Denmark's Kjaer a throwback to ball-playing defenders of old
PRETORIA, South Africa -- On Saturday in the Denmark-Cameroon game, there was a moment when Danish defender
Remember the old school, ball-playing central defenders who would either join in the midfield or launch accurate 40-yarders? Think
Not that long ago it was a useful tactic, a neat way to mix things up.
"Back then in Spain they loved the short-passing game, but in Hierro I had a guy who could put the ball anywhere in a range of 50 meters and in Roberto Carlos I had a guy who was lightning quick and technically outstanding," Capello told me a while back. "I would have been stupid
Put like that, it makes a lot of sense. So why don't we see as much of it today?
Part of it is the personnel. You need to have a Hierro-type to do this. And such players are the exception. Look at the central defenders in some of the World Cup's top teams: very few are the kind of long-range passers required. You would not want
Most teams build from the back, but they do it with their fullbacks which is is why statistically fullbacks typically get more touches than any other player on the pitch. Also, many teams employ the standard deep-lying holding midfielder which further clogs up the middle of the park. Often he's the guy to build the play, leaving the central defenders little purpose other than being ready to receive an outlet pass if the midfield runs into trouble. Also, these days, fewer teams press, which means there is less space behind. And when teams do press it's usually because they've fallen behind, which, in turn, means that if you have the ball you're more likely to want to keep it rather than attempt the high-risk, high-reward long pass from the back.
Of course, trends in soccer come and go. But maybe the time is ripe for this one to make a comeback. As the majority of teams play with one central striker, rather than two, there are more opportunities for central defenders to join the attack. (And, conversely, for a back four facing one center forward plus two wingers, it's riskier to push your fullbacks up). The emphasis on having men "between the lines" -- whether they be holding midfielders or "in the hole" or "trequartistas" -- also means teams are less linear which, in turn, offers more gaps for a well-hit long pass to find. And then there's the obvious point: if you always build from the back with short passes, the opposition knows what's coming and it becomes a lot more predictable and easy to defend.
For the heirs to Hierro and Beckenbauer to make a comeback you need someone to break the mold. Someone who has enough success playing this way that others take note and either develop ball-playing center halves or ask their current ones to mix it up with the odd long pass. Who knows? Maybe Kjaer, who is young, gifted and sought after by half a dozen big clubs in Europe, might yet become a trailblazer.