Defenders in modern football .. What do you know about dogs that do not bark?

Our eyes help us easily spot and distinguish the behavior of the players whenever they have the ball, because we are often held captive to the movement of the ball; The subconscious mind tends to watch that white spot as it moves from one place to another, thus missing the richest chapter of the story. It is true that in this way we fulfilled our goal of watching the match, but we missed the opportunity to experience many internal matches at the same time.

We saw the goal, but we did not see how the opponent’s wing slipped in the back of our defenders to receive the cross from the opposite side, and unfortunately we did not pay attention to how the opponent’s defenders were able to prevent the ball from reaching our most dangerous players. In fact, we see very little football in ninety minutes, since the average player in possession of the ball during a match does not exceed 3 minutes, we rarely see the other match played by every player without the ball.

Defenders are among those who do most of their work without the ball, outside possession periods, while defending their team’s goal in various situations, and it is surprising that until recently, statistical analysis companies were not able to evaluate the work of defenders in the language of data, as the databases of these companies depend On the so-called “Event Data” associated with the location of the ball, and therefore no action taken by the defender is recorded if it is not overlapping with the ball, but with the emergence of “Tracking Data” work began on several models that help specialists to understand a broader and more accurate measurement What the defenders do, especially the hidden ones, who do not overlap much while possessing the secrets of decisive matches. (1) (2)


If we want to search for the identity of the best strikers in the world, it will not take long to reach a conclusion after watching videos, checking data and tactical reports, because the value of the attacker’s actions can be immediately discerned, but when it comes to searching for the best defender, it takes another turn of complexity for several reasons. , including the large number of variables when it comes to the defensive process, and one of the most important of those variables is the context; How does the team that the defender plays for? Defensive principles? References? fellow neighbors? Football culture of the country? opponents quality? etc.

Moreover, there are no specific statistics by which we can identify the best defenders due to the lack of “tracking” data for everyone at the moment, so we will adopt the “event” data available, and here we can be easily deceived because we will evaluate the defender as we evaluate the attacker, the more he interferes only with the ball, We are faced with another, no less important problem. It is known that the contributions of offensive players during possession are more valuable than defensive players, so it is relatively easy to evaluate them in cases of mastery and failure, based on the size of the return that can be measured in numbers; Dribbling, assist, cross, shot, etc.

Applying the same to the defender, it will be evaluated positively or negatively based on very limited criteria such as; The amount of abstractions, objections, and distractions, and here everyone looks for the defender with the highest numbers as being better than others, and those who do not have high numbers in those items are not considered, although in many cases the defender may not have to accumulate those numbers in the first place because He defends perfectly, so he doesn’t have to do many “noticeable” defensive actions.

We can recall the position of Van Dijk in the famous counter-attack against Tottenham as an example; Except for what is shown by the data of the company StatsBomb, which is unique in its pressure statistics, the Dutchman did not take any action in this situation with respect to the rest of the data collection companies and sites, while for many followers, Sissoko is the one who acted pure foolishness!

It is true that Sissoko acted foolishly, but it was the Dutchman who forced him to do that, starting with covering his colleague who mistimed the exit behind the striker, and then quickly adjusting his position from the far left to the middle of the distance between the opponent’s attackers, and during that he was communicating with Robertson to tell him that He catches up with whoever is in his back, then retreats to gain the time needed to rebound his teammate, manage his speed to match the speed of the ball carrier, inspect the attacker behind him, close the passing angle, while adjusting the distance, and at the same time he prepares for docking by lowering his center of gravity, and bending the knees, forcing the opponent in a direction One – out – which is not his favourite, as he has to be weak-footed, and in the end, Van Dyck pounced on him as soon as he entered the penalty area. Do you understand how many ‘unobserved’ concepts and actions the Dutchman carried out in that situation?

What is noteworthy then is on the opposite side that the observed procedures are treated as the heart of the defender’s work, and the defenders who succeed in taking the lead in these procedures are greatly exaggerated simply because they are easy to observe from the observer, and the defender himself may trust the correctness of his methods with this digital confirmation, and from here Everything that is not noticed is treated as non-existent, and if it does exist, it is certainly less important, and here it is infected with reduction, and ignores the majority of defensive principles, whether individual or collective, such as gradation, coverage, interview, delay, doubling, and the last means supporting those who face the ball carrier to make superiority The necessary numerical against it (Double Tag).

The conclusion I arrived at at this point is mostly correct, we have reached the point where we have to change the common criteria for evaluating defenders, the best defender may not necessarily be a leader on YouTube, and may not have a track record of extracts, or a plentiful amount of hot scenes slapping attackers. . It became necessary to take our eyes off a bit from chasing the ball, and try to find out what was going on in every corner of the field; Those bets that each player takes to confront the other, and each line to confront its counterpart, especially that back line and try to explain its individual and collective intentions, principles and tactics, then we will be closer to the truth, and far from vulgarity.

good defense

Ancelotti sees two types of defenders. The optimist, the pessimist. The Italian explains that the first type plays with more freedom, courage and less calculation, always feeling that everything will be fine in the end, while the second type plays with much caution, and a list of questions; “What if I advance? What if I go behind the striker? What happens to the winger? What if the ball is not played for him?” The latter always feels that something is about to happen, which makes him more prepared and focused. (3)

English writer and analyst Michael Cox sees defenders in football the same way. Cox believes that defenders are either reckless and energetic dogs who want to recover the ball immediately by chasing and getting it harshly as much as they can, or cats that deal cunning and calculating, and suddenly pounce, recover the ball patiently through their smart positioning, and then keep it, stressing that the majority of successful defensive partnerships are always It was the mixture. (4)

In his presentation, Cox was exposed to the positive aspects of each type, but looking at the other side of the coin, the first type is easy to spot, because it usually takes many noticeable actions due to its impulsiveness, and its constant tendency to confront and attack, but it is more susceptible to deception and luring outside its position, which costs him many, while the second type is usually good at reading and interpreting playing situations, but its constant tendency to cover in any case makes it weak in the rest of the individual defensive principles; Anticipation, dualities, interception, and docking.

As we can see, there are two sides to everything, which leads us to a fundamental question; Why did these classifications appear in the first place? History says that defense, as a culture, an art, and characteristics, has declined significantly recently, which can be seen very strongly in view of the quality and characteristics of defenders now, which prompts coaches to patch up the defects of one of them with the advantages of the other until the matter is straightened.

This brings us to Paolo Maldini’s statement: “If I have to step in and extract, then I know I’ve made a mistake.” What goes unnoticed sometimes is that Maldini was good in everything, and when he had to intervene and extract, he was doing it in the best way, as he was mastering all the principles, but his deep understanding of the essence of the defensive process was not linked to taking action, the matter is not based on the procedures that Take it as a defender, but prevent it!

Paolo understood that the evidence of a defender’s skill is not at all related to the quantity of his interventions, or the number of appearances, but rather to the quality, as a little means very much for a back-line player whose essence is completely different from that of a striker, Maldini realized that the secret of a defender’s efficiency lies in color and not giving in to the limitations of templates This will only happen by striving for perfection and achieving a degree of inclusiveness through mastering all principles.

Based on the foregoing, Maldini does not agree very much with Cox, the defender cannot be naive and reckless, nor can he be classified as a cat, not only in football, but in general, and if we need to drop, we can borrow from The Numbers Game Great defenders have come to realize that good defense is not led by cats, but by dogs, but by dogs that don’t bark! (5)

strategic decision

It is remarkable that the best defenders in the game are currently in the age group of 28 years and over, because it is known that the peak of the player is usually between the ages of 25 to 28, which statistics have proven to be very general, as the peak age of the player varies according to the position in which he plays , because each position has different characteristics and requirements, so not all players reach the peak at the same age.

Michael Kelly, a writer specializing in statistical analysis and data science, confirms that the wings reach their peak and decline early, as the under-23 wings play more minutes than the players in the rest of the centers in the same age group, but they are also the rarest among the players of different centers over the age. 30, while the defenders curve, by contrast, does not begin to decline until around age 31 or 32. (6)

Accordingly, the order of the positions from most to least sensitive to age is as follows: the winger, followed by the attacking midfielder, then the full-back, then the central midfielder, then the attacker, then the central defender, and finally the goalkeeper. This indicates an axiomatic general rule: players generally become slower and lose fitness as they age, but the flip side of the coin is that they gain an enhancement in skills and knowledge through accumulation, which enables them to achieve a measure of balance, which means that positions that require More physicals are the centers of the youth, while the older ones live there in locations that need more shrewdness.

Here, the player can circumvent the deception of his physical abilities, and one of the ways of circumvention is to change the center to one of the centers less sensitive to age to change the peak curve, a method followed by several stars, most notably Sergio Ramos, Jerome Boateng and Javier Mascherano, who extended his career at the high level by moving From the center to the center of the defence. The other way is for the defender to develop his “strategic decision”, which is a very effective way for back-line players who usually have more time to think while playing than the rest of the players.

So, what is the strategic decision? Well, in individual tactics, there are two types of decisions; The first is reactive decisions, which are made quickly without analysis, as the nature of the situation does not allow the defender enough time to pause and think. These decisions come from memory, past experiences are stored in the brain, and when the defender encounters a similar situation, he will respond in the way he did previously in that situation.

The second type is strategic decisions, which are made by analyzing different possibilities and deducing the best decision in a systematic way after the defender spends dozens of hours of tactical cognitive exercises under the supervision of a specialist until he reaches subconscious competence in the desired position. The interesting thing is that when the defender reinforces his strategic decisions, he makes better reactive decisions because of the inventory he has gained.

After he has mastered the optimal behavior through these exercises, he can play efficiently under pressure and in times of high tension, there where the players do not live up to the amount of their expectations, but to the level of their training, as the player then relies on the interactive momentary decisions stored in his subconscious, thus learning wisdom and becoming A better defender, only then stop barking.



  1. event data
  2. Tracking data
  3. Ancelotti’s definition of defenders
  4. Defenders are either dogs or cats – Michael Cox
  5. The Numbers game book
  6. Michael Kelly reports on the players’ age analysis model

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