Can a team win the prem without one?
To start a debate on this subject we need some caveats and small preface questions;
What’s the difference between a centre half and a central defender?
Is it only a case of different names for the same position? Am I engaged in nothing more than semantics? Are there actual differences in playing styles? And if so from where does the difference arise?
In the land where football began the defensive back line consists of full backs and centre halves, or centre backs, on the near continent those playing in the traditional centre half position are known as central defenders. Now is this just a case of you say “tomato” (American accented) I say tomato (English accented)? My summation is “No” its not only a serious question it goes to the very heart of why our defence has been so leaky, and moreover its at the core of why we haven’t gotten our hands on any of home made silver wear recently. I’d go even further and state until we have a centre half in the back line winning any of the 3 home grown competitions may prove to be beyond us. Why do I say this? Well………..
Football on the near continent is primarily played full square on the ground. The leagues of real significance as we all know are in descending order The Spanish, Italian and German. That’s not to say the others aren’t important, we as a club for example have imported widely from outside of these three biggies. France, Holland and Belgium have served us very well with their player offerings. Of the three big European leagues only the German league has any form of aerial bombardment included in its play and even that doesn’t compare with the type of play so often seen in the premier league. In Europe the English Premier League is seen by many Europeans as the most exciting league to watch, with its fast paced all action helter-skelter style, but the league is also seen by many of the same, as the least tactically aware. The kick and rush style with long balls played over the top isn’t a tactic you’ll come across on the continent, and as stated above the type of aerial bombardment that’s common place in Britain is not elsewhere. So this is where the divide begins.
A typical centre half in Britain is raised with this style of play and has developed a way of dealing with it which differs greatly from a typical European central defender. What’s the difference? To answer this question I want to go back to our last great league winning defence. It wasn’t inherited as some of the uninformed like to put forward, it was built by Arsene. It contained the recently retired Sol Campbell. A more typical no nonsense centre half I submit it would be hard to find. What was the secret of this defence? Sol’s Head! Play a ball in over the top and Sol would beat whoever its intended target was and “head” it back where it came from. Fire a ball into the area from a set piece and rest assured if the keeper didn’t catch it Sol would “head” it away and out of the danger zone. I lost count how many times this would happen in games.
It’s actually in the manor that a CH will move forward and attack the ball that significantly shows the difference in approach between the two types of player fulfilling the same role. CD’s instead of moving forward to attack a ball will wait stationary, or move back to give themselves room to bring the ball under control. What does a typical central defender do that’s so different? European central defenders have developed a style of play to deal with long balls played over the top. Their natural instinct is to allow the ball to drop to the ground and immediately bring it under control, and play it out from the back turning defence into attack. What’s wrong with that I hear everyone ask? Nothing! Absolutely nothing! Except in the fast paced rough and tumble of the premier league as the typical CD lets the ball drop he’s liable to have one or two of the opposition all over him like a rash. Which if its inside his own area is very dangerous and so makes playing the ball out from the back very difficult, our centre halves are raised with the idea that if the ball lands at your feet the best way to play it out from the back is launch it into row “Z”.
You see teams who play long balls over the top (think of everyone favourite Stoke) tend to rush forward and crowd the box. It’s also often been a strategy successfully employed by Taggart & Co especially in the last 15 minuets when they are either behind or desperate to force a win. Bringing up the infamous Taggart aka Sir Alex Ferguson reminds me to add a caveat. Are there any Grey areas in this Centre Half Central Defender divide? As with most things in life there most certainly are as illustrated by an ex charge of Taggart’s Jaap Stam. A central defender who played more like a centre half than most centre halves, JS as a player wasn’t particularly mobile and certainly couldn’t be called quick, but he was very strong and determined and he read the game well, and he had that trait that a centre half just has to have “A head” and Jaap Stam headed more balls away from Man U box in the 3 short years he was with them than anyone else.
This brings up a further observation why did the Campbell Toure partnership work so well? If a CH is so important why not have two? Well let’s look at how the partnership worked. A long ball gets punted up field towards a target man normally a centre forward whose job it is to nod it down into the path of an on rushing midfielder or attempt to bring it under control and hold it up while reinforcements arrive. As it’s in flight and on its way Sol sees the danger and jumps in sync with the striker. Now either he wins it out right in which case the ball is on its way back where it came from or he misses it but with Sol’s help so does the striker. If they both miss it behind them as the ball drops to the ground Kolo T mops up. Again I can’t even begin to calculate how often this sequence took place, but if we could bring up those stats I’d hazard easily more than 10 times per game.
After going 49 games unbeaten with this defensive system why wasn’t it continued? It was! I think most of the top teams analysed how and why Arsenal had been so successful and emulated the formula. I think we as a club were the only ones who didn’t; perhaps we were too close to the action. I’d say our system was most successfully copied by everybody’s favourite player of the moment John (I isn’t a racist is I Cashley) Terry and his defencive partner Ricardo Carvalho at Chelsea. Taggart successfully employed the Ferdinand Vidic model. While most recently the CH CD combo was still being work by Lescott and Toure (again). Why wasn’t it continued at Arsenal? Well Sol left for Portsmouth under strange circumstances i.e. his “Head” wasn’t on straight? Too much pressure, or whatever, and we’d ended up with William Gallas by default as a result of the Cashley Cole affair. In other words without much analysis we went with what was available to us.
The upshot of which was we suddenly had two European style central defenders in our back line and were without a centre half for the very first time, in our clubs history. The rest as they say is history! We had one of the least effective defences in the league. Without realising it, or even meaning to Arsene had proved a point about two CD’s and the Premier League. Many said the previously oh so dependable Toure just couldn’t play with Gallas. Not exactly true, played together on Tuesday or Wednesday nights in the CL they were fine, but the combination didn’t work for the Prem. How could it? Without a centre half to relieve the pressure on both the keeper and the defence in general our defence was suddenly under the microscope. If the keeper couldn’t replicate “safe hands” Seaman and collect high balls we would be pressured into conceding, and we were. We became the team that couldn’t defend set pieces and that perception lasted until very recently. In point of fact I don’t think we are particularly strong on set pieces even now. We did have a respite though when for a short period our defence was bolstered by the returning old Mr Campbell. In that short interlude our leaky bucket defence became almost water tight again, and I looked forward to the following season, knowing once again we might have a chance at the title, fate however would cruelly intervene. Sulzeer Jeremiah fell for and married a Geordie Lass and moved north so she could stay near her roots. (Love will do funny things to a man) I blame that bloody Woman! She probably cost us the title. Mind you I blame my wonderful “better half” whenever I can’t find a pair of socks or a clean shirt. Yes I admit it I’m a dinosaur.
What’s to be done? Well…………First off try to remember that successful centre halves or successful central defenders come in pairs, so partnerships have to be formed. Next up a very quick analysis of our current defenders. (With the centre half central defender debate firmly in mind).
1) Let me start at the furthest end of the spectrum by saying there are in the words of the song “reasons to be cheerful”. We now have for the very first time in an age a proper British style centre half in the squad. Step forward Kyle Bartley, he may well be only a prospect but at least we’ve got one. Why am I happy about this? Well I’ve followed KB’s progress and as this article expounds I’ve wanted a CH back in our squad for an age. I’ve wanted KB to be promoted into the first team for an age. He might be unproven in the Prem but at least we’ve got him. I hope he can be paired up!
2) I want to continue with the much maligned Johan Djourou. JD is a little bit of a hybrid he’s neither a centre half nor a typical central defender. That might be because he’s Swiss? I honestly haven’t seen enough Swiss football to know if there are any reasons for a player to develop CH tendency’s in the Swiss league. He can and does do a bit of both. When partnered with Le Kosh he immediately played more of a CH role heading everything he could. JD was a successful defender for us, as the stats show when he wasn’t played out of position and partnered correctly. Every team needs 4 CH/CD’s and I’ll be saddened if he goes although like RvP his injury record reads like a hospital casualty department list.
3) I’m choosing Vermaelen next simply because like JD is a bit of a hybrid and KB apart the closest we have to a CH he attacks the ball in the manor of a CH certainly not like a CD. You find TV5 running forward to jump and meet an incoming ball in the manor of a CH. However he also plays in the typical CD style by playing out from the back, which probably comes from his Ajax background. When fit he’s probably currently our first choice centre back.
4) Laurent Koscielny is the most typical Euro style CD we have and he is probably the best CD any of us have seen at the club. His intercepting skills are a joy to watch and if he had a CH of the quality of our dear old Sol partnering him we’d probably have the best defence in the prem. That’s how highly I rate him.
5) The BFG? I just don’t know I haven’t seen enough of him in an Arsenal shirt to really make a judgement. He’s not a CH and he seems to be a one off CD.For a big man I’m yet to see him attack an incoming high ball. He’s worryingly slow for a modern day CD because since the changes took place to the off-side rule (Passive – Active – 1st phase 2nd phase). Neither Tony Adams nor Bouldie would be deemed quick enough and the BFG’s slower than them. He does have some admirable qualities as a defender though, he’s bloody big, strong and therefore intimidating and he reads the game well and it seems he can marshal the other defenders. For me the jury’s still out.
Written by richie