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Is Defending Less Important in Soccer Than It Used to Be?

By Elias Wagner
| February 10, 2019

There’s much debate in today’s soccer world about what exactly makes a team successful.

Is it a strong defense or a relentless counter-attacking style?

Or maybe a possession style that looks to starve the opponent of the ball?

I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that, but one thing is certain. Never in the history of soccer have there been more different ways to approach a game tactically.

Coaches borrow fundamentals from the old books and try to rework and modernize them. One day, zonal marking is hip; the other, it’s suicidal.

With the rise of soccer punditry, everything is dissected on the spot, and there are a million opinions for even the most insignificant plays.

I can agree that this can serve as a good way to give a different perspective, but it has also oversaturated the soccer debate around the world.

Not so long ago, things were different. In the ‘90s, most coaches were convinced that the recipe for a title-winning team required an organized defensive line. Unlike today, you could hear it everywhere.

“You simply can’t win the title without a good back four” is what all the soccer commentators were saying.

Not that great teams of the past didn’t have exceptional players up front. Of course, they did, but the defense was what coaches wanted to be sorted out first so they could then build on that. But what exactly do we mean when we say defending in soccer?

Is it just the back four? Do we also include the goalkeeper, or does defending start from the strikers?

Again, it’s a matter of perspective to an extent. The great Holland team of the ‘70s used the total football system in which everyone had the responsibility to both attack and defend. Modern coaches like Pep Guardiola employ a similar idea.

In the ‘90s, defenders were simply taught to defend. You had to tackle, head the ball away, and not let your opponent turn on you. It may sound simple, but this approach has given us one of the best generations of defenders in the history of the sport.

So, before I turn to what I think has changed in the modern game, I want to highlight some of them.

Defensive Legends of Soccer History

The truth is that attacking players receive much more attention in soccer. It has always been that way, and it will surely continue. But there was a time when a handful of defenders were able to make us forget about the Zidanes and Ronaldos, at least for a moment.

I could have added a few more, but I chose the five that really stood out for me.

Paolo Maldini

The first name I have to mention is definitely Paolo Maldini. He is the archetypal defender of the ‘90s. He spent his whole career at AC Milan, playing over 902 games, and was the heart and soul of the team.

Maldini had a very successful career in which he won the Serie A seven times and also has five Champions League winner medals to his name. Needless to say, he was the captain of the team and a central figure for most of these triumphs.

He also played for the Italian national team for 14 years. He wasn’t a part of the World Cup-winning team of 2006 but came close in 1994 when the Italians lost the final to Brazil. Even without the most important international trophy, to this day Maldini is regarded as one of the most coveted defenders in soccer history.

Alessandro Nesta

Another product of the Italian school of defense, Nesta started his career with Lazio in 1993 and quickly proved that he is a special player. After winning the championship in 2000, there was no way the team would be able to hold onto him for long.

In 2002, he was snapped up by Milan, where arguably the best defensive line of modern times was formed. Nesta was paired with Maldini, Cafu, and Jaap Stam, among others. He had a very successful start to his career with the Rossoneri.

He won his first Champions League in 2003 when Milan defeated rivals Juventus in the first all-Italian final in the history of the tournament. That paved the way for many more achievements down the road.

Unlike Maldini, Nesta was part of the 2006 Italy squad that won the World Cup.

Overall, he spent nine years at Lazio and ten at Milan and was frequently named by opponents as the toughest defender they faced.

Lilian Thuram

Quick, versatile, intelligent, and freakishly strong — Lilian Thuram was the perfect defender in his prime. I know a lot of people talk about Desailly, but I believe Thuram had it all.

He started his professional career in Monaco under none other than Arsene Wenger. Wenger, being a specialist in recognizing young talent, was quick to integrate him into the team.

In 1996, he was transferred to Parma, where he won the Coppa Italia and UEFA Cup. He then went to Juventus and played there until 2006.

I believe it’s a great testament to Thuram’s unique set of skills that he spent so much time in Italy. Although there was plenty of defensive talent in the local academies there, the Frenchman was one of the best defenders in the Serie A.

Arguably his biggest achievements came with the national team. Thuram was a central figure in the World Cup triumph of 1998. He only scored two international goals, but both were against Croatia in the semi-final where France came from behind and won the game.

Of course, his defensive contribution was far greater, and he was even voted the third most valuable player in the tournament. Two years later, he also won the European championship, overcoming Italy in the final.

Carles Puyol

Puyol was for Barcelona what Maldini was for AC Milan. He worked his way through the academy and made his debut for the first team in 1999. He was made captain in 2004 and held on to that role until his retirement ten years later.

Puyol won many trophies both with Barcelona and the Spanish national team. In club football, he has over 20 major trophies, including six La Liga titles and three Champions League gold medals.

He has exactly 100 games for Spain and was an integral part of the team’s triumph in Euro 2008 and the World Cup in 2010.

Although Barcelona is known for their attacking brand of soccer, many of the team’s top stars have credited Puyol for the team’s success, not only because he was one of the best defenders around but because of his character and the fact that he never gives up.

Tony Adams

Adams spent his entire career at Arsenal. He might not have won as many trophies as others on the list, but he is considered as one of the all-time greatest players in Arsenal’s history.

He joined the club as a schoolboy in 1980 and was named captain of the team just eight years later when he was just 21 years old. Adams remained captain until his retirement in 2002.

He was a key figure in Arsenal clinching the title in 1989, which remains one of the most unreal endings to an English league season.

Back then, the Gunners were known for their strong defense, and Adams — alongside Dixon, Winterburn, and Bould — formed arguably the best back four in those days.

When Arsene Wenger took the reins, fans were afraid of what would happen to their heroes, as it was expected that the Frenchman would want to overhaul the personnel in defense. Nothing of the sort happened. Actually, Wenger stuck with Adams and the rest, and his new training methods and dietary changes helped prolong their careers.

In turn, they responded by leading the team to cup and title glory in both 1998 and 2002. Those triumphs made Adams the only player in English soccer history to win the championship in three different decades.

He never won anything significant on the international scene but will forever remain a top favorite of Gunners everywhere. It’s no surprise that he is called “Mr. Arsenal” by them and has a statue in front of the stadium.

How Has Soccer Changed?

The sport has changed in many ways since the ‘90s, but maybe the biggest difference is how defending is done nowadays. The legends I highlighted had a range of contrasting qualities, but all had one thing in common. They were educated and developed as defenders, and they stuck to what they knew best.

Now the sport demands much more from central defenders. Let’s look at why that is and how it has shaped the new generations of defensive personnel.

Fans Favor Attackers More

As I pointed out earlier, the focus in today’s soccer lies heavily on attacking players. They are the ones who score the goals, bring the crowds to the stadiums, and make the viewers turn on their TV sets.

I can understand that, and it’s true that those are the players who provide the spice. However, this has also contributed to taking away authority from defenders.

One great example of that is Jerome Boateng’s performances in the 2014-2015 season. The German defender had an outrageous season at the heart of Bayern Munich’s defense. This prompted his then-manager Pep Guardiola to proclaim him as one of the top three center backs in the world.

Does anyone remember a goal-saving interception or a last-ditch tackle from him that year? Yeah, didn’t think so. But we all remember how Lionel Messi humiliated him in the Champions League.

People were quick to mock the defender for his fall, and the internet was flooded with memes ridiculing him despite the fact that, overall, he had a solid performance in that game.

I guess having all the pundit shows and debates on social media have also contributed to that. Now we have the possibility to check every single play several times and discuss every angle.

This is usually harder on defenders, as we can easily see where they could have done better, whereas if Ronaldo skies a free-kick, we will quickly forget it, as we know he’s probably going to put the next one in the top corner.

Referees Protect Attackers More

We all know it’s true. Back in the old days, Tony Adams could go up against Alan Shearer and be physical with him right from the start. I’m not saying defenders should bash their opponents, but in the past, they were allowed to stamp their authority on the pitch. Forwards knew it, and it was all taken in good spirit.

Nowadays, referees are much more inclined to punish physicality. This puts certain limits on defending and gives a big advantage to attackers.

It has gotten to a point where we’re now surprised when a player stays on his feet after getting tackled.

This protection heavily contributes to the culture of diving. For years, skillful players have tried to con the ref after minimal contacts.

I can’t really blame the players all the time, as it’s become part of the game. They want to help the team as much as they can, and sometimes they decide to go down knowing that the referee has to make a decision in a split second.

I hope technologies like VAR will be able to remedy this, as it definitely isn’t what we want to see on a soccer pitch. However, even if the video assistant is proving popular in the top leagues, it surely cannot account for every referee mistake.

Yes, it will help correct wrong offside or penalty decisions, but forwards also have an advantage in other areas of the pitch. It mainly comes from the fact that most defenders have a psychological barrier when trying to win the ball.

They understand their opponents are better protected from referees, and you also sure don’t want to be the guy who injures Messi, right?

New Coaching Methods

The growth in popularity over the years and the constant developing of new technology have naturally prompted soccer clubs to try different things. Coaches now have an entourage of people monitoring the players’ fatigue in training, the accuracy of their shots, and everything else you can think of.

All these new possibilities have made players faster, stronger, and more agile. You can easily be convinced of that if you try to watch a soccer game from the ‘80s. Even great players look a bit stiff, and if there’s someone like Maradona on the pitch, you are immediately drawn to him.

I’m not saying that there are many players like the Argentinian now, but every top club has at least three or four amazingly fast and skillful guys. This player evolution has resulted in new demands for defenders.

It’s no longer enough to do the basics. Defenders need to be able to play with the ball and start attacks as well.

Full-backs are also judged more on their attacking plays than anything else. It seems that no one wants to teach actual defending, as Maldini himself said in an interview with Jamie Carragher. Defenders are basically viewed more and more as the first step in attacking plays.

And how does all that affect lesser teams who can’t invest as much in player development, scouting, and technology? Well, they start shipping in more goals. If we look at the numbers, the average goals scored per game in the top leagues has been in a constant rise the last few years.

The Bundesliga saw an average of 3.06 last season, which was the highest across Europe. The Premier League’s was at 2.82, and Spain’s La Liga came in at 2.57. That’s a lot of goals! And lower leagues actually have even higher averages.

The Betting Angle

Looking at how the numbers are shaping up in the soccer leagues across the world, I believe there is a trend there that bettors should definitely pursue. The goals market has never been more appealing.

As I pointed out, the Bundesliga has a very high number of average goals per game. In fact, 72% of all games last season saw three or more goals scored.

Of course, you should be looking at other stats like head-to-head records and home advantage, but even simply looking at the goals being scored can point you to some very profitable betting options.

As always, be sure you diversify your research and try to find the bookmaker that suits your needs.

Soccer will undoubtedly continue its course of giving the offensive players an advantage, and there is clearly a shift in how we perceive defending now. Why not make some money out of it?

Final Words

So, the Maldinis and Thurams seem to be a bit obsolete these days, but what of it? The sport still generates global excitement and record audiences. Instead of reminiscing about the past, we should enjoy and celebrate players like Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, and John Stones.

They might not have the same allure as the legends of the past but are still thrilling footballers who play an important part in their team’s success.

For me, the art of defending is not dead. It simply changed its meaning to accommodate the modern demands of soccer.

Let me know if you agree with me in the comment section below. I would love for you to get involved in the debate. If not, I hope that this has given you some valuable betting advice.

Good luck!