madrid looked to send the cross, Il Capitano was in a position to continue with the runner while also watching the eyes and body mechanics of the first attacker. Once the ball carrier made eye contact with the trailing runner and started to square his hips for the pass, Maldini broke his stride and quickly moved upfield to intercept the pass.
While the other six field players were still running towards the Milan goal, Maldini ran onto the pass for an easy interception. One of the keys here is that Maldini quickly recovered to a position of strength, positioning himself to contest as he passed into the path of the player closest to goal. By recovering that basic positioning, he eliminated the need for a chaotic recovery and shot block. Instead, his deeper positioning allowed him to slow the pace of his backtracking, identify the trailing runner, and anticipate the negative cross.
Milan’s highly organized approach limited the number of high-paced recoveries towards goal. Instead, the backline did well to keep play in front of them and engage while moving forward. The obvious advantage here is that a recovery while moving forward allows for a quick start to the next attack. Other more subtle advantages are that technical actions are typically more simplified, there’s less of a risk of miscommunication, and the ability to keep your field vision intact.
Maldini specialized in moving forward to break up attacks. His understanding of the ‘where’ and ‘when’ of his defensive actions provided the solid foundations for his success.
Let’s take another example from that match against Ajax. The first of the two images shows a promising Ajax attack through the central channel. They’ve entered zone 14 and are moments away from a 2v1 against Maldini.
Rather than sitting back and bracing himself to defend in a numbers down scenario, Maldini’s aggression kicked into action. His body orientation allowed him to quickly step forward and limit the passing angle to the high player. Knowing his opponent would see the pressure and try to play forward with his first touch, Maldini quickly closed that space and then decelerated just before the pass was sent. That deceleration allowed him to get into a balanced position and block the pass. Danger averted.
The stakes were high in that last example. Had he not stopped the pass, Ajax would be in an ongoing 1v1 versus the keeper.
Our final example from this section highlights a lower risk scenario but with equally aggressive action. #1 shows Maldini in tight connection with his backline. They’ve closed off the middle of the pitch, effectively defending against Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona’s central overload. As the ball deflects to the right, Maldini quickly steps into that space. He can do so knowing that he has adequate coverage along the backline.
Quickly closing down forward passing lanes and decelerating as he arrived shifted momentum in his favour. Not only had he cut off those forward passing lanes, but now he was prepared to get a foot to any pass or continue moving forward should his opponent attempt to dribble out of pressure. The latter happened with his opponent turning to the right and heading in the direction of the wing. Using his forward momentum, Maldini continued his aggressive pursuit up the pitch knowing that his opponent didn’t have a way out. He ended the play with an aggressive slide tackle.
Maldini was an aggressive player who excelled when he could move forward to engage opponents. This is a rarity in the game. While most defenders prefer to keep playing in front of them, they rarely excel when the momentum carries them towards an opponent who’s also moving towards the oncoming pressure defender. Typically, the balance of play favours the attacker because the defender’s momentum is moving in the wrong direction.
Not for Maldini. Knowing that he excelled in the situations, he looked for opportunities to move forward and end attacks. The key here is the anticipation of the ball reaching that central player. Maldini’s excellent body orientation and field vision allowed him to see the playing field and identify the possibility of the ball skipping to the free man. His quick movement up the field comes down to his body orientation. He was ready to move forward from the start. Then, as he approached, he knew that he had effectively cut out any forward passing options and had coverage behind him if his opponent should attempt to dribble. He was looking for a change of direction away from Maldini. Anticipating that action all the way, once he saw the visual cue he sprung into action and ended the Barcelona attack.
For the full article, which offers far more insight into the philosophical battle of Ideologues vs Tacticians, head to Total Football Analysis.
Read and share with someone who would find this analysis interesting.
Day 15 - Timeless lessons in defending from Paolo Maldini