Not all defenders are like Franz Beckenbauer, Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Alesssandro Nesta, Lilian Thuram, Jaap Stam, or Javier Zanetti to name a few. Not all anticipate. Not all play clean. Not all play the ball.
Most play the man.
They have been taught by experience and by the instructions their coaches have been giving them for years that they need to stop the opposite number by whatever means possible. And if that means a shirt tug, a nudge just as he was getting ready to jump, holding on to his shorts or even wrestling him to the ground – it was fine.
But you had to be shrewd about it. One couldn’t just foul them blatantly. You had make sure the referee was far away or not looking that way. Do that and then feign ignorance. There was no way to turn back time. The linesmen are too far away to get a clear look at what is happening. Essentially, one could get away with a lot. Playing ugly was an art – a dark art.
But with the advent of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR), defenders can’t get away with anything. If the referee isn’t sure about what happened, he can just go to the sideline and ascertain which player is speaking the truth. The 2018 World Cup has already seen 22 penalties being given in total. Seventeen of them were converted but that isn’t the point.
Rather, what led to those penalties is. Take for instance, the penalty that came about as a direct result of Javier Mascherano’s actions during the Argentina-Nigeria game on Tuesday. He was penalised for holding on to and taking down Balogun. The Argentine had his arms around Balogun, a common tactic used to restrict movement, especially during set pieces. Almost every defender does that and it was fine in the pre-VAR era.
But now, if the attacker tries to burst through those arms (which they will), it will almost always lead to a foul. The first reaction to someone trying to break out of the cage will be to strengthen your arms and keep him trapped inside. But if the attacker continues to push, it will almost always result in a foul. If it happens to be inside the box, it could lead to a yellow card or a penalty or even a red card. All three outcomes are trouble.
That Sergio Ramos tackle from the Champions League final might have had a different, more damning outcome for Real Madrid too if VAR was being used then. There are so many other incidents that we can think of in this tournament alone which show that unless defenders can clean up their act, they will often cause the downfall of their team.
During the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, only 13 penalties were awarded in the entire tournament. The reason for ‘low’ number came down to evidence. The referee would not give a potentially game-changing decision unless he was absolutely sure. Now, they have the opportunity to be absolutely sure about any decision they give. For the referees, it is a huge plus.
Back to pure defending
But for defenders, it is nothing less than a bat out of hell. Football has never championed quality defending the way it lauds attacking flair. The goal-scorers are the darlings – they earn the biggest bucks, they score the goals, they are loved by the fans. The game was always skewed in their favour.
The problem now is that defenders need to unlearn the dark arts and go back to being pure defenders. They will have to anticipate, position themselves better and get there before the attackers. They would have probably realised that as well but when the going gets tough, they will revert to form.
That is exactly what happened to Mascherano and so many other defenders. How easy is it to forget things that you have taken decades to master? How easy to cut away a huge chunk of your technique?
To become a great defender, you have to play against the greatest in the world and be better than them… not once… not twice but for an entire game… for an entire season. And the one ingredient you need to be able to do that is not height, or speed or even ball skills. Rather, it boils down to confidence.
But VAR will leave them feeling unsure. It will plant a seed of doubt in their minds and that means they will hesitate. The difference between being aggressive and being dirty is minimal. Sometimes you cross the line. And now that will be caught. It makes an already difficult job, tougher still.
The big area of change will be the defending inside a box. In open play, it is a bit easier. The attacker doesn’t set up and you can outrun or out-think them. But in a set-piece is different and now, very, very dangerous. Of the 38 goals scored in the opening round of matches 21 of them (53%) were scored from free-kicks, corners or from the spot.
That is a huge number and much higher than one we are used to seeing in club football (where VAR is not used) but also one that highlights how difficult it is to adapt to this change at short notice. Going into the knockout rounds, the problem is only going to be the subject of even greater focus given that unlike the group stages where teams had a chance of making a comeback, there is no safety net now.
No team can win a World Cup without a good defence but given what we have seen so far, the idea of a good defender is going to radically change in the coming days. It make take some time to get things right, but in the long run – it could mean a return to the golden age of defending.