Adam Bate looks at what England’s U21 exit tells us about John Stones and the demise of the pure defender...
Sometimes it’s not difficult to read between the lines. After England’s elimination at the hands of Italy at the European Under-21 Championship, Gareth Southgate praised defender John Stones for his work “with the ball” labelling it “eye-catching”. Not words you’d traditionally associate with a centre-back. Perhaps that’s part of the problem.
Stones is some talent. But he’s also indicative of a wider trend in recent seasons. The Everton youngster is a defender who needs to work on his defending. “Like all of our young defenders,” said Southgate before the tournament. “There’s still a bit of work to be done in terms of that understanding that keeping the ball out of the net is the number one priority.
We’ve got defenders who can use the ball, but we’ve also got to have a desire to keep the ball out of the net. That’s a skill which at an academy level through clubs we’ve still got to encourage.
“We’ve got defenders who can use the ball, but we’ve also got to have a desire to keep the ball out of the net. That’s a skill which at an academy level through clubs we’ve still got to encourage. Chelsea won the league because they’ve got four defenders who like keeping the ball out of the net.” Chelsea weren’t top scorers. They had the best defensive record.
Jose Mourinho’s critics like to style the Chelsea boss as anti-football. He might call it pro-defending. And there’s more to that than just looking good. “Football is not just about the pure talent,” said Mourinho. “Football is also about character and personality.” He was referring to Chelsea full-back Cesar Azpilicueta, a keener tackler you will not see.
“You don’t see tackling in coaching manuals any more, it’s now all about staying on your feet and intercepting,” claims defensive enthusiast Sam Allardyce. “Good tacklers are almost an extinct species.” Is it coincidence Chelsea have two of them? Cesar Azpilicueta and Branislav Ivanovic were among the top 10 tackling defenders in the 2014/15 Premier League.
Meanwhile, John Terry and Gary Cahill were among the top 14 defenders for blocks too – a significant statistic given that Chelsea faced far fewer shots than the average Premier League team. Indeed, no other defender from a top-four team was among the top 20. It seems bizarre that this dedication to the basics of the craft could ever be neglected.
And yet, according to those within the game, that’s precisely what’s happened. “With old school coaches, 60-70 per cent of your training ground work would be defensive,” claimed Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville in his Telegraph column. “Where your foot would be, the position of your hips, how often you would have to turn your head to avoid ball-watching.
“We would do back-four work two or three times a week for 40 minutes… I started off with a high defensive base. Players now are starting out with a high technical grounding and learn the defending later... It's not the fault of the players that what we would call ‘proper defending’ is not uppermost in their thinking.”
I started off with a high defensive base. Players now are starting out with a high technical grounding and learn the defending later.
Much of this can apply to Stones, the young England international already earmarked as the natural successor to Rio Ferdinand. He has the tools. “He immediately gives you confidence on the ball,” said his old Everton boss David Moyes, while Terry himself is an admirer. “He is a ball-playing centre half which you need to be these days,” he told talkSPORT recently.
Of course, this is progress and well-meaning progress at that. The English game has been burdened by a technical deficiency and great efforts are being made to overcome it. That the system is now producing defenders capable of bringing the ball out of from the back with confidence and poise is something to be celebrated.
But football is a game of balance. Where one thing is gained, something else is lost. There are only so many hours in the day, after all, and so the time dedicated to ball work may well have caused pure defending to suffer. And not only in England. There are those around Europe lamenting the decline of the defenders’ defender.
AC Milan legend Paolo Maldini has claimed the inability to defend is now a “world issue” while Fabio Cannavaro, the only defender to win the Ballon d’Or since the turn of the century, does not see his successor around. “We always used to mark the man when playing against great strikers,” said the Italian World Cup-winning captain. Is that an explanation?
Whatever the reason, the question now facing Stones is whether or not the other side of the game is easier to teach. The 20-year-old has spoken of the need to add the ‘dirty’ elements of football to his repertoire if he is to progress but can that be taught? It seems we could be about to find out.
Stones has been linked with a move to Chelsea this summer. The reports are unconfirmed but intriguing. Would Mourinho be the man to bring out the desire to defend in England’s most talented young centre-back? Or have the hours spent honing a more expansive side to his game come at a cost? Only time will tell whether or not defending really is a lost art.