Defender (association football)
There are four types of defenders: centre-back, sweeper, full-back, and wing-back. The centre-back and full-back positions are essential in most modern formations. The sweeper and wing-back roles are more specialised for certain formations.
A centre-back (also known as a central defender or centre-half) defends in the area directly in front of the goal, and tries to prevent opposing players, particularly centre-forwards, from scoring. Centre-backs accomplish this by blocking shots, tackling, intercepting passes, contesting headers and marking forwards to discourage the opposing team from passing to them.
With the ball, centre-backs are generally expected to make short and simple passes to their teammates, or to kick unaimed long balls down the field. For example, a clearance is a long unaimed kick intended to move the ball as far as possible from the defender's goal.
During normal play, centre-backs are unlikely to score goals. However, when their team takes a corner kick or other set piece centre-backs may move forward to the opponents' penalty area: if the ball is passed in the air towards a crowd of players near the goal then the heading ability of a centre-back is useful when trying to score. In this case other defenders or midfielders will temporarily move into the centre-back positions.
There are two main defensive strategies used by centre-backs: the zonal defence, where each centre-back covers a specific area of the pitch; and man-to-man marking, where each centre-back has the job of covering a particular opposition player.
The sweeper (or libero) is a more versatile centre-back who "sweeps up" the ball if an opponent manages to breach the defensive line. This position is rather more fluid than that of other defenders who man-mark their designated opponents. Because of this, it is sometimes referred to as libero ([ˈlibero]), which originated from the Italian name for this position "battitore libero" (free hitter). Though sweepers may be expected to build counter-attacking moves, and as such require better ball control and passing ability than typical centre-backs, their talents are often confined to the defensive realm. For example, the catenaccio system of play, used in Italian football in the 1960s, employed a purely defensive sweeper who only "roamed" around the back line. The more modern libero possesses the defensive qualities of the typical libero whilst being able to expose the opposition during counterattacks. The Fundell-libero has become more popular in recent time with the sweeper transitioning to the most advanced forward in an attack. This variation on the position requires great pace and fitness. Whilst rarely seen in professional football the position has been extensively used in lower leagues. Modern libero sits behind centre-backs as a sweeper before charging through the team to join in the attack.
Some sweepers move forward and distribute the ball up-field, while others intercept passes and get the ball off the opposition without needing to hurl themselves into tackles. If the sweeper does move up the field to distribute the ball, they will need to make a speedy recovery and run back into their position. In modern football, its usage has been fairly restricted, with few clubs in the biggest leagues using the position.
The position is most commonly associated to have been pioneered by Franz Beckenbauer and Gaetano Scirea, and later by Franco Baresi and Matthias Sammer in the 1990s era, although they were not the first players to play this position, with earlier proponents such as Alexandru Apolzan, Ivano Blason, Velibor Vasović and Ján Popluhár. Though it is rarely used in modern football, it remains a highly respected and demanding position.
A recent and successful use of the sweeper was made by Otto Rehhagel, Greece's manager, in the 2004 European Championship. Rehhagel utilized Traianos Dellas as Greece's sweeper to great success, as Greece surprisingly became European champions.
The full-backs take up the holding wide positions and traditionally stayed in defence at all times, until a set-piece. Modern full-backs take a more attacking role, overlapping with wingers down the flank. There is one full-back on each side of the field except in defences with fewer than four players, where there may be no full-backs and instead only centre-backs. The traditional English full-back was a large, strong man who would make substantial use of "hacking" – deliberately kicking the shins of opponents, a practice that was accepted as legal in Britain but not in other countries, and caused major controversy as the game became increasingly internationalised from the 1950s on. It is now effectively banned everywhere, and it is this in part that has given rise to a different set of defensive roles. The full-backs have become essential in the modern game formation 4-3-3 or the now commonly used 4-2-3-1 formation.
In the modern game, full-backs have taken on a more attacking role than is the case traditionally. Wingerless formations, such as the diamond 4–4–2 formation, demand the full-back to cover considerable ground up and down the flank. Some of the responsibilities of modern full-backs include:
- Provide a physical obstruction to opposition attacking players by shepherding them towards an area where they exert less influence. They may manoeuvre in a fashion that causes the opponent to cut in towards the centre-back or defensive midfielder with his weaker foot, where he is likely to be dispossessed. Otherwise, jockeying and smart positioning may simply pin back a winger in an area where he is less likely to exert influence.
- Making off-the-ball runs into spaces down the channels and supplying crosses into the opposing penalty box.
- Throw-ins are often assigned to full-backs.
- Marking wingers and other attacking players. Full-backs generally do not commit into challenges in their opponents' half. However, they aim to quickly dispossess attacking players who have already breached the defensive line with a sliding tackle from the side. Markers must however avoid keeping too tight on opponents or risk disrupting the defensive organisation.
- Maintaining tactical discipline by ensuring other team-mates do not overrun the defensive line and inadvertently play an opponent onside.
- Providing a passing option down the flank; for instance, by creating opportunities for sequences like one-two passing moves.
- In wingerless formations, full-backs need to cover the roles of both wingers and full-backs, although defensive work may be shared with one of the central midfielders.
- Additionally, attacking full-backs help to pin both opposition full-backs and wingers deeper in their own half with aggressive attacking intent. Their presence in attack also forces the opposition to withdraw players from central midfield, which the team can seize to its advantage.
Due to the physical and technical demands of their playing position, successful full-backs need a wide range of attributes, which make them suited for adaptation to other roles on the pitch. Many of the game's utility players, who can play in multiple positions on the pitch, are natural full-backs. A rather prominent example is the Real Madrid full-back Sergio Ramos, who has played on the flanks as a full-back and in central defense throughout his career. In the modern game, full-backs often chip in a fair share of assists with their runs down the flank when the team is on a counter-attack. The more common attributes of full-backs, however, include:
- Pace and stamina to handle the demands of covering large distances up and down the flank.
- A healthy work rate and team responsibility.
- Marking and tackling abilities and a sense of anticipation.
- Good off-the-ball ability to create attacking opportunities for his team by running into empty channels.
- Dribbling ability. Many of the game's eminent attacking full-backs are excellent dribblers in their own right and occasionally deputise as attacking wingers.
- Player intelligence. As is common for defenders, full-backs need to decide during the flow of play whether to stick close to a winger or maintain a suitable distance. Full-backs that stay too close to attacking players are vulnerable to being pulled out of position and leaving a gap in the defence. A quick passing movement like a pair of one-two passes will leave the channel behind the defending full-back open. This vulnerability is a reason why wingers considered to be dangerous are double-marked by both the full-back and the winger. This allows the full-back to focus on holding his defensive line.
The wing-back is a modern variation on the full-back with heavier emphasis on attack. Today, this position is considered a half-back. This type of defender focuses more heavily on attack than defense, yet they must have the ability, when needed, to fall back and mark opposing players to lessen the threat of conceding a goal-scoring opportunity. Some formations have half-back players that mainly focus on defending, and some that focus more on attack.
In the evolution of the modern game, wing-backs are the combination of wingers and full-backs. As such, it is one of the most physically demanding positions in modern football. Wing-backs are often more adventurous than full-backs and are expected to provide width, especially in teams without wingers. A wing-back needs to be of exceptional stamina, be able to provide crosses upfield and defend effectively against opponents' attacks down the flanks. Some players who exemplify these traits are Shannon Cole of Western Sydney Wanderers, Ahmed Elmohamady of Hull City, and Paul Aguilar of America. A defensive midfielder is usually fielded to cover the advances of wing-backs. It can also be occupied by wingers and side midfielders in a 3-centre-back formation.
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