Goals win games. There is no doubt about that. Without scoring a goal in a game, no team has any chance of gaining 3 points on the day or winning a trophy at the end of the season. Goals bring out the passion in players, which largely leads to chaos and wild celebrations (depending on the goal’s significance), as well as bringing a satisfaction to any person connected to the team. Without goals, success cannot be achieved. All the above may be true, but there is one crucial component that complements the attack, allows the goals to be scored and is equally as important to the balance of a team, and that is the defence.
Like any kind of structure, without a firm foundation and the clear establishment of its roots, it will ultimately be exposed, leading to a collapse. The same applies to a football team. I cannot stress the importance of the goalkeeper, centre back pairing and the fullbacks in a team. The goalkeeper needs to be vocal, commanding and able to make match winning saves when it matters most. The centre backs should be tall, powerful in the air and uncompromising in the tackle. The fullbacks should be able to cover for the centre backs, create space and provide overlapping runs for the midfielders and importantly, cross a ball. Together, this unit should work in unison, moving together and keeping a defensive high line.
The best teams throughout history would not have won anything without a rock solid defensive foundation. The defence allows the attackers to express themselves, to venture forward and generally, take all the glory. This does not mean that midfielders, and even the strikers, are not part of the defence; they very much are, with wingers needing to track back, cover and support the fullbacks, and the centre midfielders need to provide support in the middle of the defence, acting as an additional defensive line or barrier.
The great coaches know this. They know the importance; and Jose Mourinho is currently the prime example. People criticise his team’s formation because they look too defensive and seemingly play “negative football”. I agree with this to a certain extent, but my point is emphasized about the need for a commanding defence. Sir Alex Ferguson is the same, producing and finding some of the best defenders in Europe which provided him and United with their most successful years.
Examples of recently successful teams with solid defensive foundations:
Inter Milan, 09/10, treble wining season.
The back 5 of Cesar, Lucio & Samuel and Maicon & Zanetti/Chivu were impenetrable, with Mourinho understanding the need for a great defence. That South American, uncompromising and fully committed attitude to die for the cause, allowed attacking players like Sneijder & Milito to play with freedom and score important goals.
Barcelona, 08/09, treble winning season.
They are currently the best team on the planet. They boast an array of attacking talent with the likes of Messi, Iniesta and Xavi just to name a few. However, at the back they have Pique & Puyol in the middle, accompanied by Alves & Abidal on the wings & Valdes in goals. Power, aerial prowess and tackling commitment, the CB’s play together for Spain and their stubbornness to protect their goals has allowed their front 3 to rip opposition defences to shreds. Alves’s pace and Abidal’s experience provide closure to the unit.
Man United, 07/08, double winning season.
The back 5 of Van Der Sar, Ferdinand & Vidic and Evra & Brown, were the cornerstone of the success which United achieved. In Vidic, arguably the best defender in the world, & Ferdinand, a ball playing and pre-emptive type of defender, United kept many important clean sheets, none more so than against Barcelona in the UCL Semi Finals over 2 legs, which paved the way for them to reach Final. Evra, a consistent performer for many years and Brown, the toughest tackler in the team, were essential to the backline.
Example of a team without the defensive foundation to support their attacking prowess:
Arsenal, every season since they last won a trophy, 6 seasons ago.
When will Arsene Wenger learn? Another season which, once again, promised so much but ultimately ended with very little – well not little, nothing! The main reason behind this collapse was due to the Gunners “Defence”. Looking with a little more detail at their back 5, starting with the GK, it is clear where Arsenal’s problems lie. Between the 3 GK’s used throughout the season, they inspired little confidence in the team and their lack of experience came to the fore when it mattered most – e.g. Szczesny in the Carling Cup Final. Their CB’s, in Koscielny (inexperienced in the Premier League), Squillaci (old and slow) and Djourou (weak in the air and clumsy), were unable to keep even the most average defences at bay. Sagna & Clichy are both consistent, but cannot function properly without commanding figures in the middle of the defence. Wenger seriously needs to restructure his transfer policy if Arsenal are to end their barren streak.
The evidence is there, that without a strong defence to match your attack you cannot achieve the desired success. The important, match winning work that defenders put in, including those last ditch tackles and goal line clearances, are often overlooked and forgotten when an attacker gets the winning goal. I have always been a firm believer that first and foremost, defence is the primary form of attack, and should never be underestimated.