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THE LOST ART

Why are there so few world-class centre-back pairings around at the moment?

What happened to the days of Alessandro Nesta and Paolo Maldini bossing it at the back?

Once upon a time there were two artists named Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta.

They spent their days jockeying, shackling and executing exquisite offside traps but never sliding, because the second grass touched short they’d been beaten.

Maldini and Nesta were world-class defenders, breaking bread alongside the likes of Marcel Desailly and Laurent Blanc.


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A work of art

AP:Associated Press
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A work of art

But these artists were’t just flourishing abroad.

In England there was the partnership between Tony Adams and Martin Keown which made way for Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure.

Then there was Ricardo Carvalho and John Terry battling it out against Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.

In short, the world wasn’t short of world-class centre-back partnerships making life hard for attackers.

No spare change

AP:Associated Press
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No spare change

But now you could name all the world-class centre-back pairings on one hand and still have enough fingers free to play Vindaloo on the ukulele.

We’ll kick the bidding off with Bayern Munich’s Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels.

An unflappable pairing who started out with Germany eight years ago and have gone on to link up at Bayern since 2016.

Unlike some partnerships- say Jack Charlton and Bobby Moore- where one does the ugly side while the other keeps it glamorous, both Boateng and Hummels are as happy with the ball as they are without it.

Good players, great kit

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Good players, great kit

Outside of Hummels and Boateng we’re struggling.

We know that will trigger Real Madrid and Barcelona fans out there, so allow us to explain before you unleash virtual hell on us.

Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane can be brilliant but the Spaniard’s ability to score crucial goals in the biggest of games can hide a tenancy to be rash, hence why he’s collected so many red cards throughout his career.

Gerard Pique’s trophy cabinet isn’t missing much but he’s still lacking a consistently strong partner in crime at Barcelona.

Samuel Umtiti may well end up being that man but the fact Barcelona are hesitant to offer the Frenchman a bumper new contract is evidence that some at the club remain unsure.

Master and apprentice

EPA
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Master and apprentice

Atletico Madrid duo Stefan Savic and Diego Godin are worth more than the sum of their parts but are more cult classic than best seller.

Look around Europe and there are plenty of wonderful central defenders- Kalidou Koulibaly, Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Virgil van Dijk to name four- who are lacking a similarly world-class partner.

The biggest rivals to Hummels and Boateng were Juventus’ trio of Bonucci, Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli but they split up last summer and, like all great bands, haven’t looked the same since.

So what’s happened to the art of defending?

If you look at the five most expensive centre-backs since 2016 (Van Dijk, Aymeric Laporte, John Stones, David Luiz and Nicolas Otamendi) it’s obvious how highly valued the ability to play out the back is.

With space in the midfield so limited at the top level centre-backs are being asked to do more creatively than in years gone by, which is arguably taking away from the defensive side of the game.

Would Eliaquim Mangala- who cost more than Nesta and Jaap Stam- thrive in a team where he’s not being asked to break the lines from defence?

Or, to flip that on its head, would Stam be able to cope with the demands of playing under Pep Guardiola where centre-backs are expected to be Juan Roman Riqueleme in disguise.

The rain is scared of falling on Jaap Stam

Reuters
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The rain is scared of falling on Jaap Stam

Football has moved on so much that maybe what we consider to be world-class attributes in a defender should be changed.

After all, Otamendi may collect cards for fun and spend half the game sliding into tackles like his life depends on it, but he has made more passes than any other player in the Premier League this season.

Do clean sheets matter if you’re part of an attacking unit that regularly scores three, four and five times plus during 90 minutes of football?

We’re sure if you were to ask Pep he’d tell you Otamendi is world-class.

So maybe defending isn’t necessarily in the worst place it’s ever been, as some would have you believe. Maybe the goalposts have just moved.

But don’t fear if you’re a fan of pure defending. As long as Sean Dyche is around it’ll be alive and well.


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