Love Him Or Hate Him But Please Don’t Play Him Instead of Shawcross

Reading The Sentinel’s website this week I had to take a second look when I noticed an article entitled “Fans insist Muniesa must stay . . . even at the expense of the captain”.

Now whilst I have been pretty vocal in my opinion of Muniesa’s defensive attributes, he has none, I do feel he overs the squad something in his ability to cover a multitude of positions and I still insist he has the potential to become a highly effective holding midfielder. Therefore, I agree with the first part of the article’s title as I feel it would be wrong to let the Spaniard go in this transfer window.

What amazes however is the second statement, “even at the expense of the captain” and it was these seven words which made me read and then reread the article. In this blog I often express opinions I know not everyone will agree with and in this context I cannot criticise fans for holding views contrary to my own. But what these comments got me thinking about is how the central defender’s role is currently perceived.

With foreign coaches bringing their philosophies to the Premiership we are seeing an evolution in the type of player that is required to play in the upper echelons of the modern game and no more so than in the central defence. Here we are seeing defenders being required to be the instigators of their team’s attacks and as such central defenders need to be a lot more comfortable on the ball, the obvious examples are John Stones at Manchester City and David Luiz at Chelsea and now you can add our own Muniesa to the mix. However, whilst I welcome this evolution I believe it has yet fully run its course!

The players I have mentioned whilst all being good on the ball have another thing in common, they are all prone to making costly mistakes due to overplaying the ball or neglecting their defensive duties as they attack and in Stones case in particular it is costing his team because they look nervous when teams press them. At Manchester City, Pep has the luxury of trying to fix this problem by bringing in an old fashioned defender, one who can defend, to play alongside Stones whilst at Chelsea, David Luiz has been a revelation recently because he has the added protection of playing in a back three but at Stoke, Muniesa’s case is different.

We already have a good old fashioned centre half in Shawcross and if we manage to secure his services long term in January a ball playing defender who can defend in Bruno and these two between them can be the starting point of Stoke’s attacks whilst also being the rock on which Stoke’s defence is built. Would replacing Shawcross with Muniesa really make that much of a difference going forward because I fear if the swap was made we would be considerably more fragile at the back?

But we’ve being playing a back three recently!

Again the two other players in a back three would be Bruno, who as I have stated is comfortable both with the ball and defending, and Glen Johnson, who nobody can argue is one of our better attacking defenders. So would Muniesa add more than Shawcross if he were to play as the third defender? Going forward perhaps but the benefit would be negligible compared to extra security Shawcross would provide as a defender.

Personally I like Muniesa and I was thrilled to see him score a goal but whatever happens in the January transfer window and no matter whether you love him or hate him I hope we don’t ever play him at the expense of the captain.

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Getting The Best Out Of David Luiz

John Stones and David Luiz are the two most expensive defenders who have played football and whilst you may not think it they have more than their expensive price tags in common. Both are comfortable on the ball and like to bring the ball out of defence, both are prone to make costly mistakes whilst playing their natural game and both really aren’t ever going to be remembered as world class defenders.

Both players I imagine started out as midfielders who couldn’t get a game playing in their preferred position and subsequently decided to drop back into defence where at least they were getting a game and they were sure of seeing a lot of the ball. Yet whilst Stones seems to be stumbling from one mistake to another for both club and country David Luiz has been putting in a series of impressive displays for Chelsea. The reason for this difference is how they are deployed, and protected, by their respective managers.

Whilst at Manchester City, Stones is part of a flat(ish) back four and partnered by Otamendi, another who makes the list of most expensive defenders, David Luiz has less responsibility at Chelsea because he is playing as part of a back three.

In today’s modern game it is expected that one, and usually both, of a team’s full backs will be one of their sides main offensive weapons and whilst this is a bonus going forward it places added pressure on the centre halves to be able to defend, and defend resolutely. In Stones’ case he was bought more for his ability to build Manchester City’s attacks from the back than his defensive prowess which means Manchester City’s back line consists of at least three players who are motivated to attack the opposition goal. The result, the remaining defender is expected to be the defensive lynchpin who covers for his absent colleagues, a position I expect even Otamendi’s mother wouldn’t be too keen on handing her son. This is why I feel John Stones is currently making so many high profile mistakes.

At Chelsea, whilst they still have the two attacking full backs, when David Luiz wants to launch himself and Chelsea up the park he can do so knowing that there are two defenders behind him who will be able to cover any gaps. Similarly, when Azpilcueta makes a surge forward Luiz and Cahill are there to cover his back.

When, or if, Vincent Kompany returns from injury it will be interesting to see whether Pep decides to restore the Belgian in a centre-half partnership, thus relegating Otamendi to the bench, or whether he takes a leaf out of Conte’s book and plays Stones, Otamendi and Kompany together as a back three.

In the meantime I expect to see Chelsea’s defence to continue their miserly ways whilst up in Manchester, Stones and his teammates to continue to look good going forward and an accident waiting to happen at the back.

The Centre-Half – Defence First

The abundance of statistics, which have flooded the game in recent years has perhaps changed the way we define a player’s contribution to the team. A defender’s contribution isn’t measured on the number of tackles made but instead by something called the CBI Index, or the amount of Crosses, Blocks and Interceptions a player makes during the game. Study these statistics and I’m sure you’ll be amazed by how few tackles a centre-half makes on average in a game. With these facts the role of the centre-half is being redefined and they are no longer seen as big burly men whose sole job is to intimidate the opposing forward line but instead they are required to be as comfortable on the ball as the centre-forwards they mark.

This is why players such as David Luiz and John Stones can command such high transfer values, because they are ball-playing defenders yet for all the money spent on these types of players there has to be a word of caution. It may be desirable for a team to play the ball out from the back, ball retention is the name of the game today, but, and it is a big but, defenders still need to be able to defend. And if this isn’t part of their natural game? Well they need a partner who can do what defenders have always been able to do, defend.

It is therefore no surprise when you think about a club’s stalwart defenders, Adams at Arsenal, Bruce or Vidic at Manchester United and of course our own Shawcross, that they are defenders who first and foremost are defenders. David Luiz may have his admirers but in recent years both Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain have both been willing to cash in on him and I fear that John Stones won’t spend more than a few years at the Etihad Stadium.

Watching the Boy’s training sessions, I find myself applauding the coaches for the hours they spend working on their charges’ passing but at the same time I find myself frustrated by how little time they spend on the less glamorous, yet just as important, aspects of the game. Young players now spend less time playing “jumpers for goalposts” or “Wembley” than we did growing up and a result the natural development of the fundamentals of the game are having to be taught instead of being learned by doing. True, the football of today may be more pleasing on the eye but how many times have you watched your team concede a goal because the defenders tried to keep possession rather than just putting it into row Z?

Modern youth football has always been about aping the latest trends in the game and today is no exception but if you are youngster who dreams of making it and especially if you are defender a word of caution. The latest trends are that, trends, and by the time you are old enough ball playing defenders and sweeper keepers may just be a thing of the past. Football keeps us addicted by constantly evolving but even within this evolution some things remain the same, attackers try to score goals and defenders do whatever it takes to stop them.