Centre Backs Win Leagues
During the near 30 years of the Premier League era, we have seen some truly memorable central defensive partnerships on show. From the maiden Premier League season (with Steve Bruce & the vastly underrated Gary Pallister), to the Scottish warrior Colin Hendry & Hennig Berg at Blackburn, it’s not difficult to visual these defensive rocks.
The famous Arsenal rearguard, consisted of the all time great Tony Adams & Steve Bould / Martin Keown. This was followed by Manchester United’s giant centre back, the world class Jaap Stam. Stam arrived somewhat unknown, and immediately showed his worth, forming partnerships from of a group of Hennig Berg, David May, Ronny Johnsen & Mickael Silvestre.
Jaap Stam was sensational in what proved another dominant spell for the reds devils, prior to his abrupt departure. He is perhaps the leagues best ever defender (not still playing), and his short stay is the only thing stopping all pundits solidifying this fact, in my opinion.
Sol Campbell, a defensive monster in his prime, controversially left White Hart Lane for neighboring Arsenal, which enhanced both his and his new clubs fortunes. From here, he formed a solid partnership with club captain Tony Adams and later, the charismatic Kolo Toure.
As Chelsea started to creep into recognition (with new ownership allowing mass transfer activity), John Terry was gifted the perfect partner in Roberto Carvalho, Jose Mourinho’s most important early signing. the Portugal international organised and gave Terry that assurance, post Marcel Dessailly. Titles soon followed.
Manchester United, after some trickery in the market, settled on a new centre back duo. Rio Ferdinand arriving for a mouth watering fee from Leeds, and was partnered with the aggressive Nemanja Vidic. This partnership would become the bedrock to a further re-generation of Fergie’s squad, winning multiple trophies along the way. Some will point to Vidic as perhaps the leagues greatest ever defender, but much must be made of the partnership truly suiting both himself & Ferdinand.
Some years later, the blue half of Manchester arrived onto the title scene, with the leader and dominating centre half Vincent Kompany marshalling with Jolen Lescott to great effect. Later he would ally with others (including Kolo Toure), and they would often peak next to the City captain, such was his level of play.
With Leicester City, the first real Premier Laague anomaly occurred. A strange off season for most, ended with with a fairytale Premier League crown coming their way. The Leicester captain, Wes Morgan partnered Robert Huth and they acted as an assured & dominant duo. The likes of N’Golo Kante, Riyad Mahrez & Jamie Vardy certainly grabbed the headlines, but the counter attacking abilities were only viable with the solidity in defense. The Leicester defenders held firm, when everyone assumed they would eventually slip. Claudio Ranieri was able to win the Premier League for the city of Leicester, something he was dismissed from Chelsea for failing to do.
Order resumed with City winning more titles with Kompany commanding the back line, before Chelsea found the means to win once more. The ever present back four under the Russian reign, was traded for a re-jigged back three, under the managerial excellence of Antonio Conte. It was also only once the midfield pair was switched from a Kante / Fabregas middle two, to a more functional Kante / Matic, that the team really purred. David Luiz worked very well in the middle of a back three, predominantly flanked by the ultra reliable César Azpilicueta & club captain Gary Cahill.
Without the change to a three man defensive shape, Chelsea would not have won that league. The early season struggles saw Conte adjust to add the needed solidity at the back, with an ideal two man midfield in front.
City regained the league with a late season resurgence of Vincent Kompany, whose leadership and ability to organise his sides off ball formation, proved vital in overcoming Liverpool. Both teams fielded a tremendous defence that year, where both would have been worthy winners.
This brings us towards this season and last, where the most important player in each side (arguably), have been Virgil Van Dijk for Liverpool last season, and Ruben Dias of Manchester City.
Prior to the arrival of VVD to Liverpool, they were a very strong side that scored lots of goals under Klopp, and were a good shout to finish top 4. The record breaking fee paid to secure Van Dijk from Southampton changed everything. Their ability to grind our low scoring games became immediate, their ability to withstand the opposing onslaught became immense, and their ability to squeeze the pitch and impose mass gegenpressing key.
Liverpool, since attaining the huge services of Virgil Van Dijk have won the Champions League & English Premier League (their first in 30 years). They became the best team in the world and have lost their short grasp on the league title due to his injury, in the main.
On the flip slide, Manchester City, addressed their weak point in defense with the signing of highly rated Ruben Dias, for a substantial transfer fee, Donald to Van Dijk’s. This signing seemed to allow the entire defense to settle with his assured presence. Laporte has often been sidelined with injury, which meant a viable weak point saw Manchester City lose last seasons crown to Liverpool, somewhat emphatically.
Pep choosing to recruit both Ruben Dias (a great signing), and Nathan Ake for depth, was proved correct as they eased their way to another Premier League triumph. With the Champions League final around the corner, it could be this new found defensive resilience that sees them lift their maiden European Cup, after securing yet another Premier League.
The idea that attackers wins games is absolutely true, as they are entertaining and ruthless at their best. To consider some devastating forwards lines (that never took their respective teams to the crown), perhaps gives some perspective.
Andy Cole & Peter Beardsley
Alan Shearer & Les Ferdinand
Fernando Torres & Steven Gerrard (kinda)
Robbie Fowler & Stan Collymore
Michael Owen & Emile Heskey
Luis Suarez & Daniel Sturridge
Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink & Eidur Gudjohnsen
Harry Kane & Heung Min Son
That the defensive structure and personnel can win leagues, is even more so logical, with fullbacks & midfielders able to implement their own game with a reassuring safety net at the teams base. Confidence spreads from a strong rearguard, and drains when a team cannot hold tight. Panic sets in, and that panic soon spreads.
Throughout this season, this COVID-19 ravaged campaign, there are key factors. Manchester City, the team that rose to win the league, produced a clinic in defence once they got going. This was done without any real consistent number 9, but with control throughout the pitch, starting at the back. Liverpool, on the other hand, saw all chance taken with an inability to sustain a consistent back line. The midfield could not operate, the famous & electric forward line (with Diogo Jota added) simply could not keep up with so many issues at the back.
To win this long season, this gruelling campaign, the defensive solidity and perhaps that holding midfielder are the most important ingredients. These ingredients just may land Pep Guardiola and his all conquering City that elusive first Champions League.
Only time will tell.