How the overall level of elite central defending worsened, barring one supreme exception

(Image courtesy of 2020 Eurasia Sport Images)

In a week when two of European football’s most highly regarded defenders made costly Champions League errors, and with the transfer window now in full-swing, it is surely time to accept that the quality of centre-backs is at a considerably low ebb. That is, of course, with the exception of one outstanding individual.

Kalidou Koulibaly and Raphaël Varane are often talked about as two of the best central defenders in world football. For some, they would account for two thirds of the game’s top three. Generally, at the very least, the former is an accepted stance, but a combination of recency bias of a succession of central defenders making mistakes; coupled with non-stop transfer talk, has highlighted a common weakness in the current level of such players, the like of which generations of fans have rarely witnessed.

The exception — fast approaching the point in debates when he is discussed in ‘who is the best aside from X’ terms — is Virgil van Dijk. He is the benchmark, and our perceptions of his greatness should not be skewed by the low bar set by collective defending elsewhere. Plain and simple, the Breda-born colossus would shine in any era.

The problem — or not so much if he you are of a Liverpool or Dutch persuasion — is that van Dijk is too good for present comparison. He is the outlier of all outliers among his contemporaries. The very reason he must be compared to players of bygone teams, which happened far less often in preceding eras of mass defensive talent, is that he is so superior compared to those currently competing in that position.

Given the extent to which van Dijk consistently makes high-pressure situations and entire games look remarkably easy, it can be hard to judge just how good he really is. Vincent Kompany, undoubtedly one of Europe’s leading centre-backs for the majority of the 11 years he represented Man City, has repeatedly gone out on a limb by insisting that van Dijk is the Premier League’s greatest ever in the position.

Still, the Netherlands captain will most likely not get the trophy haul his undoubted greatness — and that is the right word choice to describe his vital part in what Liverpool have done and are yet to do since his arrival in January 2018 — and utter dominance over the majority of his opponents deserves.

In any discussions incorporating the phrases “greatness” and “centre-backs”, the name of Sergio Ramos is inevitable. The Spanish and Real Madrid skipper now serves as a cross-generational figure, having started his career at a time when Paolo Maldini, Fabio Cannavaro and the like epitomised an era which was undoubtedly one of the game’s all-time defensive zeniths.

Ironically, Varane faltered in the secong leg against Manchester City when it mattered most — without his captain and centre-back partner by his side; you would be hard-pressed to imagine the Frenchman having made those same costly errors had Ramos been partnering him at the Etihad. 

The difference between a lot of contemporary defenders and van Dijk, as demonstrated by Varane on Friday night, is that many need a certain player next to them to perform at their best. Conversely, van Dijk brings the best out of others, with his own performances having remained virtually constantly flawless since he arrived at one of Europe’s truly elite clubs at the belated age of 26 two and a half years ago.

Varane has been a phenomenal defender and still has peak years ahead of him having turned 27 back in April. He has already been an ever-present figure in World Cup and back-to-back-to-back Champions League winning sides — hardly bad going — and remains one of the best defenders in world football. But his standing says more about the overall level of centre-backs in the game currently, particularly compared to those of the era preceding Varane’s emergence, than it does about his own quality. Throughout his career, it was incredibly rare to see a defender such as Cannavaro make two haphazard mistakes in a high-pressure game such as a knockout tie of this magnitude. 

Fans may well be at pains to point out that, as demonstrated at the Emirates Stadium last month, van Dijk too makes costly mistakes. The slightly comical nature of attempted criticism towards van Dijk reached its peak earlier in the season, though, when it was — jokingly or not — perceived to be a victory among fans when a player dribbled past van Dijk in a 3-1 loss to his Liverpool.

The distinction to be made is that when he does make mistakes, they tend not to matter. Without belittling the scale of what was a terrible blunder (and one that was admittedly a contributing factor to Liverpool losing to Arsenal in the Premier League run-in) it was not season-defining in the way that Varane’s was. As opposed to making two errors leading directly to goals which ended his side’s season, van Dijk ironically made an out of character misjudgement in a typically laid-back, in character manner with Liverpool having already mathematically won the league.

But the number of mistakes and below-expected performances of Europe’s so-called ‘elite’ defenders have, for a while now, been alarming. So, if you are currently in need of a defender, can you justify spending big on one of these ‘top’ defenders given the now-increased financial risk of transfer activity?

The point being that as clubs identify a need to strengthen in defence to compete with outstanding teams – particularly in England, as clubs like Chelsea seek to close the vast gap not only to Man City in second place, but to van Dijk’s Liverpool at the top — where do they look? There is a dearth of elite level centre-backs, particularly of Liverpool’s talismanic Dutchman’s quality; so we must accept that this isn’t a particularly strong era of defending.

It is why you must sympathise with say, Chelsea, whose fans are desperate for the club to continue to capitalise with their financial position in a post-pandemic market by investing in centre-backs. But where, if any, are the proven, world-class options in this department?

In recent times, this is perhaps best demonstrated by talks of Kalidou Koulibaly being ‘the answer’ for any club on the planet with both the defensive frailties and bank balances required to bring him in — namely Chelsea and City. He has been touted, along with Varane, as among the best around in that position. But is he really that good?

Koulibaly looked suspect and immobile; with his abilities overestimated, on a number of occasions over the course of 2019-20, despite Napoli winning the Coppa Italia. Having finished seventh in Serie A, Napoli bowed out of the Champions League to Barcelona on Saturday, with Koulibaly comically giving away a decisive penalty by first dallying on, and then hacking at, the ball as Lionel Messi stole it away from him. 

With regards to the present imbalance of defensive and attacking talent, it may be indicative of how much the game has evolved in the space of the last decade or so. In the early 2010s, Guardiola’s all-conquering Barcelona were at odds with one of the great defensive coaches of all-time, who oversaw well-disciplined units formed out of strong, reliable defenders. Yet, come 2020, how Mourinho would appreciate just one of the great defenders he coached in the period when he arguably reached his peak with that 2010 treble triumph at Inter Milan that followed breakthrough and follow-on success at Porto and Chelsea.

Along with Mourinho’s waning success — of his teams’ 25 trophies in his career, just eight have come since Inter’s Champions League triumph in Madrid in 2010 — there has generally been (see Atlético Madrid as the primary anomaly below) a gradual decline in defending in Europe up to this point. Whether the two are directly related or not is up for debate, but it seems a significant trend.

This came at a time when there was relative equilibrium in terms of the number of the world’s premier players, of both the defensive and offensive moulds. Admittedly, the Ballon d’Or has rarely been a defender’s prize to be won, such is football’s greater fascination with the enthralling, creative output of forward players — a trend that has accelerated during an extended period in which two men have utterly dominated the ceremonial stage since 2008. But even van Dijk’s brilliance broke up that particular run.

When Liverpool’s number four finished second at the 2019 edition of the awards, he became the first defender to feature in the top three since Fabio Cannavaro won it in 2006. You wouldn’t bet against van Dijk smashing through that barrier and taking the crown in typically assured fashion in the near future, which says a lot given the crop of attacking talents ready to compete for supremacy in a comparatively normal post-Messi and Ronaldo world.

He was also the first player of any genuine defensive persuasion since 2014 to feature in the top three, when World Cup-winning goalkeeper Manuel Neuer placed in third. Even then, van Dijk seems to be a unique case in recent memory in that he is both supremely rated and as such widely accepted as the leading centre-back on the planet, but also potentially underrated because he is so obviously in his own league. 

As for the tier immediately below van Dijk, the likely conclusion is that Varane and Koulibaly in particular are both very good defenders. But, just as importantly, they are the best of a not so great bunch. That is a bunch which pales in comparison to van Dijk, who come the end of his career should be considered a rightful legendary central defender, with each slice of context considered. However, moving forward, and van Dijk aside, the footballing world awaits to see if a new generation of centre-backs (led by his international partner Matthijs de Ligt — who had an up and down first campaign at Juventus) can raise the level of one of the game’s dying arts once more.

So if this particular crop of centre-backs is of a lower calibre than what those of previous generations became accustomed to — whether it be Sacchi’s Milan of the 80s or even Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid sides, who have overachieved since the early 2010s and become a synonym for outstanding collective defensive work — then what is to follow? Surely, the combinations and, as such, the teams they help stabilise, of elite level centre-backs will return to an elevated level in a roundabout and evolutionary fashion?

There are promising signs, coupled with necessary cause for caution and patience. Despite his injury and the fact that Leonardo Bonucci partnered him for the majority of 2019-20, de Ligt (20) and his Juventus team-mate Merih Demiral (22) have impressed and look set to be a combined fixture at the heart of the Old Lady’s defence for years to come.

Elsewhere, Dayot Upamecano has starred on the big stage for RB Leipzig this season and has a number of admirers across the continent. But younger players are arguably more prone to making errors, albeit if they can be used for learning purposes and part of a longer-term process of development.

Take 21-year-old Edmond Tapsoba. The Burkina Faso international, in time, has the potential to become one of the world’s top centre-backs and has made 19 appearances for Bayer Leverkusen since joining the club in January. On Monday, Tapsoba spent the duration of his side’s 2-1 loss to Inter Milan flailing and struggling to contain Romelu Lukaku, who was the decisive factor on the night at the expense of Leverkusen and the young centre-back in particular.

Ultimately, the answer to the question regarding the dearth of top centre-backs is that, for now, we must wait. Come 2030, the balance of elite level attackers and their defensive counterparts may well have shifted back to a position more similar to the start of the 2010s than that of the new decade’s beginning.

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