Ball-winning as the best form of defence is becoming a dying art in our game - Danny Higginbotham


Danny Higginbotham@higginbotham05
Friday 05 February 2016 18:50

Everyone knows about Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez but Leicester City’s amazing success is built on the broad shoulders of two men at the other end of the pitch. Wes Morgan and Robert Huth have been brilliant at centre-back, and have shown us the importance of traditional, brave ball-winning defenders, a dying breed in the modern game.

What strikes me about Leicester is how they have raced into first place in the Premier League by embracing the values that made English football what it is, values we have discarded in recent years. Leicester play with desire, commitment and determination. Their players help each other all over the pitch. They get in the opposition’s faces and run them into the ground. This is the traditional English mentality, what made us successful in and respected across Europe.

Morgan and Huth embody those values and that mentality. They are brave lads and leaders who will put their heads where most players won’t put their feet. They are out-and-out defenders who want to defend – ball-winners, not ball-players. If in doubt, they will put it out. That is why Leicester have been so solid at the back recently, with five clean sheets in their last six Premier League games.

The rest of the Premier League could learn from Leicester, especially as Morgan and Huth cost £4m between them. But in reality English football is going in the other direction.

The sad fact that Chelsea are planning to release John Terry will bring to an end a long line of traditional ball-winning defenders at the top of the English game. Just think back to the best defenders of the last 25 years: Jamie Carragher, Gary Neville, Nemanja Vidic, Tony Adams, Martin Keown, Steve Bould, Steve Bruce and Stuart Pearce would all be there. And each one of them was a defender first, before he was anything else.

I remember when I played for Stoke City how much success we had with Rory Delap’s long throws. We caused lots of teams problems, but we never scored against Chelsea, Liverpool or Manchester United. Why? Because of the leadership and organisation of Terry, Carragher and Vidic, who understood their responsibility to keep the ball out of their net.

Tony Pulis always used to tell us, “What you are is what it says on the tin”. He meant that defenders are there to defend, just as strikers are there to score goals. If a manager was to sign a striker, his first question is how many goals he has scored. But when it comes to defenders, we have now got distracted by whether he can play out from the back, and we are undervaluing the art of defending itself. It is becoming an afterthought.

This is why there is no obvious replacement for Terry, no young defenders who want to put their bodies on the line to keep the ball out of their net. We are not producing ball-winners any more.

Who is the next John Terry?

Our best young centre-back, John Stones, is far more of a ball-player than a ball-winner. Yes, he is very composed on the ball. But can he defend, first and foremost? Can he organise players around him? He is young, just 21, but at times I feel his manager wants him to be a ball-player first and a defender second.

Of course, it is a good thing if a defender can play out from the back. But it must not be the priority. Some players, like Bobby Moore or Rio Ferdinand, can defend well and play out, but they are Rolls-Royce players, who come along less than once in a generation.

Our academies are now geared towards producing ball-players, rather than ball-winners, because that is what managers say they want. I remember when I was coming through at Manchester United, and Eric Harrison and Nobby Stiles used to drill us in how to defend. We would practise overloads, defending as four against six attackers, which taught us how to take responsibility, how to defend a one-against-one situation, and the importance of communication and leadership.

If you go and watch an Under-21 game – and I watch a lot – you will see that those skills are being coached out of our players, as I discussed in my column last week. There is usually not much of a crowd at the games, but you never hear a peep from the players. There is no conversation, no leadership and no talking. It is as if the game has been muted.

This fixation on ball-players, rather than ball-winners, is hurting our football. Just look at how many teams are now vulnerable from set-pieces because their organisation has collapsed. Or how many teams concede goals because their centre-backs are being asked to do what they are uncomfortable doing, which is to play out from the back. At Liverpool both Mamadou Sakho and Kolo Touré are natural ball-winners, but at times Liverpool are conceding goals because those two have been asked to play as ball-players.

John Stones is far more ball-player than ball-winner

The best recent Premier League partnerships, such as Terry and Ricardo Carvalho, or Vidic and Ferdinand, combine ball-winners with ball-players, although Carvalho and Ferdinand were excellent defenders first and foremost. All the best teams in Europe still have an authentic ball-winner. Barcelona had Carles Puyol and now have Javier Mascherano; Bayern Munich have Jérôme Boateng; Juventus have Giorgio Chiellini; Real Madrid have Pepe; Atletico Madrid have Diego Godin.

This is why it is so frustrating, and so wasteful, for English clubs to decide they can do without ball-winners. They are such important players, and we are allowing them to disappear from our game. We have to let defenders defend again. Playing out from the back is good, but keeping a clean sheet is better, or at least it should be.

Manchester City must not be drawn into gung-ho attack

The game of the weekend will be today at the Etihad Stadium, where I am sure Leicester will defend and play on the counter-attack again. The reason they can field two ball-winners at centre-back is because they play so deep that Huth and Morgan can be aggressive without leaving any space behind them. But for Manchester City the most important thing will be to keep some insurance against Leicester’s counters. We know how quickly they can break down opponents as soon as they win the ball.

So I think Manuel Pellegrini should make sure his two full-backs do not attack at the same time. If they do the two centre-backs will be exposed. He should make sure that only one full-back goes forward at a time, and the other stays back to defend with the centre-backs, making a three. Manchester City have to be patient.

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