By Gabriele Marcotti
April 22, 2012

Look around and note who's playing in central defense for the Champions League semifinalists.

Barcelona? Gerard Pique, who is not having a good season, Carles Puyol, who is 34, and Javier Mascherano, who is 5' 9 and, until recently, a midfielder.

Real Madrid? Pepe, OK, but then there's Sergio Ramos, a recycled right back and Ricardo Carvalho, 34 next month and often injured.

Bayern? Holger Badstuber, Jerome Boateng, another recycled fullback, and Daniel Van Buyten, another sprightly 34 year old.

Chelsea? David Luiz, who seemingly divides opinion like few others, Gary Cahill, who was playing for Bolton until December and John Terry, who needs no introduction when it comes to generating conflicting emotions.

How many of the above can be described as "outstanding"? How many are as good at what they do as their teammates who play up front?

Maybe it's a cyclical thing, but you get the impression that there is a dearth of absolute quality at center back. Poke around the rest of Europe. There's Thiago Silva, Vincent Kompany, Nemanja Vidic (but he's been out for most of the season) and the aforementioned Pique and Pepe. Mats Hummels and Neven Subotic might be in the next tier along with Adil Rami, Thomas Vermaelen, Giorgio Chiellini and perhaps a few others.

But there's not much in the way of depth. Manchester United are likely to win the Premier League with Rio Ferdinand, whom everyone was writing off along with his bad back at the start of the season and Jonny Evans, a career sub.

It's not a knock on any of these players. Rather, we either celebrate and appreciate central defenders less than we used to or the current crop simply isn't that good (with the obvious exceptions, of course).

Part of it may be that central defenders abdicated playmaking duties a long time ago. Now they're mostly defensive specialists whose attacking contribution is usually limited to set pieces. The old Franz Beckenbauer striding out of the defense trope is truly obsolete. In a perfect world, we'd judge these guys only on their ability to defend but, in fact, the clunkier they look on the ball, the less regard we have for them.

The reason why few teams build from central defense by the way is purely tactical. Most teams have a deep-lying midfielder deputized to build play, so there is little need (or space) for a central defender to step up. If anything it's fullbacks who now participate far more in the buildup -- and, not coincidentally, on most teams they're the ones who get the most touches -- not least because in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 there is space for them to run into and create a man advantage.

There's another tactical explanation. Nobody man-marks anymore, everything is done zonally. And while man-marking became obsolete more than a decade ago, the center backs in those days were all -- more or less -- schooled in the art of individual marking. Today, players learn to defend zonally which undoubtedly raises your tactical acumen but, at the same time, does little to develop your defensive skill set.

And a lot of it is simply down to talent. You see more and more older center halves sticking around and getting playing time despite declining skills simply because they're better than what's coming through pipeline. And part of it may have to do with the fact that clubs once sought to develop outstanding athletes into center backs but now prefer to turn them -- where possible -- into fullbacks or midfielders.

As a result, clubs seem to value central defenders less than they once did, at least relative to fullbacks and defensive midfielders. Certainly, spending patterns suggest that you're a lot more likely to spend big on wide areas or midfield than you are on an old school shutdown center half.

Whatever the case, this maybe the Golden Era of prolific front men (and it's not just Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, but also Mario Gomez, Robin Van Persie, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Zlatan Ibrahimovic). But when it comes to central defenders, it's pretty slim pickings all around.

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