“You must stop either the ball or the man. Both must never get past you.”
A centre-back is one of the most crucial players in a team for its prolonged success, and no team is complete without one. In the modern game, with the increasing speed of play and more physicality involved, the centre-half is challenged immensely. His job in the team is harder than ever before. So, what exactly are the ingredients that go into making the ideal central defender? Let’s take a look:
Also read: What are the different field positions in football?
Evidently, the most important characteristic that a centre-half should possess is awareness and sense of positioning. Having a keen eye for predicting a striker’s next move and sensing when to cut off the danger or make a vital interception allows defenders to win the ball without taking on the opposing player, thereby making up for a lack of pace, like in the case of Per Mertesacker.
The importance of positioning cannot be overstated: Having this quality goes a long way in being a great defender. Giorgio Chiellini and Jerome Boateng are perhaps the best examples of the same.
#2 Communication along the backline
Every formation fields a minimum of two centre backs, and therefore it is crucial to have a good understanding with your defending counterparts. This can be seen especially when one of the defenders comes out to challenge the attacker and the other covers up in his place.
An offside trap requires great chemistry between the two men at the back in order for it to be successful, requiring both the defenders to push forward in unison. Having such excellent chemistry and coordination can make a defence extremely solid, even without any world class defenders present. Proof of this statement is in Robert Huth and Wes Morgan’s partnership that won Leicester the league last season.
#3 On-the-ball ability
With the demands of the modern game ever increasing, defending nowadays isn’t simply about no-nonsense tackles or monstrous clearances, but also about retaining possession and staying calm and collected on the ball.
This has become a prerequisite for defenders at top tier clubs. Consequently, defenders who are comfortable with the ball at their feet can allow the team to suck in the opposition and exploit the hole left in behind by the invited high press. John Stones is an excellent example of such a player.
An instant burst of pace is a must for defenders of the modern era. Having the legs to make up ground for a winger’s adroit skill moves and subsequently making a tackle can go a long way in helping the team keep a clean sheet.
We are often left starstruck when we see a centre-back track back at top gear and defend his goal. Hector Bellerin and David Luiz are defenders who often use their instant acceleration to great effect.
#5 Upper Body Strength
Upper body strength is a huge advantage to any central defender, allowing him to physically out-muscle any competition on the ball. A centre back must stand his ground and ensure he does not get pushed around when there is a threat to the goal lurking nearby.
A centre back must not get bullied, and having a good build will ensure that that does not happen. Additionally, a good physique can intimidate the opposition player, as people like Pepe, Diego Godin, Nemanja Vidic and Vincent Kompany have shown over the years.
Everyone likes a good, old school, no-nonsense tackle. For a defender, knowing when to commit to the tackle is of utmost importance. When to stand your ground, when to jockey and when to actually make a sliding or standing tackle are quirks that speak volumes of the quality of the centre-half.
Marking is perhaps the most key aspect, as sticking to your allotted man or taking full responsibility of your zones as per directions received could potentially stop the opposition from posing a threat to your goal. The most acclaimed tacklers of this day would include Laurent Koscielny and Jan Vertonghen.
#7 Aerial Ability
Knowing how and when to head the ball is essential for a centre-half. Crossing the ball into the box is one of the most basic, yet effective plays for the attacking team, and, while important for any player, it’s more than doubly important for a centre-half.
Having good aerial ability can go a long way in ensuring that crosses do not pose a threat to your goalkeeper between the sticks. At the other end of the pitch, one well-placed or one powerful header can give your side a goal to take home. In this sense, heading is absolutely essential, and of use at both ends. Sergio Ramos for me is an undisputed maestro when it comes to heading the ball.